Ecology and Uses of the Alpha Male in Romance

In the comments to Michelle Sagara’s thoughtful and thought-provoking piece on alpha males at Dear Author, commenter Charming  points to the term’s source in animal behavior studies (most notably from Rudolf Schenkel in 1947 and David Mech in 1970). These studies, it must be pointed out, have since been thoroughly debunked: it turns out that wolf behavior in captivity is not at all representative of wolf behavior in the wild. I recall reading once that comparing wild wolves to captive wolves in scientific studies is like trying to draw conclusions about general human behavior from prison populations (and then I found the citation! Hooray!) But by the time scientific literature caught up with the facts, the myth of alphas and pack dominance dynamics had spread far beyond animal behaviorists and had been eagerly grasped by the culture at large.

Including, and perhaps most particularly, romance novels.

The idea of the alpha wolf in animal behavior studies turned out to be a fantasy: it happens in an artificial environment, something deliberately walled off from the larger, wilder world wolves usually inhabit. People have created the space in which the alpha wolf appears (or appears to appear, but let’s not get ourselves more tangled than we have to). But like wild wolves, captive wolves still need to eat — and that food comes from the real world. The real world feeds the fantasy.

A book or trope or genre like romance is also an artificial environment, and like wolf sanctuaries or zoos it is an environment created by people. Though we call it a fantasy, we can’t simply declare it walled it off from real life: we have to feed the fantasy with real stuff. Sexism, gendered social roles, abuse dynamics, personal politics, religious beliefs, axes of oppression and resistance — these things and others have a way of sneaking in. You may disagree, but you must first explain why else none of Charles Dickens’ characters ever uses a telephone or sends an email. Our real world is inevitably tied up with our fiction.

“I write fantasy,” says Michelle Sagara. “I write about dragons and magic and flying, winged people. I can obviously suspend disbelief when I write, because I do not actually think any of these things can exist in the real world. But when I write, I believe. To read a book, I have to be able to believe in the same way.” It’s true we have no dragons in our world. But we have fire, and birds, and large animals both on land an in water. You don’t have to believe dragons are real to know that burns are painful and that large animals can be dangerous.

Another quote, worth unpacking:

As I said: the alpha male is idealized. Because he is a fantasy. But it’s the confidence and the commitment and the lack of feminine (the heroine’s) responsibility for another person that makes the trope attractive. If the heroine suffers from lack of confidence, it doesn’t matter; he has confidence. If she’s uncertain, if she desires him but she’s afraid to commit to more, he’s certain. The decisions and the mess are not actually hers to clean up. 

The idea that the alpha hero has power in the world, therefore the heroine has power through her power over the alpha hero, is precisely what many object to about alpha heroes in general. Even the nice ones, the so-called caretaker alphas. I like the caretaking when it happens on the page. I like it in real life when Mr. Waite makes me soup when I’m sick. But I also like it when my friends do those things — or my parents, like the time I had the flu and my mother brought me over a whole roast chicken. And I like being able to do these things for Mr. Waite and my mother and my friends, because that is what balanced relationships require and it feels nice to be nice to someone else. The alpha male trope in romance, though, seems to rely on the heroine only finding comfort and power and support through this one intense sexual relationship — and this relationship becomes the conduit through which she must relate to the world thereafter.  To use one of my favorite romance plots as an example, Cinderella is not a princess unless she marries her prince. Ana becomes Mrs. Christian Grey and through him makes things happen. If the alpha male is a purely escapist fantasy, as Sagara suggests, then it is an extremely specific and limiting one. And why one specific and limiting fantasy should be so overwhelmingly popular is precisely the point that critics like myself keep coming back to.

Note also what is being escaped here, according to Sagara:

I don’t think it’s the conditioning that makes romance alpha males work for readers. I think it’s the rest of real life. It’s having to raise children and be aware of their needs and their emotions constantly. It’s having to deal with failed relationships or walking away from those that are just draining because of incompatibility, etc. It’s having to be responsible, always, for other people. It’s having to make nice and to be someone else or be something other than we actually are for so much of day-to-day life.

Social conditioning is what makes us feel like women have a greater responsibility than men do to raise children, to be the responsible nurturer in defiance of our own needs and wants. To be something other than what we actually are. What Sagara is describing here is patriarchy, in a very fundamental way. Patriarchy is the symptom, and the alpha male is an anaesthetic, that comforts without curing.

That sentence was fairly inflammatory, so let me make myself more clear: the alpha male as described in this piece is an anaesthetic. This alpha male, however, only appears here. We can recognize that he is an echo of other alpha males we’ve seen in romance over the decades, but we’re not talking about any one specific fictional character here.  Sagara’s post is written in response to newly minted Hugo winner Kameron Hurley’s equally thoughtful and thought-provoking piece where she was asked about the appeal of alpha heroes. In the process of coping with (though admittedly not answering this potentially unanswerable question), Hurley describes her fiction as a way of breaking down too-broad categories:

I’m here to challenge assumptions of normal, of hierarchy, assumptions that humans will always be bullies, or assumptions that “man” and “woman” are anything but poorly constructed language boxes created by humans to organize what is, in truth, a fantastically messy and diverse and incredibly non-binary world.

Sagara’s piece instead very deliberately builds the kind of language boxes Hurley rejects. Sagara constructs an Ideal Alpha and then explains his appeal — but this Ideal Alpha is her own invention. She cites one example of such a hero in the comments, but it’s important to note that she doesn’t base any of the post itself on any individual text or group of texts. She is not so much explaining the appeal of any particular existing alpha male hero, as she is constructing one in process while we watch and then declaring him good.

Her Ideal Alpha is a pure fantasy. He doesn’t exist in a world, even a fictional one. If he did appear in a book, we would have behaviors and actions we could discuss and debate for their worth. But we don’t have anything like facts — which explains the mess in the comments thread, where some are invoking abusive heroes and others are talking about how alphas are “exciting” and “dramatic.” The conversation is hugely unmoored, and therefore fairly unproductive. This is why I describe this Ideal Alpha as an anaesthetic: he is a broad generalization, a hypothesis rather than a dataset. He doesn’t even have a name.

Writing feminist pieces about romance means standing on a tightrope stretched between These Trashy Books Rot Women’s Tender Brains on the one side and I Like It So That Means It’s Morally Good on the other. I’m not really interested in telling people they shouldn’t read or enjoy reading alpha heroes. I am very, very interested in why we have alpha heroes coming out of the woodwork, but the number of alpha heroines can be numbered on the fingers of one hand. This is an extreme imbalance and well worth figuring out — unless you take the tack that men are just naturally alpha, and women are just naturally not alpha. In which case I am not going to talk feminism with you until you get some of the 101-level reading done. (Great place to start: Cordelia Fine’s excellent Delusions of Gender.)

There are real-world conclusions to be drawn from romance reading, more nuanced than what we normally see in the press. Because the road between fiction and the real world is a two-way street. Wolves have to eat, and they also have to poop. (This metaphor just got much less elegant, didn’t it?) If alpha heroes in all their multitudes are read purely for comfort, what does it say about our culture that we as women need so much comfort, so badly?

I hope this does not count as me “decrying the need for comfort.” The problem I have is not choosing between comfort fiction and challenging fiction, because like many humans I enjoy both. The problem I have is the gap between the specific and the general. Are romance novels feminist or conservative? Are alpha heroes good or abusive? These are broad and therefore useless questions. (#NotAllAlphaHeroes?) Writing a defense of alphas in romance without reference to specific alpha heroes is a recursive exercise only. Defending one specific type of fantasy while labeling it “comfort reading” without qualification erases the fact that for many women, myself included, comfort reading happens when we find a story that does not feature overbearing, belligerent dudes trying to take decisions away from us. I don’t want a man to “dress me,” as one of the supportive commenters does — though I’ll admit I wouldn’t mind if a billionaire handed me a credit card and told me to just go nuts with the Modcloth orders. But is the fantasy there the man, or the money?

“Comfort requires trust,” Sagara writes in conclusion. I agree entirely. But my trust is based in my real-world experience, even with my disbelief suspended. I can believe in dragons, easily, but I will be wary of their teeth.

___

For some reason, all this talk about wolves makes me feel as though I am somehow exploiting the wolves for personal gain — so let me point any readers in Washington State toward the website for Wolf Haven, which does marvelous work and is a truly great place to aim a visit or a donation. Their website does auto-play wolf howls, but I had my volume quite low and found this strangely soothing and perhaps the only time I’ve ever actually found autoplay enriching to a website visit. I will always remember visiting as a child and being instructed to howl at the wolves. They howled back, all around us, and I got chills.

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Release Day: At His Countess’ Pleasure

If you are not reading about Ferguson — though really, you should be reading about Ferguson, and here’s a good roundup to start — you may as well be reading my latest book, which is out today from Ellora’s CaveAt His Countess’ Pleasure is a femdom marriage of convenience erotic historical; the working title was Pegging the Earl, which should tell you what kind of sex scenes you might be in for.

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Countess Cover Reveal!

I have just received the cover for my next Ellora’s Cave release, available from the publisher’s website August 15 and other ebook retailers soon thereafter.

Cover image for At His Countess' Pleasure by Olivia Waite.

I’m quite happy with it! I am especially fond of that large swirly P in the word ‘pleasure,’ and the luscious red of her dress. I must also admit to being initially confused about the shoulder-boob — but shoulder-boob, you see, is totally the new sideboob. So hot right now.

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I Take the Low Road About High Culture: A Rebuttal

Dear Anya, wherever you may be,

Please allow me to express my sincere sympathies for your appearance in this Open Letters Monthly piece by Stephen Akey (via DoNotLink). You had the misfortune of encountering a man who believes that birdwatching in a cemetery is a perfectly cromulent first date — which admittedly it may be, for some people. It certainly seemed to work for Mr. Akey and his now-ex-wife: birdwatching in this very same cemetery was their first date two decades ago, as our author informs us without a trace of self-awareness. I cannot adequately express my horror at someone who deals with the emotional fallout of an ended marriage by attempting to recreate the outward forms of the relationship with a new and unwitting victim — I mean, date.

And then, on this bizarre replica date, our author offers you an unprompted lecture on the semi-obscure architect who designed the cemetery gates. Your response:

“Really? How fascinating! Stephen, how can you know so much?” Such were the words Anya did not speak.

Oh, Anya, of course you didn’t say that. If you’re anything like me, you would rather chew off your own hand than say anything so abjectly fawning — even if you were interested in 19th-century American architecture. I don’t know if you are, you see, because Mr. Akey never sees fit to tell us what your interests are — or what work you do — or anything you may be passionate about. He is too distracted by your “luscious” figure and his own sense of wounded self-superiority.

She didn’t say anything, and didn’t need to. I could read her thoughts all too clearly in the pained silence that followed. And what she thought was this: How could any human being possibly be so boring?

Anya — you may well have thought that. Lord knows I did.

Our author then presents us with Himself, as representative of an earlier generation bastioned by a common body of knowledge and learning, and you, Anya, as representative of a lost generation “educated to believe that everything I held dear was rot.” He then suggests he would have made a self-deprecating remark about resembling George Eliot’s classic pedant Casaubon, but he did not believe you would have recognized the reference.

Anya, I think he was completely wrong about that.

Because Middlemarch has been damn near everywhere lately. That hip young website and cutting-edge font of misandry The Toast hosted a Middlemarch read-through this year, as well as a follow-up read-through of Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch. That’s six solid months of discussion! Romance author and certified brilliant person Cecilia Grant is often seen mentioning George Eliot’s influence on her own life and work on Twitter — along with other romance writers, readers, and scholars. Our author wants to make a hilarious Casaubon reference? Many young women will totally be here for that.

At this point, Anya, you disappear from our author’s narrative — you were clearly only an introductory gimmick, a straw Young Millennial on which Mr. Akey could hang his broad and unwarranted generalizations. He devotes one much-welcome paragraph to the idea that “the urge to create endures” — a rather lovely phrase, to give credit where credit is due — but then returns to this imagined division between High Culture and Low Culture. The temptation to pull all the fatuous quotes from this section is irresistible, but I will restrain myself to this one:

Still, no amount of wishful thinking – nor any amount of coolly ironic pop art or postmodern appropriation — can ever overcome basic distinctions of high and low. If you think those distinctions are stuffy Victorian relics, you probably haven’t done jury duty lately. When I last served a few years ago, I learned a lot about Beyoncé, Dancing with the Stars, and Vin Diesel movies. My fellow jurors did not care to discuss that season’s offerings at the Museum of Modern Art or the contents of the latest New York Review of Books

Imagine, Anya — a group pulled from their lives and jobs for a day of often-tedious citizen service did not treat the experience like a literary salon! Our author here has made a fundamental mistake: he has assumed that the importance of High Culture as High means it must be made welcome in any social situation. This is the same mistake he made on your date, in fact. A date is a social outing meant to explore a possible romantic and personal connection between two people; this is not the same thing as an opportunity for one of those two to show off his pet lecture topic and be childishly praised for his ability to memorize trivia. He reports the words he wished you’d said and none of the words you actually said: I would gently suggest that this particular romance may be a non-starter.

Mr. Akey never actually defines what he means by these “basic distinctions of high and low.” He knows what it means, and he guesses we all do as well. But as a critic and feminist, I am inordinately suspicious of anything that is assumed to not need speaking about. Such concepts tend to come with assumptions built-in. For instance, when we use the phrase “high culture,” we could mean any or all of the following:

  • expensive to experience or enjoy
  • enjoyed by rich people, who are by implication smarter/better/more cultured/have better taste
  • a medium or art form that has a lengthy historical tradition
  • enjoyed by white Western people — opera, ballet, and classical music are high art, as opposed to wu-xia films, Bollywood musicals, and K-dramas.
  • concerned with a fundamental or universal aspect of human existence: death, love, war, family, the self, etc.
  • has a great deal of social cachet, but does not tend to make or produce money for itself or its audience/creators; is not “commercial”
  • requires hard work or years of training to appreciate

The idea that High Culture requires years of training — an idea that appears repeatedly throughout Mr. Akey’s piece — means it is necessarily more limited in audience than something that one can engage immediately. Vin Diesel movies, for instance, are a much more likely conversation topic for a jury duty pool not because juries are essentially anti-intellectual, but because there is a greater chance of that being a common experience between jurors than a stroll through MoMA’s current exhibition. Indeed, Mr. Akey reveals he eagerly joined in the Vin Diesel discussion as well.

Despite this populist frosting, our author believes that “basic distinctions of high and low” align perfectly with “basic distinctions of class.” He allies himself specifically with “the slim minority of [the middle] class that genuinely prefers challenging modernist fiction to cookbooks.”

Anya, I admit I frowned at that word, “prefer.” Cookbooks — like dates, or jury duty — have a purpose: they present recipes and techniques so humans can make tasty food. They are in no way competing with challenging modernist fiction, and there’s a whiff of women-in-the-kitchen sexism to imply those categories are mutually exclusive. If I pick up Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams at Home it does not cancel out the parts of my master’s thesis that involved Joyce’s Ulysses.

Having established his anti-populist credentials, Mr. Akey lulls us into somnolence with some more architecture trivia before contradicting himself: architecture “bridges high and low,” you see, because people live in buildings. Therefore architecture is important. Honestly, the less said about this section the better: it is brain-foggingly self-indulgent and tangential. Something something Fallingwater, something something Louis Kahn. A brief reflection on Mr. Akey’s imperfect memory, which puts him firmly in the category “human.” How he is ignorant, because there are subjects he has not mastered. To be frank, Anya, I was starting to skim at this point, because there did not appear to be any larger point to any of these discussions.

I perked up briefly with alarm at the mention of Bayard’s How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, because suddenly it occurred to me that one could, if one was inclined, use this book as a how-to for the kind of mansplaining that makes my life and the lives of other women occasionally and vividly unbearable. (Honorable mention here for the gentleman at a recent party who told me he didn’t know anything about feminism, then proceeded to tell me all about feminism.) And indeed, our author finds this kind of un-expertise a laudable trait in himself: “I find that I can talk to almost anyone about almost anything because I generally know just enough about any topic (theology, linguistics, the life cycle of the horseshoe crab, you name it) to be able to bullshit convincingly…” It does not occur to him that “able to bullshit convincingly” may not be the most desirable quality in one’s conversational partner. Especially since what he wanted from you, Anya, was undiluted admiration, not a well-faked false erudition.

And then, my dear Anya, we get your male counterpart: Alistair. A friend of Mr. Akey’s who was decidedly and determinedly lowbrow — and who appears to have led an unsatisfactory life. According to Mr. Akey, that is. This is, we hear, because he does not have access to the high culture that sustains our author:

No stranger to loneliness or depression myself, I at least had the consolation when times got hard of knowing that the world didn’t begin and end with my sorrows. Culture is a river that binds me to the living and the dead. Yes, I’d rather have a beautiful woman to dally with, but in the meantime there are some Jane Austen novels I’d love to reread. When Alistair needed to escape from himself, he had nowhere to go.  In terms of emotional damage suffered or caused, we were just about neck and neck, but he had one monster to wrestle with that I didn’t: He was bored. I wasn’t.

Culture is a river that binds me to the living and the dead. Again — such a well-turned phrase! But you know what else binds Mr. Akey to the living? Being alive. Being present, in the same place, in the same moment. As with you, Anya, Mr. Akey tells us what he and Alistair did not talk about — “Johannes Vermeer or Willa Cather or the Mughal Empire” — and glosses over what they did discuss. (Rock music, one presumes? Alistair liked Guns N’ Roses, our author is a fan of ZZ Top. But one has to arrive at this conclusion on one’s own.) Faced with a friend who was apparently restless, lonely, and dissatisfied, Mr. Akey appears not to have offered help or sympathy or anything else; instead, he seems to have retreated into self-satisfaction that he himself would never be so bereft. Alistair, meanwhile, falls prey to … nothing. We don’t know what happens to Alistair. We can presume it’s bad, because he has no Culture to rescue him, but Mr. Akey verbally wanders away before he can finish the anecdote. This fails rather spectacularly to demonstrate the consequences of a Life Without High Culture.

Our author cannot grasp the idea that people can participate simultaneously in so-called high and low culture, even as he gives himself free license to do so. This is allowed, presumably, because he does so while knowing that High Culture is superior. When in fact, most people I know alternate between so-called high and so-called low culture, fitting the medium to the mood. Thrillers in the summer, art films in the fall; cartoons when we’re sick, opera when we’re feeling fancy. As an author of commercial romance who also does her own Latin translations for fun, I have a vested interest in high-versus-low culture debates. I could no more choose between low and high than I could choose between my right and left hands.

What Mr. Akey has built instead is a wall between Culture on the one hand, and People on the other. Culture is where you go when People disappoint you — when they misunderstand you, when they ignore you, when they decline to allow you to do sex with them. Yet if you pointed out the basic escapism of this, Mr. Akey would probably be affronted. He envisions himself as an absorber of Culture — but the problem with the culture-as-river metaphor, despite the prettiness, is this: unlike a river, culture is not unidirectional. Culture informs people, but people also inform culture. Mr. Akey has proven that he can take in the elements of the culture he admires, but his treatment of Alistair and Anya — his inability to connect with them on a human level, not simply an intellectual one — shows that he is not turning this cultural education to any emotional or spiritual purpose. Mr. Akey’s deeper mistake is this: he mistakes learning for thought, and facts for feelings.

From a feminist and intersectional standpoint, I must point out that our author does briefly acknowledge that the traditional high culture he so admires has a habit of erasing groups traditionally considered less-than. For instance, he mentions Zora Neale Hurston as missing from all his college syllabi. He enjoys Zora Neale Hurston, and regrets she was left out.

Yep, that’s it. That’s the sum total of his thoughts on systemic racial prejudice in ‘high’ art and literature: a recognition that he could have been reading Zora Neale Hurston earlier, if only he’d known. Notice how that thought immediately circles back to focus on Mr. Akey — as did his discussions of Anya and Alistair before.

Even on the internet, which sometimes feels like a machine created specifically to increase the world supply of self-indulgence, this kind of overbearing smugness stands out. Our author closes his opus with this rallying cry: “Plenty of people think I’m pretentious. I don’t mind. I know how to think, I know how to talk, and I’m not bored.” As though the lasting achievements of human art and creativity are nothing more than great ways to while away the time before death. As though “how to think” and “how to talk” are the sum of potential human connection and contribution. 

Mr. Akey is welcome to his High Culture: it sounds terribly lonely to me.

Regards,

Olivia

This post brought to you entirely by Open Letters Monthly’s breathtaking condescension to me on Twitter, both under my pen name …

Link to a condescending tweet.

… and under my day name:

Link to a snarky tweet.

In the interest of complete disclosure, I should mention that I once pitched something to Open Letters Monthly and was rejected. It was many years ago, before I was published. Like many authors, I have been rejected by the best and brightest: Harlequin, The Stranger, Tor, Entangled, Carina Press, McSweeney’s. Rejection of a submission is part of the business; archly questioning my reading acumen on social media, however, deserves a sharp rebuttal.

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