August 30, 2016

Declawing the Wild Alpha Male and Other Tragedies

In a world without stranger danger, everyone wins. Click to get yours!
In a world without stranger danger, everyone wins. Click to get yours!

By Alexa Day

I enjoy a fantasy with a bit of an edge. I don’t see how that can be harmful. It’s my fantasy, and I know I’ll be okay, so why not go for a bit of a ride first?

Two smoking hot men push, carry, or otherwise manhandle me into the trunk of a very expensive car? Let’s go.

Robosexytimes? Yes, please.

One and done, hon? As long as we’re on the same page.

But let’s understand something first, right up front. I am not being fantasy-abducted by harmless people. The stranger at the end of the bar really is a stranger. That glorious specimen pacing the ring at the MMA tourney? He has a very specific idea of what my place in his life is, and it is not to make sure his jeans are pressed. Unless that’s a clever euphemism. Which is unlikely because he doesn’t use clever euphemisms.

I love it when these fellows turn up in erotic romance. For one thing, I don’t know what they’re going to do next. Maybe he’s killed people. Maybe he’s ordered people to kill people. The heroine’s safety is not guaranteed at all, and that’s a good thing. It might be the best of things. We learn more about ourselves when we don’t know what will happen next. Risk teaches. Risk opens the world.

With apologies to Gordon Gekko (Remember him? Am I old?), risk, for lack of a better word, is good. Risk in romance — a genre whose only unbreakable rule is that everyone will be happy at the end — should be better than good.

And so I am dismayed by the sudden steep increase in what I’ve been calling toothless stories and declawed heroes. The hero who is genuinely dangerous at the beginning of the story is a big ol’ cuddly sweetiepie at the end. The stranger in the dark who knows what you want because you told him what you want — he’s really a boyfriend on role-play night. Getting it on with one stranger while another one watches? No problem. It’s your hubby. He likes to indulge your kinky side. Isn’t he a catch?

This is starting to annoy the hell out of me for a handful of reasons.

First and foremost: It’s the gotcha. Listen, I understand that loads of readers only feel comfortable if the random stranger at the end of the bar turns out to be the very familiar husband. I also understand that this sort of thing can be made clear right from the start without losing an iota of heat. My esteemed colleague Rachel Kramer Bussel does the job quite nicely with her short story, “Flying Solo,” in Best Women’s Erotica of the Year. Check it out for a glimpse of marriage at its committed but omnivorous best. The heroine’s marriage isn’t concealed at all; it’s part of the kink. Take heart, fellow commitmentphobes.

I’m not sure why other authors need the surprise twist at the end of the story to remove the high sexual voltage built up during the story, but it’s not a great feeling for some of us readers. If you’ve ever reached into a bowl of M&M’s and discovered the hard way that they were Skittles, then you know what I mean. Not a single thing wrong with Skittles — unless you expected them to be something else. The gotcha is not cool. The gotcha is a bait and switch.

Next, consider the message. The toothless story is quietly telling us that it’s not really okay to fantasize about that giant in the alley unless we do so under the auspices of an existing relationship. It’s just fine to daydream about being hauled up against that brick wall for some consensual, recreational brutality — if you’re being handled by your boyfriend or your husband. If not, well … maybe you should get a man first. Then if and only if he says it’s okay and agrees to participate, you can start maybe getting what you want. You can have whatever you like, as long as you have it exclusively through him.

I can’t nope that hard enough. Does this genre stand for the male-sanctioned fantasy, even in stories written primarily by and for women? I certainly hope not.

And another thing — isn’t romance its own safety net? No one questions the mighty HEA and HFN, right? No matter where the road goes, no matter what happens in between, the hero and heroine end up facing the same direction, together and happier for it.

So what are we afraid of? There is little meaningful danger of lasting harm to the heroine. Hell, there’s almost no meaningful danger. Why are we hell-bent on protecting her from dangerous men? If he is hers, and they are to be together in the end, shouldn’t they go all the way, as far as they dare, even if it’s beyond our own untested boundaries?

I will address that tragic figure, the tamed or declawed alpha, last.

My esteemed colleague, Madeline Iva, did her level best to talk me down from a bout of hysteria I endured after discovering that one of my very favorite dangerous men of romance had been transformed into someone almost family friendly. “We want to have our cake and eat it, too,” she told me. “The bad girl fantasy with the good girl happy ending.”

The good girl happy ending terrifies me. The good girl happy ending is the promise of a safety that stifles, a sameness that suffocates. The good girl happy ending is the motorcycle in the front yard with the For Sale sign on it. But then I’m no good girl. I tried it for as long as I could, and now I don’t see the upside.

Madeline also referred me to a post she wrote on the topic, in which she describes the allure of Laura Kaye’s paranormal heroes. “Her readers,” she said, “enjoy a vicarious sense of victory when the heroine triumphs in taming the alpha male.”

That terrifies me, too. I have no desire to tame the alpha male. If he was not tame when he entered the story and came after the heroine, then isn’t he diminished by the happy ending? If the heroine tames the alpha hero, I’m not sure she’s won anything at all. In fact, he is losing the core of his fiery being, and she’s losing the man who attracted her at the beginning of the story.

Consider one last thought.

Are toothless stories and declawed heroes a way to build a socially acceptable fence around the wilderness of feminine fantasy? Are we building a world where some fancies are to be indulged and others shunned?
Are we comfortable with that world?

I cannot wait to hear what you’re thinking, of course. Sound off in the comments.

And follow Lady Smut. We’re really comfortable on the edge.

Alexa Day is the USA Today bestselling author of erotica and erotic romance with heroines who are anything but innocent. In her fictional worlds, strong, smart women discover excitement, adventure, and exceptional sex. A former bartender, one-time newspaper reporter, and recovering attorney, she likes her stories with just a touch of the inappropriate, and her literary mission is to stimulate the intellect and libido of her readers.

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  • Post authorElizabeth SaFleur

    My take on your questions: Are toothless stories and declawed heroes a way to build a socially acceptable fence around the wilderness of feminine fantasy? Are we building a world where some fancies are to be indulged and others shunned?
    Are we comfortable with that world?

    Yes, yes, and no. I think you’ve found a new niche to write! Alpha Males Untamed, Even at the End. I’d one-click my fingers off for those stories. I think Kresley Cole did a valiant job with this in her Gamemaker series. I mean, once a mobster, always a mobster…She didn’t castrate their badness as much as channel it for a good cause. But they were bad-ass alphas in the beginning and stayed that way to the bitter end.

    Great post, Alexa!

    Reply to Elizabeth SaFleur
  • Post authorMischa Eliot

    I don’t have an issue with AlphaMales that stay AlphaMales to the bitter end. I think my main issue is with how non-con the bdsm appears lately. “Nah, babe, we don’t need safe words or hard limits.. I’ll stop when you tell me to and we’ll talk it out and breathe until you get over it.” Which in the book this type of thing happened was him basically saying “You can’t say no, you can’t say anything. I’m going to do what I want and you’ll like it later even if you don’t like it now.”

    Yes, make them badass. Make them killers. Make her scared of them until she realizes “Oh wait… he cares about me. He’s not going to hurt me.” without the BIG BUT “as long as I never ever leave him.” because that’s kind of ridiculous.

    I think my other issue is the whiny-ass biatches. They WHINE about everything, even when they get exactly what they asked for because they are never ever happy – and I hear enough of that in RL. Noway do I want to read about it, too.

    Feel free to rebuttal.

    Reply to Mischa Eliot
    • Post authorMadeline Iva

      Are you thinking of a specific book? I feel like you’ve brought up this issue that I’m not exactly aware of…Is there a recent trend in BDSM romance where they by pass safe words and limits and all that negotiation? Is this done in a lot of BDSM books these days, or is it mostly in the Dark Romance/Dark Erotica realm?

      I felt the negotiation stuff was a step forward, because in history women have been much worse at negotiating for the sex they want compared to men.

      Do you like the non-consensual bdsm fantasy?

      Reply to Madeline Iva
      • Post authorMischa Eliot

        Some books I’ve read have completely skipped consensual limits/safe words. One series I read even brought it up. A character mentioned something she wouldn’t do, second character asked “that’s your hard limit?”, first character responds “oh, what’s that?” Then after the detailed explanation, responds “oh, we don’t use safe words. Blahblahblah.”
        Eventually, age was talked into doing the thing she didn’t want to do. 😑

        I’ve found more and more erotic novels that skip it altogether and books that have contacts like 50sog without the actual contact in the book.
        There doesn’t seem much in the middle. It’s simple. Two lines. “Do you have a safe word?”
        “Yes, my safe word is pumpernickel.”
        I’ve done books without safe words or hard limits mentioned but I make it apparent they’ve discussed it at some point and all parties know it/them.

        Reply to Mischa Eliot
        • Post authorAlexa Day

          It’s simple. Two lines. “Do you have a safe word?”
          “Yes, my safe word is pumpernickel.”

          OMG, yes. I’ve only seen people skip over the safeword a couple of times because it makes me roll my eyes hard, but I’ve thought the same thing. This takes three seconds and KEEPS YOU FROM BEING KILLED. Skipping it is like deciding that you need neither helmet nor shoes to ride a motorcycle.

          Reply to Alexa Day
          • Post authorMischa Eliot

            I understand skipping over safe word/hard limit conversations {in my own work} when they are a long-time couple who know these things and they haven’t changed or the change was discussed “off-stage”. But the option is still there. I had someone tell me my Sizzling Nibble: Beloved Pet was non-con. THEN said they enjoyed 50SOG. I cried inside over that one.
            It’s just difficult seeing people who met a week ago, collided in a bad way, and the next thing he’s tying her up and she’s crying and scared. WTF?

            Mischa Eliot
      • Post authorMischa Eliot

        Regarding non-con… no, I don’t particularly like it. I think it’s more my personal stubbornness of “why the hell would you allow someone to treat you like that?”
        I get it’s a fantasy, but I prefer pale that can say no or pumpernickel and their feelings and needs are taken seriously. The dom stops and assesses.

        If the characters are purposefully pushing limits with prior knowledge then it’s not non-con but still has that effect. Will she say the safe word? Will he began for more?
        I’ve read/listened to stories like that. They were told to do such and such but had the choice whether or not to follow-through.

        Reply to Mischa Eliot
  • Post authorMadeline Iva

    Alpha Males Untamed — YES! You just wrote a manifesto — but an EROTICA manifesto. And cut off the story at the end of the hottest sex ever while they’re still panting. Don’t let us worry about how it ends and where they’re at five years from now. That’s when us good girls start to cringe.

    Reply to Madeline Iva
    • Post authorAlexa Day

      Nope. It goes in erotic romance. It goes in erotic romance or there are problems with erotic romance.

      Problem 1. Pushing the rest of us (those of us who are not good girls and rather enjoy that lifestyle) out of romance says that we do not deserve and are not entitled to a love story with an optimistic ending. It matters not that other people cannot see what happens in five years. The HFN, which is romance, says that doesn’t matter. Romance doesn’t have to end with wedding bells and babies anymore, thank God. That was keeping me from writing romance.

      We are entitled to and do deserve the happy ending of our choice, with the man of our choice, in a relationship that diminishes or ‘tames’ neither of us. Period.

      Problem 2. Pushing the rest of us out of romance denies the reader the chance to expand her comfort zone. Some of us want to cringe. It comes before leaning forward. To deny those readers the opportunity to wonder is to play into the worst stereotypes of romance — the ones that say that these are sweet little books for sweet little girls.

      A broader world of romance is good for everybody. No one is saying you’ve got to write or read about those of us who are not good girls. But those of us who are not good girls should be able to read romances about ourselves.

      Problem 3. I am troubled by the suggestion that those of us who are not good girls cannot be in long term relationships with the baddest of the bad boys. My observations certainly suggest otherwise.

      Do we really want to go back to the time when romances were about one sort of people because we couldn’t imagine relationships with other sorts of people? (Well, some people couldn’t imagine those relationships. Some people were forced to imagine them because no one was writing about them.)

      The manifesto is for romance. We’re here.

      Reply to Alexa Day
  • Post authorMadeline Iva

    I mean, what I find interesting is that I would have thought that what you’re talking about, Alexa, is the Dark Romance/Dark Erotica realm. But that genre seems to be more about a kind of claustrophobic/pressure cooker atmosphere or tone. They still ‘make things right’ in these books–I was shocked when I started reading a few. I thought that the whole point of dark romance/erotica was that things could be totally f**ked up, it was all good.

    But maybe this genre is really just the incestuous step-child of V.C.Andrews books or something — it’s all about a horror atmosphere with these real tingly-wrong elements, but it all gets sorted at the end into a fairly de-clawed happy/sad ending. Sorta? I don’t know. I’m not an expert on this genre. Where is Skye Warren when you need her?

    Anyway — is this the realm where the Untamed Alphas belong?

    Reply to Madeline Iva
    • Post authorAlexa Day

      You know, I’m not an expert on dark romance myself. My very limited experience with it is that the situations are dark and that one character, usually the hero, lives and/or works outside society’s polite boundaries and that this dark world gives rise to the romance. I have seen a couple of good heroes end up relatively tame at the end of these stories, but I can’t pretend I know enough to say that it’s something that happens often.

      I don’t know if that’s a Wild Alpha Sanctuary, but I have a project in the queue that’s probably headed that direction. Nice, dark postapocalyptic world, no holds barred, just in time for the election. 🙂

      Reply to Alexa Day
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