Stealing Insights Into the Alpha

By Laura Vivanco on

I was so taken with one of Liz McCausland's recent posts that I decided I'd copy and paste her conclusions into a post here so that I can find it again easily if I need it for future reference:

The possessive, jealous, controlling alpha hero is [...] a literary “symptom” with multiple causes. There are a lot of ways to interpret, experience and think about this kind of hero. Some are positive, some negative. I don’t think any of these are right or wrong, provable or disprovable. The best, deepest understanding of the role of this hero in romance fiction will come when we hold them all open as possibilities in a discussion, even though they are in tension with each other, rather than letting any one reading dominate. Here are some of the things we could say about the stalker-alpha:

  • The hero’s possessive, jealous controlling nature is symbolic of his passion for the heroine; it shows how much he cares.
  • The fact that such a strong man surrenders to his love for her (particularly if he’s a misogynist who disdains other women) gives the heroine power over him.
  • The fact that a stalkery, controlling hero is ultimately tamed and domesticated by the heroine is a safe way of exploring and containing the threat real life men can pose for women.
  • The dominant, protective male is an archetype, and romance as a genre trades in archetypes.
  • The alpha (and the passive, submissive heroine he’s sometimes paired with) is a reflection of cultural views and ideals of masculinity, some of which can be sexist and/or harmful to both men and women.
  • The stalker-misogynist asshole who is tamed by love perpetuates the misguided view that the love of a good woman can “fix” a man, a view which leads to a lot of unhappy and sometimes abusive relationships.

The power of literature is that the hero can be and mean all these things at the same time. But that’s also the danger of it, and why, in my view, we should ask questions about our reading.

It seems to me that a lot of discussions of popular romance end with generalisations being made about both the novels and their readers. While I can understand the appeal of making generalisations such as "romance is empowering" or "it is misogynistic hate speech," the characters and plots in all romances are not identical; the novels that stick in my mind generally do so because their characters, and the way those characters interact, feel unique. That being so, the context in which one hero's jealous, controlling, stalkerish behaviour occurs may be so different from that in another novel that the two heroes can't be interpreted in exactly the same way. Furthermore, readers are not homogenous; something which feels empowering to one reader may indeed feel like "hate speech" to another.

Liz's list of possible interpretations of the " possessive, jealous, controlling alpha hero" demonstrates the need to tread carefully when analysing romances, and to accept the possibility of multiple, complex readings and understandings of popular romance fiction (and its readers). It's  the type of analysis of which we need to see more. As Pamela Regis stated in her address to the 2010 IASPR conference:

our discipline values complexity in its study texts.  [...]

We owe it to the romance novel to make overt and to defend our conclusion that the romance is simple, if this is, in fact, our assessment. Surely, we owe the romance at least an acknowledgment that many readers, writers, and, yes, even some critics do find the romance novel complex, and we further owe it to the genre to make overt the value judgment that is a part of this topos—that simplicity is a “much-maligned state.” [...] I also contend that a critic confronted with a text that she considers simple should be careful of the conclusions that she draws in working on that text. I would argue that in assuming that the texts are simple, we flirt with what to me always seems like a dangerous idea—that it is not just the texts that are simple, but that the readers of the texts must, by extension, be simple, as well, or else why would they read these texts? [...]

A corollary: We owe the romance novel a good-faith effort to uncover the complexity that our discipline values so highly.


McCausland, Liz. “The Overdetermined Hero.” Something More. 3 September 2012.

Regis, Pamela. “What Do Critics Owe the Romance? Keynote Address at the Second Annual Conference of the International Association for the Study of Popular Romance.” Journal of Popular Romance Studies 2.1 (2011).