The generations who grew up watching early Disney movies are familiar with two female archetypes. The first, the good one, was the protagonist with huge eyes and a sweet, confused cadence who sang about unrequited love while knotting together live squirrels to mop the floors.
The second was both her counterpart and opposite—the dark figure lurking just out of frame, dashing down dungeon stairs and wearing high-collared capes, that, to be fair, really highlighted her cheekbones. She was The Evil Queen, the power-hungry, defiant woman who made life very hard for the young ingénue, sometimes by trying to kill her, usually by forcing her to flee into the woods. Before Elsa was throwing ice darts, there was the Wicked Queen, poisoning apples.
In the articles about Suzanne Venkner’s new book, The Alpha Female’s Guide to Men and Marriage, one might recognize this latter archetype because “alpha” women are painted as fairytale villains: cold, overbearing, negative women who grab at power in relationships, and, like Maleficent, keep the hearts of their long-suffering partners in metaphorical boxes by demanding to lead instead of follow.
These women, as Fox News put it, are “unable to love;” a tragedy we can blame on society for lying to women about their appropriate roles. In feminism’s rush to create self-sufficient women, it unwittingly created the worst possible creatures: women who no longer understand how to be good wives.
These alphas are too demanding, overbearing and controlling, says Venker, and these shortcomings may be single-handedly ruining their marriages.
“All strong women who don’t want to get divorced should read this book,” warns The Federalist, praising Venker for showing women how to save their marriage from “feminist hell.”
“Men are just so much simpler than women,” Venker says, “What men want most of all is respect, companionship and sex.” Which is why Venker argues that wives should acquiesce to sex, even when they don’t feel like it, talk less, and embrace their inner beta.
Venker has a way of oversimplifying human connection. “In chess, the king is the most important piece but also one of the weakest. He can only move one square in any direction—up, down, to the sides and diagonally,” says Venker. “The queen, however, is the most powerful piece. She can move in any one direction—forward, backward, sideways or diagonally. And how she moves affects how he moves.”
If all a reader gets from Venker’s advice is an understanding of the simple rules of chess, the advice may have served its best purpose; however, humans are determined to be more complicated than chess pieces, and men, thank God, are much more capable at making decisions than Venker suggests.
A man can choose, for instance, whether or not he enjoys dating a strong-headed woman. A man can choose whether he wants to be in a relationship with someone who is self-reliant (a quality that Venker portrays as a less-than-desirable in a woman— “self-reliance is exhausting,” Venker says. “Making all the decisions is exhausting.”)
To Venker, all men fit into one box: Men want to be the only leaders in a relationship; they want partners who are compliant followers. They want wives who don’t talk too much, who “shut up for once,” as The Federalist put it.
To validate Venker’s advice, men would have to have unwittingly fallen into relationships with assertive, independent women, as opposed to having been attracted to those qualities in the first place.
The type of women Venker describes as “alphas” can be loud, demanding, argumentative creatures, but they’re hardly ever boring, stagnant or uninterested in challenge. For the right partner, that’s exactly the right fit. It’d be a shame to rid the world of alpha women, telling them to be less and be quiet, just as they were getting good at being loud.
Venker’s argument suggests that a woman’s strength, drive and independence are at odds with her femininity and ability to love and be a supportive. A woman can support her partner joyfully, and she can do it while being a scary, self-reliant, decision-making alpha.
The heart of the problem with Venker’s argument is it focuses, specifically, on a woman’s duty to serve, listen and give up power in a relationship. Many relationships could benefit from both parties doing a little more of that. But this would, of course, suggest that each couple was unique; it would suggest that not all men’s desires were the same, and not all independent women were causing trouble with their defiance. None of that would fit into Venker’s chess-board view of relationships.