Rosa Marchisella is the author of the gripping "Touch of Insanity" series and the bone-chilling novella "The Greatest of Books."
As an author, the topic of “alpha” male characters comes up a lot. There’s a love-hate relationship with these types of characters because the harmful portrayal of alpha men creates the false impression that women pretend to want a “nice guy” but secretly lust for the “bad boy”.
I despise the toxic alpha male portrayed in media and absolutely refuse to write my male love interests in that way.
A True Alpha
A true alpha is a person with strong leadership and communication skills who cares about and respects others, especially when dealing with their loved ones. It’s an innate part of their make-up to protect and provide for, which automatically negates toxic traits seen in modern romance to cross lines, put others in comprising positions, or humiliate them.
That’s how I want my men IRL and that’s how I write them. Yes, the bossy attitude, stubbornness, and urge to be possessive are there, but a healthy adult learns boundaries, self control, compromise, and gracefully acceptance in the face the rejection. And, yes; there can be manhandling – with consent in a way that’s fun and non-threatening. But the real power of alphas (male or female) is that they make others feel safe and empowered to be their true selves. They push us in good ways to be our best.
This is why it’s so insulting and frustrating when romance authors or film makers advance the destructive notion that women really want narcissistic, angry, abusive dominant men. Men who don’t take “no” for an answer when to comes to women’s free will. Men who stalk and badger women until they finally say “yes”. It’s one of the reasons a lot of people get turned off by the romance genre.
Toxic and abusive behavior is NOT appealing to healthy, well-adjusted women. Unfortunately, the constant barrage of the negative alpha male imagery over the years has warped society into accepting this type of behavior as “normal”.
How did the romance genre get to this point?
Firstly, social evolution issues come in to play. Just like the uproar about how the song, Baby, It’s Cold Outside appears as male pressure to our modern perspective, older romance stories can incite similar indignation. Keep in mind women’s rights were limited and sexuality was taboo. “Feminine wiles” were required to manipulate – er, direct the situation in the heroine’s favor. Not just in fiction, but in their real lives as well.
In the song’s example, the woman must feign protest at the man’s advances, even if she’s interested. Looking eager would give her a “bad reputation”. Her father wouldn’t be pleased. But if her intended amour insists, he assumes responsibility for her well being, placating both her father and society. Societal constraints required women to “be convinced” when they wanted to move forward with a relationship and be extremely clear in their rejection when they did not.
This expected flirtation was vastly different from a woman who isn’t interested being hounded relentlessly or forced to stay. Unfortunately, it’s confusing to the modern audience. Many men still believe when a woman politely rejects them or “Lets Them Down Easy”, it’s part of some courtship game where she needs to be convinced.
It’s a serious enough issue that Gavin De Becker, security specialist to governments, large corporations, and public figures, addresses it in his book, The Gift of Fear which deals with understanding and predicting violence.
“Looking for Mr. Right has taken on far greater significance than getting rid of Mr. Wrong, so women are not taught how to get out of relationships,” Mr. De Becker states in his book, continuing that one rule “applies to all types of unwanted pursuit:
Do Not Negotiate.
Once a woman has made the decision that she doesn't want a relationship with a particular man, it needs to be said one time, explicitly. Almost any contact after that rejection will seem as a negotiation.”
And, that’s exactly what our society has taught most men while training women that it’s better to let men “down easy” so they don’t come off as a “bitch” and evoke retaliation.
Romance of the 70’s and 80’s
Even romance written in the 70’s and 80’s appear primitive in many ways. Award-winning romance author RITA finalist, Karen Harbaugh explains: “There’s a certain historical displacement when you read [older romance] from today’s perspective. What was very, very progressive in the 1970’s and 1980’s would seem backward today. That the heroine might actually like sex was considered shocking at that time, for instance.
“But the real fantasy in many romance novels was that instead of being run over by men and society in general—and keep in mind that back then, women couldn’t legally get a loan without some man in her family signing it for her, among other societal constraints—she had the man at her feet by the end of the story. Oh, she might start out being constrained by him and society in some way. He might even be a jerk. But that’s not how it ends. He ends up believing her wants, needs, and life are as important if not more important than his. She’s conquered him, and he is, in a way, symbolic of patriarchal society. It was, and still is, often a central theme in romance novels.”
These older approaches to dealing with romance, sex, and, in a sense, women’s rights, have become twisted in many modern romance tales. They’re used to fuel the unhealthy (and sometimes dangerous) fallacies that women secretly like guys who treat them like trash or worse, that a woman can change a man with her love in some misguided Beauty and the Beast fantasy.
Being someone’s savior, suffering for someone to make them better, and changing them simply by being our good selves, or bringing out their hidden “heart of gold” are some of the most familiar fantasies in romance. The line between make believe and reality tend to be forgotten when it comes to romance so these notions have contributed to many women being in abusive relationships in hopes they can change the one they love.
Another factor which shapes the romance genre is the stunted mentality our society’s been conditioned to have about sex, sexuality, and what’s “acceptable” for women. Women mustn’t be sensual or flirtatious, otherwise they’re viewed negatively. Women are not supposed to enjoy or desire sex except to procreate. Women shouldn’t engage in or, heaven forbid, suggest anything considered “kinky”, wild, or creative. So many restrictions placed on women’s wants, needs, and appearances!
Consider the strong reactions of embarrassment, horror, disdain, and/or avoidance many people have toward the Kama Sutra which deals with all aspects of sexual life, extending beyond just the techniques and positions, to include philosophy on ethics and aesthetics, sexuality, and emotional fulfillment. Women still face outside restrictions on what we can do with our bodies. We are legally limited in our ability to gain medical help for our sexual health and access education on our biology and sexuality. We are forced to have a certain number of children and gain permission from our male partners before having our tubes tied and are shamed about reproduction decisions. All of these things are a big indicator of how repressed healthy sexuality is in our society and it’s reflected in our modern day romance fiction.
Women are told toxic men are sexy and who we should aspire to be desired by. Our heroines must have some douche push her boundaries and show her that she loves it. The toxic alpha gives her permission to explore and (secretly) enjoy what society has told her she’s not allowed to want or like.
Toxic alphas are a given in dark and bully romance where the entire relationship is unhealthy, and motorcycle club romance where the men are literally criminals. But I cringe when I see this type of lead male in steamy romance, paranormal romance (especially if they involve shifters), reverse harem, YA, and other sub-genres. Even BDSM and erotic don’t require a noxious lead and it feeds into the negative views of unconventional sexual expression.
In my dragon shifter romance, Queen of New Orleans (under a pen name), both romantic interests are alpha men. I use this fact to showcase the difference between an alpha who creates a safe environment for our leading lady and one whose behavior becomes obsessive, frightening, and even dangerous. I’ve given the second alpha the redemption of being under the influence of outside factors which they resolve, but the contrast in behavior and the environment they create for themselves and the object of their affection is harsh. Just as it is in the real world.
A dominant man can be in control, manhandle, be intimidating—and still NOT be an abusive jerk. In my books, I support and endorse the idea of healthy alpha men by portraying leading men and love interests as men we’d be proud of, wouldn’t have to defend to our friends or family, and who empower us as women while still being pure alphas. In real life, I raise my son to respect boundaries and be aware of how men’s actions affect the women he loves and respects, and my daughter to recognize toxic male behavior, think critically about the male figures presented in media, and clearly enforce her boundaries.
In stories and real life, if a man isn’t behaving in a healthy and mature manner, alpha or not, he isn’t a love interest. He’s a life lesson on what to avoid.
© 2021 Rosa Marchisella
dashingscorpio from Chicago on June 23, 2021:
"A true alpha is a person with strong leadership and communication skills who cares about and respects others, especially when dealing with their loved ones."
- Sounds more like wishful thinking. :)
Most alpha males tend to be narcissistic and their leadership usually comes by way of demand or a power grab much like you see in nature when one wolf takes over leadership of the pack.
Essentially he takes what he wants and intimidates those who disagree with him. Historically (women) have always been attracted to the "top dog", king, knight, prince, captain of the football team, leader of the gang. If (other men) "bow down to him" or admire him; many women want to be his queen, princess, first lady, or even mistress. She's "somebody" because of who (he) is. Other women envy her and wish they were in her shoes.
She will be protected and taken care of. That's the thinking.
We've all heard the old cliché: "Nice guys finish last."
However no one has ever heard of the LONELY: "bad boy", "player", "Alpha male", narcissist, rock star, or gangster.
Is that a coincidence? No!
"Women are told toxic men are sexy and who we should aspire to be desired by."
In reality parents try to steer their daughters AWAY from the "bad boy". Many women to choose to (rebel) against their parents going with the guy who does whatever (he) wants. They admire his "swagger" and the fact he lives his life on (his) own terms.
Romance novels and Hollywood movies have sold society on the notion that "fireworks" is what creates love between two people. Relationships which consists of steamy sex, fighting, jealousy, possessiveness, drama, heartache, obstacles, and breakups are viewed as being the "ultimate romance story" if in the end the couple gets back together. No one wants to buy a "smooth sailing" love story.
On some level many people expect love to be a "roller coaster ride".
Some even question if they are "in love" when there is no "drama", insecurities, fighting, jealousy, instability, unpredictability, power struggles, or "challenges" in their relationship.
Unfortunately for many of us it's not until we are well beyond our 30s and sometimes 40s that we reach the conclusion that we don't want to deal with a lot of craziness. Peace and serenity are no longer considered boring but instead is seen as (healthy).