The Overdetermined Hero

Sunday I read Hanna Rosin’s New York Times Magazine cover story, “Who Wears the Pants in This Economy?”. I’m still thinking about it. And I am going to get around to romance fiction, in case you’re wondering.

The general context of Rosin’s piece is familiar: the recession is hitting men harder than women (following years of manufacturing job-loss) and women are outpacing men in higher education. What struck me were the details of how these changes affect the Alabama Baptist couples profiled in Rosin’s article, and how really alien some of their assumptions about gender and marriage are to me, though I too am a white, middle-class, middle-aged American Christian. Rosin describes a Bible study for teen girls in which “the mother who was teaching had the girls hold hands, march in a circle and say: ‘My husband will treat me like the princess that I am. He will be the head of my household.'” I felt like I was back in first-year Anthropology reading Jane Goodale’s account of life among the Tiwi. People do that?

Reading about these couples, who believe that men should be leaders and providers, and women should submit (not in the sexy way), I realized just how isolated I am in a world of people like me. No one I know well conceives of their marriage this way, no matter what their domestic arrangements. I’m not sure what “being treated like a princess” means, but for me it wouldn’t compensate for giving up full partnership in my marriage. Sure, this has something to do with feminism, but it also seems unfair to dump the whole burden of “leadership” and decision-making on my husband while I can avoid being a fully responsible adult. I don’t really understand them, but I admire the couples Rosin profiles for sticking together in tough times and struggling to rewrite the implicit marriage contract with which they’d begun their lives together. That’s not easy. And it’s especially not easy when their thinking about gender is pretty rigid and reinforced by much of their culture, including their church.

The men in Rosin’s story struggle to feel like worthwhile men–worthwhile people–when they are not able to support their families. The women forge ahead, returning to school, retraining, and moving up in traditionally female jobs in health care, education, and social services which are still going relatively strong, jobs that men won’t retrain for because they aren’t “manly.” Moreover, as Rosin writes, “I asked several businesswomen in Alexander City if they would hire a man to be a secretary or a receptionist or a nurse, and many of them just laughed. It’s not hard to imagine a time when the prevailing dynamic in town might be female bosses shutting men out of the only open jobs.” Reading this, I couldn’t help thinking that if our society can’t reimagine masculinity more broadly and flexibly–as we have already begun doing for femininity–we are in trouble. I was troubled, too, by what seemed to be an underlying assumption (I’m not sure whether it was Rosin’s or the couples’) that power in marriage or between the sexes is a zero-sum game, that when women gain power, men must lose it, rather than having a different kind of power in a new marital and economic landscape. Men might be gaining as well as losing in this new contract.

Reading the article, I kept thinking about reading genre romance, and about my experiences in Romancelandia. Of course this is an over-generalization, but romance as a whole embraces fairly traditional versions of femininity and masculinity–and this goes at least triple for the latter. Heroines can be “kick-ass,” they can be sexually experienced, they can have a variety of body types. Heroes are still mostly hard-bodied alphas and great lovers. The range allowed to them is narrow.

Moreover, there’s been a resurgence, it seems to me, of the possessive, controlling, jealous, misogynist alpha hero. Or perhaps I should say, there’s been a resurgence of these heroes in contemporary romance, after they’d mostly gone underground in places like paranormals. I regularly get blog hits from searches like “possessive dominant alpha romance” (I know they’re looking for recommendations, but I only have rants). Just as when I read about the marriages in Rosin’s article, when I read about people’s love for this kind of hero, I’m confronted with how many of the things I take for granted as “fact” are really just my deeply-held beliefs. You really enjoy that?

The other parallel, of course, is that I find romance’s gender roles, and perhaps especially this type of hero, troubling, but it’s hard to talk about, especially these days when everyone in Romancelandia seems more sensitive about criticism of all kinds. There are two things people say when discussion of this kind of hero comes up:

  • I guess I’m just too feminist, but it bothers me.
  • Of course in real life I’d run screaming from this guy/get a restraining order, but swoooon, he’s so hot. (otherwise expressed as “women can tell the difference between fantasy and reality”).

These are both pretty much conversation-stoppers, in part because they are personal. They make this an issue simply of reader beliefs and fantasies (which of course it is, in part) rather than of broader cultural ideals, messages, or scripts, which maybe can be discussed more neutrally.

I do think women can tell the difference between reality and fantasy. I understand fantasizing about things you don’t actually want in reality. But I also think that stories have power, and that they influence us most when we are not conscious they are doing so, when we’re not paying attention. If we want to claim that reading romance empowers women–and many people do–we have to acknowledge that it can disempower us too. No one has to think about the appeal of the stalker-alpha, of course. But I do wonder what we’re afraid to look at when we evade the questions he raises.

I don’t think I’m the best person to talk about this. They don’t appeal to me, so I can’t discuss it from a personal angle. I’m not a social scientist, so I can’t speak about it with any kind of academic authority. What I am is a literary critic, and here’s the best I have right now:

The possessive, jealous, controlling alpha hero is overdetermined (in the Freudian sense, though in others, too): he is a literary “symptom” with multiple causes. There are a lot of ways to interpret, experience and think about this kind of hero. Some are positive, some negative. I don’t think any of these are right or wrong, provable or disprovable. The best, deepest understanding of the role of this hero in romance fiction will come when we hold them all open as possibilities in a discussion, even though they are in tension with each other, rather than letting any one reading dominate. Here are some of the things we could say about the stalker-alpha:

  • The hero’s possessive, jealous controlling nature is symbolic of his passion for the heroine; it shows how much he cares.
  • The fact that such a strong man surrenders to his love for her (particularly if he’s a misogynist who disdains other women) gives the heroine power over him.
  • The fact that a stalkery, controlling hero is ultimately tamed and domesticated by the heroine is a safe way of exploring and containing the threat real life men can pose for women.
  • The dominant, protective male is an archetype, and romance as a genre trades in archetypes.
  • The alpha (and the passive, submissive heroine he’s sometimes paired with) is a reflection of cultural views and ideals of masculinity, some of which can be sexist and/or harmful to both men and women.
  • The stalker-misogynist asshole who is tamed by love perpetuates the misguided view that the love of a good woman can “fix” a man, a view which leads to a lot of unhappy and sometimes abusive relationships.

The power of literature is that the hero can be and mean all these things at the same time. But that’s also the danger of it, and why, in my view, we should ask questions about our reading.

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23 Responses to The Overdetermined Hero

  1. Great post. I enjoy a wide spectrum of heroes and I’ve often wished that we didn’t limit ourselves to alpha and beta when discussing male protagonists in the genre. Of course, I’m as guilty of using those terms as the next person.

    Something else I’m guilty of: starting a sentence with “In real life I’d probably run screaming…” although I complete the sentence differently (with “but when I read, I often find flawed heroes fascinating”). I never realized that was a conversation stopper until now. I can think of conversations I’ve had in the past where I’ve said it and the conversation continued in a lively way, but now I wonder how many people I’ve silenced with that statement.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Completed your way, I don’t see the sentence as a conversation-stopper, because then you’re exploring the hero as a literary figure and why he’s interesting. Completed as “but OMG so sexy fans self,” it comes off to me as “this is my fantasy so you can’t criticize it without reader-shaming!” It also implies that our fantasies are not worth asking questions about because they are “just fantasy.” Or maybe that’s just me.

  2. Erin Satie says:

    Some fantasies are aspirational, but I think others are more like mirror images – they’ll show us exactly the reverse of what happens in reality.

    Supporting yourself, being a full, equal partner in a relationship, taking responsibility for all your own decisions, all of that…all of those advances are exhausting. So much work. Suffering the consequences, often devastating, of your own mistakes. Of course, under those circumstances, women will fantasize more than ever about a world without those burdens.

    The more responsibility women shoulder, the more we’ll fantasize about a lack of responsibility. The more equal our relationships, the more we’ll fantasize about being dominated. And so of course if reality tips and even heavier burden of responsibility onto women, there’ll be a surge in fantasies about domineering, unequal, overly possessive men.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I think there’s a lot of truth to that, but I also don’t think it is the whole or only truth. After all, men have been the dominant, responsible, decision-making sex in power forever (although certainly individual men do not always have power) and if you look at mass-market fantasies for men (whether porn or Bourne) many of them are about having power, being dominant, etc.

      Some powerful men who are kinky get off on submission. But if you think about BDSM fantasies marketed to mostly not really kinky people (like erotic romance) a lot of it conforms very much to traditional gender scripts.

      • Erin Satie says:

        No, I don’t think it’s a whole or only truth either. I think it exists as part of a trajectory (we fight for rights, so we’re constantly confronted with the trade-offs of progress), and there are a lot of other factors – you named some.

        I think with men, there are a huge, huge number of fantasies that involve being able to give up control. Military stories, for example – where average men give up their willpower and decision making to a strong, capable leader. Characters like Jean-Luc Picard or Admiral Adama let all the people who serve beneath them enjoy the freedom and guiltlessness of children. That fantasy of a trustworthy leader is pretty similar, I believe.

        By the same token – religion has often served a similar role in the male psyche (and then, of course, it’s very easy to see the way that submission – to a higher power – can be reversed into dominance; a lot of novels about sweet ladies and their domineering men also involve an awful lot of hen-pecking and nagging).

        And then you have to wonder about The Simpsons/Family Guy/King of the Hill scenarios, where hopeless dufus guys are perpetual infants while their wives are stuck, perpetually, as the grown-ups in the home, equipped with bottomless wells of forgiveness.

        I’m not sure how I’d tie this to the male erotic imagination, but only because I’m less familiar with the source material. I don’t think it’s fair to make porn and romance equivalent.

    • Ros says:

      This is a lot of what appeals to me about Presents heroes. At the end of a busy, exhausting day, the fantasy of someone swooping in and promising me an easy life in which he takes all the responsibilities off my shoulders is a very appealing one.

  3. mezzak says:

    We are changed by our reading and read what reflects our understanding of our selves but also who we want to be. Reading is about day dreaming too and about not being in our lives and so responsible in every moment.

    Meanwhile ….. I’ve just read two highly heteronormative series SciFi novellas with some good world building and writing but major plot holes. All that is by the by though with the key themes being the creation of mate relationships. That isn’t shocking (they are romance genre stories) but the way in which these unfold had me taking a few deep breaths.

    There are replicators for food and clothing and nanobot level housecleaning. The heroes have armour that can encase and protect wives and children when there is a threat. The fantasy is that the heteronormative world provides and protects and the focus of attention is inwards on that little world e.g. no requirement for paid work means no absence from the home. Bonding means there is no infidelity and shared dreams and mental communication mean there is no misunderstanding. There are external threats – there are males who have lost their way and must be fought, women and good males to be rescued. Interestingly it is the bonded males who must do this because their bonds inculcate a level of protection while unbonded males are vulnerable. So the ultimate ‘hero’ is the married man.

    My need for a few deep breaths was because the take home message is that women and children are appendages/part of the male Self. In this violent world there are no options for women but to be literally bound into this constructed single being.

    • Many of the ‘fated mates’ end up with the female bonded to the male in that all encompassing way. But no matter how romantic that presentation of that conclusion, in the end, I find myself tallying up what the heroine has lost and what the hero has gained. He is more powerful and loved, saved. But often the heroine has had to give up her job, her life, her home, her family and in some very real ways her identity. That always ruins the illusion of the HEA for me because I could never be happy paying that price.

  4. mezzak says:

    Just read this Salon article which touches on the issues in the blogpost

  5. anna cowan says:

    Liz, this is an absolutely stand-out post.

    There was a lazy “romance is harmful to women” piece in the major Melbourne newspaper recently, and the romance community reacted with justifiable but tired frustration. One of the consequences of not being taken seriously by mainstream media is that it can be difficult to be genuinely critical of romance. So I love this! Opening up the critical discussion from a place that’s romance-positive.

    After that article was published a friend and I were talking about the assumption that romance should progress society (or at least female sexuality). Whereas I think most of romance simply reflects society as it is now. It’s a super-enhanced view of the sexuality most women are still taught and hold as true (and genuinely find sexy, I guess).

    A lot of romance DOES try to progress female sexuality, though. Like the masturbation scene in Ruthie Knox’s Ride With Me – as a woman, reading that was incredibly empowering, and allowed me to SEE the possibility of masturbation without shame. No matter how often I tell myself or am told that I shouldn’t have shame, I don’t think the message goes in as deeply as seeing it that way.

    Obviously I’m pretty interested in non-standard masculinity :-). It’s a bit depressing to see it pointed out so baldly – men are much more constrained within romance. It makes sense in a very simplistic way: this is female fantasy, so why not write the fantasy man. But of course that fantasy says so much about how we’re taught to see men, and how we’re taught to want to be desired. In our expectations that men be “manly” is there an internalised misogyny that femininity is less attractive than masculinity? I wonder…

  6. Las says:

    “The fact that a stalkery, controlling hero is ultimately tamed and domesticated by the heroine is a safe way of exploring and containing the threat real life men can pose for women.”

    That’s how I’ve always interpreted it, probably because of the attitudes I observed (and, to some extent, absorbed) growing up. I come from a poor/working class immigrant family, where mashismo is a big part of the culture (though fortunately not in my immediate family), and no one had the luxury of not working. Not only that, but taking the option not to work if possible was and still is seen as extremely risky. The general attitude is that men are a necessary evil. As a woman you must marry and have children, but a man can and probably will turn on you at any time, so you better have the means to support yourself and your children just in case. Working outside the home isn’t feminist–it’s strategy. So in that context I see the appeal of the controlling hero. He’s familiar to a lot of women, but in Romance he’s made safe by love.

    While I’m not a fan of that type of hero per se, I do enjoy reading a heroine put such a man in his place. The hero’s attitudes and actions only bother me if the heroine doesn’t respond like I think she should, which I know is pretty problematic of me.

  7. Sometimes I think I crave the more “traditional” gender roles in my fiction because I live in a world that doesn’t always have room for them. For me personally, I’ve always felt the push to work, to earn money, to achieve success in my career (how much of this came from external sources versus internal is unclear). And then financial responsibilities increase as we get older, have kids, and what was once an ambition now feels like a burden. It can be a nice escape to imagine a world where my kid can have nice things and go to college without me busting my butt. That doesn’t mean I would personally trade my freedom for being a “princess” in real life (though I can’t promise I wouldn’t, either! The drive to secure our kids’ future is strong indeed.)

    By the way, I don’t think romance heroines have quite the leeway implied above. They sometimes *think* they are sexually experienced or act that way, but their actual number of partners is restricted to what? Two at the most usually, when that is a very small number for an actual modern, “experienced” woman. There are exceptions to that number but I can count them as easily as I can beta heroes.

    • willaful says:

      “By the way, I don’t think romance heroines have quite the leeway implied above. They sometimes *think* they are sexually experienced or act that way, but their actual number of partners is restricted to what? Two at the most usually, when that is a very small number for an actual modern, “experienced” woman. ”

      I think this is very true, in fact the number of virgin/”gently used” heroines in paranormal romance, where otherwise they’re expected to be kick-ass and sexually aggressive, is quite startling. I think I’m going to be blogging about this…

  8. denisedyoung says:

    OMG, I love this post. There are plenty of times when I have set aside a book with a sick, sinking feeling in my gut because I just can’t understand how the heroine could fall for the hero. I get it. He’s hot; he’s passionate; he’s falling for her. There’s a sense of power when the female lead can make the bad boy swoon or reveal his softer side in a way no one else can.

    Personally, I try to write more complex characters, both male and female. I’d rather write more realistic, multifaceted characters and men who don’t always have to be in charge. It makes me sad when the heroine follows her body instead of her mind and heart. For example, he kidnaps her and she wants to hate him for it, but as soon as he touches her she forgets how much she hates him. For me, the emotion and sense of trust have to be there before there’s true intimacy.

    There can still be an escape into fantasy without having the traditional alpha male and submissive female. I’ll never become a martial arts expert, travel to the world of the fae, or encounter werewolves or vampires in my real life, so I get to experience these adventures through literature. Even genre writers have room for a decent amount of creative license. I wonder how many readers and writers feel the same way.

  9. This might be my favorite blog post you’ve ever written. I had to follow the link to find out what “overdetermined” meant, but the rest of it was all immediately intelligible, as well as resonant to both my romance-reading and romance-writing self.

    I’d like to believe the genre doesn’t strictly have to be fantasy (falling in love is a pretty universal human aspiration and experience; it’s not like we’re writing about suddenly discovering you’re the reincarnation of a Mayan priest or something), but without question we (self included) have a long way to go in how we write the men. And I don’t know how far away from the idealized man we can go, and still appeal to enough readers for the books to be viable. It’ll probably all shake out in self-publishing, though as we’re seeing, the big winners in self-pub so far have mainly been your “possessive dominant alpha romance” types 😦

  10. VacuousMinx says:

    I had one set of thoughts when I first read your wonderful post, and then when I came back and saw all the comments, I had a whole bunch more. Thanks for reading that Rosin article so I didn’t have to. As someone who is in one of those backwards marriages and has seen all too many articles that bear no resemblance to how our marriage works, there was no way I was going to click through. I’m only mildly comforted by the fact that it’s apparently about people very different from me.

    Just as there are many valid reasons for why the controlling alpha hero appeals to readers, there are many many reasons why readers respond to them. We (by which I mean readers and outside observers) keep trying to come up a single-variable explanation, and there isn’t one. I think that’s what I like best about this post, that it lays out the futility of such an approach so clearly.

    The comments also make me think that the problems I have with some depictions of men in m/m are reproduced in m/f, I just don’t see them as clearly because I’m already in a particular fantasy mindset. With m/m, I’m often looking for a different emotional payoff.

    • To go off on a tangent on one of your points, Sunita, I do think you can get a different type of hero in m/m. That one of the draws of m/m for some readers is the greater variety of heroes, perhaps simply because there are two. So even if you have the alpha overprotective hero (which seems a little less de rigueur in m/m—although perhaps it’s more accurate to say in my choice of m/m reading vs my choice of m/f reading—which, I’m not sure what that’s saying), you may have a second hero who is a different type.

      Of course, that can lead to the m/f analogy which is not my favorite, but there are other pairings.

  11. I just want to say how much I enjoyed your post, Liz! I can completey enjoy these kind of heroes, to be honest. That said, I don’t want a steady diet of them. I really love variety.

  12. Liz Mc2 says:

    Thank you so much for the great comments, everyone. It was my whole family’s first day of school today, and I am too tired to give them the thoughtful responses they deserve. Some of the ideas In this post were simmering away in the back of my mind for months before Rosin’s article made them boil over, so I’m glad to know they meant something to other people as well.

    All your comments have really enriched my own thinking. As I hope the post made clear, even though I *know* that my reading experience is influenced by my life experience, values and beliefs, sometimes I’m brought up short by just how deep that goes, so I appreciate the different perspectives you bring. (I have read so much psychoanalysis, for instance, that I almost didn’t think to put in a link for “overdetermination,” because everyone knows what that means, right? 😉 ). Whether because I’m a Victorianist or because I’m just kind of literal minded, I prefer my fiction on the realist side, and that absolutely colors how I read the alpha hero–I tend to take him as meant to be a literal ideal.

    Finally, I would say that I see a difference between a relatively benign if bossy caretaker alpha and the kind of guy who tracks the heroine’s cell phone, objects to her speaking to other men, or tells her what to wear. (Not that I think the latter “shouldn’t” exist in fiction, but it’s a more complex character to talk abot perhaps). Part of the problem here is that I didn’t want to refer to specific books, especially books I haven’t read, because it can sometimes derail the conversation into a defense or condemnation of those books. On the other hand, eventually any productive discussion has to be rooted in specific examples. Do I dare ask for suggestions of uber-alpha heroes to read and discuss?

  13. Danielle says:

    My apologies for commenting without having anything to contribute except my gratitude. This post elegantly articulates so many important points that I wanted to stop by simply to thank you, late though it is, as well as the commenters. I really, really love your blog, Liz Mc2.

  14. Pingback: I don’t need to like the characters or the story to enjoy reading a romance novel « Shallowreader's Blog

  15. victoriajanssen says:

    Great post! I have nothing to add, but wanted to let you know!

  16. Pingback: Romance and the Appeal of the Alpha Male | Nooks & Crannies - 'cus they're perfect for a book lover

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