Friday, March 27, 2015

Duke's UNSUITABLE #5: Jessica Scott on the Alpha Masculinities

Sorry for not posting on Tuesday; I've been traveling the northeast this week, touring potential colleges for my young one. Not so much fun when both the teen and the dad are struggling with head colds...

I did slip in a quick guest post over at the KickAss Chicks blog, though, which you can find here:

And today, in my stead, I offer a guest post from Jessica Lee, a student in Duke instructors and romance authors Laura Florand and Katherine Ashe’s “The Romance Novel” (HST 248S.01) class. Jessica tells us all about contemporary military romance author Jessica Scott's talk about Alpha Masculinities, the Duke: Unsuitable presentation #5, which took place on March 16th.

Romance novels have been around since the 18th century, but Duke University’s “The Romance Novel” course is currently only in its first semester of existence. Taught by two published romance novelists, the course allows us students to participate in a series of talks by prominent women in the romance industry. Our most recent guest was Jessica Scott, career army officer, mother, and Duke ROTC instructor, as well as the author of many contemporary military romance novels, including her latest, All For You. The topic of the day? Alpha masculinities, with an emphasis on the longstanding military hero archetype and on the “Rise of the Alpha-hole.”

Scott questioned why the alpha-hole—the alpha hero who is also an asshole—is suddenly a “thing” in romance. After all, the alpha-hole is not attractive, not someone with whom the reader wants to go on a journey, not a hero in any shape or form, and in real life is probably not going to make a romantic connection. Are romance authors simply reflecting cultural values through their characters?

Well, according to Scott, she’s surrounded all day at work by alpha men who are good men, in control of their lives, and not misogynistic. That doesn’t sound like she’s working with a bunch of alpha-holes. So if romance authors are writing alpha-holes as a reflection of society, then it’s not the men in Scott’s workplace—the military—they’re writing about.

Scott discussed how in romance, “alpha” is shorthand for “protector” in a lot of ways, in particular the protector of the heroine in romance. Who are these alpha protectors, usually? Cops. Soldiers. Firefighters. Navy SEALs. These guys are manly men. But part of the problem with masculinity is that when the average man looks at this sort of archetype, he usually isn’t a cop, soldier, firefighter, or Navy SEAL, and therein lies the subtle message that because he isn’t a badass like these folks, he isn’t manly enough. I suppose it wouldn’t be hard for a guy trying to be alpha badass to try too hard and end up crossing the line into alpha asshole. So maybe that’s the society romance authors are depicting through their alpha-hole heroes?

“Military,” like “alpha,” is also shorthand for “protector,” but also for “badass” and “selfless.” It’s this heroic combination of traits that makes the military man popular as a romantic hero: he will sacrifice himself for the heroine, for his comrades, for his country. We as readers are drawn by the military man’s powerful narrative of not being broken by his experiences, but instead overcoming his ordeals and coming out on the other side. All in all, “alpha” and “military” are an author’s shorthand for creating characters, his or her way of communicating to readers that the hero is a badass, selfless protector who is willing to sacrifice his life for something he values above himself.

However, Scott cautioned readers to not do as American society at large is prone to do, which is place soldiers on a pedestal and hold them to an ideal. This prevents readers from engaging with the humanity of the individual, and pretty much the most important thing for an author to accomplish in a novel is to make the characters feel real to the reader.

For Scott, it is very important in a romance novel for the hero and heroine to look each other in the eye, not for one to look down at the other. In All For You, the hero Reza and the heroine Emily don’t try to bring the other down but try, and succeed, to make each other better. Reza helps Emily build her sense of self-confidence and empowerment, and Emily broadens Reza’s moral circle. They give to and take from each other equally, so they are both equals in their relationship.

We see alpha heroes a lot in romance—in practically every romance novel, one could say. And alpha heroes tend to share a lot of the same characteristics: dominance, control of their situations, confidence, and of course protectiveness. Part of the reason that we don’t have a lot of male role models in romance besides the alpha hero is that we don’t have a lot of different types of male role models, period. Scott discussed how in antiquity, people used to derive different male archetypes from the gods of the Greek pantheon: Ares the warrior (Scott’s own Reza), Apollo the thinker, Zeus the leader, and so on. Today, we’ve narrowed that rich diversity of male archetypes into simply the alpha hero.

But not all alpha heroes are the same, and not all alpha heroes have the same type of relationship with their respective heroines. It’s how the author writes the male lead, the female lead, and their relationship that determines if their story is that of an alpha-hole and a submissive damsel, or if their story is that of an actual hero who is secure enough in his masculinity that he is undaunted by, and cherishes and respects, a strong and admirable heroine.

Jessica Lee is a sophomore and a Classical Studies major at Duke University. Besides writing mythology-inspired fantasy manuscripts, she also enjoys baking, playing capoeira, acting out Shakespeare, watching BBC TV shows, and devouring books for breakfast.

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