Omegaverse is one of my go-to worldbuilding tools. It’s almost infinitely flexible, and that makes it fun to explore. Even if there are some staple “tropes” in the category, the worldbuilding doesn’t have to feel stale. That, in turn, means it’s never boring to read or write in this kind of world.
That said, there are “building blocks” we tend to use. Some of them are more essential to the genre than others. In turn, though, authors can accidentally end up adopting messaging that they maybe don’t intend or aren’t even aware of.
One of the more concerning messages that can be embedded in omegaverse is bioessentialism.
What Is Bioessentialism?
We can sum bioessentialism up in a simple phrase: “biology is destiny.”
What does that mean? In essence, it means human beings are bound by their biology. In some senses, this is true. Humans can’t see ultraviolet light, whereas honeybees can. The fact that we only see about seven “bands” of light across the spectrum is a function of our biology.
Biology as destiny might also apply to, say, an amazing athlete who excels at their sport. Michael Phelps is a great example. The man is basically built to be a swimmer, so it’s not exactly surprising he’s good at swimming.
Here, however, we discover the limitations of “biology as destiny” doctrine. If Michael Phelps is bound to be a great athlete because of his biology, does that mean the rest of us with subpar swimming genetics are going to suck?
Not necessarily. Practice and hard work account for something in sports, or no one would ever be able to improve their skill. A lot of what we call “talent” is like that—they’re skills we choose to hone and develop. We might have some natural aptitude, but with practice and hard work, we can get better.
The Nature vs. Nurture Debate
Bioessentialism might say that’s not possible: if you’re not good at math, then, you’ll always be bad at math. This is problematic when we apply it to people with disabilities. Is someone with dyslexia always going to struggle with reading?
Bioessentialism would suggest yes. For example, there’s evidence those with dyslexia have some sort of genetic “defect” in their visual system. Since the issue is in the genes, then this person can’t possible overcome that.
Yet there are many other factors at play here, such as parental and school support, which ties into economics. Dyslexia is actually debated—some people are skeptical about its existence. They note that it only seems to show up in affluent white children. Black students are simply not diagnosed. Parents of colour will sometimes deny that their children have learning disabilities to avoid stigma.
Outcomes between these two groups would be disparate, even before we consider economic status. The white children are diagnosed at higher rates. But they’re also likely to attend schools with better supports. Their parents are more likely to be supportive, to provide books in the home, and to read for pleasure themselves. There is more economic access to things like books and tutors.
Black students may not have the same access to books in the home, nor do they always have the same support from teachers. They may not have the same access to other supports, like tutors. In some cases, students may not have a supportive parent in the home—or they may have a parent who wishes they could support them more.
In this case, race, class, and other factors all muddy the debate between nurture and nature. Bioessentialism wants us to believe that none of the nurture stuff matters—only the nature is important.
Romancelandia Meets Bioessentialism
Bioessentialism plays out across many different intersections of identity: I mentioned race and class already. Geography also plays a role, as does education. (Dis)ability is clearly another arena.
And, of course, there’s the issue of sex and gender. This is perhaps bioessentialism’s favorite arena to play in. After all, who would argue against the idea of male and female humans, or male and female lions? We can see the evidence, after all: male lions have manes, whereas the female lions do not. Female humans develop permanently enlarged mammary tissue. Their pelvises have a different shape.
Female humans also tend to be smaller than male humans. In birds, sexual dimorphism might look like the brightly colored peacock and the peahen, who is comparatively drab.
Obviously, in nature, male and female are different. Bioessentialism takes this idea and applies it to human beings: males are like this, females are like that.
This is all baked into our DNA, which dictates how we behave. So of course a male human will smell “masculine,” while a female one will be small and curvy and soft and oh-so-feminine.
Romance novels tend to be terrible perpetrators of bioessentialist messaging. The last lines I wrote there could have been lifted from almost any romance novel. Romance relies on these descriptions to reassure readers that the heroes are “real men” and the heroines “real women.”
Yet bioessentialism runs up against huge problems, both because it equates biological sex with destiny and gender with biological sex.
If you’ve ever studied biology or medicine or even people in any depth, then you know that it’s not necessarily true that everyone is born male or female. That is, there are intersex people, whose DNA makes them not strictly “male” or “female” in the usual sense.
Even then, intersex conditions aren’t the only ways that bioessentialism can be disproved. Take, for instance, older peahens who develop male plumage as their estrogen declines. These hens have the chromosome combination one would expect in “female” birds, but they look like male birds.
Even these simple examples prove that we can’t 1:1 chromosomes and biological sex. Nor can we say chromosomes absolutely control behavior then—especially not complex human behavior.
That’s not to say there is no effect—but there is a whole complex play of various genes.
And that’s to say nothing of environmental conditions—the nurture aspects we were talking about before.
This is where bioessentialism becomes sinister. It presumes that because someone was born “male” or “female,” they will act in particular ways. Thus we get to ideas like female humans are naturally more submissive or male humans are naturally more aggressive—and if someone doesn’t behave the way we expect, there’s obviously something wrong with them.
Omegaverse Often Presents Biology as Destiny
Understanding what bioessentialism posits and how easily it’s disproved, we can see why it’s a problem.
And that’s precisely why it’s a problem when it crops up in omegaverse stories. And it crops up there more often than most of us would care to admit.
It’s Only Natural!
In romance, bioessentialism is often present in the idea that it’s “only natural” a man and a woman fall in love. It shows up in every mention of the hero’s “masculine” hands or his “manly” jawline. And bioessentialism is certainly at play whenever we hear about “womanly curves” or how naturally the heroine “fits” into the hero’s arms.
In omegaverse, bioessentialism isn’t always quite as obvious—in part because omegaverse is often a queer worldbuilding tool. Yet whenever a story introduces a “male omega,” we’re at risk of entering bioessentialist territory.
What Makes a Man?
“Male omegas” often have stereotypically “feminine” features. They may be smaller than alphas; they may be “dainty” or “pretty.”
In a lot of stories, male omegas also undergo heat—like female omegas—and they may even be able to carry children. In some cases, there will be no “females” whatsoever. When that happens, alphas and omegas take up the mantel of “male” and “female” respectively. And in many, many cases, the omega will be overpowered by their own nature, being overtaken by a powerful desire to mate.
Some stories challenge bioessentialist messaging when this comes up. Omegas might resist their “nature.” This is often only temporary; nature usually wins out in the end. (I’ve done this myself.) In come cases, authors challenge the stereotypes: an omega might struggle in a society that wants to confine them to the home or thinks they’re only good for mating. (This is something else I’ve explored—which is where I say omegaverse is a hugely flexible trope.)
The alphas were the same: they were imbued with a sense of protectiveness, and they were physically stronger. They were also naturally possessive of their omegas.
The problem is more with the stories that don’t challenge this bioessentialist messaging—or worse, give in to it and promote it.
While nature and nurture is very difficult to detangle, anything that suggests omegas will always behave like X or Y is an issue. I recently read some older omegaverse fiction, and it surprised me to see how much shorthand was in this text. Omegas wanted their alphas, they want to please, and so on and so forth.
Again, the biggest issue was more that the book never challenged these stereotypes. This is just how it is.
Pushing Back on Nature
When we get into something like Leta Blake’s Heat of Love series, we can see these attitudes and stereotypes still exist. But almost every omega we meet—and many of the alphas too—challenge narratives about what is “natural” and “normal.”
In some cases, of course, we may not want to challenge or engage bioessentialism. Perhaps that is just how it is in this world we’re creating in our books. Maybe there’s an explanation for it, or maybe there’s a reason we want to explore a world where bioessentialism is, in fact, the order of the day.
Unfortunately, most of the texts that simply accept bioessentialist messages probably aren’t doing much work in that arena. Instead, they’re likely unwitting conduits for a common message.
Like many other aspects of our current social framework, bioessentialist messaging is rarely challenged and rarely called out precisely because it is everywhere. It appears normal—or, perhaps, completely natural. That’s the trick of it—it’s no more natural or true than the idea that our environments don’t affect us.
Yet by being pervasive, bioessentialism gives itself an air of legitimacy. This is why it’s important to challenge it and question it in our worldbuilding—especially when we’re dealing with an inherently queer trope like omegaverse. While omegaverse dives deep into biology, that gives us all the more reason to push back on the idea that nature will always triumph over nurture.