One of the authors I work with referred to “level-up romances” as something she gets tired of seeing. She elaborated: a “level-up” romance sees the couple reaching the presumed “next stage” of their relationship, often in the epilogue. If the couple is happy at the end of the book, then they have a wedding in the epilogue. If they marry at the end of the book? Then the epilogue will often show them welcoming a child.
I loved the terminology, and I absolutely agree. “Level-up” romances, to some degree, suck—especially because they’re the predominant “HEAs” we get.
Level-Up Romance Wants to Give Everyone an HEA
At the core, there is nothing inherently wrong with level-up romances. Indeed, many readers crave seeing the couple move deeper into the “happily ever after” promised by the romance genre.
For many people in society, this includes marriage and children. This isn’t necessarily an issue in that sense, then. For many readers, that is how their lives progress.
The issue is it happens almost to the complete occlusion of any other kind of ending.
Perhaps more sinister: it’s not an accident that most romance novels end with such formulaic HEAs. In fact, you might even say it’s by design.
The Level-Up Romance Is the Dream Patriarchy Sells
The problem is that this is the dream patriarchy sells to women.
Women are the largest segment of readers, and they overwhelmingly read romance novels. It’s one of the reasons romance novels earn more than a billion dollars per year. It’s also the reason romance novels are routinely derided as trash, mommy porn, and “not real literature.” Mm, misogyny.
Romance novels are genre fiction, which means they tend to follow rather strict rules. Genre fiction is also often derided as not being “real” literature, because there are formulaic expectations. Romance tends to get the shortest shrift, because it is most associated with female readership. Fantasy and scifi have, traditionally, been more male-oriented.
One of romance’s most ironclad rules is the HEA, or “happily ever after.” This means that, after the trials and tribulations of the story, the couple ends up together. The reader can envision them living a long, happy life, fantastically in love with each other. Think: Snow White and Cinderella marry their princes, even though their “evil” stepmothers tried to ruin their lives.
There isn’t really an issue with the HEA or the HEFN (“happily enough for now”), although writers often pick a fight with that rule. The issue is that romance tends to envision a very Christo-patriarchal “happily ever after,” which includes marriage and children.
“Every Little Girl Dreams of Being a Bride”
If this sounds very 1950s, then that’s because it is. The biggest “dream” Western Christo-patriarchal society has to sell women and girls is that of becoming wife and mother.
This is everywhere, not just in romance novels. Most Disney princess films end with the main character married. Notable exceptions include Mulan (1998), and Pocahontas. She does get married in the sequel film, although not to John Smith, as per historical record.
Ariel, Snow White, and Cinderella marry. Aurora doesn’t get married during the ending sequence, but we could assume that wedding bells are in the future. Rapunzel weds. Jasmin and Aladdin get married eventually—it takes three films, but they get there. Simba and Nala maybe don’t have a wedding, but they have a cub at the end of The Lion King.
Even outside of Disney, most “princess” characters in animated film end up married. Thumbelina, the titular character of the Don Bluth film, gets married. Odette in The Swan Princess weds Prince Derek. And on and on we go.
Marriage and children is, then, a big deal. It is the fantasy “sold” to little girls.
Wedding Rhetoric Has Changed, but the Dream Is the Same
And it’s sold to women as well. We maybe don’t have hope chests any more, but we talk about wedding days as belonging to the bride. How many times have you heard “it’s your day” repeated to a bride-to-be? I’ve heard it, as I’m having a wedding in a few months. I push back on it every time I hear it, but many people don’t.
Many of my friends have scrapbooks and “dream weddings” that they’ve been planning since we were in our early teens.
Thus, there’s some subliminal messaging going on here. The biggest “dream” for a woman is marriage. To become someone’s wife.
I’m not knocking the idea that marriage is important to many people, even if it is outdated. But the fact of the matter is that society sells women on the idea that the biggest, most important thing they will do in their entire lives is become a wife.
And the romance genre upholds that.
Selling the Fantasy, Keeping Women Subjugated
Romance novels, then, help “sell” the patriarchal fantasy. When a romance ends with a wedding, it’s pushing this fantasy. Isn’t this what you want? Some great romance that leads to you marrying or becoming someone’s wife?
This is a problematic notion in a patriarchal society. Women were the property of their fathers (or some other male relative) until marriage. At the time of marriage, the woman became the property of the husband. This is why we still have the tradition of the father walking the bride down the aisle and “giving her away” to the groom. It’s an exchange of property. Literally.
The 20th-Century Reform and the 21st-Century Backlash
The idea of women as property has slowly been discarded through legal reforms in the 20th century. Women have only been “people” under the law in Canada for 95 years or so. It was also in the early 20th century that women were able to get bank accounts in their own names. Women couldn’t get a credit card in their own name until the 1970s. Other notable reforms from that era include changes to divorce law, abortion, and birth control.
In short, it hasn’t been that long that women were able to be “independent.” That’s probably why we’re seeing such backlash against single-parent households, LGBTQ+ people, abortion, and birth control. There are forces in society that want to go back to the 1950s, when women were utterly dependent on men.
And this is where the “level-up romance” becomes such a double-edged sword. It wants to sell us the fantasy of our own subjugation.
Romance Positions Love as the Most Important Thing
Romance depicts falling in love as the single most important thing in a woman’s life. And the momentousness of finding a life partner shouldn’t be understated. But romance underscores the importance of this. In other genres, romance is often secondary or an afterthought—in scifi and fantasy, for example, romance gets tacked on.
Tolkien is infamous. Arwen and Eowyn play relatively small roles in the books. Arwen is mostly there to be in love with Aragorn, who has Big, Important, Man Stuff to do. Eowyn at least plays a pivotal role in the big fight. Yet she’s also in love with Aragorn, and she hooks up with Faramir after. She does fight back against sexist notions—famously getting ticked at Theoden for telling her to stay home, and then telling the Nazgûl king she’s not a man. At the end, though, she fulfills her role by marrying Faramir, becoming wife and presumably mother of a continued Steward line. Aragorn and Arwen continue the line of Numenor and the kings of Gondor.
In romance, this stuff is more pronounced. Although women are imbued with more agency, often, their goal is to become wife and mother. Even if they don’t start there, the narrative often “tames” them by having them fall in love. Love softens them and brings them back in line with the patriarchal ideal.
Romance Is the Tool of Patriarchy
The level-up romance is particularly sinister in that it portrays the subjugation of women via marriage and love as desirable. We’re told women should not just want this but aspire to it. Falling in love, getting married, and having children should be their biggest aspirations in life—their fantasy.
What, then, of people who don’t want that or don’t ever get one of these supposed “HEAs”?
This is where the romance genre—and everyone who supports it, from writers to readers to publishers—fall down.
We fail to imagine anything outside of the “level-up” romance as an HEA. If the couple is happy and dating at the end of the book, we’re not content to leave it there. We have to see them tying the knot or having children. In short, their relationship has to “level up.”
There is no good reason this has to happen.
Challenging the Conclusion That Married + Children = HEA
Someone people will be reasonably content to be married and never have children. Others will have children and never get married. Some will do neither, even if they remain in relationship with each other for ages.
Others will be content not to have a relationship, or they’ll be happy to have a relationship for a little while and then part ways amicably. Some friendships can be deep and emotionally satisfying—platonic romance is a thing.
For some people, getting out of a relationship is the happy ending. This is, unfortunately, the case for a lot of romance heroines—or at least it should be. I’m thinking of cases where the character is involved with an abusive man—like in November 9 by Colleen Hoover. Getting out of a bad relationship is a sort of “happy ending” romance books often don’t acknowledge.
And yes, some of those endings contravene the genre convention. The unspoken covenant between romance readers and writers is that “HEA” means the couple is together and happy. But maybe that convention needs to be broken—such as liberating CoHo’s heroines from their abusive partners—and the book not categorized as romance.
Because in refusing to break the genre convention, we end up with a lot of stories that glorify and celebrate abuse as “romantic.” These stories tell us abuse is okay, so long as it means you get to have that dream wedding.
That’s … a bit of a problem, now isn’t it?
We Can Reimagine What “HEA” Looks Like
Something like CoHo’s work is difficult to salvage. There’s no question that the male “hero” of November 9 is bad news. Yet we’re supposed to cheer for the female MC “forgiving” him for setting a fire that nearly killed her and left her permanently scarred. It’s okay, I guess, because he was angry at her father, who he presumed was having an affair with his mother, who then committed suicide.
Because stalking someone and committing arson is a normal, reasonable, and healthy reaction to suspecting someone of “killing” your mother. And it turns out he was wrong about that anyway.
Why did no one suggest this young man needed therapy? He’s clearly dealing with some big feelings, but he’s not processing them in a healthy way. But no one ever points that out. It’s assumed the “love of a good woman” will fix his tendency to set fire to things when he’s upset.
He also keeps the truth from the female MC for most of the book, so he’s a liar. And he stalks her as well. And expresses aggression toward her when she acts in ways he dislikes. Yet he himself is given a “free pass” for his own behavior, even if it hurts the heroine.
In short, this guy is a psychopath, a classic narcissistic abuser, but that’s okay because he “loves” her? We can assume she can fix him with her love?
The only way to “fix” this is to have the female MC run 10 million miles from this guy. The “HEA” would necessitate having a totally different couple at the end of the book. CoHo’s work isn’t exactly what I’m talking about when I say we need to let the romance genre envision HEAs beyond “marriage and babies.”
Thinking Beyond Level-Up Romance
But that is what this comes down to. We need to think beyond the level-up romance and imagine (or reimagine) what HEAs look like. Do they always mean marriage and kids? No!
Queer romance, disabled romance, and other “minoritized” narratives often push back against these conventions, in part because they have to: for the last couple of centuries, gay marriage wasn’t really a thing. Some queer people remain staunchly against marriage. Others are against having children, even as some are for it. In a historical context, short of adoption or having a “beard” relationship, children wouldn’t necessarily have been a possibility for queer couples.
And beyond that, even some straight couples don’t want children. Some don’t see the point in marriage. Does that mean their endings aren’t “happy”?
Of course not! But the conventions of the romance genre are such that we often want to tack on that wedding scene or mention the baby on the way, just to “prove” this is really “happily ever after.” But we should resist that more often, because the temptation to see that as the “true” HEA is nothing more than patriarchal propaganda.
Happiness—both ours and our characters—happens in a plethora of different ways. And the romance genre, as it embraces more diverse stories, should work to recognize that.
In that sense, I’m with the author who called these books “level-up” romance: I want to see fewer of them. I want to see more creative imagining of what it means to live “happily ever after.”