Alphas, Betas, Omegas, Oh My: The Dynamics of the Social World in Something in the Water
If you’ve read either Going Under or Submerged, the first two volumes of the Something in the Water series, you’re well aware the social world the characters inhabit is constructed as an alpha-beta-omega system.
This structure is common in shifter fiction, particularly when the characters are werewolves or wolf-shifters. Why would I adopt it for a series dealing with regular old people?
A (Discredited) Scientific Theory
The three social “statuses” theory originated in the 1960s. Scientists concluded wolf packs nominated a leader (the alpha). Beta animals were subordinate to the leader, often a sort of “second in command.” Omegas were bottom-rung, often bullied and harassed.
There was huge interest in this theory. Wolves are quite interesting to us as humans. They’re one of the only apex predators that hunt in cooperative packs. Tigers and bears are usually solitary. Wolves’ social system allows them to work together to bring down prey many times larger than they are.
Wolves are also the ancestors of modern dogs. By understanding the social world of wolves, we better understand the social behavior of our companion animals. If wolves function under an a/b/o system, then we need to establish ourselves as “alphas” in our “packs.”
Subsequent research shows wolf packs don’t actually function this way. These days, it’s more commonly understood that wolf packs are families. They consist of a breeding pair (mom and dad), with older offspring looking after newborn pups and adolescent wolves.
Adopting the System for Humans
Much like people grabbed Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection, people also latched onto the idea of a/b/o dynamics in human societies. Some people, they argued, were natural-born leaders with dominant personalities. Some people were submissive and obedient, ready to roll over and show their bellies at the first sign of a conflict.
It’s not exactly uncommon to hear someone refer to “alpha males” and “beta males” in the human context. It should be obvious that, if wolf packs don’t function this way, neither do human societies. These dynamics simplify things too much. While we like theories that allow us to fit everyone neatly into a little pigeonhole, we should recognize we’re ultimately trying to shove square pegs into round holes.
Nonetheless, the idea of alpha and beta males in human societies has become a popular way to explain why some people seem to get ahead. Alpha males are ready to go out and take what they want. Beta males end up needing to settle for the “leftovers,” inevitably leaving them frustrated with their subordinate positions.
Blurring Lines: Fictional Societies
People also like to adapt social and scientific theories into the sci-fi, paranormal, supernatural, or fantasy genres. One easy application of a/b/o dynamics is werewolf fiction. Since this system was ascribed to real-life wolf packs, it was very easy for writers and readers to envision a world where werewolves live in packs governed by the alpha-beta-omega dynamics.
The a/b/o dynamics were often adopted in kind for other shifters and were-creatures, even if it didn’t quite fit. Coyotes and lions are pack animals; tigers and bears, not so much.
Shifter fiction is often structured around a/b/o dynamics. Of course, since the theory often has implications around sexuality and sexual practices, it’s become increasingly common to see these systems with nary a were- or a shifter in sight.
The Sexual Norms of an A/B/O System
Within fiction, it’s common to see the alpha of the pack (male or female) needing to take a mate. This is in line with the idea that alpha male wolves would have preferential access to the breeding females in the pack.
Naturally, this sort of thing loans itself to romance. The alpha needs to take a mate. Lo and behold, our lucky hero/heroine just happens to be the alpha’s predestined mate!
Betas usually play a lesser role in the sexual dynamics of the a/b/o social structure. Omegas, being completely submissive and subordinate, are often implicated in it, however. They require a big strong alpha to take care of them because they’re so submissive and obedient.
Pheromones also play a role in this. Humans do produce and scent pheromones, but it happens on a subconscious level. We know other animals recognize each other by scents. Scents can communicate quite a bit about an individual animal.
In short, this system allows us to create humans who are somewhat more animalistic in some ways.
Going in Deeper
While most writers adopt a/b/o dynamics for the way it gives them freedom to simplify and ascribe an animalistic element to sexuality, this kind of system would create a very different social milieu than contemporary society has. Can you imagine if other people could recognize you by your scent? What would happen if omegas were at risk of going into heat at any time? What would clashes between alphas look like?
Alphas have more power than others in these social systems. Betas hold relative power. Omegas have little to no power. Alphas display “masculine” traits such as courage and aggressiveness under this system. People see omegas as weak, submissive, passive, cooperative, and ultimately in need of protection.
This complicates our gender binaries. What happens when you have a female alpha or a male omega? Where do betas slot in? Further, we can expect this wouldn’t impact just social and sexual relationships but also power dynamics. What “traditional” roles would alphas occupy? What roles would be left for omegas?
One of the reasons I adopted the system for both Slapshot! and Something in the Water is the way it opens up discussions about the ascription of social status based on genetic markers. In these worlds, individuals have no control over their status. They’re born omega or alpha, much the same way people in our world are born male or female (or somewhere in between), or black or white or brown or what have you.
Instantly, the markers that hold so much prestige in our world begin to take a backseat to the a/b/o dynamics. Alphas are leaders and expected to take on leadership roles. Omegas are submissive, and betas fall somewhere in between the two extremes. Since anyone could be an alpha or a beta or an omega, other factors like race, ethnicity, religion, sexuality, and sex/gender become less important markers (although they still matter).
Status becomes a stand-in for gender since the a/b/o dynamics of the Something in the Water series is bound up with sex and sexuality. Omegas are submissive, caring, emotional, and passive. Society gives them the role of “homemakers.” They’re ideal caretakers for the elderly and children. Alphas’ aggressiveness, extrovertedness, and leadership abilities make them ideal protectors, soldiers, and politicians.
In our terms, we could say omegas are “feminized” and alphas are “masculinized.” This isn’t quite the same as the masculine/feminine binary we encounter since anyone can be an alpha or an omega. In fact, male omegas are “double-bound” and viewed as “feminine” by society. Their maleness is overridden by their omega nature, rendering them more like females.
An Exploration of the Female Condition (through Males)
One reason to do this is to explore the female condition in our world. Gender ideologies in our own society are often invisible and difficult to subvert. When feminine stereotypes are deflected onto male bodies and identities, we begin to see those ideologies more clearly as they conflict with our understanding of gender.
Omegas are thus a way of exploring the female condition without using female bodies. Instead, explicitly male bodies begin occupying what we’d call “feminine spaces.” Reese, for example, struggles with his own masculine identity in light of the fact he’s both omega and gay (making him effectively triple-bound in his society).
Reese experiences discrimination on the basis of his status as omega. Omegas aren’t supposed to participate in sports. Since Reese has to take medications to control his omega nature and heat cycles, he can effectually be banned from sport for doping.
Echoes of the Real World
Reese’s fictional situation highlights debates about the participation of people like Caster Semenya in high-level sport in our own world. Although the results of a gender test were never published, it’s been speculated Semenya has intersex traits. Her genotype elevates her testosterone levels and puts her into a strange category. She’s situated somewhere between traditional understandings of “men” and “women,” of “male” and “female.” She’s participated in female sports and become highly acclaimed.
Her success, however, drew unwanted attention, which led to the gender test. Although rules on hypergonadism and high testosterone in women have been changed subsequently, some people still speculate that if people with high testosterone and intersex traits can declare themselves “female,” we’ll end up with no “true” female winners.
This has been a going concern for many years now. It’s particularly prevalent at the Olympic level, where fears of men participating as women have been ongoing. Paranoia about who counts as “male” and who counts as “female” in sports is nothing new.
Under the a/b/o dynamics in Something in the Water, omega males like Reese end up in a similar limbo state. They’re not quite male, not quite female. Reese suffers from depressed testosterone due to his omega nature. His medications balance his hormones to mimic a “normal” (alpha or beta) male. Reese thus faces a dilemma. He can either “dope” by trying to mask his omega nature and pass as a “normal male,” or he can embrace his omega nature and be barred from competition. Participating in the women’s category is not an option for him, but he’s not technically qualified as “male” either.
There’s a big question here. Why bother? After all, wouldn’t it be just as easy to write about female characters? Wouldn’t that get the same message across?
Yes … and no. By writing about male characters who end up in a feminized space or role, the exploration becomes two-pronged. Suddenly, we’re not concerned solely with feminine identity. We’re also concerned about male identity and the ways we construct masculinity.
It becomes a more nuanced exploration of the way gender ideologies shape our narratives. We see how people apply them in real life. It illustrates the way they break down. It’s exploration of the gray spaces between “male” and “female” identities.
And there’s a little smut thrown in on the side too.