Thursday, August 28, 2014

Noted With Interest (Alpha Males)

--Eric Selinger

Almost exactly four years ago, Laura wrote a long and useful post here about the "Evolution of the Alpha Male," with links to then-recent scholarship by Heather Schell and a blog post on the topic by Jessica of Read, React, Review, as well as some very helpful background information from Joseph McAleer:  namely, that Alan Boon, of Mills & Boon, espoused as a "law of nature" the notion that "the female of any species will be most intensely attracted to the strongest male of the species, or the Alpha" (Joseph McAleer, Passion’s Fortune: The Story of Mills & Boon [Oxford: Oxford UP, 1999], 149-150).  

If you're interested in the idea of the "alpha male" in romance, and in the critical debates that surround him--both in academic scholarship and in the online critical world, where authors and readers and scholars are interacting--you might want to take a look at fantasy author Michelle Sagara's "Letter of Opinion" over at Dear Author ("Michelle Sagara Contemplates the Alpha Male"), at the debate that plays out in the comments, and at the essay in response by romance author and critic Olivia Waite, "Ecology and Uses of the Alpha Male in Romance."  Waite, too, embeds some helpful links, including one to a study that debunks the science about wolves on which some ideas of the "alpha male" seem depend.  

Sagara's description of the Alpha Male's appeal sometimes recalls ideas from Janice Radway's Reading the Romance, as in this set of paragraphs:
In real life, women are responsible for so much, emotionally. On hard days, on days when they just want to give up and crawl back into bed, one of the things they daydream of, outside of romance novels, is for someone else to pick up the slack for a day or a week or a month. It’s for someone else to get a grip, to take responsibility for their own lives, so that the woman herself can be responsible, for a tiny while, for just herself and her own needs. In fact, I’ll go one step further and say: on some days, when things are overwhelming, I want someone to take care of me. 
And that kind of care happens when we’re three. Or five. Or sick as a dog. If it happens at all. It’s not realistic. It’s not a desire upon which to build a real life. And we don’t. But we can dream. 
I don’t think it’s social conditioning about alpha males that causes the reading pleasure. I don’t think it’s the conditioning that makes romance alpha males work for readers. I think it’s the rest of real life. It’s having to raise children and be aware of their needs and their emotions constantly. It’s having to deal with failed relationships or walking away from those that are just draining because of incompatibility, etc. It’s having to be responsible, always, for other people. It’s having to make nice and to be someone else or be something other than we actually are for so much of day-to-day life.
I don't mean to suggest that Sagara is taking ideas from Radway without attribution; after all, Radway's analysis was based on reading romance novels and talking to readers, and anyone who's read romance novels and talked to (or been) a reader might independently arrive at similar conclusions. But I do wonder whether there might be an interesting story to tell about how ideas within the novels got talked about in the 1980s and then made their way back into the discourse of authors and readers alike in a more self-conscious or deliberate or heightened way.

And I wonder whether Waite's response to Sagara--which points out that "Social conditioning is what makes us feel like women have a greater responsibility than men do to raise children, to be the responsible nurturer in defiance of our own needs and wants" and that "what Sagara is describing here is patriarchy, in a very fundamental way"--doesn't also suggest that, at least where alpha males are concerned, the discussion hasn't entirely left behind the dynamics that Radway described thirty years ago.

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