Alpha-Beta, or opposites-attract stories are a common and winning formula in romances today. Fire and ice. Action and reaction. Passion versus logic.
While there are many different flavors for this particular formula, there is a gendered norm. Most commonly, the hero is the Alpha—logical, dominating, socially elevated, and emotionally distant. Add to this a passionate, sensitive heroine who is, if not an outright social outcast, at least on a lower level on the social spectrum. The hero gives the heroine security and fidelity. The heroine teaches the hero how to get in touch with his emotions. Sparks fly. Boots are knocked. Baby-strewn epilogues are had. Everyone goes home happy.
While there is certainly nothing wrong with this trope, the romances that reverse these gendered roles are all the more special to me for being rarer. I’m talking Alpha Female romances. Where the heroine is the strong, take-charge, emotionally scarred character partnered with a sweet, supportive, sly Beta male.
Here are my top five Alpha Females:
5. Sarah Walker from NBC’s Chuck
When a hapless retail employee recovering from a disastrous breakup accidentally downloads all of the United States’ secrets, a high-ranking CIA agent is called in to assess the damage. Only in Chuck’s case, the emotionally reserved, butt-kicking superspy is Sarah Walker, and it is the lovelorn nerd Chuck Bartowski who must be rescued. However, the lovely reversal of gender roles is only half the fun of this romantic pairing. Watching Sarah evolve through five seasons from the icy government handler in charge of guarding Chuck to the complex, compassionate woman in love with Chuck (and who can still swoop in and save the day, guns blazing) is one of the central plotlines of the show.
4. Lady Serena from A Lily Among Thorns by Rose Lerner
In this clever and poignant novel, the sexually-experienced, angst-ridden character with a web of underworld contacts is Lady Serena, and Solomon Hathaway is the unsure, innocent dyer who comes to her for assistance in tracking down a set of stolen jewels. While the sweet, righteous Solomon is no slouch of a hero (just watch what he can do with a vial of hydrochloric acid!), Serena is the master of her own destiny, perfectly willing to do whatever it takes to hold on to the independence she’s earned, a female character with smarts and agency. Serena is a heroine who Gets Things Done, and Solomon is more than willing to help her do it.
3. Martha Russell from A Lady Awakened by Cecelia Grant
Martha Russell is a rarity among historical heroines—a woman with an awareness of and a control over her own sexuality and sexual enjoyment. She hires feckless rake Theo Mirkwood to impregnate her with a child she can pass off as her late husband’s heir to prevent his cruel cousin from inheriting, and, much to Theo’s frustration and fascination, she refuses to take any enjoyment from the act. Not because she’s unaware of sexual pleasure, or prudishly trained to believe in its sinfulness, but because she sees pleasure as a surrender to be reserved only for a man she respects and admires. In order to ultimately pleasure Martha, Theo finds himself trying to impress her in other ways—by improving his relationship with his tenants and investing himself in his responsibilities as a landowner. Martha swears to never enjoy sex with a man she doesn’t respect, and thanks to Theo, she never does.
2. Phillipa Benning from Revealed by Kate Noble
Phillipa Benning is the type of Regency heroine who would usually end up face-down in a cake in a Julia Quinn novel: she unabashedly adores her position at the top of the ton’s social pyramid, she doesn’t care who knows it, and she’s willing to fight for that place she’s earned for herself. In a subgenre filled with barefoot hoydens who run around in pants and ride bareback, Phillipa is refreshing for enjoying the clothes, the jewels, the parties and the excess of her historical period while preserving her sharp wit and keen observational skills. She knows who she is and what she likes and doesn’t compromise herself for anyone, even Marcus Worth, a spy for the crown who, as a third son of a minor noble, is miles below her on the social ladder. While Marcus initially mistakes her for a frivolous social butterfly, he soon wises up and puts her skills to good use catching a French traitor.
1. Melanthe from For My Lady’s Heart by Laura Kinsale
A wealthy princess seemingly cursed with a heart of ice, Melanthe is actually a determined player in a deadly game of thrones, a woman who maintains her precarious independence amid murder and intrigue by constantly playing two powerful factions against each other. She suffers no fools, nor foolish emotions, until a steadfast, chaste knight named Ruadrik pledges his fealty to her. Melanthe is one of the most unapologetically cunning and intelligent heroines I’ve ever read, a heroine who watches out for her survival and the survival of those she cares about, uncaring of how cold or calculating she’s perceived as (even by the very people she’s protecting).
So who are your favorite Alpha Females?
Elizabeth Vail hails from Alberta, Canada. A book reviewer and aspiring YA writer, she currently runs the review blog Gossamer Obsessions under the screenname AnimeJune.