Friday, September 27, 2013

The Appeal of the Obsessive Alpha?

In a post earlier this week on the Romance University blog, Avon romance editor Lucia Macro listed four items on her "personal wish list" for historical romance submissions, including this at #2:

A word about those heroes: lately, contemporary romance heroes have been super-sexy, self-assured, and single minded in their pursuit of the heroine. And while she can give as good as she gets, these men know who they want and they stop at nothing to get her. And readers are responding—in droves. It might be worthwhile to take a page from the contemporaries and give us heroes to swoon over.

Editors, and the publishers for whom they work, surely noticed that the top slots on the bestseller lists last year, both in e-book and in print, were E. L. James' 50 Shades books. Said books' hero, Christian Grey, is "super-sexy, self-assured, and single-minded" in his pursuit of innocent Ana; ergo, rename him and put him in other romance sub-genres, and we'll get equally-stratospheric sales, publishing marketers and execs can be forgiven for believing. It's always easier to sell something that you can compare to something else that's already popular; the success of Sylvia Day's far better-written Crossfire trilogy, with its equally dominant if slightly less kinky hero, Gideon Cross, proves the truth behind this marketing truism. Readers may have responded in droves to the 50 Shades phenomenon, but will they keep responding to Christian Grey clones?


A doctor friend of mine reminded me that psychology asserts that all people, whether female or male, have an unconscious desire to be protected, to be taken care of, as we were when we were infants. Men are often shamed into denying and ignoring such unconscious needs, for fear of being labeled gay, but women are given the option of indulging in them—if they displace the desire for the original mother figure onto an adult male romantic partner. Books featuring powerful billionaires obsessed with the one woman of their dreams are just the most recent example of such culturally-sanctioned avenues for women to fantasize about a return to an all-consuming, all-satisfying relationship with one's early primary caretaker.

Though I'm sure that marketers would prefer it otherwise, the caretaking fantasy is not the only fantasy in which women indulge. And I for one am not willing to give up the myriad delights of my diverse romantic desires to purchase the same fantasy over and over again. I swoon over many different types of heroes, not only (or in the case of Christian Grey, not at all) over the hyper-obsessive alpha. I may have checked the Crossfire books out of the library, but I'll be placing putting my book-buying dollars in baskets far more diverse than those containing Christian Grey, Gideon Cross, and their look-alike progeny.


How do you, readers, fight against marketing forces that strive to homogenize romance? Or do you enjoy riding the wave of a trend, for as long as it lasts?


Illustration credit:
Postcard: Fanpop.com

16 comments:

  1. This isn't really a new trend, though. In fiction-land, predatory alpha males have been falling for childlike, too-dumb-to-live women for decades without any fanfare..50 Shades only got the amount of attention it did because of the "BDSM" parts. I actually started following this blog to try to avoid those types of stories.

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    1. What I find disheartening is how many women find alpha males who won't take no for an answer attractive. I doubt that most readers are childlike or too dumb to live, so what is it that they find attractive about reading about women who are like that? Sadly, I think it's because we're socialized to aspire to the easy way out when in fact there really is no such thing -- the idea that one can hand one's well-being over to another person to take care of is wrong, not to speak of potentially dangerous.

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    2. Extremely dangerous I would say. What I can't understand is the need for a father daughter relationship when an equal partner is more desirable. It feels incestuous.
      Sofia

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    3. Fiction of this kind is only a fantasy,- and although some may indulge in a rape fantasy it does not mean they actually want to get raped in real life.
      50 Shades is and has always been erotica,- it's not written to win a pulitzer or to say anything about how women should behave,- it's written so we women can get off.

      What you like in bed has nothing to do with what you like/want/need in real life. Having a fantasy about a strong man who knows what he wants and is sexually aggressive towards you when you're incredibly attracted to him is a turn on for most people. These books also allow for a women to concentrate on themselves as a sexual being. It's not really that arousing when you have to include noisy children, working 9-5, doing the laundry/washing up, taking the kids to school etc etc in your sexual fantasies. When you think about sex you want to think about just that,-
      A partnership is great in real life,- we all want that. But when you want a hot racy fantasy it's not what you go for, neccessarily.

      I'm sick of having to conform to specific criteria just to be a feminist. Being a feminist is all about haveing a choice and equal opportunites in life. Men's sexuality have been liberated and unless you're a pedophile no one will judge you on what you like. Women, on the other hand, seem to have to like the same thing in bed as they do in real life,-it's either a "strong" woman or a "soft" women. I'm both,- and most women have different sides to their personalities.
      Ultimately, what gets me off is nobody's business but my own. It does not say anything about me as a person. Or a feminist. I might like to read this type of porn at night, but I'm still a strong woman making her own choices at day.

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  2. Blech! Men know who they want and will stop at nothing to get [it] are my definition of stalkers and potential rapists. I don't care if it's popular with other readers; it's not popular with me. I have DNF'd books (or come close to it) when the male MC does not sufficiently respect the female MC's autonomy, whether it be physical or psychological.

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  3. I'll admit I enjoy the random alpha male in my romance novels, but only if they are paired with an alpha female. Weak, wishy-washy, or too-stupid-to-live heroines more often sour my reading experience than any other character type.

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    1. I agree. Strong heroes need strong heroines, or the HEA doesn't feel emotionally true or satisfying. I think strong people would start to resent weak people over time. This doesn't mean the MCs have to both be brooding paratroopers with a home security fetish. Just that the power dynamic should be balanced.

      I think this can be done while preserving the "alpha male" fantasy.

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  4. I think there's another layer to this. Contemporary women are in a challenging position with shifting gender roles. We have access to many of the careers previously available only to men, and yet we're still doing most of the work at home too (cleaning, shopping, child care, etc.). We're exhausted! The alpha at the very least does the work that men used to do, which is fix the car and rock the bedroom. He represents at least some degree of sharing the labor, even though he does so in a retro way.

    If all we wanted was to be taken care of, we would look for a loving, nurturing man who demonstrated gentleness and empathy. I think we don't feel entitled to that sort of nurturing. We're so accustomed to denying our own needs -- because we're overworked -- that we have trouble even identifying what they are, to ourselves or anyone else. Alpha types don't require us to know our own needs or to ask to have them met. They just ACT. They define our needs for us and then meet them, and that sounds pretty attractive after a long day of working, household duties, and caring for kids and elders.

    I'm not a fan of the alpha hero, obviously. I think the answer lies in heroes who share the emotional and practical labor of the relationship equitably and with compassion. But I do get the appeal.

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    1. Thanks, Rebecca, for these great thoughts. Vicky above notes that the alpha male has been around for a long time, but it does seem that at this particular historical moment, the OBSESSIVE alpha has hit a particular chord with many female readers. The fantasy of having someone magically know your needs and WANT to take care to meet them is a powerful one for women who continue to do work the second shift. It would be interesting to do a study, to see if the degree of a woman's overwork corresponds in any way with her liking for the obsessive alpha male hero...

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  5. The thing about Gideon Cross is, okay, he's better-written than Christian Grey (couldn't do much worse if you ask me) but his character is a MURDERER. He bumps off someone in book #2 for the sake of the heroine and instead of recoiling in horror, she's all "Meh, whatever." That's when I stopped reading the series. Alpha heroes? Cool. Rapists and murderers as ideal romantic partners? I think not.

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    1. Yes, scarlettparrish, that moment in book 2 was the point that shifted the books from interesting to just icky.

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  6. Great topic!

    I think the obsessive/stalker hero is a variation of a rape fantasy. Because in all the books of this type I've read, the heroine wants the obsessiveness. It's a safe way -- in this sense that this is a book, not because I think the relationship in 50 Shades is "safe" -- to play out what would in real life be an abusive situation.

    For instance, can you imagine what 50 Shades would have been like if instead of him being obsessed with making the heroine eat more, he was obsessed with her eating less? Obviously a boyfriend obsessed with eating habits is a "red flag," but here it's "okay" because it stems from his childhood of hunger and he wants her to eat more.

    By the way, I think a good topic would be how some authors overly rely on abusive childhoods to explain Alpha Alpha's obsessiveness (or other character flaws). I wish more authors did more research or wrote about it more realistically. One, it doesn't "legitimize" the stalking and two, people don't magically get over dysfunctional childhoods just because they find the right woman. Again, I get it's part of the fantasy but when it's so unrealistic, it takes me out of the book and I don't buy the HEA.

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    1. It's funny (or sad), how the actions of an obsessive alpha are almost the same as those of a stalker villain, the only difference being how the female protagonist reacts to said actions. Both often have the "abused childhood" justification for said actions, too.

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  7. Very interesting post and I'm glad I'm not the only one turned off by the 'obsessive' alpha trend. Any person, male or female, exhibiting such traits is someone I'd stay away from, in real life or fiction.
    Even though I write romance, I read very little of it simple because of this cliché. It's tiresome and such an easy 'out' for creating tension and false intimacy between characters.
    I also agree with Elisa Mars observation of the abusive childhood trope. It's another automatic DNF for me for the reasons she cited. It's just lazy storytelling.

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    1. Thanks, Lynn Rae, for stopping by, and adding your thoughts.

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