WRITING FANTASY GENDER STEREOTYPES, PART THREE: Alphas, Betas, and Losers, Oh My!
In our discussion of gender stereotypes in fantasy fiction—and how to avoid writing them—we’ve only briefly touched on male stereotypes, particularly the visual stereotypes seen in today’s fantasy literature. While this article will seek to discuss these visual stereotypes, I believe that it’s hard to separate the visual stereotype from the personality stereotype when it comes to male characters, so I’d like to take a look at what that means for readers and how visual & personality stereotypes of male characters can both help and hinder writers of fantasy fiction.
The Alpha Male
You’re likely already familiar with a few of these male stereotypes—anyone remember Robert Jordan’s Conan series? Be honest. Bring those covers to the forefront of your memory: Glistening pectorals, giant swords, angry monsters, the occasional scantily-clad woman nearby, and the man himself positioned in a stance of aggression and/or dominance. You want alpha male? Look no further.
In fantasy fiction, the alpha male tends to be just that: Physically strong, and often ruggedly handsome. However, he’s not always defined in terms of beauty or attractiveness—his male-ness comes from his physical strength and aggression or decisiveness. These traits were what attractedfemale characters within the stories, and not necessarily the hero’s outward beauty. With an alpha male of this variety—which is found a lot more openly in pre-1990s fantasy works—there doesn’t seem to be the same kind of “this color of hair” or “this kind of clothing” commonalities associated with the stereotype.
The Loser Male
You know the type. These are the lonely, pathetic male characters often stereotyped as weak, nerdy, incapable, or scrawny, and are typically eitherdescribed as unattractive or less attractive than alpha males. When these characters show up in fantasy, it’s perhaps more typicalfor them to appear as villains or secondary character types—or the third member of a love triangle. They play sidekicks to the alpha males, and it’s not unusual for them to have a physical handicap or deformity of some kind. Again, unlike with female main characters, writers don’t seem to have an “unwritten stereotype rule” about hair color or weight or level of attractiveness for these male characters, just as long as they aren’t sexier than any alphas in the story. And if this guy is your main character? Well, then you’ve got another problem, because it’s entirely likely that you’re writing the newest of male stereotype to show up on the fantasy scene, also known as…
The Beta Male
Without pointing fingers or naming names, I bet you can bring one of these gentlemen to mind faster than I can say “sparkle.” The beta male is the newest, most intrusive male visual stereotype to show up in fantasy fiction, and I’d argue it’s the least relatable type of character for male fantasy fiction readers.
Not quite alphas, and not entirely falling into the “loser” category, these men—if we want to call them that—are drop-dead gorgeous without being smug about it, are in perfect physical condition (even if they don’t work to maintain it) but aren’t overly muscular, wear only the best clothes and shoes, and any scar or physical deformity only serves to make them more attractive to others around them. But what I’d say is the worst feature of this male stereotype is that they are
overly feminized, both in appearance and personality.
Shifting the Trends
In the previous decade, several fascinating studies were done on trends in characterization in fantasy fiction. In one study of fantasy novels from the 1980s and early 1990s, the researcher discovered that the trend of authors defining their male characters by intelligence had decreased from 71% to 57%. The shift here came with an increase in physical beauty and emotional strength as the main points of characterization, something which had previously only applied to female characters.*
While this study is almost 20 years old, I’d argue that the trend increased over time—and unlike the visual stereotypes of women, which less frequently appear in publication than they do on the draft pages of aspiring novelists—to the point where fantasy shelves in bookstores have become littered with feminized male characters.
Is this a problem that’s arisen because of the marked increase of females working in the publishing industry, or due to the influx of female authors? Are women unintentionally feminizing their male characters? I don’t have an answer to that, and it would be remiss of me to point fingers either way. The real problem here is this: If readers can’t relate to perfection (and who can?), then this stereotype has to go.
Thinking Inside the Box
No one can relate to perfection. We know that. The brooding, overly attractive, always-in-tune-with-his-emotions, woman-magnet beta male has to go. More than one commenter has lamented this very issue in the previous installments of this article series, and I agree with them, the same way I believe that the visual stereotype of female perfection needs to be shifted toward a more realistic, well-rounded treatment of the gender. I say the same for male stereotypes, but allow me to make another suggestion: What if we took a step backward… toward those early stereotypes of fantasy fiction?
Hear me out on this. With the early stereotypes, the visual aspect is fairly one-dimensional; we get either giant muscles and oozing sexuality, or a scrawny, brains-over-brawn character. And before you throw stones, consider this: Each of those early stereotypes has a clear, defined flaw or weakness. Instead of treating those stereotypes as anathema, why not use them as a starting point? Why not allow male characters to be men, and build them out of these very base sketches from the ground up, infusing them with real strengths and flaws along the way? And because the visual aspect of the stereotype is so sparse—look at those covers, after all!—there is so much leeway for today’s fantasy author to mold and shape their male character into someone truly unique, creative, and relatable.
And if you purposely create the beta male? Then that’s your prerogative as an author. However, it’s imperative to realize that your role as a writer is to present someone who your readers can relate to—someone they can see elements of themselves in—not to simply slap the equivalent of Michaelangelo’s David onto the page and give him a full black book in the first paragraph of Chapter One.
Where Are We Going?
It’s my hope, as a writer and a reader, that new and future authors will be able to learn from the shifting tides of social roles in our society, while still recalling the inclinations and deviations that come along with being either a male or female in not only our world but the worlds they create, reflecting that in their own fantasy fiction. This genre has come a long way since early days, and so have we. The end game?To finally eliminate gender stereotypes and write real peoplewho also happen to be male or female… and to tell a damn good story while we’re at it.
* Du Mont, Mary J. 1993. “Images of women in young adult science fiction and fantasy, 1970, 1980, and 1990: a comparative content analysis.” Voice of Youth Advocates16.