In March I wrote about how the relative status of heroes — alpha, beta, and gamma — affects romantic stories.
I suggested that romance writers tend to pair opposites, like alphas with betas, but that gamma heroines matched with gamma heroes make for more interesting stories.
So in this post, I’m going to put my theories to the test, and find examples of status pairings in romance movies, and see how they impact the story.
So let’s dive in!!
Alpha Male – Beta Female
50 Shades of Grey
Christian Grey is a rich, powerful (and 26-year-old!) CEO who seduces meek university student, Anastasia Steele, into his world of tame S&M. He is literally the dominant to her submissive.
But Ana wants more, and spends the first movie (I haven’t read the books) trying to convince Grey to date her for real. Sometimes the strongest power a beta has is to withhold.
Early in the second movie, her coyness yields success, and Grey agrees to a real relationship.
Ana doesn’t really have to change – she just holds out and gets what she wants in the end. Does Gray change? Yes, he learns to surrender to love at last, overcoming his troubled childhood.
The result is a solid enough romance, but their connection is certainly not one for the ages.
You’ve Got Mail
Joe Fox (Tom Hanks) is mean. Watch the scene in the grocery store, if you want proof.
He’s also the rich co-owner of a mega bookstore chain that’s about to put Kathleen Kelly’s Shop around the Corner out of business.
Kathleen does a lot of pouting and foot-stomping, but her clueless ‘just for the love of it!’ approach to business and life make her a beta, at least in contrast to Joe.
Joe also has all the power in their relationship, since during their anonymous email exchanges, he discovers her true identity early on, while she’s left in the dark for pretty much the whole movie.
And when he finally dumps his shallow girlfriend and decides to finally reveal the truth to salt-of-the-earth Kathleen, all she has to do is say tearfully, “I wanted it to be you.”
I actually kind of like this movie – maybe it’s nostalgia for a simpler time. But Kathleen is a flake, and Joe is an asshole. And without the secret between them to build tension, this romance would have been a big ‘ol flop.
Beauty and the Beast
We all know this tale as old as time about a spoiled young man who’s cursed to imprisonment in the body of a beast, and a life surrounded by talking flatware.
And finding love is literally his only possible salvation, making this a textbook depiction of the heroine acting as change agent for the hero.
His counterpart, Beauty, is an avid reader, caring daughter, and all round pleasant woman, but still a one-dimensional character. Yes, she has to learn to love the beast, but she doesn’t actually have a ton of choice in the matter.
This is certainly not a pairing I swoon over.
Alpha Female – Beta Male
You probably know the story of Hugh Grant’s bumbling bookstore owner, William Thacker, who cute-meets Hollywood movie star Anna Scott when he spills orange juice on her.
William may be the focus of this story, but he’s still a beta to Anna’s alpha. In fact, this movie plays out as a true inversion of the traditional alpha-male, beta-female romance – Anna is often distant and rude, but William seems to like her all the same – I guess because she’s famous and attractive?
But this movie is about William; Anna feels like a bit player since we barely catch a glimpse of her world.
William does have to change, but only to overcome his preconceptions about whether he’ll fit into her world. Anna doesn’t have to grow, since William’s willing to accept her, warts and all. All she has to do is make herself available.
So this is kind of an exception, since it’s the beta who’s changing and growing. But the romance is still lop-sided, and you never get a sense that these two belong together.
How Stella Got Her Groove Back
Stockbroker Stella visits Jamaica, and falls for student and wannabe doctor Winston, but the story really begins when she invites him home to San Francisco and tries to fit him in to her hectic, single-mother life.
Winston knows what he wants, but can he convince Stella he’s mature enough for her world?
This movie focuses almost entirely on Stella’s life and her uncertainty about Winston, so the romance itself isn’t especially well-developed. Stella is the only one who has to change; Winston just has to accept whatever she decides.
Gamma Female – Gamma Male
Pride and Prejudice
On the surface, Mr Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet may look like an alpha-beta couple – he’s rich and powerful (10,000 a year!) and seems arrogant, while she’s completely dependent on her father, whose property is entailed away from his five daughters.
Yes, there’s a wealth disparity. But, no one who reads or views this story would doubt that Darcy and Elizabeth are true equals.
But she has to overcome her prejudice, and see that Darcy isn’t the asshole she first assumes him to be, and he has to overcome his pride, and see that despite the differences in their stations, Elizabeth is his one and only.
This story creates that giddy feeling of romantic euphoria, because we know that these two are the only ones who can make each other happy, and because they each had to earn their happiness.
When Baby first sees Johnny, she’s smitten. He’s the alpha – that cool, sexy, leather-clad lead dancer to her geeky, cardigan-wearing, watermelon-carrying beta.
But no. She’s actually the (relatively) rich and powerful one, and Johnny’s actually a poor would-be house-painting schlub, forced to bed bored rich housewives to make end’s meet. This movie reminds us that power and status depend on context.
Johnny has to overcome his distrust, while Baby’s whole perspective on the world she lives in is shifted.
But, they both learn that they are equals in the things that matter, and maybe manage to change their world a little bit, too.
So even though Baby and Johnny don’t walk into the sunset hand in hand, and we’re not really sure if this love is forever, it’s still a very satisfying story because their romance feels meaningful and real.
Romances often pair alphas with betas. There’s nothing wrong with that, and those types of romances can be effective.
But, they also tend to be one-sided. The alpha learns and grows, while the beta tends to act more as a passive inspiration for their alpha partner, rather than having a story of their own.
But what’s the alternative? Matching two self-possessed alphas is hard – who’s going to inspire change?
And matching two betas… Well, there just wouldn’t be much conflict or drama to that kind of pairing. There’s a reason why Pride and Prejudice isn’t about Jane and Bingley.
This is why I prefer the more balanced gamma-gamma pairings. More equal partners are more likely to seem like they belong together, and that makes for more satisfying romances.