Before I begin this blog, let me direct you to a few pieces of information:
- Sarah MacLean’s article about how she re-wrote Day of the Duchess after the 2016 election. She discusses the alpha male trope in romance, from a mostly positive perspective, and then how she had to do something different in light of the very toxic “alpha” male culture that is very real, and present, and damaging in our world right now.
- Adam Ruins Everything: Alpha Males
I’ve said this here and elsewhere on the internet–one of my “to be written” story ideas is about a wolf shifter pack that is based on actual science and studies of wolves. Pack structure would be familial, and the “alpha” (aka Dad) would be the one who plays with the young, makes sure the smallest members of the pack are fed, models good wolfly behaviors, accepts his mate and older children’s input on pack decisions, and exerts order through respect and assertion of boundaries, not threats of violence and subjugation of anyone not as strong as him. In situations where packs would need to combine for some purpose, duties would be shared according to ability and proximity, and while decisions are ultimately up to the alphas, they do what is best for the pack, and the alpha in larger packs isn’t always the biggest and strongest. Mating is generally monogamous (although situations can lead to changes in pairings, so they don’t always mate for life), but there are also polygamous groups.
Also they would be aligned with raven shifters who are their allies.
But I digress.
The point of this blog is to talk about the alpha male in romance.
In Sarah MacLean’s article for the Washington Post linked above, she writes about the kind of alpha I actually like–the one who was always good, caring, and compassionate, but was socialized not to show it. The one who was taught incorrectly and needs to find his mate to learn that he is wrong.
The pitfall there is that some authors treat his love interest as some sort of singular oddity among women, and so when he comes to respect her and treat her as an equal, he doesn’t have to extend that respect to other “less worthy” women. Not everyone falls into the trap, but I’ve seen it happen, and if you’re writing a story like this, make sure it doesn’t happen to you.
In general, though, I can live with that sort of alpha. I wouldn’t want to be in a relationship with him (MacLean’s assertion that he contributes to the culture of toxic masculinity is spot-on), and I don’t think he exists (or if he does, he’s very rare), but I can stand to read about him without throwing my tablet at the wall or wondering what in the hell his love interest sees in him.
Instead of an alpha male, however, some authors write an alphahole.
Alphahole is a mash-up of “alpha male” and “asshole” and it’s exactly what you’re thinking. Characters like Christian Grey live solidly in this category. Manipulative, gaslighting, controlling, abusive (physically, emotionally, etc.), jealous, obsessive…I could go on.
These are the characters who are supposed to make us swoon and want to be taken care of, but who are, in truth, terrible caretakers. They see their women as possessions, not people, and you can’t truly care for a person you consider an object to own.
I want to look at that last sentence a little more closely. I will admit that one thing that I like about romance is when characters claim a little bit of ownership over each other. I always want that to be equal–they belong to each other, not one owned by the other–but I do like it. And I recognize that as potentially problematic. But I think it’s a matter of degree. When people agree to be in a closed relationship, they are essentially giving ownership of some things over to the other person–usually including sexual activity (masturbation not included). But agreeing to only have sex with one person and allowing them to “own” that aspect of us, for whatever length of time, isn’t the same thing as being owned by that person. Sex isn’t the entirety of our lives, and in other areas, our mates shouldn’t rule us.
But that’s exactly what the alphahole wants. He wants to rule his lover and decide everything they do. Ostensibly, this is to keep them “safe,” but really it’s about control. Their lovers aren’t free, and if they aren’t free, that isn’t love.
Don’t blame the wolves for your alphahole. Wolves aren’t like that. They may (usually) mate for life, but they don’t control each other. Mated pairs work together for their packs. They survive because they are stronger as a team.
If you want to take something from the wolves and apply it to romance narratives, that’s what I would recommend: love is stronger when everyone is equal, contributing toward a mutual goal.
Please, no more alphaholes!