Prism Book Alliance would like to welcome back special guest columnist Alexis J Hall for Tea Time with Alexis J Hall & Friends. We would like to extend a special welcome to today’s roundtable guests: E.E. Ottoman, Julio Alexi Genao and Beverley Jansen
The One About Alpha Males
Hello, and welcome to what I hope will be the first in a series of roundtable discussions here at Prism. Thursday Teatime will run, um, on Thursdays, twice a month (the 1st and 3rd, unless something goes horribly wrong) and today – for the inaugural teatime – I am delighted to be joined by EE Ottoman, Julio Alexi Genao, and Prism’s own BJ. We’re going to be talking about the alpha male in m/m romance, which—
JAG: before we begin i would like to thank you all for inviting me to join you in this very important discussion. as an alpha male, i feel my kind are seriously underrepresented in the literatures.
BJ: Hello! Pleased to be allowed in 🙂 may I have black coffee instead of tea though?
EE: Thank you for having me 🙂
AJH: Thank you all for joining me – you may drink whatever you wish. Try not spill any testosterone on the furniture though, if you can help it, J.
JAG: [quaffs ale] right, then—anybody need rescuing? i am to understand some bodices need ripping.
BJ: laces bodice and grimaces
AJH: Excuse me, this bodice is designer. Perhaps we should start by defining our terms a bit?
EE: I think m/m and het romance might use the term differently. From what I understand – from doing research –being an alpha male in het romance seems to be about acting in a certain away, confident, assertive etc. While in m/m I tend to think of it more about the character’s relationship with gender norms specifically normative masculinity
AJH: I think that’s actually the most sensible definition for what an alpha is, and represents that I’ve come across. It seems more useful to me than a random list of traits or behaviours – some of which may be attractive to some people, and others may not. And, honestly, I think it applies just as well to het as queer.
BJ: But in order to have “alpha male” characters doesn’t it suggest beta or even omega characters? Surely by introducing a hierarchy of masculinity we are feeding in to societal norms?
AJH: Well, this is where it gets sticky for me. I mean, whatever turns your crank is a-okay. And I will happily confess to enjoying the occasional alpha hero myself, but I always end up asking myself … is this genuinely something I find attractive (even just in fantasy) or is it something the world has been telling me I should find attractive for so long that I’ve just caved in.
JAG: it’s a valid question. part of what makes an alpha an alpha in most of the kinds of stories we’re talking about is a distinct flavor of dickishness.
AJH: The thing is, alpha is a hugely broad and unhelpful term. I mean, I’ve read het romances (I’m think Suz Brockmann, Jessica Scott here) which have conventionally highly masculine characters (they are in the military or whatever) but are not remotely dickish, and are in fact very nurturing. And then on the other end of the spectrum you have, uh, Kristin Ashley type heroes … who appear to be just giant walking penises. In motorcycle leathers.
EE: I don’t really read enough het romance to talk about alphas in het but in m/m when I see the term “alpha male” get used or talked about it has less to do with how dickish the character is and more to do with how traditionally masculine he is, not just in his occupation, and mannerisms but also physically. I think it needs to be the full package: he’s got to be over 6 foot and a Maine and like football. In fact I don’t think dickishness even comes into most of the time.
AJH: I think ‘dickishness’ is … not actually a legit trait of the alpha. It’s just that if you have a conventionally masculine hero who is also possessive, controlling and wildly jealous, I am likely to interpret his behaviour (fairly or unfairly) as dickish.
JAG: because it is dickish. isn’t it?
AJH: Well, clearly to a lot of people (including me when I’m the right mood for it) it’s very appealing – I suspect because romance (or any fiction) can be a safe space for engaging with ideas that may or may not be harmful to you out in the real world. Hence, rape fantasies. Or controlling men actually being controlled by love (as opposed to being, y’know, abusive). And, for me at least, some of the appeal of alpha heroes: oh, he doesn’t want to beat me up, he wants to bang me.
JAG: oh, i think you’re absolutely right. fiction—all kinds, really—is a playground for all sorts of things that wouldn’t be healthy/acceptable/desirable in real life.
BJ: I agree with what EE is saying totally and I also think the dangerous area of sex rears its ugly head when we are discussing these ‘total package’ alpha males. I don’t think it’s their unpleasant behaviour traits that worry me, it’s more the fact that being an Alpha male seems to allow them to have ‘gay sex’ but not be ‘seen’ as gay.
EE: In our society ‘gayness’ troubles traditional masculinity or is perceived to, so then when you have a character who represents a masculine ideal, that intersection could create tension within the story.
AJH: Yes, I’m with in. Which I guess leaves us with at least two possible interpretations at this point: either that the idea of a queer alpha male is inherently subversive because it unites queerness (gayness) with traditional masculinity. OR it’s troubling as all hell because queerness should NOT be perceived as troubling masculinity. A man is not less of a man if he likes other men.
BJ: I think very few alpha characters are written to be subversive, but rather support a masculinity that stems from het romance rather than redefining a way to look at masculinity.
JAG: i think it’s troubling more than it is consciously subversive. like that appalling cliche: i like men; i read MM because two men is better than one. [makes jagoff gesture]. i find that inherently troubling in all sorts of ways, because it implies there is some sort of universal ideal of masculinity that everybody desires, and its most extreme expression is the alpha male. i dunno about you guys, but anything that reinforces the idea that there’s only one most-desirable way to look and behave is… gross.
BJ: Yes I think it is wrong too…
AJH: (As for the two men is better than one thing, isn’t that just the equivalent of straight men leering after lesbians? Not that I think that’s okay either, but given the axes of power and marginalisation I wouldn’t like to tell other people how they can and can’t get off on, when the entirety of society is geared to validating the sexual preferences of straight dudes). But – otherwise, yes, all the yes.
JAG: that’s true, too. what you said about not wanting to dictate to other people who or what they can be attracted to. but somehow in MM it never comes off as this utopian, gaia-flavored universal appreciation of gender- and sexual-fluidity. it comes off as appropriating. and i hate it.
EE: I am troubled by the fact that often when I see the alpha male character in m/m it is portrayed as a man ‘winning’ at being a man in a way that will perhaps counteract his queerness
BJ: Yes that is exactly what I find offensive. It seems to boil down in crude terms to ‘butch alpha’ tops, ‘camp femme’ bottoms.
EE: to me it doesn’t read as quite that blunt but there is definitely a sense of anxiety around masculinity and sexuality that I think the tendency to have alphas in m/m stems from.
AJH: To me, it’s that, and also this slightly broader question of who is reading queer romance, and what we’re saying to those readers. I know I keep coming back to het, but obviously queer romance is still romance so it owes much of its context to het (which is fine) – and the alpha is popular and prevalent in het because it reflects something that the readership wants, and wants to see represented. But then I ask myself: what is the alpha male in queer giving to me? As I’ve said, images and perceptions of idealised masculinity are … what they are … and I can’t deny they’re attractive. But other things are attractive to me, too, so it feels weird that the representation of my fantasies is being inherited, essentially, from someone else’s? Does this make any sense?
BJ: That makes total sense. I enjoy the odd book or 4 about alpha males in romance however, I find it a shame that the m/m romance can’t in some way take the opportunity to redefine masculinity, or introduce more fluidity in its characters to remove it further from its het beginnings.
JAG: well, look—i’m just going to freakin’ say it: MM fails in just that way because of its audience. what’s popular is what the audience wants. there are always exceptions and there are always innovations and boundary-pushing novelties, but the long and the short of it is… MM is MM because that’s how people who buy MM like it.
BJ: That is true and most endeavours are driven by market forces, and the largest section of the population to read m/m romance is straight women, but are we saying that cis women only like to read about alpha males in whatever form, and all m/m romances are just doubling the males for them??!
JAG: pretty much. and it’s not just het women—it’s het, american, white women. that’s the largest percentage of the market. and what pleases them is what sells. over and over again. it’s why putting a black dude on the cover of your book is the kiss of death. it’s why you need faceless mantitties floating in the sky, or someone erupting out of entirely-too-tight breeches. it’s not everyone, but it’s enough that the trope endures.
AJH: I think this is too simplistic. I think what drives the market is the publisher’s perception of the market, and this is not necessarily the same thing. I mean, I’ve never met a straight woman who’s enthused to me about how much she likes mantits on the front of her reading material. I’m not saying they don’t exist, but it seems kind of ridiculous to me.
JAG: again, it’s not everyone. but it’s enough. i have 1100 goodreads friends, and i see their reading choices every day. and your point about it also being a function of what the publishers think the market wants is extremely valid, and i’m glad you made it—but… they’d know, wouldn’t they? what sells and what doesn’t? the publishers want their books to have photorealistic covers of handsome men, hopefully without their shirts on. and maybe, like, a wolf floating in the sky behind them.
AJH: Okay, but look. I kind of feel “groups of humans who are attracted to and fall in love with other humans who display some traits associated with masculinity” have quite a lot in common. Like from the get-go. I actually feel we’re largely on the same side, and maybe the problem is a broader one in that … we actually have a fairly limited basis for understanding what is supposed to be appealing and desirable. I mean, women are supposed to be size eight and behave in certain ways, and men are supposed to have six packs and behave in certain ways. Queer or straight, that’s not helping us articulate what we’re really looking for, or perhaps want to read about, watch, and experience in our art and fantasies.
EE: I think it can become a self-fulfilling cycle if we say the market only wants Y and so we only produce Y. Because then of course that’s all that will sell. That is not to say that social norms don’t play a role because obviously they do. It’s a complex issue.
JAG: i think we’ve kinda stumbled on the core of the problem, here. it’s a… it’s the opposite of a virtuous circle. one side feeds the other; what people want informs the publishers, who inform people what they’re supposed to want.
BJ: I know I’m getting away from the main thrust of the argument but it would be so interesting to find out WHY ‘alpha males’ are driving market forces, why women and some men so love that image of masculinity.
AJH: Nope I think that’s us returning to the argument 😉
EE: well speaking for myself I see it as the ideal: what you are supposed to want to be if you’re man and fuck if you’re a woman. I think it can be comforting to give into that sometimes. It’s anxiety inducing to fight against it. So I think there is an element of comfort in the fantasy of being/having an alpha male.
AJH: Definitely. And I think there could potentially be some degree of re-claiming / subversion in there as well. In the sense that you can address directly something that is harmful to you (the sort of person you’re supposed to want to be, or supposed to want to want) and spin it into your own fantasy. Like I do enjoy high-machismo romances where queerness is not an issue.
BJ: I think your last sentence is an important detail as we are making it sound as though queerness is the main issue at all times and of course that isn’t the case.
AJH: I think there does tend to be a high degree of crossover between alpha male type stories and “oh noes, but what about the gayness” which – as we’ve already discussed – can be really problematic. Whereas it’s sometimes quite refreshing to read about idealised masculinity type dudes bumming each other without angst or shame.
BJ: Yes, I can think of a couple of series I do enjoy in all my innocent freedom 😉
AJH: And I do also think it might have something to do with socially de-valued images/portrayals of alternative masculine expression. I mean, I grew up queer without the internet – sneaking confused glances at the covers of Men’s Health, trying to find something to hook my desires into. So I think, as EE was saying, we default to alphas because we don’t really know how access broader ideas of what’s attractive and desirable, without falling back on highly gendered stereotypes.
JAG: that’s a great point, and it reminds me of a conversation i had with a friend a while back. he’s nominally married to a thai man, some decades his junior, and 100 pounds lighter, and more or less having the appearance of a teenager, on account of ridiculously good skin and a youthful attitude. but there is no denying this creature is about as alpha as it gets—among his social circle, among random contemporaries out and about at parties or bars—doesn’t matter. this man is large and in charge, standing at only 5’1’’, and fucked if i know how that works. he’s not even conventionally masculine. anyway, in that conversation with my friend, we talked about how it should be that someone so diminutive should be nevertheless a natural—for lack of a better term—alpha personality, and we concluded it’s about attitude as much as anything else. he asserts his personality wherever he goes. and my friend loves him for it.
EE: I don’t write alphas, or at least I don’t think of any of my characters that way, but I will say that when I write characters who are more traditionally masculine there is a pleasure in kind of defanging something that has been actively dangerous to me. I think ‘reclaiming’ is too strong a word but I could see if that was part of the attraction to writing alphas. But yes I think it can also be a societal default and it can sometimes be easier to fall back on what society tells us to want rather than portraying a wider range of alternative masculinities.
JAG: ‘defanging.’ i like that.
AJH: Yes, reclaiming is not quite right, as it implies something we wanted or possessed in the first place. But I guess this leaves the question of what an alternative masculinity would look like… which is probably a good question to end on, honestly, since these are big ideas, and we could likely talk all night if not curtailed
BJ: Thank you for having me at your inaugural Tea Time!
JAG: cheers, and thanks for having me, AJH.
EE: thank you all! It was lot of fun.
AJH: Thank you all for participating! As for our readers, we do hope you’ll join the conversation in the comments. How do you feel about alphas? Do you think this is a useful way to think about romance heroes? Or men for that matter. Do you think alphadom and queerness intersect problematically? What do you think alternative masculinity would look like? Would you like more heroes who reflected different ideals of masculinity?
About Alexis J Hall
Alexis Hall was born in the early 1980s and still thinks the 21st century is the future. To this day, he feels cheated that he lived through a fin de siècle but inexplicably failed to drink a single glass of absinthe, dance with a single courtesan, or stay in a single garret.
He did the Oxbridge thing sometime in the 2000s and failed to learn anything of substance. He has had many jobs, including ice cream maker, fortune teller, lab technician, and professional gambler. He was fired from most of them.
He can neither cook nor sing, but he can handle a 17th century smallsword, punts from the proper end, and knows how to hotwire a car.
He lives in southeast England, with no cats and no children, and fully intends to keep it that way.
About our Guests
E.E. Ottoman is a geek and a gentleman. They spend their time mostly in libraries doing research, and sometimes, when there is no one else there, dancing in the aisles. E. has always adored speculative fiction, especially paperback fantasy and science fiction. They love a good ghost story and think every story becomes automatically better if you add tentacles. Overall, though, they just loves a story that is fun to read. E. is especially fond of writing and reading stories with geeky, queer people doing awesome and sexy things.
They grew up in the woods, farmlands and mountains of upstate New York and has spent most of their adult life trying to spend as much time as possible back there. They are the oldest of four and can often be found actively engaged in hijinks with their three other siblings. E.E. Ottoman has two degrees in history, another one in law, and one very spoiled princess cat. E. would like to be a history professor or maybe just a professional author one day, only time will tell.
When not writing, E. loves to cook and looking dapper in menswear. E. is an avid powerlifter and can often be found at the gym trying to hit a new max weight.
E. identifies as a queer, nonbinary, trans dude and is actively trying to change the world (and maybe the past) one novel and work of history at a time.
E.E. Ottoman’s pronouns are:
JULIO ALEXI GENAO lives in New York City with three cats and a preoccupation with post-mortem predation. He is also the author of the acclaimed ‘When you were Pixels’,’Taking the Long Way Home’ and ‘A Syntax of Memories’
I have a number of paperbacks, most of which are signed, to giveaway. Over the between now (11 Mar 2017) and 31 Mar 2017, every comment on the blog (this post and all other new posts), will be entered to win 1 of these paperbacks. There are also some misc swag items, so there will be a few packs of these to give away as well.
Thank you so much for your support over the last 4 years. Prism will be closing its doors on 1 April 2017. All content will remain available, but no new content will appear after 31 Mar 2017. As such all request forms have been turned off. Again Thank you,
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