I had a conversation with my best friend last week about our favourite pieces of smut. The common denominator was the presence of the ‘Alpha’ man. The Alpha man might be summarised as a strong, virile and controlling man. Popular dark romances by Sylvia Day and Jamie McGuire, and the popular erotic novel 50 Shades of Grey, come to mind. A typical scenario will involve a rich man with an unfettered desire for an ‘average’ woman. He is so taken by her, his interest becomes an obsession, and his jealousy and possessiveness follow.
I’ll be the first to say that if these novels were my reality, I would be running for the hills.
In fact, I was once in a relationship with someone who could be deemed a typical Alpha. But any feelings of romance were obscured by feelings of entrapment, suffocation and insecurity. He deleted the numbers of all of my male friends off my phone, threatened old acquaintances who waved at me and told me that he had “eyes everywhere,” among other things.
It lasted for a few years before I finally broke it off. It didn’t end there, though; I had months where I experienced guilt and anxiety when making male friends or talking to men. I knew that the threat of physical or verbal reaction was no longer there, but I felt a sense of disloyalty when I did things I knew he would disapprove of, because for so long he had isolated me from the rest of the world. It was one of the most gruelling periods of my life. I never want to experience that again.
Yet sometimes reading about a man ‘taking the reins’ is still a titillating experience. A man who is ‘rough around the edges,’ but will soften to my ‘feminine’ charms.
This preference is not unique. There are multiple reading lists on Goodreads dedicated to books about Alpha men. One list bluntly labelled ‘Jealous, Possessive, Controlling, Sexy Alpha Males’ includes 321 books, each with a minimum of 1,000 ratings and some with up to 500,000.
But why do I, and so many other readers, still enjoy the fantasy of the Alpha?
In my case, I’ve realised that the Alpha appeals to my desire for a particular type of security. Sometimes I want to be able to let go and let someone make the decisions for me. I want to be relieved of the pressure of succeeding on my own.
But it’s not something I really want; it’s a fantasy. A fleeting thought after working ten-hour days and a free placement and applying for dozens of jobs without success. It’s a half-formed hope that someone will take care of me if all else fails.
Women are responsible for so much, physically and emotionally. With trying to pick the right career, stay on top of finances, remain mentally and physically healthy and keep in touch with friends, life is difficult and scary. Sometimes when we just want to give up and snuggle under the cover of a comfortable blanket, we dream of someone picking up the slack. The Alpha hero wraps his protective arms around the heroine and carries her through all of life’s potential choices, making them as he goes. Depriving the heroine of choice leaves no room for uncertainty, and the Alpha, with his assertiveness, possessiveness and obsession, projects his own certainty with confidence. I imagine being weightless.
Perhaps part of the appeal is the unwavering support that the Alpha hero gives to the heroine. He already has his life together and wants to ‘help’ her with hers, too. He’s there in times of emotional and financial strain to help her breathe again when she’s drowning in obligation. Where her pride doesn’t allow her to accept help, the choice is taken away, and so too is the pressure.
Jealousy and possessiveness are perceived as marks of the Alpha man’s desire. The idea that a man’s desire for me is so strong that he can’t stand the thought of another touching me is admittedly, flattering. Of course, jealousy and possessiveness aren’t often signs of love. In reality, jealousy and possessiveness are marks of insecurity.
But again, it’s fantasy: I know that this isn’t the man I want to spend my life with, so what’s the harm?
As a woman who has experienced abuse, I know the danger of an Alpha hero mentality. I’ve experienced the tears, the self-hatred and utter desperation that are sparked by this type of behaviour, and I know it’s somewhere I never want to be again.
Perhaps the most dangerous appeal of the controlling, possessive, jealous Alpha hero is the idea that I could be the woman to tame him. That I would be so special, so desired and so loved that he’d overcome his insecurities to make me happy.
I say that this is perhaps the most dangerous because when I was in an abusive relationship, this was part of my mentality. The idea of my boyfriend at the time, safeguarding my future and carrying me through my uncertainties, wasn’t what kept me in the relationship. I had no desire for him to carry me through my uncertainties, because he had no regard for what I really wanted in life.
One phrase I got used to in my relationship was “You’re lucky.” According to him, I should have considered myself lucky that he wanted me all to himself. I was to consider myself lucky that he was vehemently opposed to me working, and that he actually ‘cared’ so much about me that I could trigger his violent emotions. My self-esteem took an enormous hit, which contrasts with the weightless fantasy I feel when reading romance novels about the Alpha hero. Romance novels give me an outlet to escape and I don’t have to invite any negative feelings into my fantasies. I can control the way I perceive the Alpha in romance novels and the scenarios I choose to process and dwell on.
In my relationship, I was constantly trying to grasp control for myself, and his control was an obstacle rather than a fast-track to happiness. Despite this, I still held on to the hope that I could somehow reform him and we could meet somewhere in the middle. This proved to be a futile hope. Nevertheless, at the heart of a fantasy about reforming a man is pursuit of the feeling of worthiness.
I’m not ashamed to say that I love romance books with an Alpha hero at the centre of the story. I know that the reality of a happy relationship with a controlling, possessive Alpha is unrealistic at best, but the books afford me an outlet for my fantasies of safely letting go of my responsibilities and being deemed worthy of a man’s (in this case, unhealthy) desire. The excitement of being with an Alpha man begins to fade very quickly when you realise you’re losing yourself in the pursuit to please him. But I’ve drawn a clear line between romance books and reality. Although I know that I don’t ever want to be with a jealous, controlling, obsessive or possessive man again, I won’t shy away from reading about him.
I asked my current boyfriend what he thinks about women desiring the Alpha male, and whether the idea of being that Alpha male is appealing to him. “It’s nice to be the one taking care of things and having people look up to you as dependent,” he said. “It’s an ego booster.” But he also felt that the idea of that role seemed tiring. “Sometimes we just want to chill”.
Perhaps that says a lot about men wanting someone to care for them, too.
While women fantasise about being with an Alpha man, men look up to icons that have typical Alpha characteristics. Men escape to icons such as Bruce Willis, Clint Eastwood and characters like Don Draper from Mad Men and Harvey Specter from Suits because they exude confidence and control. Yet the reality of loneliness and dysfunctionality that these icons and characters possess is also unappealing to men. There seems to be a tension between being the Alpha and fostering a genuine connection with a partner.
To my boyfriend, it’s great to be in charge, but we also need to balance that with having someone who genuinely cares and loves. I said to him, “If you had preference over getting a submissive partner or a partner who enjoyed being in charge, which would you pick?”
“I don’t think you can really split those into two categories,” he said. “I want to be able to feel grounded and to have my say, but I also don’t want to force someone to love me and care for me. I just want to relax, too.”
The fantasy of the Alpha male has boundaries. I can imagine a man who takes charge to an extent that I’m comfortable with. I can imagine a man who is jealous only to the point that it feeds my ego, someone I can fall back on without him expecting anything in return. When I read about the Alpha, I can imagine being confident and basking in the relief of his unwavering support. In reality, the same Alpha traits that uplift me in fantasy leave me feeling belittled, insecure and trapped.
For men, the fantasy of being the Alpha can be appealing in its apparent simplicity. The Alpha is well put-together, powerful and admired for his independence. Yet it affords little room for being supported. The fact is, men want to be taken care of, too, or at least the ones who are capable of an emotionally meaningful relationship do, and being the Alpha doesn’t leave room for that.
While we take comfort in inhabiting controlled and imagined lives, we all do best to come back to what nourishes us in relationships. Both men and women need to feel vulnerable, and that means relationships in which consent and compromise are integral parts.