Tuesday, March 21, 2006

SB Day: It’s All Greek To Me

Note: Belated Smart Bitches Anniversary post on a topic I may have already posted on, but blogger is not helping me out here so I have no idea. Apologies in advance for the suckiness.

When it comes to being a hero in Romancelandia, it’s all about your sign, your Greek sign that is. Or perhaps I should say symbol. Are you an Alpha: big, strong and manly? A Beta: more cerebral, some dare might say geekish? Or are you an Omega, Theta, or Phi Delta Kappa (which all may not have definitions so much as frat boy followings)? Visit any discussion board and you’ll find these terms thrown around with some male name attached (Dane, Hawk, Connor, Ash, insert manly name here), and conversations like this:

Poster 1: Oh that Dane, he was so *swoon*
Poster 2: Really? I thought he was an asshole.
Poster 1: You mean Alpha.
Poster 2: Definitely that other A word. Asshole. He didn’t need to grab Rosaline like that! And his little woman attitude? Don’t get me started.
Poster 1: He was being protective! He just wanted to keep her safe!
Poster 2: I wished he’d been more like Bernard; he actually listened when Cecily told him something.
Poster 1: Bernard? But he’s so…Beta.
Poster 2: Reasonable.
Poster 1: A wimp.
Poster 2: Just because he didn’t go in busting down doors.
Poster 1: That’s because he would bounce off them. Did he have any muscle mass at all?

Definitions. Stereotypes. By labeling characters with them we begin to define them with a narrow focus. Alpha: Big, strong, and silent. Beta: talkative, friendly, and wimpy. Instead of letting the lines blur we allow ourselves to be pulled in by these two-dimensional definitions and then read (and accept) stories about men (read: Alphas) that we’d probably kick in the balls in real life.

Treat me like that, bucko? I don’t think so. See you in court.

Some would (and do) claim that romance novels represent a basic fissure in female nature. On one hand we claim that we want the guy who understands us and can communicate in real life, but then we go and read about these tough guys who tell us what to do and when to do it. Perhaps the best explanation of this phenomenon is given by the character Alan in Eric Berlin’s “The Line that Picked Up a Thousand Babes (And How It Can Work For You)” upon being blown off yet again:

I'm a nice guy. I'm a goddamn nice guy. I say that not because I think it's true, but because that's what everybody says. Ask any girl who's known me for more than a week, and that's how they'll describe me. "Alan? He's a nice guy." They say that because, you know, hell, you know nice guys, right? Don't try to hurt people, try to be a gentleman. Treat people right, especially girls. Because that's what we learned girls are attracted to, they want to be treated right. Right? You get a bunch of girls together and get them talking about guys, and they'll dream you up the perfect gentleman. But when it comes to real life, oh man!, that's very different. Because you get those girls together and get them talking about real men, not figments of their imagination, but real people, and what do you get? (Mimicking.) "Ohhh, men are cum! Men are slime! Men are shits!" (You notice how all those words begin with "S"? I think there's something to that.) So, men are all these "S" words, all these and more, but who do the girls date? Who comes on to them at bars and who do they go home with? The slime! The shits! And after they get hurt, and they always do, they all me up to confide in me, because long ago we decided that we were "just going to be friends." (I swear, you girls need to get a whole new vocabulary; you've started so many goddamn clichés it's not funny.) So, these girls call me up and they say, "Alan, all guys are sliiiime!" And then they realize that they're talking to a guy, and they say, "Oh, except you, Alan, you're a nice guy. When you find a girlfriend, she's going to be such a lucky girl. But it can't be me because, well, I'm attracted to guys that are going to shit all over me." So great. So now I have all the friends I need, so why should I be a nice guy anymore? Huh? I think I'll be a shit now. Yeah! I think I'll learn some stupid pick-up lines and use them on girls who are dressed to get laid. I think I'll be proud of how loud I can belch. I think I'll use women like they're Black
and Decker screwdrivers! Sure! That's what girls really want to hear! So great. Life begins now, okay? OKAY? Come on, babe, let’s go home and FUCK!

Issues? Alan? Naah.

If he really is the nice guy that he’s claiming to be (despite the tantrum), Alan would be classified by the Romance Community as Beta (possibly with a side of, “Are you sure he’s not gay?”). In most novels he would be relegated to the role of wise-cracking sidekick who either doesn’t go in to the burning building at all (and if he does, he needs to be saved). He’s an enduring character in literature, but rarely ever the hero in Romancelandia (although he does occasionally get cast as the villain).

So why then, if this is true both of writing and nature, did the Beta Male definition continue on at all? I mean, he’s obviously not getting any. Christopher Moore claims in this new book, A Dirty Job* (which you should Go. Buy. NOW! Because it is out today), that:

While Alpha Males are often gifted with superior physical attributes—size, strength, speed, good looks—selected by evolution over the cons by the strongest surviving and, essentially, getting all the girls, the Beta Male gene has survived not by meeting and overcoming adversity, but by anticipating and avoiding it. That is, when the Alpha Males were out charging after mastodons, the Beta Males could imagine in advance that attacking what was essentially an angry, woolly bulldozer with a pointy stick might be a losing proposition, so they hung back at camp to console the grieving widows.

It would appear that Christopher Moore agrees with the basic romance tenets from this definition, but this is not the case. Each and every one of his books star the “Beta” hero (and a few talking animals, but everyone needs to have their quirks), who runs the gambit between cowardice and heroism, who sometimes gets the girl, and who always makes you smile (even as he occasionally makes you cry). In other words, they’re real. They’re your little brother, your best guy friend, your boyfriend, and that guy you have a beer with while you catch the game. They’re not really Betas, because they’re not two-dimensional and to use that definition would be to ignore the qualities and realities woven into the character.

Moore does not write romance, and I’m sure that many in Romancelandia will never pick him up (but they should; they’re missing out), but his characterizations prove that definitions are limiting. I’ve met huge, muscled men who just want to be loved for what they’re like on the inside. I’ve met geeky boys who treat women like second class citizens who don’t have a brain in their heads. People, real people, are not so easily defined, and the same should apply to characters in books. Sure there are reasons for the consistent fascination with the Alpha, the slamming of the Beta, but writers should reach beyond that to the three-dimensionality that we celebrate in the real world.

*And just to be clear, this is not a reference book or a humor book. It's fiction. A mix of Meet Joe Black (sans Brad Pitt), a dash of tequila and a hit of acid thrown into a blender.


lady t said...

I've noticed in Chick Lit,the Alpha/Beta charactizations extend to the ladies-9 times out of 10,your lead heroine has a gal pal,who offsets her in love one way or another-you also see this in click flicks with occasionally a witty gay guy as surrograte girl friend.

I think that Alphas survive,mainly because they're not all jerks. Look at Gone With The Wind,for example-Rhett Butler is very uber-male but he shows a hell of lot more sensitivity to the women in his life than the "noble" Ashley Wilkes,who if he lived today would either be a mall goth or one of those annoying career coaches I read about in Bait & Switch!

Some Betas wind up with the girl in other genres-I don't really read alot of romance,except for the paranormal kind so it's hard to judge.

Beth said...

I like me a good alpha hero, and even a good beta hero - but the point you make is exactly the point that soooooo many romance writers overlook: that can't be all there is to him. The two-dimensional thing is rampant. And excruciating to read.

Yay SBD!