I recently read a romance that featured a supposed love story between a shy woman and a big, tough, macho “alpha male.”
Reader, I must confess that I didn’t finish the book; I couldn’t. I was too uncomfortable with the “hero’s” behavior toward his supposed lady-love.
At every juncture, I was confronted with a man who was aggressive, possessive, and borderline psychopathic in his “desire” to have the main character.
And as I sat there reading, I couldn’t help but think, “This doesn’t sound like love. It sounds like abuse.”
The Alpha Male as Peak Masculinity
Perhaps the most unfortunate part of all this is that seeing this “alpha male” character isn’t even shocking or surprising. He is everywhere in romance: as Christian Grey in 50 Shades of Grey; as Edward Cullen in Twilight; in Sarah J Maas’s popular A Court of Thorns and Roses series. Certainly, he shows up in omegaverse stuff—it’s literally predicated on alpha-beta-omega.
The alpha male becomes the pinnacle of masculinity, some sort of ideal to strive for. When he appears in a benevolent form, he has a heart of gold. He wants to protect his love interest from everything the outside world can throw at them. He is devoted and loyal, and he focuses on keeping his love—often a woman—safe.
The alpha male often must jealously guard his claim on his woman, or risk another man “stealing” her. He becomes possessive and jealous. If anyone so much as looks at her funny, he’s there, grabbing her and clutching her to him, snarling, “Mine!”
And, beyond this, the alpha male has trouble expressing his love for the heroine. He knows nothing but anger and jealousy; all his feelings translate into these channels, so he can only lash out or yell. Don’t look to this guy for a heartfelt confession of anything.
The alpha male is thus “peak” masculinity—or, more accurately, toxic masculinity.
Why Do We Love Him So Much?
The alpha male is “peak” masculinity, so much so that he is a laughable stereotype. He can’t emote. No, he only knows rage. He turns into a goddamn animal whenever the heroine is around, losing his senses and humping her leg or flying into a fit of rage to “protect” her.
Femininity, we must remember, is emotional and submissive. Women are “weak,” so they need someone like the alpha male to “protect” them. Because of this, we’re supposed to interpret the alpha male hero’s behavior as loving and desirable.
Women want to be possessed, effectually. This idea is tied back to women as subservient to men. Women exist to serve men; that’s what they’re happy doing. “Good men” then reward that love by jealously protecting their claim over “their” woman.
It’s difficult to untangle biology and culture here. There is likely a biological imperative here that suggests an aggressive male who defends you will protect you and his children. He may also be a good hunter or provider.
But this level of dominance becomes a problem. Women are told to see possessiveness as romance, proof positive that a man values them and wants them.
It’s Actually Terrifying
In the book I was reading, the “hero” traps the heroine at several points, physically, geographically, and so on.
Authors, if you’re writing this kind of crap, I’m going to let you in on a secret: This is a horror film, not a romance.
Or horror romance or something.
To me, someone raised, cultured, and viewed as a woman, there is nothing romantic about a big, burly guy trapping me in the middle of nowhere with him.
I’m either going to get hatcheted or raped. There are no other options.
And I’ll just go out on a limb here and say I am actually okay with these sorts of plot lines. (I’ve been bouncing around fandom for ages; you’d be hard-pressed to find a trope I haven’t read.) What I want, though, is an acknowledgment that this isn’t romantic or at least not something to be emulated. Remind me this is twisted behavior. This is not a healthy relationship, not something I should aspire to in my own life. Basically: bill it as being dark.
The second thing I ask for in these situations? Some indication of consent on the part of the heroine. Even just telling me they’re super into it makes me, as a reader, more comfortable. Even if consent is coerced or dubious, I can get behind it if the character is thinking, “Okay, this is totally fucked up, but damn if I don’t think it is hot.”
When this is presented as romance, pure and simple, I have a big issue. Because it’s not. As I said, it’s prelude to some kind of horror story, actually.
How the Alpha Male Perpetrates Abuse as Romance
I mentioned that in this book, the “hero” traps the heroine. She is stuck with him. He is also described as the typical romance hero: over six feet tall, all chiseled muscle and raw power.
Can you see why I’m uncomfortable yet? This man can hurt her, so very easily. I am not feeling romance here; I’m feeling afraid. I want the heroine to run away before something (even more) terrible happens to her.
Another common characteristic is that, on top of his physical domination, the emotionally constipated alpha male can only express himself in anger. He shouts. He has fury in his eyes, and he growls and stalks around.
This adds to the impression that he’s going to hurt the heroine. If she doesn’t comply with his whims, he is going to have his way with her anyway, and he will hurt her to do it.
You … know what that is, right? That’s rape.
The “alpha male” isn’t romantic here. He’s a scary figure, terrifying. He is something out of a horror novel. And he is also a manipulative, coercive sonuvabitch.
Because, even if rape doesn’t happen, this is all still abuse. There is the threat of something bad happening if you don’t do what he wants. That’s manipulation, plain and simple.
Jealousy and Possessiveness? I’m a Human, Bro
Let’s not forget that the idea that women are not property—that we’re fully functional human beings, thank you very much—is pretty new, actually. Here in Canada, women were only recognized as persons under the law in 1929. That’s less than 100 years ago currently.
So, legally, women have not been seen as people for even a century yet. At points in the past, we were, quite literally, property. Daughters were the property of their father (as were all children). Daughters became the property of their husbands when they got married—ever hear of a bride price? Yeah, there was literally a cost associated with getting a woman. You could just go over to the woman’s father’s house, haggle with him, and buy yourself a bride.
So, this male possessiveness, the craving to have the heroine echoes this former legal positioning. And don’t forget law springs from culture. And law usually changes long before the culture changes with it. Legal changes percolate into culture.
So there are still many, many strains of culture that don’t see women as fully functional human beings, even though we have the legal rights. It’s in there deep, and it’s going to take time to root it out, to change it on a sociocultural level.
Romance that puts alpha male possessiveness front and center attests to that. If women are fully functional human beings, why do we let romance heroes get away with treating them like objects? Why do we get all swoony when a guy gets all growly and grabs the heroine by the hair, snarling at her, “You’re mine?”
Oh Hi, Patriarchy, Didn’t See Ya There
You knew it! Patriarchy is at work once again. As much as the legal paradigm has changed, patriarchy is that sociocultural element I was talking about.
Patriarchy is a power structure. And power structures are relatively resistant to change, unless they see it as a way of maintaining power. So, that women have rights under the law is likely because patriarchy saw agitation and went oh, shit, they’re going to topple this over on us.
So they waved a little white flag and said all right, all right, women can have human rights. As a treat.
Women went yay, we won, and patriarchy wiped the sweat off its brow and went back to oppressing us.
The medical system predicates men’s health over women’s health. The mental health complex tends to diagnose women with mental illness—disorders of the mind or emotions. Employers have biases about women not “committing ” to their jobs, instead taking time to parent. And they refuse to provide proper parental leaves, daycare, or other support.
All of this supports patriarchy, because it usually forces women to act in ways that keep them dependent upon men.
And we can see it operating in the cultural arena. Here, it’s even more subtle. It’s often blinded accepted—just look at romance! Look at how Christian Grey is accepted as a “hero,” even though he abuses Ana Steele. Look at how stalking is routinely presented as romantic persistence, until the woman “gives in” or “realizes” how much she loves the supposed hero. You can even see how kidnapping is presented as a great way to kick off a romantic relationship between a man and a woman.
When Protection Becomes Abuse
As I said, in his benign form, the alpha male is actually kind of a noble dude. He has a heart of gold, and he genuinely does want to protect the heroine. He does love her, and he goes out of his way to keep her “safe.”
But there is a line here, one that is routinely crossed. Edward Cullen’s stalking of Bella Swan in Twilight is presented as “romantic,” particularly when Edward’s presence wards off attackers who meant to harm Bella. Edward is presented as a “hero” for “protecting” her.
The narrative asks us not to look too closely or ask what the fuck he was doing there. He was stalking her. He happened to be in the right place at the right time specifically because he put himself there.
Yet this kind of paternalistic regard is often used to control women, to justify men’s controlling actions. “I was just looking out for you”—asking you not to go out late at night, to not talk to your ex, to order a salad even when you want a burger. All of these acts can seem kind and caring and, yes, that they are potentially looking out for your “wellbeing.” But repeatedly, they become a pattern of control that is abusive.
In the words of Aretha, all I want is a little respect here. In the book I was reading, the hero had no respect for the heroine. She fought him; she repeatedly told him no. He still did what he wanted anyway. He saw her as a possession, something he could own, and something that he should. His “love” for her was predicated on having her like some kind of trophy.
That is … really gross, actually, when you get down to the bottom of it.
I’m not setting a terribly high bar when I ask that what I want from any male hero—be it an “alpha” male or a “cinnamon roll”—is a level of respect for his love interest. He listens to her. He shows compassion or care. And yes, maybe he still wants to protect, but he does it in a way that showcases his respect for her as a human being, as an equal.
She is not an object for him to possess. He doesn’t need to engage in a pissing war, staking his territory. He doesn’t lose his mind when she talks to another man, because he isn’t insecure about his position as the love of her life.
Seriously. That is not a high bar here, folks. And we should demand that, at minimum.
So what I’m asking—nay, begging—is for us to keep those power dynamics in mind whenever we write “alpha male” heroes. Because jealousy and possession may look like love on the surface, but without consent, respect, and negotiation of power dynamics, they’re actually a lot more like abuse.