Hopeless Reimantic 3: Pack Mentality
For more about this series on Romance Novel Tropes, read Rei’s Hopeless Reimantic intro post and Part 1: Virginal Heroines, and Part 2, on babies and pregnancy in the romance genre.
TRIGGER WARNING: This segment of the Hopeless Reimantic series deals with some themes which may be triggering to abuse/harassment survivors, and some of the authors discussed within play it seriously fast and loose with the concept of consent.
Welcome back to Hopeless Reimantic, where I try to convince you all that my taste in books isn’t really that bad!
First of all, some housekeeping: er, it’s been a while since I last put out one of these, so sorry about that. My degree sort of ate me (final year), and it stands to swallow me whole again in a couple of weeks (FINAL YEEEAR), but I promise to get back to some kind of regular posting schedule in the summer.
Alright! Let’s talk about alpha males. Specifically, let’s talk about how spurious science has constructed a cultural narrative in which the expectation of alpha-dom has been projected onto men. Even more specifically, let’s talk about what that means in romance novels, because the Alpha Male (see also “alphahole” and “alphole”) of Romancelandia is a different specimen to the kind uplifted by, say, economy theorists. Or PUAs.
This in itself is kind of interesting to me, to be honest, because I encounter a lot of guys (and I’m sure I’m not the only person to have experienced this) who say that they feel they need to alpha it on up because that, secretly, is what women want.1
At first glance, you’d see that pretty well backed up by the sheer overwhelming presence of the alpha male in romance novels. You don’t even have to delve into a Mills and Boon backlist to see it; take Fifty Shades of Grey. Christian Grey is arrogant, and controlling, and he gets what he wants. He’s tormented, angsty, abusive and stalkerish (but only in a really hot way), and he’s richer than God, better-looking than the most virile of the Vikings and carries his own name-brand popsicles around in case you happen to get thirsty when you’re going down on him.
A Mills and Boon backlist will show you a lot more of the same, though. This brand of alpha male is raw power in a designer suit; he mixes pure, unbridled Man with all the trappings of high civilisation, because his power is such that he can dominate any world he wants to. Often he’s risen up from humble beginnings or has some kind of connection with a criminal underworld, just so you know he’s a badass.
A different breed of alpha male emphasises the badass aspect over the size of the wallet. One of the most popular alpha males in recent releases is Kane “Tack” Allen, hero of Kristen Ashley’s Motorcycle Man. Now, my experience of Ashley has largely come through reading reviews of her work, but I did check out Motorcycle Man, and I might take a look through her back catalogue with a view to devoting a post on her at some point. Not because I’m a particular fan, but because her books – and their wild success – have caused quite a stir among the romance-reading community, and I think that deserves some scrutiny.
Some people vociferously dislike them, while others compare them to literary crack (there is a Kristen Ashley Addicts Support Group). At any rate, she specialises in this certain type of alpha, and Tack is a perfect example of it. He’s bad, he’s brawny, and he’s terrific in bed (he gives Tyra, our heroine, “so many orgasms I lost count”). Let’s take a look at him:
Dark, longish, somewhat unruly, definitely sexy hair with a hint of gray interspersed in it. Blue eyes with pale lines radiating from the sides that I knew, I just knew, came from laughing. A dark goatee around his mouth, the bit at his chin overlong in a biker way that was too cool for words. Fantastic tattoos slithering up his defined arms, broad shoulders and muscled neck along with one on his ripped chest and a big one on his back. The rest of his body hard and strong…
– Kristen Ashley, Motorcycle Man, Kindle location 87.
He also embodies alphadom, as, in my understanding, Ashley heroes tend to. I gave up highlighting all the stereotypical alpha behaviours he displayed that I found creepy, because the book’s quite long, but I when I looked at all the ones I’d taken, I still had twenty-four. I lost count of all the times he backed her into something or grabbed hold of her and she told him to back off and he wouldn’t. And he always gets what he wants:
“To be fair, I’m givin’ you a warning,” he said quietly.
“Let me go,” I demanded just as quietly, mostly because I was freaking out.
“I want somethin’, I get it.”
“Let me go,” I repeated.
– Motorcycle Man, Kindle location 498
I’m going to try to not quote this book too heavily, but I could, because there are a lot of informatively creepy passages in it. One last one, though, because it’s important. He manhandles her and tells her what to do and in the end she is happy with it because deep down, it’s what she wants. So far, so adherent to PUA theory. What Ashley enthusiasts – and alpha fans in general – would argue makes that sexy and not creepy is that he knows it’s what she wants. That is the nature of their connection: that he knows what she wants, even when she doesn’t.
My arms were crushed between our bodies and I uncurled my fingers from his tee and pressed them flat against his chest as I whispered, “Please, get off me.”
“You want this,” he informed me.
– MM, Kindle location 1258.
And, more explicitly, here:
“…the minute you gave me more of you, I took it, wanted even more and I didn’t keep that a secret, babe, and you fuckin’ know it. And you kept givin’ it. You coulda walked away and you didn’t. And along the way as we’ve been playin’ our game, you got your hooks in me and I got mine in you and you know that too.”
I definitely did if the heartache I’d experienced the last two days was anything to go by.
But I wasn’t going to tell him that.
– MM, Kindle location 3248.
The way I’ve heard this described is that creating a good alpha hero demands a certain skill on the part of the author. If he’s going to dominate the heroine, then the reader needs to be assured that said heroine is in safe hands, and that reassurance is the author’s job. We must be sure that nothing the heroine isn’t okay with is going to happen to her, and readers that are content that the author (and thus the hero) is acting on behalf of the heroine’s best interests tend to be more willing to forgive things like non-consent. Her protests are part of the journey the story takes you on, because – well, you know she’s going to be okay.
This is key, and it’s something I find both reassuring and deeply troubling. On the one hand, I do find the assumption on the part of non-romance readers that the scenarios portrayed in these books are what their readers actually want or believe that they want kind of condescending. These people have brains in their heads like anybody else, and I don’t see many defenders of these books arguing that this is what they feel real life ought to be like. Some do, but not many that I’ve encountered.
The fantasy-escapism aspect of the work is lost on pretty much nobody, and I find it very strange that people don’t assume for other genres that it is. Do you put down a crime novel hoping you’re going to find a dead body in your garage? Fantasy fans might daydream about riding to war on the back of a dragon (I know I have) but I don’t think many people are seriously all that blind to the reality of what that might entail in a real-world context. Very few people would want to be placed in a fantasy scenario with the security of the story stripped away.
On the other hand…
I do understand the reservations non-romance-novel readers have about this kind of scenario being so widely marketed. There’s a crucial difference between, say, a crime thriller and a story about two people falling in love. Being a detective figuring out the culprit of a murder: well, that only happens to a very specific set of people. Falling in love happens all the time, everywhere, to people of all kinds and from all walks of life. A huge part of the appeal of romance and romantic plotlines is the near-universality of the experience. A lot of people are going to find the feelings described as part of that process relatable, even if the way it’s happening isn’t.
Which means that the boundary between fantasy-escapism and “this is the kind of thing I should look for in the world around me” is a lot easier to blur. The idea of a partner knowing what you want before you do, for example, has seeped into culture to an alarming degree, as anybody who’s picked up a women’s magazine will be able to tell you. Fifty Shades has pushed BDSM into the mainstream in a big way by marketing it as romantic. And there is no getting away from the fact that the normalisation of unhealthy relationship power dynamics in mainstream culture and mainstream romance feed off one another, and that is a process which is going to continue until the romance industry and the rest of mainstream culture recognise that it is happening.
I don’t have an easy answer for this one, honestly; it’s something I am still struggling with, and I’m running out of column space. It’s not for me or anybody else to tell people what they should be fantasising about, and I’m not sure that demanding clear delineations between “realistically romantic” and “don’t try this at home, kids!” in romance novels is either practically viable or particularly useful.
But the fact remains that some of this stuff is harmful, and its harmfulness, I find, gets dismissed by romance novel readers as “it’s just fantasy, it hurts no one!” and by non-romance novel readers as “it’s just romance novels, they’re too stupid to know any better!”. This is something that deserves deeper consideration and more frank discussion, whether you’re a fan of the romance novel or not.
Eesh, and I didn’t even get to any actual wolf packs! I’m sorry, paranormal genre. I’ll cover you someday, I promise.
What do you guys think? Do you like a bit of alphole in your hero? When does a book cross the line between fantastical goodness and creepy-ass weirdness?
Join me next time on Hopeless Reimantic, where I’ll be talking about…marriage! See you then.
- Ed’s Tiny Note: And indeed you can read two early BR ‘WTF is this alpha male business all about?’ posts from Sarah C here and Stephen B here! [↩]