Regardless of what historical epoch their populations and culture are either based on or situated in, epic fantasy landscapes tend to be populated by a very specific subset of animals: big cats, horses, wolves, bears, deer, birds of prey, European livestock (cattle, sheep, chickens), domestic pets, rabbits, and dragons. Though you might occasionally find some ferrets, snakes or crocodiles to spice things up, generally speaking, there’s a profound Eurocentrism to the kind of animals you’ll encounter in fantasy novels, partly because the default fantasy environment is itself Eurocentric; and partly because, once you’re using less common animals, there’s the joint question of how to describe and reference them if their English names are either very clearly colonial or derive their meaning from a clearly real-world scientific canon (Thompson’s gazelle, the red panda, the Pallas cat, for instance); but mostly, I suspect, because we view such creatures as being universally generic, and therefore able to transcend affiliation to any particular country or region. By way of comparison, I can’t think of a single fantasy novel where kangaroos make an appearance: though fascinating creatures, both physically and aesthetically, their inclusion would inevitably make the reader think of Australia regardless of whether such an association would benefit the story, and so we tend not to take the risk. The exception to this rule, of course, is when writers are deliberately trying to evoke a particular sense of place: under those circumstances, the inclusion of certain animals becomes a type of narrative signposting, so that giraffes mean Africa, pandas mean China, yak mean Tibet, pet monkeys mean the Middle East, and so on.

Otherwise, though you don’t get much variety – and under some circumstances, that’s fine. But when we start treating animals as generic, there’s a very real loss of ecosystem: though perhaps unremarkable to the sensibilities and assumptions of urban readers, all those quest-inducing  forests, swamps and mountains tend to be either totally devoid of animal life (except for a plethora of conveniently edible rabbits), or else serve as the backdrop for a single, climactic animal attack (usually from a bear or wolves). And with that loss of ecosystem comes a lack of appreciation for animal behaviour: we start to think of animals as creatures whose only meaningful relationships are with humans. That being done, we lose all sense of subtlety  unless they occupy a background role, like pack-mules and hunting dogs, our fantasy animals are overwhelmingly portrayed in a way that skews heavily towards one of two wildly differing extremes. Either we romanticise and anthropomorphise to an alarming degree (faithful, loyal and freakishly sentient dogs or horses, near-magical wolves, noble and mystical stags), or else we demonise, with the creation of wild animals who exist only to menace humans (like ravenous wolves, child-eating lions, and monstrous bears).

So with all this baggage surrounding the presence and portrayal of animals in epic fantasy, what happens when we start building animalistic shapeshifter societies in urban fantasy?

Nothing good, is the short answer. More specifically, we get the Alpha Problem: endless tracts of sexism, misogyny, female exceptionalism, rigid social hierarchies maintained through a combination of violence and biological determinism, inescapable mating bonds, and a carte blanche excuse for male characters to behave like cavemen (and for female characters to accept it) on the slender justification that, as alphas, it’s both in their nature and what’s expected of them. And the thing is, I love urban fantasy, and I also really love shapeshifters. But it’s not often these days that I get to love the two things in combination, because apart from not being able to deal with the sheer profligacy of the aforementioned problems, I also can’t get past the fact that the logic on which they’re predicated – the logic of wolves – is overwhelmingly inaccurate.

For ages now, werewolves have maintained their status as not only the most widely-known, but easily most popular shapeshifters: as far as the Western mythological and folkloric (and thus Western SFFnal) canon is concerned, our concept of werewolves has set the standard for all subsequent depictions of shapeshifters generally – and, not unsurprisingly, our concept of werewolves has been historically influenced by our view of actual wolves. Though traditionally portrayed as sly, ravening monsters who hunt to kill, as enshrined in endless European stories from Little Red Riding Hood to Peter and the Wolf, our perception of wolves – and consequently, of werewolves – has changed drastically in the past few decades, undergoing something of a 360 degree reversal. Thanks in no small part to the superficial affectations of New Age spiritualism and its cherrypicking appropriation of various Native American cultures, such as the concept of spirit animals, our fantastic depictions of wolves began to change. Instead of being described as slavering, child-stealing beasts, they were instead ascribed a spiritual, near-magical status as guardians, wise warriors and compassionate, social predators, which in turn had an impact on werewolf stories. Instead of being little more than monsters in human skin, more nuanced portrayals of werewolves emerged; first in narratives which contrasted their sympathetic humanity with their unsympathetic and uncontrolled bestial natures, and then, finally, in stories where their animal side was shown as a to be a spiritual, even desirable attribute.

Thus: once our general image of wolves had been rehabilitated to the point where we could have positive, social werewolf stories rather than deploying them purely as horror elements, it was only logical that writers look to actual wolf behaviour for inspiration in writing werewolf culture. And what they found was terminology that could easily have been tailor-made for fantasists, with its Greek words and implications of feudal hierarchy: the language of alpha, beta, gamma and omega. The idea of an alpha mating pair lent itself handily to romance, while the idea of wolves battling for supremacy within rigidly defined family structures was practically a ready-made caste system. Writers took to it with a vengeance – and as a consequence, we now find ourselves in a situation where not only werewolves and other shapeshifters, but purely human romantic pairings both within and outside of fiction, are all discussed in the language of alpha and beta. Under this system, alphas are hypermasculine, aggressive, protective leaders, while betas are their more subdued, less assertive underlings. The terminology has becomes so widespread, even beyond fantasy contexts, that most people have probably heard of it; but in urban fantasy in particular, the logic of wolves has long since become a tailor-made justification for the inclusion and defense of alpha male characters. These alphas, who frequently double as love interests, display violent, controlling behaviour that would otherwise read as naked patriarchal wish-fulfillment: instead, their animal aspect is meant to excuse and normalise their aggression, on the grounds – often tacit, but always implied – that real wolves act that way. 

Except that, no: wolves don’t act that way – and what’s more, we’ve known they haven’t for over a decade;  even the alpha-beta terminology of wolf relationships is falling out of scientific parlance due to its inaccuracy. Which means that all the supposedly biologically-inspired logic underpinning those endless alphahole characters and male-only werewolf clans? That logic is bullshit, and has been practically since it was written. So how, then, did it all get started in the first place? The answer is surprisingly simple. Back in 1947, when wolf behaviour was very poorly understood, a man called Rudolph Schenkel published a monorgaph on wolf interactions based on his observations of what happened when totally unrelated wolves from different zoos were all brought together in the same closed environment – which is, of course, something that would never happen in the wild, and which therefore produced aberrant behaviour. This paper was subsequently cited heavily by wolf researcher L. David Mech in his book The Wolf: Ecology and Behaviour of an Endangered Species, which was first published in the 1970s. This being the first such book of its kind to be released for thirty-odd years, The Wolf became a massive success, was reprinted several times over the next two decades, and subsequently became a primary reference for many other researchers. But in the late 1990s, after studying wolves in the wild firsthand, Mech came to realise that the alpha-beta system was inaccurate; instead, wolves simply lived in family groups that formed in much the same way human families do. He published his new results in two papers in 1999 and 2000, and has been working since then to correct the misinformation his first book helped to spread. But of course, the trickle-down process is slow; though the new knowledge is accepted as accurate, the old terminology is still sometimes used by researchers who aren’t up to date.

So: given how long it’s taken the scientific community, Mech included, to cotton on to the truth of wolves, I’m not about to blame fantasy writers for having failed to know better, sooner. I will, however, fault them for using the alpha-beta system as an excuse to craft shapeshifter societies where female shifters are rare and special for no good reason; where women are expected to both love and excuse the aggressive behaviour of men; where punitive hierarchies are aggressively enforced; and where controlling, coercive, stalkerish actions are pardoned because It’s What Women Really Want. The decision to focus on masculine power and to make such societies male-dominated as a matter of biology was a conscious one, and while I’ve still enjoyed some stories whose shapeshifters operate under such parameters, I’ve always resented the parameters themselves. Off the top of my head, I can think of at least five urban fantasy series where female shifters are rare and male aggression rules their communities, but not a single one where the reverse is true, let alone one that’s simply female-dominated. And in a genre that’s renowned for its female protagonists and ostensible female agenda, I dislike the extent to which many of those women are made exceptional, not only by their lack of female associates, friends and family members, but their success within traditionally masculine environments as lone, acceptable women.

Though the truth of wolves wasn’t widely known when many such series were first begun, it’s certainly known now. While there’s certainly still room for a new interpretation of the alpha-beta system for shapeshifters in a purely fictional sense – perhaps one with an actual gender balance, or even (let’s go crazy) female dominance – I’m going to tear my hair out if I see any more new stories where alpha males are allowed to behave like terrible asshat jocks and never have their idiocy questioned Because Magic Biology. Wolves and werewolves will always have a special place in fantasy literature, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t question our portrayals of their sentience – or that we can’t reimagine their societies.

 

 

 

 

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Comments
  1. […] The Truth Of Wolves, Or: The Alpha Problem. […]

  2. darkwriter67 says:

    Reblogged this on Illuminite Caliginosus and commented:
    Urban Fantasy writers: you’re doing it wrong. Not like you didn’t know it, tho.

  3. Thank you for this! I had read critiques of the Alpha/Omega system while I was researching my own werewolf series (female dominated, actually) and it informed my decision not to make it all about hierarchy, but explore a family structure where leaders and followers exist, but not because of any predetermined ideas of dominance.

    And double thank you for calling out the trope for enabling and reifying misogyny.

  4. I’m so with you on this! Although I actually didn’t know about the wolves, the same things still annoy me. I don’t know if you’ve read Carrie Vaughn’s Kitty Norville books. I think they are a refreshing exception, although some of the problems are there as well, but at least the alpha structure is debated and challenged.

    • fozmeadows says:

      I agree with you about Carrie Vaughn – I’ve just ordered her second Kitty book, having enjoyed the first one :)

  5. […] now direct you to a post by fellow a WordPress blogger, The Truth of Wolves, Or: The Alpha Problem. Shattersnipe’s well-written post exposes the myth behind the role of dominance and submission […]

  6. […] Foz Meadows has a great post about how the portrayal of wolves, whether werewolves, direwolves or re… and how the whole domineering alpha werewolf concept (and have you ever noticed that werewolf heroes are all alphas?) is just sexist claptrap disguised as biology. […]

  7. Thank you for this post!
    This matter is concerning me awhile. As for me, I didn’t read much shapeshifter-fantasy, but fanfics. This trope, Alpha/Beta/Omega, become popular many years ago (it’s roots lying in ST-fandom, I think), but as for sudden, it become everywhere. In werewolf-related fandoms (like Teen Wolf) and not (like Person of Interest, omg), and all you’re saying is true, for exception it’s not only (and not particularly, for great prevalences slash fanfiction on het with this theme) female characters who suffer, but bottom gay men as well. Sometimes, even when an author writes fluf, it could be ugly and disturbing as hell.

    May I translate your post in Russian for those who don’t read English? I think it would be useful.

  8. […] Foz Meadows wrote The Truth of Wolves, or: The Alpha Problem. It’s fantastic. She takes down urban fantasy authors not for perpetuating the old science […]

  9. […] The Truth Of Wolves, Or: The Alpha Problem […]

  10. […] The Truth Of Wolves, Or: The Alpha Problem (fozmeadows.wordpress.com) […]

  11. Sgaile-beairt says:

    amusingly, the original jungle book got it right….

    ….also, ppl cld have been reading farley mowat & other naturalists living w wild wolves for several decades now (if they had any in terest in accuracy))

    • fozmeadows says:

      The Jungle Book and Second Jungle Book are two of my favourite novels ever. The first time I read the Outsong of the Jungle, I was on the train home from school as a teenager, and I cried. Kipling’s imperialism and all the things that flow from it are definitely problematic, but I can’t help loving those books.

  12. DM says:

    As a long-time fan of shapeshifters, particularly werewolves, I can’t agree with this piece more, and thank you for writing it. I started off loving stories about real wolf packs (even back before the Mech’s new research was published, most stories I ran into portrayed packs as complex families), so by the time I made it to werewolves, I was confused by the lack of the female werewolves, and worse, how frequent the portrayal of all of them as bloodthirsty monsters trying to mount everything was, especially the males. I just didn’t understand the point of werewolves who didn’t act like wolves, or really, any kind of major predator. Of course, I had yet to discover that people seem much more interested in dominance/submission hierarchies with heavy sexual overtones than wolves. Nothing wrong with that, it’s not just not what I hoped for at the werewolf party, and it left me pretty bummed. Especially with the surge of supernatural popularity going on now. It’s the werewolf’s time to shine, but it’s oh so very painful to me.

    I think I’ve encountered maybe three authors of primarily werewolf-focused stories who avoid the usual tropes, and though all come with their own fair share of problems, I’ve personally never found better: Blood and Chocolate by Annette Curtis Klaus, The Legends of the Wolves trilogy by Alice Borchardt, and (seconding the above rec) the Kitty Norville series by Carrie Vaughn.

    I guess three authors out of dozens isn’t so bad…

  13. Have you read Owl in Love by Patrice Kindl? I think it’s quite good, but I haven’t re-read it in awhile. http://books.google.com/books/about/Owl_in_Love.html?id=cq9BfeYjjS8C

  14. Kwizzy says:

    So much win, this.

    As an avid Animal Planet watcher as a child, I’ve always found the “crazy mckillerton” werewolf nonsensical at best, insulting to ecological and biological study at worst. Wolves don’t murder each other randomly, so why would magic wolfy influence do that? I didn’t know that the old alpha-beta model had been overturned. (Thanks for that!) I just knew it wasn’t as central in what I watched as the fiction made it seem. What clues me into the dishonesty behind the Because Biology excuse is that there’s no “sneaky males” or “wandering females” as can be the case in animal populations. Plus, Never Cry Wolf was all about a family of wolves that didn’t fit the whole alpha-beta model and instead fits the family model you mentioned.

    Even if hierarchy, male dominance, and alphaholes (best. word. ever.) is something an author wants to include, why pretend biology justifies it and makes it okay/desirable? Why can’t the human values of the characters be at odds with these toxic influences and why can’t the characters oppose them instead of blithely accepting and/or perpetuating it? What if the werewolves think that’s the nature of their kind, but it’s a construction used to perpetuate an authoritarian hierarchy and the characters realize how destructive it is and defy it, daring to go against a proposed “nature” to make life better for all of them? That would compensate nicely for having to deal with abusive alphaholes.

    And any kind of promotion of the idea that They Are Happy That Way Because It’s Their Nature should chill anyone, considering it’s history in oppressing/demonizing groups of human beings from within and without.

  15. pertusaria says:

    Neat article, thank you. You might enjoy “Lila the Werewolf”, by Peter S. Beagle, if you haven’t already – I don’t think there’s an alpha male in sight.

  16. […] The Truth Of Wolves, Or: The Alpha Problem: Contemporary urban fantasies would be more interesting if they based werewolf etc. fantasies on actual diverse animal social structures rather than old myth about alpha wolves. […]

  17. Allison moon has a great lesbian werewolf series that might be a good antidote for you!

  18. ERose says:

    Even as much as lazy biology, using the “exceptional female” version of shapeshifter cultures seems like very lazy character development. In fantasy in general, the genre seems so obsessed with making protagonists seem like the underdog in any situation, it’s almost easier if she’s the exceptional woman, because her gender makes her the automatic triumphant misfit and all you have to do is fill in a few colorful details to finish developing her character.

    I’ve also noticed that authors in the fantasy genre seem to do far less proper research on the real-world aspects they put into stories than they ought, usually in the service of lazy characterization.

    Need your soldier/warrior character to have tragic angst? Give her a PTSD-ish condition from a tortured past or make him a shapeshifter fighting against Primal Biology Urges or rape her. Borrow from stuff you already know about those things, including what you’ve already read in your own genre and it’ll be close enough.
    They’re easy to think up and recognizable enough in their sketchy form so as to need little explanation, and the character won’t need much else to drive them or shape their personality. But they do tend to provide a widespread skewed view of the real-world equivalent – I mean, how many people really do think the animal kingdom is a “natural” justification for misogyny?

  19. Laughing Hyena says:

    Thanks, I’m tired of this nonsense too in shapeshifter stories.
    And hyenas/Were-hyenas have it even worse in urban fantasy if they do ever get used. One of the biggest offenders of ‘not understanding how hyenas work at all’ is Laurell K. Hamilton.
    It’s like no one ever read Jane Goodall’s Innocent Killers or pays attention to Kay Holekamp’s recent studies on them.

  20. >Off the top of my head, I can think of at least five urban fantasy series where female shifters are rare and male aggression rules their communities, but not a single one where the reverse is true.

    *sigh* The author clearly has not heard of the Kitty the Werewolf series by Carrie Vaughn, now in its… um, tenth or eleventh book.

    In the very first book, there’s an alpha-male-dominated werewolf pack. It’s shown to be an abusive aberration that gets destroyed by the end of that novel. Kitty, despite her name, is totally the alpha bitch of the series and takes no shit from anyone… but gee, by all means let’s please just disregard the longest-running urban fantasy series with werewolves because it contradicts our main point, shall we?

    • fozmeadows says:

      Uh… the fact that I can think of five urban fantasy series that AREN’T Kitty Norville doesn’t mean that Kitty Norville alone disproves my point, or that I’ve never heard of it. I’m reading it currently, in fact, and think it’s awesome.

      Plus and also? I actually kinda know Carrie Vaughn, and when I first posted this piece to Facebook, she left a comment thanking me for having written it, as the trope phenomenon I’m describing was exactly the thing that she’s consistently been trying to subvert with her Kitty Norville books, and which annoys her elsewhere. So, yeah.

  21. meishuu says:

    Reblogged this on Whileaway and commented:
    A very interesting blog post regarding “Alpha wolves” and why biology just-doesn’t-work-that-way. As someone that majored in biology (althought I’m specialized in molecular biology and genentics), I find myself cringing every time I read the same paranormal tropes about this now subverted ideas about wolves. Please authors, go a read an updated paper on the subjects before you start writing about “hierarchy” in the animal kingdom. Science may try to be objective, but sciencists are still human beings, full of biases and prejuices.

  22. […] The Truth of Wolves, Or: The Alpha Problem, 12 May […]

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