What the Heck Is the Omegaverse?

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Over the last, hm, month or so, many people have been learning about this mysterious concept called “the omegaverse.” If you’re new to it, learning about it can be a bit like getting cold water dumped over your head. It’s one of those things that, if you know, you know.

It lurks around the edges of fandom; it divides a lot of people; but if you like it, you really like it.

And a lot of people really, really like it.

I won’t say I’m an expert on the subject, but I have been kicking around fandom long enough to give a decent enough oral history—as well as delve a bit more into the psychology of this phenomenon.

So, What Is the Omegaverse?

Simply put, it’s a worldbuilding tactic. If you see someone tag a fic on AO3 as “a/b/o dynamics” or “omegaverse,” you can typically count on a few things:

  • It will divide the characters into two or three categories: alpha, beta, omega
  • Alphas are generally dominant
  • Omegas are usually subservient
  • Betas sometimes get tossed by the wayside

Most often, authors use this set-up to facilitate a few favorite tropes and subgenres:

  • Fuck or die
  • Fated mates
  • Mpreg

The Construction of Gender in A/B/O Dynamics

I specifically pointed out mpreg there because a/b/o dynamics have roots in facilitating that. Within a/b/o dynamics, “male” and “female” are usually not important in determining reproductive roles.

Thus, omegas are usually capable of becoming pregnant, whether they’re male or female. In some stories, “females” don’t even exist.

Most stories play this straight (errr), with omegas, alphas, and betas all still being what we would think of as biologically male. There are other stories where the authors play with this a bit more: think intersex individuals, third (or fourth) genders, and a complex interplay between male/female sex and “secondary sex” as alpha, beta, or omega.

“Fuck or die” tends to come into play in the idea that omegas have heat cycles (estrus), which basically makes them lose their minds. This is, pretty obviously, a gateway to porn. Omegas and alphas are biologically spurred to fuck each other senseless. In some stories, alphas can maintain control; in others, they’re just as senseless as the omegas.

I called it a worldbuilding trope for a reason. Authors take the main mechanics, then build their world around it, tinkering with elements to make them fit.

The Origins of the Omegaverse

It’s a bit difficult to pinpoint an exact genesis of any trope. I prefer to look at a longer sort of trajectory, one that relies less on the ah-ha moment of when it precisely emerged and more as a coalescing of multiple factors in the cultural ether.

In English: everything kind of collided at a particular point.

Reaching to Myth for Roots

We can look way back at the genesis of mpreg. Lots of people like to treat this as some sort of modern invention, but it has roots as long as human history. One of the reasons for that may indeed be the fact that trans folx, Two-Spirit folx, enby folx, third genders, and more have existed for pretty much all of human history.

So, one point we can look to is actually Norse mythology. Loki gets knocked up in two myths. In the first, most accepted myth, Loki takes the form of a mare to seduce a stallion that was going to make the Aesir have to pay a lot of money, which was pissing them off. Loki succeeded in seducing the stallion and later gives birth to Sleipnir, Odin’s eight-legged horse.

In this myth, Loki takes the form of a female horse. It’s mpreg but not at the same time; Loki’s form may change, but it’s arguable his gender doesn’t—he’s still a guy in some sense.

The second myth comes in a couple of forms, and the version where Loki—as a guy—gets knocked up is somewhat less attested. Nonetheless, in one version of the myth where Loki and the giantess Angrboda conceive Hel, Fenrir, and Jormungandr, Loki eats the giantess’s heart and as a result gives birth to the monstrous children.

So we can see here a bit of a theme: mpreg bends the rules of nature and gives rise to monstrous children. Nonetheless, Loki does get canonically knocked up at least once.

Since then, sci-fi has really been the bastion of mpreg, with (predominately) female writers like Ursula K. LeGuin exploring the separation of sex and gender. Artificial wombs, men who give birth, and more populate some speculative fiction.

Leave It to the Wolves

There’s another thread that weaves into the a/b/o narrative here, and that has to do with werewolves and wolf packs.

Since the 1940s, the alpha/beta theory of wolf pack formation has been quite popular. This theory says there is one dominant wolf—the alpha—who acts as the leader. This wolf would usually be the reproductive male in the pack. There may also be an alpha female, his mate. The beta is the alpha’s “second in command.” There’s constant vying for dominance among other pack members.

Three black wolves, probably part of the same pack and related as well.
Oh, no, these guys aren’t related, not at all. (patrice schoefolt/Pexels.com)

Today, we know that most wolf packs aren’t formed this way. Instead, wolf packs are usually a reproductive pair and their offspring. At some point, some cubs do leave to start their own packs.

Nonetheless, the theory remained popular for decades. It also made its way into the human social sphere, as a way of explaining human behavior. You’ve likely seen memes about the impotent “beta” male, doomed all his life to be ignored by women who fall for the dominant alpha who treats them like shit.

In the early 2000s, this theory met up with werewolves. We have the works of Patricia Briggs, seemingly some of the earliest to invoke the idea of a dominant alpha male werewolf and a (not-so-submissive) omega female werewolf in a romance series.

About that time, we also have the publication of J.L. Lang’s With/Without series. And we can’t forget the cultural impact of Harry Potter and Twilight around this time—both featuring popular (and problematic!) werewolf characters.

This is probably where the idea that omegaverse is “wolf-kink erotica” arises. It’s true many a/b/o fics include elements of this, such as pack formations or “knotting,” which is related to canine mating; the example most people consider the first “true” fanfic does invoke this.

Not all a/b/o works feature these elements though. Many of them feature shifters, and quite a few feature aliens or just paste a/b/o dynamics onto regular human beings. Sometimes, you’ll even get vampires or other creatures working under a/b/o mechanics.

The Fannish Origins of the Omegaverse

We also have to remember the rise of the internet and fannish spaces during this period as well. Early on, we had LiveJournal and FF-dot-net. Many people hosted their own websites for their fics (as did yours truly). Beginning in the 2010s, we have a shift to tumblr and AO3.

Screenshot of the Archive of Our Own (AO3) homepage. AO3 hosts thousands of omegaverse fics.
AO3 hosts around 70,000 omegaverse fics.

Around that time, Supernatural RPF fandom was booming, which seems to be where the first “true” a/b/o fic originated. Like I said earlier, I think the genesis is a bit more of a confluence of multiple factors all coming together, but if you’re looking for a flashpoint, this is likely it.

After this point, omegaverse seems to have proliferated through fandoms. Teen Wolf was one popular fandom where it made perfect sense, thanks again to the ties with wolves and werewolves. Hannibal was another popular fandom. I personally saw it kicking around The Avengers (2012), other RPF spaces (c. 2010-2012), and a few other spaces. (I was largely absent from fandom between 2011 and 2018.)

Today, AO3 alone hosts thousands of fics built on an omegaverse framework. It’s also popular in original fiction.

You Knew It Was Queer

Most omegaverse is centered in the m/m part of fandom; indeed, it seems to have originated there (although we do have heterosexual alpha-omega werewolves in original fiction as early as the mid-aughts). Again, we have to point back to a/b/o’s roots as a mechanism for getting male characters knocked up. Want to write a story where a male character gives birth, but that seems implausible for whatever reason? Handwave, omegaverse AU, and you’re done.

It’s predominately an m/m trope because it allows writers to give their fav pairing a “yay! Babies ever after!” ending without gender-bending or adopting a trans identity for one of the characters. It’s not the only solution, but it is a popular one.

The cover for Hook, Line & Sinker, which uses a different mechanism to explain mpreg.
Decidedly not the only solution, as proven in Hook, Line & Sinker.

Of course, with that comes the suggestion that the omegaverse is misogynistic. In fannish versions of the trope, females rarely, if ever, appear and they’re often inconsequential or even feel somewhat redundant. In a world where biological “male omegas” can give birth, what is the role of a biological female? What’s the difference between a “male omega” and a female one?

These questions can be difficult to answer, unless the writer is willing to consider intersex or trans identities, which can upset the “m/m” perception of a story. As a result, many writers just seemingly forget females exist, instead allowing male omegas to play the reproductive role usually assigned to a female organism.

Why Is It So Damn Popular?

As I said at the outset, you either like omegaverse or you’ve never heard of it (and now you wish you hadn’t Googled “what is omegaverse”). There are a few reasons that can help account for its popularity.

First, we can take a look at the idea of the trope of complete domination and submission popular within the genre. Omegas are often completely incapable of making decisions for themselves or acting in their own best interests, especially during heat episodes.

This could play into D/s fantasies, wherein the reader wishes to occupy either the position of the omega or the alpha. Helplessness and needing to be cared for are often associated with romantic desires as well as sexual ones.

The “fuck or die” element points to a loss of control, which can also be something of a kink for people. Some people find the idea of an animalistic state of desire appealing.

Within that, there’s also the issue of consent. A/b/o dynamics often fail to deal head-on with the issues of consent (although it really depends on the writer), but for some, the element of dubious consent is part of the appeal. Nonconsensual situations may also play into rape fantasies, which are a fairly well-known and supposedly common kink.

I’d also suggest that the trope, in its original queer form, appeals for at least two more reasons:

  1. It deals with “the abject”
  2. It allows sublimation, the movement of a theme from one object to another

Let’s look at either of those in turn.

The Abject

The “abject” is something that provokes disgust, horror, or even threatens the self or society. Pregnancy, in some ways, is a fairly strange, almost body-horror-esque experience. In many cultures, including Western culture, it’s been common to simply not discuss pregnancy. Even now, pregnant people may be treated as though they have a medical condition. And there’s plenty of weird old advice about what to do and what not to do during pregnancy. In the past, pregnant persons were even told to confine themselves, to not be seen in public after a certain point.

Pregnancy is both celebrated and abhorred. Yet it’s taboo to discuss it in terms of the abject, even if we do think it’s a little weird. But if we move pregnancy from a female body to one that’s masculine in nature, we’re suddenly able to explore the more abject side of pregnancy. Think of the chestburster in Alien—an infant parasite rips itself out of its host, who happens to be a male, murdering him in the process.

That has many parallels to even human pregnancy—the fetus is, in some ways, parasitic on the mother, and the process of birth can be bloody, violent, and even deadly. Yet we are so rarely allowed to acknowledge that.
The same is true of female desire, of loss of control, and even of rape fantasies. These all deal with subjects that can be abject—and a/b/o dynamics take them and neatly roll them into a package deal. By masculinizing the bodies involved, we’re able to explore the more abject side of many of these subjects.

Sublimation

I’m drawing on psychoanalysis here, but sublimation translates the subject’s wants, desires, or impulses in a way that makes them more acceptable or positive. I’d argue there’s a process of sublimation going on here, in that a/b/o dynamics take some of those more taboo subjects—female desire for one, the potential abject horror of pregnancy—and paste them onto male bodies.

We can see this happen in yaoi manga. Yaoi is about two male characters but is largely by and for women. Some people say this creates romantic and sexual relations between the leads without female sexual desire, female sexuality, or even female bodies—which are “shameful.” The reader’s desire for romance, her sexual desire, or even her body can be “sublimated” by removing the feminine and transposing it to the masculine.

A/b/o dynamics can provide a similar vehicle, particularly when they deal with queer mpreg scenarios. The rape fantasy can also be sublimated this way in the “fuck or die” trope. The nonconsensual is then far more acceptable–literally a life or death situation.

Deconstructing Gender Theory

Finally, whether we realize it or not, texts are almost always doing some heavy sociological exploration. In the queer mpreg variant of the omegaverse, the texts are challenging both notions of family and gender.

The gender binary is a fairly obvious casualty of any mpreg story. If a character who is ostensibly male can get pregnant and give birth, is he really “male”? (Biological definitions rely on the gametes one produces, so potentially not.) We may be looking at trans or intersex bodies here. If the bodies are truly male in a biological sense, then the author’s going to need to give us some magical or scientific explanation about how this is possible.

(Of course, some authors don’t—they ask us to suspend our disbelief and merely accept this.)

If the world has “females,” then we have to ask what’s the difference between a “female alpha” and a male one? What’s the difference between male and female omegas? Sometimes, the answer conforms to the gender binary and in other cases, it’s completely different.

Rewriting the Family

Mpreg and the unsettling of the gender binary also work to deconstruct the heterosexist idea of what constitutes “a family.” Suddenly, we can have two men creating a child that is biologically theirs without intercession of a third, female party.

The wolf pack and the idea of fated mates are also important here. They challenge the commonly accepted nuclear family and replace it with packs, which may be multigenerational and formed on the basis of blood relations—or not.

The a/b/o construct is immensely flexible in this regard. It lets us build all kinds of worlds that explore these different concepts and challenge these social constructs, allowing us to ponder questions like what really makes a family. In the queer community, the idea of “found family” is immensely popular—although it’s at odds with the dominant idea of family construction in Western society. It’s little wonder that a/b/o dynamics resonated so much with queer content creators in the fanfic community; it allows space for the exploration of trans and intersex identities as the norm as well as the idea that perhaps biological kin isn’t the be-all, end-all of family.

Is It All Smut and Mpreg?

Nope. I mean, a lot of it is. Anything I’ve ever written is, but that’s because that’s what I write. Some authors do take a/b/o dynamics and make it clean, much the same as some authors take what started out as a queer worldbuilding trope and slot it into an allocishet framework.

There are definitely a/b/o works that have no mpreg in them. There are works that aren’t smutty at all, and there are some that are all about that. Some are queer. Others are not. Some explain the science; others give you a handwave.

And that’s really the beauty of the omegaverse. It can be almost whatever you want to it be. It’s an intensely malleable trope—which may go a long way to explaining why the concept has had such legs as to move through so many fandoms and well beyond in just over a decade.

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