Ah, the ‘70s and ‘80s bodice ripper era…when men were men and women were raped. The romance community likes to filter it through a rose-colored rearview mirror, chased by alternating mild chagrin and feminist horror. But more than 30 years later, those misogynist underpinnings of forced seduction romance — mostly overpinnings, if we’re being honest — are alive and well. Be it the sheikhs and tycoons that populate the Harlequin Presents line, J.R. Ward’s Black Dagger Brotherhood series, the plethora of motorcycle club contemporary romance and club-owning Dom BDSM erotica or your Christian Greys and Gideon Crosses, the controlling alpha-male asshole protagonist hasn’t gone anywhere.
The argument one could make, of course, is that female characters have sexual agency in all of these books. They like being treated poorly (i.e. “challenged”) and told what to do as long as they get off and get their Happy Ever After. But that’s no different from old-school forced-seduction, than the sexual revolution happening on the page long before Kristen Ashley starting burning up the Amazon charts. It didn’t matter if a heroine got roofied and locked in a trunk or kidnapped and tied up in a wigwam, she always had an orgasm. The highly questionable, but tried-and-true, “No, no, no…yes!”
“It’s like crack!” a modern-day reader will say of a hero who slaps and taps asses with abandon. “It’s just fun!” another will add of a guy who makes women sign contracts and monitors what she eats. And these are just defensive excuses for what they flat-out enjoy, trying to downplay the appeal of Those Tropes. If you don’t think women in the 1970s were saying similar things about Rosemary Rogers and Kathleen Woodiwiss, you’re kidding yourself. Whether it’s Whitney, My Love and General Hospital‘s Luke and Laura or Claiming the Courtesan and Days of our Lives‘ EJ and Sami, the rhetoric is the same.
“It’s not anti-feminist if I like it” seems to be the subtext. “It’s not misogynist if it turns my crank. It’s not problematic if I pretend it’s a guilty pleasure.”
I think that shortchanges deeper explorations of women’s media and shuts down a lot of potentially interesting discussion of narrative tropes and kinks. It also creates an imbalance, a hierarchy, between pseudo-intellectual readers and those who just read for pleasure and don’t turn a critical eye to every book: “I can read and enjoy the Greek billionaire ordering the virgin around because I took three Women’s Studies classes in college and donate money to RAINN. I’m not That Reader.” Oh, yes, you are. Own it. And talk about it. Don’t pretend the modern-day romance reader is any more liberated/aware/superior than the first person who got tingly when a pirate ravished an unwilling maiden.
If it’s anti-feminist and you like it, talk about it. If it turns your crank, let’s examine why. If it’s problematic, don’t excuse it away.
Men are still men, and women are still raped.
It’s more important than ever to unlock that trunk and let the contents breathe.
11 thoughts on “Plugging the Alphahole”
I think it’s just sad that those kinds of storylines are the ones that are the bestsellers :| Even in gaming the otome games that people want are the ones where the main character is a doormat or all the men are basically rapists.
It’s also frustrating in the fact of where is MY fantasy? The one where the main character is the hero and some will derogatorily call a Mary Sue because she’s so many levels of awesome and she meets the guy and HE’S the meek and mild one that needs protecting. Where is the woman that is making him go “No, no, no yes!” :|
I’ve often wondered the same thing! And it’s really hard to find. Even when the male starts out as a beta hero, he often exerts control by the end of the story. You seldom find him staying meek and mild. As for some recs where the woman is kickass and the guy is more sidekick-y, if you haven’t tried Night Whispers, by Alisha Rai, you might really enjoy it! I also love all of the women in Kelley Armstrong’s Otherworld series, who are strong in different ways and, frequently, stronger than the men in their lives.
[…] the meantime, too, I came across this post by Mala Bhattacharjee on the issue of reader responses to problematic tropes in the genre, […]
[…] Sarah Wendell’s review and its attendant comments. Many readers characterized the book like Mala Bhattacharjee does, as part of a cohort of books that demonstrate what she calls the “misogynist underpinnings of […]
[…] Plugging the Alphahole […]
It would appear that being a woman would not at all make you more inclined to understand women sexuality, which is a subject of common misconception by many feminists I’ve come across.
Yes, practically, it may appear unnatural and a product of the patriarchy/socialization for women to so fervently write about being treated as the playthings of alpha male semi-rapists, but once you take a look into the true nature of female sexuality, once you realize the inherent differences between it and its male counterpart, then you will understand why it seems that women, generally, naturally enjoy being rafts swept up in an alpha maelstrom of masculinity and aggressiveness.
They’re romance novels. They’re porn; they appeal to the most base instincts of the audience/author, those parts of your brain that are almost completely at odds with modern sensibilities. Porn for men is unabashedly all about visual cues: tits, asses, etc. It’s crude and candid and probably problematic to a lot of women and feminists who don’t completely understand human nature and believe that some cardinal sin against humanhood is being committed…But it, amongst a wealth of other of our brain’s methodologies of our brain’s understanding of the world that are counterproductive in the modern world, exists. Porn for women is just as no holds barred and essentially free from socialization just as porn for men…so of course, a sophisticated 21st century movement that exists within an age of highly advanced technology is going to take issue with some of our lower instincts.
As long as women are attracted to dominant men…and as long as they keep on harboring those “consensual rape” fantasies and live in an era where men are taught to be less manlike and aggressive, “problematic” bodice rippers that feature rape and marginalization of women will always be published and lauded by horny female readers, as will scifi/fantasy with beta male “nice guy” characters.
Hahahahahahahhahahahahahahahahah I hope this is a parody.
Thank you! This post has been needed for… oh, several years, at least. I agree with every word.
In addition to what you said, I don’t even get how these books are appealing to anyone. When I get to relax with a book at the end of a rough day, why would I want to identify with a woman who snivels and stumbles and acts like a severely abused fifteen-year-old? Why am I supposed to yearn for a man who’s a moral monster? (Yes, I forced myself through the first two “Fifty Shades” books, and in any other work, Christian Grey would be the *villain*.) As Maverynthia said above, why am I not supposed to fantasise about being a badass female officer/adventurer/CEO who sweeps innocent young boys off their feet?
Food for thought. Once more, thank you very much for this post.
You’re very welcome!
I don’t want to shame anyone who DOES identify with a TSTL, weaker heroine who just wants to be controlled. Whatever floats a boat and lights the tights. I just wish we had more honest self-study of why those tropes hit so hard and also more alternatives!
[…] also found this post at Bad Necklace extremely challenging and provocative, in a good-kind-of-uncomfortable […]
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