Saturday, September 09, 2006

The Evolution of the Alpha?

Over at Michelle Buonfiglio's Romance: By the Blog this week there was an interview with Stephanie Laurens. She said that:
one thing I’ve noticed over the past 15 years is that our alphas – just like us – have evolved. [...] It used to be that just getting the alpha to bend the knee to love was the culmination of the romance. Now the fantasy goes one step further – he must recognize the heroine as an equal partner and be prepared to negotiate in shaping their future lives.

I see this change in my own alphas, and those of many other major authors, presumably reflecting changing female perceptions of the ultimate romantic challenge. But what do you think?
Given that I tend to avoid alpha heroes, and I haven't been reading romances for long enough to detect trends, I can't say I've noticed this sort of change. Have you?

What did occur to me, though, when reading this comment was that maybe it's not just about 'the ultimate romantic challenge'. Maybe women's ideas and fantasies about the ideal relationship have been changing? Maybe there are fewer and fewer readers who would believe in a Happily Ever After for a relationship in which the hero will never treat the heroine 'as an equal partner', and isn't 'prepared to negotiate in shaping their future lives'? As Monica Jackson rather provocatively puts it:
How about rich, dominant Harlequin Presents type heroes who will go to any lengths to possess you? He throws you on the bed and pounds you into a glob of quivering flesh, begging for mercy. He glowers at any man who speaks to you, including the waiter, his smouldering eyes shooting jealous sparks and catching tablecloths in five star restaurants on fire.

Those suckers scare me and they should scare you too. I always wonder why those silly heroines don’t realize that Him Big He Man is going to beat their rear-ends the next time they fling their locks and act feisty? It gets old after a while, Mary Sue. Yeah, it’s gonna get old to him too and you’re gonna be picking your butt up off the floor. Want an ice pack for that black eye? Keep the abuse hotline number handy.
This doesn't describe the heroes in the recent Harlequin Presents I've read, but I think she does raise an important issue. Control and fierce possessiveness are now recognised as a feature of many abusive relationships. Over the past couple of decades people have become more aware of the issue of domestic violence:
In October 1987, the first Domestic Violence Awareness Month was observed. That same year the first national toll-free hotline was begun. In 1989 the first Domestic Violence Awareness Month Commemorative Legislation was passed by the U.S. Congress. (US Department of State).
The BBC, for example, gives a list of possible warning signs that indicate that a relationship might be abusive. They include
* He has very rigid ideas about the roles of men and women and can't / won't discuss it reasonably.
* His mood swings are so erratic that you find yourself constantly trying to assess his mood and only think in terms of his needs. A healthy relationship has give and take.
* He makes all the decisions in your relationship and ignores your needs or dismisses them as unimportant.
Does this describe some of the earlier alpha heroes? Is Laurens right that Alphas are changing? If so, is it because getting them to treat the heroine as an equal is more of a 'romantic challenge'? Or is it that fewer women can accept a happy ending that includes a relationship so unequal that the hero, confident in his own power and intelligence, believes that he always knows best and won't negotiate with the heroine?

4 comments:

  1. j as in jennifer09 September, 2006 18:35

    Is Laurens right that Alphas are changing? If so, is it because getting them to treat the heroine as an equal is more of a 'romantic challenge'?

    I tend to think that it is merely the natural evolution in the relationship between men and women that is changing romance novels. Even as far back as the Sixties, it wasn't usual for men and women to spend much time together until they were married. I remember reading early novels of Phillip Roth, J.D. Salinger, Hemingway, etc. and thinking how bizarrely they portrayed women. And the romantic novels of the Seventies, i.e. Rosemary Rogers, often portrayed men as misanthropic brutes. But times are changing. Even when I was girl, it was seen as a bit odd to have boys as playmates. Even if you were doing nothing more erotic than digging tunnels in the sandbox with a boy, kids would come along and chant their little songs at you.

    But then books came out explaining women and explaining men. Women became more equals in the workplace, more involved in math and science in school, and women and men spent more time together outside of marriage, becoming more accustomed to each other's cultures. Now the old marriages in which the aggrieved wife sits at home powdering diaper rash while the husband goes out to drink with his buddies after work seem unappealing and disfunctional, to both sexes, I hope. Based on the examples I had, I resolved never to marry and it took some time to come to a philosophic understanding of men, but that comes with maturity.

    And so, I think romances have matured, as well. There will always be women who prefer the strong, silent Clint Eastwood type to their heroes, but to today's romance authors I would guess that men do not seem so terrifyingly "other," with mysterious body parts they can't control. The sex education our generation has had is less hysterical than it probably was for past generations. We are more apt to hold men responsible for their actions. Rape is no longer a product of men's "uncontrollable lusts" that women somehow provoke, and as women have learned this, they have passed it down in their novels, so that "forced sex" and possessive behavior have gradually disappeared from the genre. As we have learned that those aren't signs that "he really loves me" they have been rejected by readers as "romantic."

    Now, alpha heroes pretty much have to prove their alpha status in the bedroom by making it clear they have brought pleasure to countless women. I guess that's why Stephanie Laurens puts so much sex into her novels.

    *******************************

    "Laugh at me, will you?" snarls the normally mild-mannered hero of Roberta Gellis' The English Heiress, "I'll make you howl like a bitch in heat!"

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  2. Maybe romance novels, like comic books, are just growing more sophisticated with age. Comic books used to be black & white with omnipotent heroes like Superman who fought for "truth, justice, and the American way." But over time, the readers grew up and began to expect more from their favorite literary form—heroes who were sometimes depressed, troubled, weak, or paranoid. Stories that weren't just about good guys versus bad guys but were about more nuanced social and political issues.

    I think the same thing has happened with romance novels. Sure, social attitudes have changed about rape and domestic abuse, which are reflected in the kind of alpha heroes we see. But readers also have higher expectations—we want characters that have more depth, personality, and internal conflict.

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  3. j as in jennifer10 September, 2006 05:17

    Maybe romance novels, like comic books, are just growing more sophisticated with age. Comic books used to be black & white with omnipotent heroes like Superman who fought for "truth, justice, and the American way." But over time, the readers grew up and began to expect more from their favorite literary form—heroes who were sometimes depressed, troubled, weak, or paranoid. Stories that weren't just about good guys versus bad guys but were about more nuanced social and political issues.

    Yes, it's like the evolution of the hero to the anti-hero. Superman was super but he was a bit boring. Later came the anti-heroes, Conan the Barbarian, Wolverine of the X-Men, etc. And the anti-hero has certainly cut a wide swath through American culture: Humphrey Bogart, in films like "Casablanca," Clark Gable in "Gone With the Wind," Harrison Ford in the Indiana Jones movies. And, of course, in the romance genre, the anti-hero is king.

    "...anti-heroes can be awkward, antisocial, alienated, cruel, obnoxious, passive, pitiful, obtuse, or just ordinary. When the anti-hero is a central character in a work of fiction the work will frequently deal with the effect their flawed character has on them and those they meet along the narrative. In other words, an anti-hero is a protagonist that lives by the guidance of their own moral compass, striving to define and construe their own values as opposed to those recognized by the society in which they live. Additionally, the work may depict how their character alters over time, either leading to punishment, un-heroic success, or redemption. from wikipedia.org

    I suppose if one were to use the definition "lives by the guidance of their own moral compass, striving to define and construe their own values as opposed to those recognized by the society in which they live," one could define the anti-heroine as one who eschews society to make her own way in the world, such as the woman who leaves her husband and child to live with "Black Jack Davy." But they are rare in romance novels, and I think it is telling that Wikipedia has no definition for an "anti-heroine."

    Alice Munro had an interesting passage in her short story "Vandals" (from "Open Secrets"):

    "She [Bea] wrote that she would hate to think she had gone after Ladner because he was rude and testy and slightly savage, with the splotch on the side of his face that shone like metal in the sunlight coming through the trees. She would hate to think so, because wasn't that the way in all the dreary romances--some brute gets the woman tingling and then it's goodbye to Mr. Fine-and-Decent?"

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  4. Art imitates life. Romance is popular fiction, and just like popular culture, it reflects the cultural shifting of the world around us. Fiction strives for verisimilitude, and nowhere is that more evident than in the modern romance novel. While certain high-level members of government can read a spy thriller and think, "wow, that's really realistic--I did something similar in Prague back in the 80's," it's a much smaller segment of the population than well, over half, who can read a modern romantic story and think, "wow, that does reflect what it feels like to fall in love/find a good lifemate/have my heart broken."

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