Brief disclaimer: I write and mostly read m/f, so I have a great many thoughts about cis straight male heroes in romance texts and reader culture. Due to many of the dynamics described below, I’ve been starting to read more f/f romance. However, I haven’t read widely enough yet to have a sense of the subgenre as a whole, or even its main tropes, so I’m not at the point where I feel comfortable analyzing it in a public manner. Longtime readers of f/f will be able to bring solid counter-perspectives to many of the points I make in this post; such responses are not only welcome, but will be deeply appreciated as a corrective to my lack of experience. For instance, are there different patterns of consent in erotic f/f as opposed to erotic m/f romance? Is the dominant partner always the sexually aggressive one, pushing boundaries and pursuing the other character — or do dynamics emerge that aren’t so easily tied to the dominant/male/aggressive vs. submissive/female/obedient gender essentialist paradigm?
I’ve been a romance reader my entire life — from the steamy Johanna Lindsey I stole from my mom at age five, to the Julie Garwood historicals that got me through high school, to the shelf in my college dorm lounge that overflowed with Bertrice Small, unauthorized Jane Austen sequels, and one dog-eared and much-borrowed copy of The Windflower. We giggled over the awful euphemisms — I distinctly recall Mr. Bingley’s dangly bits being compared to a squirrel — and sighed over the happy endings. In graduate school I thought about writing my masters thesis on romance novels, but at the time there just wasn’t enough critical material.
Now of course we have IASPR and the Popular Romance Project and university-level courses on romance fiction. It’s also never been easier to find romance readers and authors online talking about romance, sex, kink, consent, and feminism. The Atlantic’s Sexes blog had an article earlier this year on feminism in romance novels, written by a feminist and romance reader who is building a list of cunnilingus scenes in romance fiction. The blog Romance Novels for Feminists is a bastion of clear-eyed observation and critique. Dear Author has lately been posting a whip-smart series on Extreme Romance as a subgenre with a lengthy history, all the way from Indian captivity narratives to Fifty Shades and Kristen Ashley. Many of the comments debate issues of women’s fantasy, empowerment, and consent with strong, persuasive evidence on either side. Our very own Anastasia Vitsky invited me here for Fika after reading my analysis of a Domestic Discipline romance with a feminist heroine. And those are just the sites I know about personally — I hope people will add others in the comments. (Interracial romance? LGBT romance? Romance with disabled characters? Bring ‘em!)
At the same time, there’s a distinctly non-intellectual streak among romance culture as well — and with it a sense that feminist critics should just calm down and enjoy the ride. Romance for many is seen as fun reading, as escapist fantasy texts, as pure hedonistic pleasure. This is especially true of erotic romance as a subgenre. This is the part of romance readership where we find the pictures of improbably shirtless and muscular men, the comparison of “book boyfriends”, and male cover models in attendance at romance fan conventions. (Have you ever seen a female cover model at a romance convention? I sure haven’t.) Significantly, it’s also one of the few spaces where women talk easily with each other about what turns them on. Female sexual desire still comes with a great deal of cultural baggage in the Western world, and romance reading provides one of the largest female fantasy outlets. For many of these readers, worrying about power imbalances (sex, money, authority) between a hero and a heroine means you aren’t absorbed in the story the author is telling — it means you are missing the point.
Between the critical and the hedonistic impulses, we end up with comment storms like this Goodreads thread on Jamie McGuire’s Beautiful Disaster, with passionate, visceral arguments both in favor of and against the relationship dynamics depicted in the story. It’s why everyone’s been yelling about Christian Grey for the past year and a half, not to mention every other possessive, domineering, Uber Alpha hero. Arguing about what does or does not constitute abuse in fiction is useful and has significant real-world consequences. Arguing about what should or shouldn’t be hot — well, that’s the least fruitful argument in the whole wide internet. And particularly with kinky erotic romance, we often end up having both arguments at once, to everyone’s frustration.
And while we’re repeating the same points over and over, we’re failing to ask some significant questions about the genre and the cultural context in which we read and write.
The real problem is not that we have Uber Alphas, who make some readers swoon and others incandescent with rage. The problem is that alphas are so damn dominant in the genre, if you’ll pardon the pun. The alpha hero is presented as the ideal hero — and not just in the text, but in the romance world as a whole. Stories with submissive men and dominant women are much harder to find, especially outside of m/m or f/f (both genres where I’m still paddling in the shallows, which is why this post is so heavy on m/f — recommendations are most welcome). Authors who write heroes on the beta side are frequently told to alpha them up before publication; several major publishing houses explicitly demand heroes in the alpha mode, but no major publisher goes out of their way to find gentle, caretaking heroes or submissive heroes or genderfluid heroes. It’s the same kind of self-fulfilling prophecy you see in the video game industry: games with female protagonists supposedly don’t sell, so game publishers undermarket games with female protagonists, therefore those games don’t sell as well, therefore no publisher wants to take a risk with a female protagonist — wash, rinse, repeat.
So readers who loathe the alpha or Uber Alpha see him everywhere they look — I think that’s where a lot of the critical vitriol comes from. It’s also easy to see these conflicts as signs that the romance community is turning against one another, but I think the opposite is true. I like to think of them as birth pangs: they hurt like hell, they might be dangerous, and they’re not everybody’s cup of tea, but afterward something new has appeared in the world. Romance culture doesn’t have to be a monoculture: there’s plenty of room in our profitable, prolific genre for all types and archetypes. What we need is not a choice between All Alpha Heroes or No Alpha Heroes — what we need is a balance the genre currently lacks. (Quick suggestion: more heterosexual heroes in drag.) Until we can correct this, I’ll take comfort in the fact that there’s a great many romance readers across every line of age, race, class, and sexuality, who spend their free time talking about social ethics, sexual politics, and how what they read affects their lived experience. Frankly, it’s all pretty damn inspiring.
Bio: Olivia Waite writes erotic, historical, and paranormal romance — sometimes all at in the same book. Her sharp tongue’s been known to get her in trouble from time to time.