Romance and the Appeal of the Alpha Male

Romance is a genre that I have read the maximum number of books in. For the longest time I was leery of bringing this fact into conversations with other readers. Over the last few years this has changed.

A part of the reason is because I have come to believe that more than the inherent complexity of the narrative itself (the lack of which is an accusation often leveled at the romance genre), it’s about the individual who’s reading the said narrative. Engaging meaningfully with a piece of text, while being a function of the text itself, is also very much about the person who is involved in the act of reading.

So when Michelle Sagara wrote this article on Alpha males over at Dear Author, I found myself contemplating my own enjoyment of this archetype. I am pretty sure that I could not abide by this kind of a person in real life. But I’m interested in the conversation that takes place after I accept that I know the difference between fantasy and reality. I love what Liz McCausland said about this:

There are two things people say when discussion of this kind of hero comes up:

  • I guess I’m just too feminist, but it bothers me.
  • Of course in real life I’d run screaming from this guy/get a restraining order, but swoooon, he’s so hot. (otherwise expressed as “women can tell the difference between fantasy and reality”).

These are both pretty much conversation-stoppers, in part because they are personal. They make this an issue simply of reader beliefs and fantasies (which of course it is, in part) rather than of broader cultural ideals, messages, or scripts, which maybe can be discussed more neutrally.

What she said.

I can see why a person might be reluctant to continue with the conversation—they might believe that there’s a need to defend their particular preference(s) which in turn could trigger all sorts of defense mechanisms, bringing any further interaction to a complete halt.

And that makes me wonder what the person who initiates such a discussion can do to create a space which disarms the need for any such defensive tactics, a space where one feels safe to explore why a thing that is comfortable is comfortable; what lies at the basis of that enjoyment; what biases and assumptions inform that enjoyment.

As far as the alpha hero is concerned Miss Sagara defines the alpha hero as one who is basically comfortable in his own skin. (Or that’s what I took away from it, anyway). Therein lies the appeal of the alpha hero for me—the fact that someone that sure in his sense of self falls for you is not only incredibly sexy but also makes one feel really really good about oneself.

I enjoy the alpha hero type probably because for the longest time I had the shittiest sense of self-worth. And having my then boyfriend and now husband believe in me was definitely a boost to my battered sense of confidence. What I have come to realize though is that while my husband is always there to support me, any lasting change has to be driven by me.

In other words, while the transformation of the heroine may begin with the someone “powerful” falling for her, at some point, she will need to take the reins in her own hands.

I also realize that such a change can be facilitated by really anyone in one’s life. Within the limits of genre romance, the hero (or the heroine) is the likeliest candidate to affect such a change but they definitely are not the only ones who can do so.

And this brings me to a major reservation that I have when I read stories with alpha heroes (despite my enjoyment of them). Instead of allowing the heroine to develop at her own pace and rhythm, a lot of times, alpha heroes have a tendency to bulldozer through and sort of take control of the narrative. This always makes me question the tenability of such a relationship.

But going back to what I said earlier, as I am writing this, I am very cognizant of the fact that some woman out there might like what I find questionable and question what I like. And maybe that’s ok. Maybe I have to find a way to be ok with a position so starkly different from mine before I can understand where they’re coming from.

If romance really is the literature of women, written by women then shouldn’t it be a space where every woman can explore what it means to be her?

the love of a lifetime

It started with ‘The Children of Kidlin’ when I was all of eight. It was the middle of summer vacations. I had just finished my class 3 examinations. My mother gave me a two-in-one story book by Enid Blyton: The Children of Kidlin and one more story the details of which now escape me. I’d never heard of Enid Blyton and wasn’t quite sure what to make of this gift. Little was I to know that I was about to embark on a love affair which was to last a life time. Or that I would gorge on Enid Blytons one-after-another for the next 4-5 years, pestering everyone I knew to give me nothing but an Enid Blyton book for my birthday.

When I think back to all those years ago what I remember the most vividly is the feeling of gliding into another world as soon as I started reading – a world that had seemed as far away from the reality I inhabited as possible. It was a world full of children who braved spies and storms, and of children who gathered together for midnight feasts. It was a world of picturesque little villages dotting the English countryside and of my favourite character, Fredrick Algernon Trotville or F.A.T-ty as he was christened by his friends. Fatty, who effortlessly outwitted the village constable Mr. Goon, solving one mystery after another and leaving poor Mr. Goon looking like a bumbling old fool.

As I’ve stepped into the world of grown-ups the stories and the worlds they play out in are not so innocuous anymore – shades of heartbreak and fear and failure colour them often. Yet, these fictional worlds continue to suck me into them; at times offering solace from my own concerns and anxieties and at times inciting in me another sort of tension as I worry about the fate of a particular character. In fact there are so many instances when I am unaware of the specifics of what awaits me inside a story. It could be a fast-paced adventure sweeping me along, depositing me in the middle of a gritty climax where ordinary boys and girls become heroes and heroines fighting tyranny and control (like The Hunger Games trilogy) or it could be about the problems and the mundane concerns which plague people as they go about the business of living their lives (like The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series).

It does not matter.

As I’m forced to see the world through the eyes of a character I have trouble warming up to, I learn compassion. And the fact that everyone has a reason for acting the way they do. I learn about the newspaper business and about the struggles which accompany the old giving way to new. I’m able to see the stupidity of not saying, “I love you” to people you love because of pride and ego. I come to know about the Incas of Peru and experience the heart-aches of being the odd one out. I find myself empathizing with and cheering on the fascinating women who lived in the nineteenth century. I feel comforted by the quirkiness and whimsy nature of our species.

Philosophies of life and the mysteries of the universe; a look into the human psyche and a glimpse into tinders which spark war; the tides of fate and the power to shape your own destiny; love which catches you unaware and hatred which has no reason; grand passions and the everydayness of our lives; social injustices and the seemingly simple gestures which spark revolutionary changes – all this and much more have I encountered inside the words of the bound pages.

And this is the reason why I love the written word so deeply – it not only allows me to escape into a world not my own but also allows me to re-emerge from it with a deeper understanding of who I am and the world I inhabit.