The Cultural Gutter

hey, there's something shiny down there...

"We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars." -- Oscar Wilde

Alpha Bits

Chris Szego
Posted August 7, 2008

alpha.jpgIt kind of goes without saying that the Romance genre is full of tropes and archetypes (though just to be clear: the happy ending is not archetype, but architecture).  Some come in plot form: the rags-to-riches story, for instance, a modern take on the Cinderella mythos.  Sometimes they pertain to character:  the driven career woman forced to reassess her priorities, or the survivor of a bad marriage learning to trust again.  Occasionally character archetypes can read less like original patterns than faded photocopies, and stock characters become exhausted pastiches.  One character archetype that’s occasionally misrepresented and often misunderstood – though never out of favour – is the character of the alpha male.

What is the alpha male?  In Romance terms, he’s the quintessential tough-guy hero.  He’s the man with command presence, the one who gets things done.  He has abundant physical and mental strength, and tends to use both in his everyday life.  Gorgeous isn’t the same thing as attractive, and though he may not be the first, he is definitely the second.  Alpha heroes are cops and firefighters, cutthroat businessmen and land-owning dukes.  Men respect them and women want them.  They are the top of the food chain – and they know it.

LindaHoward.jpgWhich, frankly, should be thoroughly unappealing.  We know that power corrupts, and we’ve all seen the damage that results when cops and businessmen go bad (though these days maybe not so much with the dukes).  But in the Romance genre, the strength and drive of the alpha male is always, always coupled with something the real world often lacks:  a bone-deep sense of responsibility.  The alpha male knows himself accountable, and considers himself in service, to the world… and especially to those in his immediate vicinity. 

Hey, look at that: the brutish thug just got more appealing.  Competence itself is attractive: competence wielded by someone on behalf of those who need it is doubly so.  But that isn’t the whole, or even the main, reason the alpha male is so popular in the genre.  There’s also the primal fascination of the power fantasy he represents.  And no, I don’t mean that kind of fantasy.  It’s not about sex; it’s about power.  Specifically the kind of power that love can have, even over a spirit as indomitable as the alpha male’s.  Because that straight-ahead tough guy, defender of the downtrodden and all-round swashbuckler, is incomplete without his heroine – and he knows that too.

Think about that, the scope of it.  The human male is the most dangerous animal on earth.  He is capable of the kind of destruction that makes mere earthquakes and tsunami seem like they’re not even trying.  The alpha male is a particularly vigorous example of his species.  But his goal is to protect, not destroy.  And in the right hands,  he will bend.  He will change.

He doesn’t undergo a complete personality change, of course.  But when an alpha hero meets his heroine, the original immovable object recognizes the pull of the irresistable force.  And he likes it enough that he chooses to bend.  Think taming a tiger is tough?  I’ve said this before, and it’s still true: the central fantasy of the modern romance is not that women want to be dominated, but that men are capable of change.

To fully experience the alpha male hero, my number one recommendation has to be Linda Howard.  Her heroes epitomize the alpha male, though I’d suggest trying her earlier novels first.  Dream Man, for instance (she’s a psychic;  he’s a detective;  there’s a serial killer), or After The Night (woman rises out of poverty, and meets her hometown hero again as an adult.  But more complicated).  Her McKenzie’s Mountain reinvented the alpha hero for the category audience, and the follow up, McKenzie’s Mission was also a winner.  Also good was Loving Evangeline if you can find a copy — but for the love of all you hold dear, avoid the made-for-TV film.  Not only is it truly terrible, but its resemblance to Howard’s story ends with the characters’ names.

~~~

Chris Szego is attracted to competence, and occasionally envious.

Comments

One Response to “Alpha Bits”

  1. Carol Borden
    August 13th, 2008 @ 2:51 pm

    “I’ve said this before, and it’s still true: the central fantasy of the modern romance is not that women want to be dominated, but that men are capable of change.”
    that’s interesting.

Leave a Reply





  • Support The Gutter

  • The Book!

  • Of Note Elsewhere

    At New York Magazine, David Wallace-Wells writes about bees, colony collapse disorder and beekeeper Dave Hackenberg. “It’s been a long decade for bees. We’ve been panicking about them nonstop since 2006, when beekeeper Dave Hackenberg inspected 2,400 hives wintering in Florida and found 400 of them abandoned — totally empty. American beekeepers had experienced dramatic die-offs before, as recently as the previous winter in California and in regular bouts with a deadly bug called the varroa mite since the 1980s. But those die-offs would at least produce bodies pathologists could study. Here, the bees had just disappeared. In the U.K., they called it Mary Celeste syndrome, after the merchant ship discovered off the Azores in 1872 with not a single passenger aboard. The bees hadn’t even scrawled CROATOAN in honey on the door on their way out of the hive.”

    ~

    Andrew Nette has a pair of interesting pieces on pulp you might be interested in. First, he writes about “the New Pulp” and a bit about Fifty Shades of Gray in “Fifty Shades of Pulp.” Then he writes about pulp and literacy and furthering social advancement in “Pulp and Circumstance.”  “Most people view pulp as either exploitative lowbrow culture or highly collectable retro artefact. Yet pulp has a secret history which Rabinowitz’s book uncovers. Her central thesis is that cheap, mass-produced pulp novels not only provided entertainment and cheap titillating thrills, but also brought modernism to the American people, democratising reading and, in the process, furthering culture and social enlightenment.”

    ~

    The Projection Booth interviews actor Ed Asner.

    ~

    Transcript from BAFTA’s tribute to director Johnnie To, “Johnnie To: A Life In Pictures.” It’s a great interview with To about his films and process. “Like when I made The Mission I didn’t have a script. It was 1999 and I didn’t have any money so we went to Taiwan and they gave us very little money to hurry up and make a film, so without any script we just started making it. And after 19 days we made the film.” (Thanks to the Heroic Sisterhood!)

    ~

    A gallery of sweet geeky art from Native American artist, Jeffrey Veregge. “My origins are not supernatural, nor have they been enhanced by radioactive spiders. I am simply a Native American artist and writer whose creative mantra in best summed up with a word from my tribe’s own language as: ‘taʔčaʔx̣ʷéʔtəŋ,’ which means ‘get into trouble.'”

    ~

    John Reppion continues his series on English magic and Jonathan Strange And Mr. Norrell. Next up, “Away With The Fairies.”

    ~

  • Spilling into Twitter

  • Obsessive?

    Then you might be interested in knowing you can subscribe to our RSS feed, find us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter or Tumblr.

    -------

  • Weekly Notifications

  • What We’re Talking About

  • Thanks To

    No Media Kings hosts this site, and Wordpress autoconstructs it.

  • %d bloggers like this: