Natasha Vargas-Cooper and Kelly Faircloth on romance novels

(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at:

Natasha Vargas-Cooper and Kelly Faircloth are talking about the use of the word “alpha” as it relates to men and as the concept is used in romance novels. :

I here quote some of Faircloth’s remarks, but the whole thing is interesting.

KF: So, alphadom in romance is, in my opinion, often fundamentally about taking care of the heroine and nurturing her. It’s about all that confidence and capability being focused on the heroine and working on her behalf. Now, it might not be your particular fantasy and you might find it unappealing to imagine a dude taking care of a woman by taking charge, but that’s a big part of the attraction, I think. Whereas in pick-up artist practices, alphadom seems to be about manipulating women into serving men’s wants/needs.

I have this pet theory that in romance, alphaness is a fantasy about men living up to the disproportionate level of power and authority they have in society. Think about Pride and Prejudice, where so many of the male characters are absolute duds. Lizzie’s father isn’t doing a great job of getting his daughters (who’ll be alone in the world when he dies) married off. Wickham ruins girls. Darcy, meanwhile, has all this money and privilege, and he takes his responsibilities toward his dependents very seriously. Lizzie’s stuck in this society, and it’s not crashing down any time soon—how can she have the best life available to her? She can opt for the man who endeavors to deserve what he has. Now, Austen was writing comedies of manners, and I think romance is more of a dance between fantasy and reality. But I think if you want to understand what’s happening with the trope, it’s a helpful story to consider.

KF: That idea of the appeal of unstudied confidence makes a great deal of sense, now that I think about it, because that easy assuredness is part of the foundation of an alpha character. Heterosexual women spend so much time acting as the keeper of men’s feelings. There’s this entire category of emotional labor around their insecurities. Maybe part of the appeal of alphas in romance specifically is that those plots replace those day-to-day duties with some grand, high-stakes conflict that’s resolved over the course of the novel.

But, also important: Often an alpha character is paired with a female character who is, in her own way, very strong. The idea is not that he comes in and handles the little woman’s life. It’s that she’s tough and she needs and in fact deserves someone who can be an equal partner.

…I think that in some ways, “alpha” characters are an attempt to reckon with the fact that society bestows all this power and all these privileges on men. It’s grappling with that. And it values men who live up to their privileges, rather than turning gender relations into some big horrible game where men are constantly trying to sneak past the goalkeeper (your emotions) to score (your vagina).

KF: Yeah, rather than saying, “Imagine a world where we’ve hit the restart button,” it’s saying, “Well, here we are; the fuck are we gonna do now?” Although, again, I think that it’s important to note that it’s a fantasy, and readers aren’t necessarily seeking out guys like this in their real personal lives. It’s a mental exercise. And sometimes of course you’re imagining a world where we have hit the reset button and sufficiently rearranged gender relations that you can be attracted to beefy bossy dudes without buying the extra societal baggage. (This is the fun of apocalyptic romance, in part.)

…In modern romances, alpha characters often have some deep-seated dramatic emotional shit they need to work through, and the heroine helps. Oftentimes he’s brought low somehow. Sometimes there’s groveling involved. In the panel the moderator provided as her example of an “alpha hole” Sebastian from Lord of Scoundrels, and I do agree with that characterization. But here’s the thing—at one point, the heroine turns to him and basically says, “It’s okay, my darling, you’re just very high-strung.”