Alpha, Beta, Gamma, or The ABG’s of Romance Heroes
When I wrote my post last week on what I’m calling Extreme Romance, it seemed to translate for some readers into the ballad of the “controlling hero.” In fact, several readers asked for more books in which the hero and heroine have an “equal power balance.”
While it is true that books that tend to push the genre envelope and place the power dynamics between the hero and heroine front and center often have OTT protagonists – the histrionic Dain from Lord of the Scoundrels always and immediately comes to mind – I wonder if when people refer to a “controlling hero” they mean that he is an alpha, an alphahole, or just a guy who likes to get his own way. Because “controlling” seems to have become elided with “abusive,” and therefore shorthand for bad (and not in a badass, super-sexy way), aka not heroic.
First, let me say that I think there are a number issues here to pick through: 1) What do we mean when we use the term “controlling”? 2) What is bad about a controlling hero? 3) What do we mean when we talk about “power” — are we talking about socio-economic power, intellectual power, physical power, emotional power? 4) What is bad about power imbalance between the hero and heroine? 5) Are all power imbalances bad, or just ones that play out in a certain way? And 6) When readers say they want a more “equal power balance,” what does that mean? (Note: because of the implied gender roles, I’m mostly referring to straight Romance here, although I think this discussion could be modified for m/m or f/f Romance)
I don’t have time to unpack all this, so I’m going to talk a little about my own reader preferences as a way of hopefully opening up a discussion about how power issues work for different readers.
I generally don’t have a preference between alpha, beta, and gamma heroes. However, of alphas, I generally prefer what I’d call the progressive caretaking alpha – that is, the alpha who may have overbearing tendencies, but who wants a strong heroine, loves her unconditionally for who she is, and wants to see her continue to grow into what she wants to be. While I don’t want a steady diet of battle-of-the-sexes type Romances, I prefer a couple who bickers or downright argues honestly about their relationship to a couple where one is lying to the other or isn’t as committed to the other. Not that these stories can’t work for me – just that I don’t think controlling is the equivalent of “abusive,” nor do I think a non-confrontational guy is necessarily more heroic.
Let me throw a couple of examples to illustrate the distinction I’m trying to make.
Let’s start with the commitment-phobic hero from Ruthie Knox’s Room at the Inn. Modeled loosely on It’s A Wonderful Life’s George Bailey, Carson Vance seems anything but a controlling hero. Indeed, Carson has gotten George Bailey’s wish and then some, traveling around the world and periodically returning to Potter Falls. This time, he thinks he’s in for another brief sojourn — to check up on his dad after his mother’s death (Carson didn’t go back for her funeral). Carson and his dad don’t get along, and Carson feels manipulated into having to look after the older man, whom he suspects has made his situation worse to lure Carson back to town. However, one benefit if being back is that he gets to see Julie Long, the woman he has a little carnal fun with every time he returns home.
Knox’s Julie, unlike her cinematic counterpart, Mary, hasn’t managed to wed her great love. In fact, even though she has dated other men, she knows that Carson has had her heart for a long time, even though he seems like a pretty unreliable custodian:
Maybe she thought he only looked like a territory-conquering slab of rough-and-tumble male charisma because he’d conquered her territory, tumbled her rough, and left her behind a long time ago.
Now he just stopped by every so often to replant his flag.
Exacerbating the problem is the fact that Carson can’t help but flirt with Julie every time he sees her:
He checked himself. It was a terrible habit, baiting Julie. He needed to knock it off.
She always messed him up this way, turning him into a version of himself even he couldn’t like. Not that she purposely transformed him into a giant walking penis when he got in her vicinity. It wasn’t her fault at all. It was just their past. More than that, it was her. He got edgy and turned on and irritable around Julie, and he always ended up doing the wrong thing. Arguing with her. Putting his hands on her just to feel that soft skin and all the heat they created. Getting lost in her body and the sound and smell of her.
Part of it was how much he hated the way she treated him now— just like when they had met at Alfred University. Three hundred miles northwest of Manhattan, well up in the boonies, and yet she’d been so snooty, a real-life New York City rich girl sitting next to him in class. He’d burned to know if she was like that all the way through to her bones, or if it was just an act. When he finally did get her talking to him, they’d bickered. A lot. Half the time, he’d picked fights with her purely for the pleasure of watching her eyes brighten and her skin flush.
Julie is an independent woman with a large social network. She’s a part-time librarian and is remodeling the “Inn” from the title, which used to be a huge old home (remember the abandoned house from It’s A Wonderful Life that Mary always loved?) in town. Carson has lived his own life, and this trip home he finds that he can’t resist Julie’s substantial charms. So, after more than fifteen years of getting his fill of her and then heading back out into the world, he decides he wants to make it permanent with her.
I think it’s safe to say that Julie and Carson have equitable power as individuals. And fans of their relationship might argue that they ultimately have equitable power romantically, because Carson does The Grovel and The Big Public Gesture and finally gives in to the feelings we all know he’s had for Julie for so many years. Readers who root for these two may be willing to forgive Carson for all the years (more than FIFTEEN) he took Julie for granted and used her sexually, because, well, he was fulfilling his own dreams, right? And it wasn’t like Julie didn’t have a choice. Still, for me, Carson’s selfishness and self-indulgence is impossible to get past. I didn’t trust his epiphany, felt his public gesture was manipulative (‘Hey, I must love you because I’m telling you in front of everyone, which, by the way, has the added benefit of making it impossible for you to reject me!’), and I wanted Julie to find a guy who could see her value right from the start and respect her by either cutting her loose completely or stepping up at least ten years earlier than Carson did.
Now take one of the books I discussed last week, Motorcycle Man. I think Tyra and Tack are also very much equals: they are both professionally successful; they both own their own homes; they both have employable skills and are responsible and good at what they do; they both have strong, wide social networks, including families. In Tack’s case, his family strength comes from his nearly grown children, for whom he is ultimately the sole (and devoted) custodial parent, and in Tyra’s it comes both from her parents, who are very loving, and from her extended family, including an aunt and uncle who make an unexpected and somewhat hilarious visit during the early stages of her courtship with Tack.
However, Tack and Tyra battle almost all the time. And they battle hard.
For example, when – at almost the very beginning of the book — Tack tells Tyra she can’t work for him because they’ve slept together, she tells him she’s staying in her job no matter what. When she later decides to quit, he tells her she’s a coward for running away from a job she stood up so hard to keep. He initially calls her “Red” and then insists he can’t remember her name, only to come up with it unaided a few minutes later as he introduces her to someone else. He tells her he likes playing games with her head and insists that she does, too. He even shows up one day at her house with pizza and beer, refusing to leave until she’s had dinner with him. He also insists she put on her favorite movie to watch, which happens to be The Color Purple, and he watches the entire film with her, comforting her when she cries.
At one point in the book, Tack’s sixteen-year-old daughter, Tabby, gets hit by her too-old boyfriend because she refuses to have sex with him. Tyra gets two of the Chaos motorcycle guys as back-up, then goes to rescue Tabby and teach the guy a lesson by pepper spraying and then slapping him down to the floor. Although Tack is angry that Tyra put herself and his guys at risk, that’s not his only response:
“You’ve only lived through one period with me,” I pointed out and his brows drew together.
“I can be hell on wheels when I’m PMS’ing,” I shared.
His gaze went back to the view as he muttered, “You can be hell on wheels anytime. Like, say, how you’re gearin’ up to be now.”
“Tack!” I snapped and he again looked at me and he did it again grinning.
“It goes like this,” I began to explain. “We get to know each other. We have a huge-ass wedding. We spend time just us and, um… Tab and Rush, of course. Then we start on a family.”
“Got it all scheduled,” he noted.
“Yes,” I returned.
“What’s a huge-ass wedding?”
“Don’t ask that,” I advised. “Just show up.”
His grin turned wicked and I liked it.
That was, I liked it until he enquired, “You askin’ me to marry you, Red?”
I wasn’t even sipping coffee and, still, I choked.
Then I pushed out, “What?”
I shook my head and kept shaking it when I requested clarification, “Let me get this straight. Did you just accept my non-marriage offer?”
“I didn’t ask!” My voice was rising.
“So you just wanna shack up?” he asked but didn’t wait on my answer. “I’m good with that too.”
“I’m getting my huge-ass wedding,” I declared.
“So you are askin’ me to marry you,” he noted.
Gah! Gah! Gah!
Sharp as a tack.
Someone kill me.
“When did you show last night?” I asked.
“Last night, when I was going off on that kid, when did you show?”
“You’d just slapped him and asked, ‘How about that? Feel good?’”
Wonderful. He caught nearly the entire performance.
“So you saw most of the show,” I surmised.
“Do you want some of that?” I asked sweetly and Tack grinned huge, wicked and sexy, leaned into me fast, hooking his hand behind my head and pulling me to him. “You think you could take me?” he asked softly.
“Only if I get to wield pepper spray,” I returned.
“No fuckin’ way,” he replied.
“Then no. But I’d give it a shot,” I retorted and he pulled me closer.
My breath started to escalate as his face, but mostly his mouth, got closer. It escalated further as his eyes moved over my face and it did this mainly because of the sweet, soft look in them.
Then they caught mine.
“Huge-ass wedding,” he whispered.
“Yeah,” I whispered back.
“That how you like it?”
“That’s always been my dream.”
“You didn’t settle for a man until you found the one you wanted, you keep settlin’ for nothin’ less, baby.”
My heart flipped.
I was going to get my huge-ass wedding.
To a biker.
“Okay,” I breathed.
“Seein’ as you’re breathin’ and not through a tube, it’s all out there, you love me, lookin’ back on you kickin’ that motherfucker’s ass, gotta say, it was pretty hot.”
My belly fluttered.
“Yeah?” I asked softly.
“Yeah. You bein’ all riled up like that for my girl was hotter.”
“It was for Tabby as well as all womankind,” I corrected.
“So noted,” Tack muttered, lips twitching.
“But mostly, it was for Tabby.”
Tack’s eyes got sweeter and softer and his hand fisted in my hair.
Then he asked quietly, “You wanna move in with me?”
“Yeah,” I answered immediately.
Between Tack and Carson, Tack is definitely more “controlling.” He tells Tyra from the beginning that once she steps foot onto his territory (literally, his territory – the bike club’s area, Chaos), she plays by his rules. However, it eventually becomes clear that this is mostly because there are some Very Dangerous People who have it in for Chaos, and Tack needs to be able to ensure Tyra and everyone else’s safety. But he does not tell her this at first.
Still, for me, Tack and Tyra’s relationship feels much more equal and satisfying than Carson and Julie’s. Yeah, Carson is not the kind of guy who will tell Julie what to do, but in some ways I think he’s worse: he’s a guy who had no issues taking what she had to offer and then walking away, even though he knew she cared about him. Tack may be more of a superficial jerk, but he is not a cheater; he is a very devoted parent; he has no issues telling the people in his life how much he cares about them; and he stands up for the people he loves. He doesn’t avoid family responsibilities (like Carson does), he absolutely worships Tyra and would lay down his life in a heartbeat for her; and he prefers to talk through issues than to walk away from them. He is honest about his feelings and when Tyra really wants to leave, he lets her have her space (of course she soon realizes she loves him and doesn’t want the relationship to end). If Carson is conflict-avoidant, Tack is the exact opposite. Still, I think Tack is a more honorable person, and the relationship between him and Tyra is, for me, both emotionally honest and mutually empowering. In fact, I think one of the ironies of the book is that despite the fact that Tyra has joined a world in which male authority is perceived to dominate, she actually has more authority, respect, and agency in that world than she did in the “normal” world outside the motorcycle club – and she has that as both Tack’s wife and as the woman who, among other things, single-handedly bested an abusive little punk.
The balance of power question in Romance is especially complex because you have an entire subgenre of Romance – Historical Romance – in which there is often an enormous gap in power between hero and heroine. And yet, one of the most powerful fantasies is the so-called Cinderella fantasy, by which the wealthy, titled hero somehow discovers the impoverished, often orphaned heroine, falls in love with her, and marries her. Maybe he gives her her first orgasm – and you know it’s the very best, because it’s hero-made. Or perhaps he thinks she’s a prostitute and angrily takes her virginity and then guiltily ensconces her in his home as his children’s nanny, even though his wife also lives there (a la Balogh’s The Secret Pearl). Or whatever. I certainly think that if we’re going to measure these power negotiations in terms of which relationships ultimately challenge the patriarchal status quo, that a beneficent beta is no guarantee of that, especially if his material power is still substantially greater than the heroine’s by the end of the story.
When we talk about “control” and “power,” I think it’s important to name our terms. For example, I find the intense humiliation of many of Susan Elizabeth Philips’s heroines to be incredibly troubling, and I feel like when it’s the hero doing it (like in Natural Born Charmer) it’s bad enough, but when the female characters and the whole town does it (Ain’t She Sweet), it just feels gross to me. And yet her books are often praised for their independent heroines. Again, I’d rather see a battle like the one between Tyra and Tack, which at least feels open, honest, and even, than to see a petty group of women reliving high school by intentionally trying to embarrass and humiliate the heroine. As much as I love Ain’t She Sweet, I think there’s something really disturbing about the way Sugar Beth is ground down before she gets her happy ending with Colin.
Not that these are the only choices; I am aware that there are many other permutations and variations of these relationships. However, as readers, we often have different interpretations of these dynamics, and what is subversive and liberating for one reader might be oppressive and demeaning for another. It’s one thing to designate a problematic issue (e.g. power), but another to dismiss a certain “type,” especially when there are substantial variations in its articulation throughout the genre.
In the end, I think every reader has a line (or lines) across which the hero cannot go with the heroine. One of mine is humiliation of the heroine and a persistent failure to recognize, value, and support her own individuality and power. What’s yours?