The Man and the Hero

There has been a lot of discussion lately in the Romancelandia blogosphere about Alpha Males and Beta Males and Theta Males and Gamma Males. Am I missing any Greek letters there? And while I understand the marketing reasoning behind each of these category distinctions (especially for those of us who read romance for the heroes and have specific preferences), I have a hard time drawing such hard distinctions in real life men. And probably not coincidentally, the books I love best also seem to have trouble making those hard distinctions.

The man I know best, of course, is my husband and I really don’t know how to categorize him according to a romance novel character distinction. In general, he’s an easy-going guy. Pretty much the most easy-going guy I’ve ever known. He’s affectionate, attentive, caring and responsible. But put him between a bully and a victim and he’s pretty fierce. He also reads romance and his take on the heroes is pretty interesting. In fact, he wrote the review portion for next Monday’s review of Emma Barry’s new book Private Politics so that should be interesting. The only editing I did was for typos and editorial style (though I still wrote the recipe part).

Looking back in my dating past, most of the guys I dated were similarly not easily categorized. Even among those who were military (and there were quite a few of those, living as I do in the DC area), bouncers, cowboys, motorcycle riders or other similarly Alpha-sounding types, there was really only one true Alpha in the bunch. That may say more about me and the guys I chose than the guys themselves, of course. Even people I only know casually have observed that I don’t seem like the kind of girl one could trod upon. But my own personal Alpha and I were the longest relationship I had before I met my husband. He was a cowboy-pilot-motorcycler who once literally put his body between me and danger. He also made my lunch every day before I left for work and loved shopping for clothes with me. I’m just not sure how that fits into most romance novel conceptions of the Alpha.

A really good example of a book I love best is Unbound by Cara McKenna. Rob, the hero of that book, at first appears to be the quintessential Alpha backwoods warrior. He’s gruff, speaks little, chops wood, shoots arrows, fishes and lives off the land. In his previous life, he was a hard-charging Type-A bar owner capable of endless amounts of seduction. But he has a whole different side that he keeps hidden from the world, the heroine and even himself as much as possible. What interests me most about Unbound is just how much damage the Alpha-Beta false dichotomy has wrought in Rob, who felt forced to turn to alcohol and, subsequently, complete withdrawal from society in order to function. It’s something that a lot of modern men seem to have experienced, if not to that extreme degree.

Yes, I know romance novels are all fiction. I just worry sometimes (even independent of my husband’s reading, which does put a whole different spin on things) about that whole Alpha-Beta spectrum as an essentially patriarchal tool. Even without knowing the specific views of the researchers on the wolf studies in the 1950s that yielded the language we now use, whether male or female, there were certain assumptions about gender roles underlying work undertaken in that time period. Alpha meant in charge, a leader, an enforcer. Beta meant access to inferior or no mates, secondary access to food and a constant struggle to attain Alpha status. That whole paradigm assigns value to Alpha status. Plus the way the Beta distinction as it is now used by the PUA (pick-up artist) and men’s rights communities seems to enforce that idea. The only greater insult than calling a man a Beta is calling him feminized or referring to him as a woman.

I have written about romance novels and the romance fandom being a safe space for me, as free from the pressures of patriarchal conventions as I can make it. It’s largely free of male bias. Authors, editors, bloggers and reviewers of romance are nearly all female. I’m incensed when a book I read (ahem, Skye Jordan) or an article like that stupid Vice one about fisting intrudes into that safe space. It’s tempting for me to say, well, romance isn’t for men; it’s for women. And it’s one of the very few things that is. Who cares about how men are portrayed in romance when the rest of the world cares so little about how women are portrayed in everything else?

So why can’t my brain just leave this idea well enough alone?


  1. Dang. This is such a great post.

  2. Excellent post! And of course the scientists in the 50's-90's who were studying wolves got it all wrong, because they were studying wolves in captivity. Wolves in the wild travel in family packs. There is no "alpha male" or "alpha female." There's just "dad" and "mom." The two dominant wolves in the pack are dominant because they are the parents, in the same way I am dominant over my kid. Too bad we can't get rid of the concept of human alpha males as readily as scientists publishing research papers corrected that community's understanding of wolves.

    I think the entire concept is absolutely a reflection of patriarchy and sexism. Beta males (or worse apparently, gamma males…I don't know what a theta male is) are described as being on this sliding scale of weakness that is directly linked to the idea of being female. It's easy enough to spot in the terms used to insult them. SFF author John Scalzi has used the attentions of a particularly annoying group of trolls (coordinated by a PUA/author whose views make sane people gag) whose biggest insult has been to refer to Scalzi as a "gamma rabbit" to raise money for charity from his fans. (Because a gamma rabbit is the opposite of an alpha wolf, get it? How can you not get this? What are you, a woman? Seriously, that's about the level of rhetoric these guys use.) There are even gamma rabbit T-shirts now, with a purple cartoon bunny.

    As for the world of romance and men…well, I love and appreciate this genre too much not to want to share it with as wide an audience as possible. I do, however, agree that its quality of being a safe space for women is something I would be sad to see disappear. On the other hand, based simply on my own personal experience, the type of men who are likely to ease their way into reading/writing/enjoying romance novels are the type of men I can welcome. No doubt there will be exceptions, but the worst offenders would, I think, be running for the hills screaming about girl cooties long before they ruined things for us. 🙂

  3. I like reading about all kinds of heroes – I don't seek any one in particular out exclusively. I think most people can exhibit characteristics of each Greek letter designation if put in the right circumstances. And I dislike the idea that anything other than an Alpha is "weak". I think there are different ways to show strength and I think that Alphas definitely have weaknesses.

  4. I've posed this question as a matter of how much realism do you want in your romance novels? Because alpha-males in novels get all mushy and emo when they meet the right woman. In real life, alpha-holes discard women like used kleenex, always looking for the next hot babe they can prove themselves on, and when/if they marry, their wife becomes the long-suffering "little woman" left at home caring for the kids while he's out proving himself to himself over and over again.

    I married a beta male because they are the men who love their mothers and their sisters. They are the men who don't flinch at discussing emotions, because they're in touch with their own; unlike alphas who bottle them up only to have a huge explosion of anger and violence because they won't allow themselves any other expression. Beta males change diapers and take their turns cooking, do some housework, and still manage to take you to heights of ecstasy when the kids are finally asleep. Alphas are 1-dimensional cartoons.

    I try to create realistic heroines you'd like to be, and heroes you fall in love with. The only alphas in my books are female, and they still are pursued by men strong enough to win them for life. Now that's romance I can believe in!

  5. […] the dichotomy at all so outside of romance novels, the distinction really doesn’t exist. It’s arbitrary, unrealistic and damaging to everyone, regardless of gender. “Alpha” is shorthand for a certain kind of strength in heroes, an unambiguous, worldly, […]

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