It’s a common trope in romance novels for the hero to be an alpha male: confident, bold, a natural leader of other men. They are often firefighters, military men, cops, tycoons, or 19th-century dukes in saucy cravats. And in romance’s taxonomy of alpha males, there appears the sub species of the alpha-hole. These men are the jealous and possessive sorts, often because they were traumatized by foster care, a bad dad, or the Napoleonic War.
At the RT Booklovers Convention, Kelly Faircloth and I attended a panel where authors broke down what makes a good alpha, alpha hole, or beta, which sparked a discussion between the two of us about the very different ways in which two very different subcultures —female romance readers and socially stunted pick-up “artists”—revere the alpha male.
Natasha Vargas-Cooper: Let’s start with the difference between alphas and alpha holes. Alpha holes are generally fucked up? And do they neg all the time? According to the pick up artist web forums I frequent, negging women is an essential part of alphadom.
Kelly Faircloth: PUAs and romance writers are so at odds in their definition of “alpha.” It’s pretty funny. Just totally ships passing in the night. A well-drawn alpha romance hero, for instance, would never neg the heroine, because that’s a form of manipulation that’s not going to square very well with the values of the genre.
NVC: Tell me about the differences.
KF: So, alphadom in romance is, in my opinion, often fundamentally about taking care of the heroine and nurturing her. It’s about all that confidence and capability being focused on the heroine and working on her behalf. Now, it might not be your particular fantasy and you might find it unappealing to imagine a dude taking care of a woman by taking charge, but that’s a big part of the attraction, I think. Whereas in pick-up artist practices, alphadom seems to be about manipulating women into serving men’s wants/needs.
I have this pet theory that in romance, alphaness is a fantasy about men living up to the disproportionate level of power and authority they have in society. Think about Pride and Prejudice, where so many of the male characters are absolute duds. Lizzie’s father isn’t doing a great job of getting his daughters (who’ll be alone in the world when he dies) married off. Wickham ruins girls. Darcy, meanwhile, has all this money and privilege, and he takes his responsibilities toward his dependents very seriously. Lizzie’s stuck in this society, and it’s not crashing down any time soon—how can she have the best life available to her? She can opt for the man who endeavors to deserve what he has. Now, Austen was writing comedies of manners, and I think romance is more of a dance between fantasy and reality. But I think if you want to understand what’s happening with the trope, it’s a helpful story to consider.
NVC: Now, let’s discuss the notion of an alpha in real life. I am of the firm belief that you cannot fake being an alpha.
KF: I mean, I almost don’t even know what alpha means outside of romance. I think it’s a useful trope, a catch-all for a type of behavior and a dynamic that you portray in fiction. I enjoy a character that could be labelled “alpha,” but I just don’t find it a useful descriptor in real life.
NVC: I think alpha men exist, as in they are natural leaders of men and often charismatic to both sexes, but typically the reason they are that way and what makes them compelling is that they are unstudied. It’s a natural occurrence, like humor. The great irony about PUAs is the notion that more time they study the characteristics of an alpha, the more they will be able to mimic them deftly enough to entice a woman. But it’s the very studying that it makes it impossible for them. Here’s a fact: forced and affected confidence is the leading cause of vaginal dryness.
KF: That idea of the appeal of unstudied confidence makes a great deal of sense, now that I think about it, because that easy assuredness is part of the foundation of an alpha character. Heterosexual women spend so much time acting as the keeper of men’s feelings. There’s this entire category of emotional labor around their insecurities. Maybe part of the appeal of alphas in romance specifically is that those plots replace those day-to-day duties with some grand, high-stakes conflict that’s resolved over the course of the novel.
But, also important: Often an alpha character is paired with a female character who is, in her own way, very strong. The idea is not that he comes in and handles the little woman’s life. It’s that she’s tough and she needs and in fact deserves someone who can be an equal partner.
NVC: See this is the element that I like in romance and in !! SHAKESPEARE!! (Kate and Pertrucio, Lady Macbeth and Macbeth, Cleopatra and Mark Antony, Gertrude and Hamlet if you’re into ‘cest play): that men and women engage in kind of sexual gladiator play, whipping and goading each other (figuratively, literally). And when you watch equally-matched opponents jockey for an advantage, it’s hot!!
KF: Totally! I think that’s the bedrock of the modern paranormal sub-genre in particular.
NVC: Interesting, because I always associate paranormal with innocent victim and shape shift SWAT team Werebear.
KF: Oh no, so many girls with KNIVES. Though of course the innocent-sweet-virgin-leering-aristocratic-vampire DNA is still floating around.
I think that in some ways, “alpha” characters are an attempt to reckon with the fact that society bestows all this power and all these privileges on men. It’s grappling with that. And it values men who live up to their privileges, rather than turning gender relations into some big horrible game where men are constantly trying to sneak past the goalkeeper (your emotions) to score (your vagina).
NVC: And alpha characters are also a way for women to (literally, spiritually, sexually) grapple with the P-word. P A T R I A R C H Y?
KF: Yeah, rather than saying, “Imagine a world where we’ve hit the restart button,” it’s saying, “Well, here we are; the fuck are we gonna do now?” Although, again, I think that it’s important to note that it’s a fantasy, and readers aren’t necessarily seeking out guys like this in their real personal lives. It’s a mental exercise. And sometimes of course you’re imagining a world where we have hit the reset button and sufficiently rearranged gender relations that you can be attracted to beefy bossy dudes without buying the extra societal baggage. (This is the fun of apocalyptic romance, in part.)
NVC: I feel like the alpha character is an unvarnished, unfussy way to say “there are some sexy and appealing things about patriarchy.” There are elements of patriarchy that inspire deep ambivalence. Say, like, a man’s power, which leads to his arrogance, but a powerful man is also seeeexxxxxy. So alphas hold a a lot of the frustrating and titillating contradictions that come with patriarchy and sex roles.
KF: Well, the other thing that’s important to note is that a lot of times over the course of the story, the alpha-ness/assholeness is subverted in some way. This is a common argument on behalf of old-school romance in particular, which is that you start out with heroes very locked in their “male” worlds and behaviors and over the course of the novel, and then the heroine brings them around to seeing the importance of “feminine” feelings and values.
In modern romances, alpha characters often have some deep-seated dramatic emotional shit they need to work through, and the heroine helps. Oftentimes he’s brought low somehow. Sometimes there’s groveling involved. In the panel the moderator provided as her example of an “alpha hole” Sebastian from Lord of Scoundrels, and I do agree with that characterization. But here’s the thing—at one point, the heroine turns to him and basically says, “It’s okay, my darling, you’re just very high-strung.”
NVC: “YOU’RE BEING HYSTERICAL.”
KF: Like in Lord of Scoundrels, the heroine says to the alpha-hole:
“You’re overwrought,” she said. “I should have realized. We’ve both been under a strain. And it’s harder on you because you are so sensitive and emotional.”
And it’s so funny because it takes all his big tough arrogant guy bullshit and turns it into an emotional issue of the sort that’s generally associated with women. So you get the hotness of the big swaggering alpha—the proverbial big swinging dick—but that dick ain’t going anywhere other than the heroine’s bed.
NVC Why do think the concept of an alpha is so tantalizing to romance readers AND pick up artists?
KF: Well I think it’s this powerful archetype. It’s just that nobody can agree on what it means or what it should mean. It’s a trope that allows us to have conversations about power and sex roles and that’s why it’s so perennially popular in romance.
NVC: EVERYBODY WANTS A DADDY.
Images via Craig White/Getty
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