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?