Normative Heterosexuality and the Alpha Male Fantasy

Normative(Adjective): of or establishing a norm or standard.


Romance novels feature vast numbers of heroes who are so-called “alpha” males – usually taken to mean men who are better-looking and stronger than other men, with more dominant personalities, and usually some other advantage as well, such as high social rank, large amounts of money, or superpowers. They are usually coded as more protective of women as well, and that protection is linked to strong possessiveness. Love for the alpha romance hero is often tightly bound up with possession of the heroine, ownership of her sexuality, and protection of her from other males or other outside threats. By the end of the story, this potentially stalkerish behavior is usually mitigated somewhat; the heroine has insisted she retain her career, or that he let her know before he duels with enemies, or that she will keep her own money separate from his vast fortune. However, in many cases, the mitigation feels like a token to me.

I’m not a big fan of the Alpha Hero.

I know. Bad romance reader, no biscuit. Alpha Heroes are the very backbone of the genre, they go all the way back to Gilgamesh, they are all that is right and proper in the world of gender relations, women are meant to be swept off their feet by men and if the men don’t do that then they’re not really men. The alpha male is normal. Not!

To me, it all goes back to false ideas of gender roles drawn from the old “men hunt, women nurture” stereotypes that are just that: stereotypes, that bear little resemblance to real life. I feel the societal emphasis on assigning men to the role of provider can actively be harmful–who wants to be thought of solely as a dispenser of money or food? Just because those stereotypes exist does not mean that we are obligated to operate by those rules, even in, and especially in, our fantasies. And I wish that the published fantasies available to us, as readers, offered more variety. We should be able to consider options other than the normative.

That’s what my thinking on this comes down to: our fantasies. Not men, but how we fantasize about them, and what those fantasies do for us. Romance novels embody fantasies of love, of sexuality, of gender roles. It’s important to me to note that things we enjoy in fantasy are not the same as things we want in real life (“forced seduction,” anyone?). Liking the fantasy of the alpha male is not a bad thing. However, I can’t buy into it, no matter how I try. Oh, I enjoy Dukes of Slut and Navy SEALs, but unless those characters show profound vulnerability at some point, and respect for women as people and not just as possessions, for me the fantasy dissipates. However, many people love the alpha male and don’t want to read a romance without him.

So why is this particular fantasy so popular? Is it, perhaps, less about the alpha male hero than about the heroine, and her need to be cared for and protected even to the point of violence? The heroine/reader’s need to feel special, the only person who can Tame the Beast? Or do we, the readers, actually see ourselves as the alpha males in the fantasies we read? Both? Neither? And how do more familial fantasies fit into our lives? How are the Secret Baby and the Single Parent romances important to women?

I’m sure there’s no one answer. But I plan to keep thinking about these issues.

Related Posts:

Why I Don’t Like Vampires.

Romancing the Beast.

Female/Female Romance.

It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s Ultra-Brother!

Published by Victoria Janssen

Victoria Janssen’s writing showcases her voracious lifelong love of books. She reads over 120 new books each year, especially historical romance, fantasy, and space opera, and incorporates these genres into her erotic fiction. Her first erotic novel, The Duchess, Her Maid, The Groom and Their Lover (Harlequin Spice, December 2008), was translated into French and German. Her second Spice novel, The Moonlight Mistress (December 2009), was translated into Italian and nominated for a RT Reviews Reviewers’ Choice Award. Her third novel is The Duke & The Pirate Queen (December 2010). She has also published erotic short stories as Elspeth Potter. When not writing, Victoria conducts research in libraries and graveyards, lectures about writing and selling erotica, and speaks at literary conventions on topics such as paranormal romance, urban fantasy, erotic science fiction/fantasy, and the empowerment of women through unconventional means. Her daily writing blog features professional writing and marketing tips, genre discussion, book reviews, and author interviews. She also guest blogs for Heroes & Heartbreakers and The Criminal Element. She lives in Philadelphia.

13 replies on “Normative Heterosexuality and the Alpha Male Fantasy”

  1. Oh, thank God! Someone who has as much problem with alpha makes as I do. ;)

    Part of my problem is the same problem women have with Penthouse Pets. Alpha males set a standard that few real men can match. We're not wealthy and we're never going to be. Even if we exercise the chances of having the perfect body are essentially nil. If we try to act dominant we come off as an asshole. We're going to be disappointing to women that expect the 'alpha male'.

    I also find the alpha males to be shallow and rather one dimensional. In short, boring. Who wants to read a book where you find one of the major characters dull?

    And as you pointed out it boils down to the ancient assigned gender roles. As I've noted elsewhere feminism hasn't made an impact yet on those roles. Women look for men, in both romance and real life, at or above them on the social scale. You'll read lots of stories and see lots of instances of a male executive finding love with a barista or an artist but you'll never see a female executive doing the same. Maybe a Navy SEAL but not a janitor.

    I think it's time to change that.

  2. I think it's time to change that.

    Yes! I love "role reversal" plots. Maybe someday they won't be reversals at all.

  3. I do love alpha males. *sigh*

    You do make a good point that the female fantasy about the alpha male revolves around the need to be cared for and protected at all costs. Even if a woman can take care of herself, it's okay to still want a partner who can be her white night. Our tough heroines can be secure enough in their femininity to admit that, right? ;)

  4. Our tough heroines can be secure enough in their femininity to admit that, right?

    Yes!

  5. I love an alpha male, but not ALL alpha males that are portrayed in romance. Alpha doesn't have to equal asshole but so often (think certain Harlequin category lines = Greek billionaires and their mistresses, etc.) they do in romances. Some authors like Linda Howard (her more recent stuff) and Lisa Marie Rice tow the line between alpha and asshole but never cross it b/c they're such fantastic writers.

    As a writer I love writing about alphas but it's such a fine line trying not to make my heroes jerks. In real life, my hubby has some alpha tendencies and that's what attracted me to him in the first place. Maybe it's biological? He's protective and aware of our surroundings and I appreciate that. However, we're equals in our everyday lives (cleaning, dishes, etc: it's split down the middle). For me, when I think of what an alpha male personifies, it has nothing to do with money. It's more of an attitude and a need to protect. And I find that vera sexy ;)

  6. A very cogent post, Victoria. I think about these things too, and my thoughts follow the same line as yours. Domineering and or stalkerish behavior freaks me right out. I don't find it sexy, so there are some romance authors who I cannot read. Yet I also understand the attraction of the alpha, as summarized by Katie above.

    As a writer, I try split the difference, creating heroes that are sort of goofy and vulnerable yet do possess these attractive protective attributes.

    As to the question of why these mythic alpha men are so compelling, I think the answer is that women are tired. We carry so much on our shoulders every day–our parents, our kids, our needy friends, our work, and often enough our own men–that the fantasy of a (hot, rich) man who will make us the center of his focus–whose very raison d'etre is adoring us and protecting us–can be a compelling fantasy indeed.

  7. women are tired.

    Now I'm really curious if the same fantasy, in reverse, is appealing to male readers, or if the idea of masculinity forbids it to them.

  8. I think it is the fact that alpha men aren't a reality that leads to an escapist fantasy about having one. After a day of solving everyone's problems, of having to fix my own flat tire, of having to fight my own battles with town hall, give me a world where a handsome hero rides in, solves all my problems and then fixes me dinner and a nice bath. If he still has the energy we can throw in some sex.

    And I do think men have that fantasy in reverse.

  9. I would very much like it if the coded as protective of women were played up without the possessiveness more often. That would be a varient alpha I might be able to stand.

    (I'm having odd problems getting OpenID to work on this journal — half the time the comment seems to vanish into the ether.)

    —L.

  10. Evie's response resonated a lot for me.

    I love well-written heroes, whether they're alphas, betas, or something else entirely. A good alpha hero needs to be able to show a true vulnerability– to me, the difference between hero and asshole.

    By the same token, a good beta hero has to be inherently strong of character – not necessarily the power to bend prison bars with his bare hands (though that's not a BAD thing in romance…), but to have integrity, to be able to persuade– that sort of thing.

    Most romance heroes would make fairly unbearable life partners, I think, but then I think I'd make a pretty lousy duchess, too, so maybe it's all a wash, LOL.

  11. The Alpha males that I love to read about are definitely the ones with vulnerability. And I think that for some women there is a need to fantasize about someone else taking over and handling things sometimes. I was a single mother from day one and I often wanted someone around to take care of stuff for me. Being a strong and independent and all that kind of woman sometimes isn't all that. In theory it may sound cool but in reality it's hard and often frustrating and takes a lot out of a person. Plus, Alpha doesn't have to equal jerk.

  12. Larry, I've had trouble with posting comments, too, and I can't figure out why–cookie settings? Blogger server issues?

    I very much like the protective aspect of romantic heroes, and I like it even more when they have to work to protect the heroine, rather than already having enough wealth and resources to do so easily.

    Nicola, "integrity" is an excellent word; you've put your finger on something that always resonates for me with a hero and gives me insta-attraction.

    All the comments have been very enlightening, thank you!

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