I consider myself to be an independent, intelligent, feminist woman, and am proud to call myself these things. While not romantically inclined in my personal life, I find myself attracted to romantic fantasies in my reading habits—sometimes I struggle with a bit of cognitive dissonance over that, but I maintain the right to engage in a healthy imagination however I please.
But lately I’ve uncovered a pattern in my reading habits that suggest something troubling, particularly when I consider using my reading preferences to come up with writing preferences… A lot of the books I enjoy the most feature “alpha heroes.”
For the uninitiated, an “alpha hero” is a dominant male, usually physically strong, socially powerful, occasionally wealthy or famous—always protective. “Good” ones cherish and take care of their heroines, while “bad” ones control and manipulate them. The exact line between them is a whole other post…
So why is this troubling? Romanticizing an alpha hero and his actions can sometimes err dangerously close to glorifying abuse, which permeates the mainstream culture to a point where actual real life abusive relationships are identified as “romantic.” This is definitely a hot topic for debate with the Fifty Shades of Grey movie about to debut, though it’s been discussed ever since Twilight broke out into the mainstream several years ago (you could argue Edward isn’t fully alpha, but I digress…).
I’ve written before about how writing off these mainstream publishing phenomena as problematic trash that should be destroyed is ignoring a more important and complex conversation—about how millions of women find these stories romantic, and it’s not as easy as just shaming them and moving on. I also think it’s important to add that not all alpha heroes are inherently abusive or problematic… but I agree that the very idea of a dominant male (and thus potentially submissive female… more on that in a bit) taps into a problematic pattern in society.
But I’ve seen several comments about Fifty Shades and its related phenomena that boil down to: “Women can’t have it both ways. Either they want to be equal and powerful, or they want to be submissive. Why can’t they make up their minds?”
And, um, no. Here’s why:
1. Every woman is different. This should go without saying, but obviously it doesn’t—“women” are not some monolithic group that all want the same thing. Some women want to be independent career women; some women want to be stay-at-home moms; some women want to be cat ladies; some women want to be superstars. While some women enjoy flirting and make-up and sex, other women enjoy binge watching and sweatpants and the couch—and some women enjoy both. Individual women can also want different things at different times.
So, yes, women can have it both ways. Because “women” is more than one person. (I suppose the argument could be made that it would be difficult to have it both ways in a single relationship, but that’s a separate discussion. The comment above is usually meant to demand a single definitive answer from all of women in all of society at all ages and at all times.)
2. It’s a romantic fantasy. There’s a thing about stories… they’re not real. Again, should be obvious, but apparently not. Fictional stories are a perfect way to explore various scenarios that you would not want in real life, even ones classified as “wish fulfillment.” Just like some out there think they want to be a superhero or James Bond or a videogame soldier fighting aliens, but put them on a street with someone shooting actual bullets at them and they’d run and hide and possibly wet themselves. Yet it’s fun to think about being these things in a safe environment where it won’t actually happen.
The same with romantic fantasies—many times, the characters we love in fiction would be absolutely horrible to encounter in real life, especially as a romantic partner day-in and day-out. It’s fun to imagine Sherlock Holmes choosing you to be nice to, but after he stands you up for the fifth anniversary in a row, and never does any of the household chores, and considers his work more important than anything you contribute to the world, you might just toss him out on his ass. Or maybe he’d “get a clue”—I’m imagining a fun fanfic scenario in which an annoyed Watson gets a romantic surprise from Sherlock who had picked up on the hints of his annoyance… Anyway, my point is: fun to think about, probably not all that fun to live through.
So, yes, women can have it both ways. We can want to be equal and powerful in our real lives, and be submissive or “precious” in our fictional lives. Wanting anything in your fictional or imaginary world does NOT contractually obligate you to want it in reality (and vice versa—meaning that going after a powerful career life doesn’t mean you’re a traitor if you like to daydream about being a kept woman).
3. It’s usually not about actually being submissive, and it’s always about choice. The second point is actually more important, so I’ll talk about it first: the point of feminism and equality is the ability to choose what kind of life you want—and to be able to choose to leave it. In the “old days,” women had no choice; you literally could not have money or property outside of a man (husband or father or brother, etc.), so submitting to whatever marriage you could find was your only option. The key difference in the modern world, and thus in modern fantasies, is that you can choose to “submit” in a relationship—but you can also choose not to. You can choose to walk away.
So, yes, women can have it both ways—because we want to be equal enough to be able to choose to be submissive, or not. And we can choose how to be submissive, or not. Feminism has always been about giving us more choices, ALL the choices, not fewer.
And lastly, for many of these stories, the heroine is not actually all that submissive. The power of the fantasy is usually that the hero eventually gives in to what the heroine wants, or remains “alpha” to the world but the heroine is the one person who he submits to (or at the very least, treats equally). I read a great quote that sums it up: “Girls want a bad boy who’s only nice to them, and boys want nice girls who are only bad for them.” Now, I quickly add the caveats “not all girls/boys” and the complicated issues of what exactly “nice” and “bad” mean (for example, I don’t think a man who’s cruel to others is sexy, but in a fantasy, anything goes, at least for someone out there).
Ultimately, then, it’s usually not about being “submissive” at all. There is a powerful romantic fantasy in being protected, cherished, and taken care of—one which even powerful women (and the heroines who represent them) can want, and should be able to want without criticism. Most of the couples I enjoy reading about are ones who take care of each other, although I’ll admit often in stereotypical ways of protector/provider vs. nurturer (internalized sexism strikes again).
Our romantic fictional fantasies should be a place of exploration, and often the opposite of what we want in real life (hence the release of energy in the form of fantasy itself). That does not mean they should be immune to criticism, or that we shouldn’t examine and analyze the social implications of their creation and their impact. It’s extremely important that we have the discussion of what harmful stereotypes are perpetuated in our media, all media, and how we can draw the line between healthy (even if extreme) fantasies and drawing boundaries for real life interactions and relationships.
But I think that discussion should preserve a sense of safety for all participants, should avoid shame and ridicule, and should embrace the ambiguity that is individual imagination as well as fantasy versus reality.
I think we can embrace the draw of the alpha hero while criticizing him, improving him, and demanding that real life behavior be held to a different (and better) standard.
That way we can have it all ways—but remain safe, equal, and free to choose.