By Courtney Bibbs, Katherine Berko & Sai Panguluri
What is an alpha hero?
The alpha hero is one of the most prevalent archetypes in the genre of romance fiction. This hero has existed since the first romance novel, Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded was penned in 1740 (Regis, 78). That same alpha hero continues to be written and rewritten today. Many different types of alpha heroes exist, but at their core most alpha heroes possess certain characteristics that allow them to be easily distinguished from other archetypes. Author Doreen Owens Malek puts it very simply, the alpha hero is a “strong, dominant, aggressive male brought to the point of surrender by a woman” (Krentz, 74). The idea that the hero should be emotionally defeated by the heroine is often an important aspect of alpha male characterization. Another author, Robyn Donald, further establishes this point when she notes that “it is the hero’s task in the book to present a suitable challenge to the heroine” (Krentz, 81). The strength of the hero becomes a measure of the heroine’s power, and it speaks to the force of love between those characters. [CB]
The powerful characterization of the alpha hero archetype serves as a literary technique that allows authors to stage the points in the story when the hero makes exceptions for the heroine. These exceptions turn out to be noteworthy because of the portrayal of the alpha hero as a dominant, rigid, and otherwise stoic individual. The most significant attribute that distinguishes alpha heroes from other characters within a story is their dominance. Generally speaking, the alpha hero “must feel he can dominate the relationship, the woman, or the situation the characters are in” and he “feels the need to control all situations involving the female protagonist or the scene” (Schmelz). [CB]
Traditional vs. Modern Alpha Heroes
The persistence of the alpha hero from the 18th century to the present has fostered a loose distinction between the traditional alpha heroes of early works in romance and the alpha heroes that have emerged more recently. The fact that the first traditional alphas existed soon after the year 1740 does not mean that this same hero is not also present in current literature. In fact, the defining characteristics of traditional alpha heroes have remained relatively stable despite being rewritten into contemporary novels. During an interview with The Popular Romance Project, romance scholar, Sarah Frantz, notes that most early romance novels featured a Byronic hero. This hero was popularized by Lord Byron in 1807 in his famous poem The Corsair. The Byronic hero exemplifies the more traditional alpha hero. Frantz also remarks that this “wounded, brooding, unapproachable hypermasculine ‘alpha male’” was still popular in the 1970s with blockbuster historical romances, and continues to thrive within subgenres of romance. However, the increasingly varied depiction of modern alpha heroes permits the author a bit more creativity in the development and character arc of the hero. Drawing these distinctions does not mean that the traditional alpha hero and the modern alpha hero do not possess a great deal in common. There are numerous traits, in addition to dominance, that both types of alpha heroes share. These heroes save the heroine from danger of some sort, be it physical, emotional, or otherwise, and usually have “no spending limit, and no worry about limits in general” (Schmelz). Both heroes tend to seriously lack sentimentality due to some internal anguish, and also share a myriad of physical traits. The iconic status of the traditional, often Byronic, alpha hero has paved the way for the appearance of other modern hero archetypes, such as the beta male hero. [CB]
Common Modern Alpha Hero Tropes
The modern alpha hero was born from the framework of the traditional archetype, and therefore they retain many things in common. However, the modern alpha hero occurs in several different manifestations. On the blog “Heroes and Heartbreakers”, Jacki Ashenden who writes romance fiction, distinguishes six alpha heroes in an effort to illustrate to critics that not all alpha heroes are the same. The six heroes that Ashenden identifies are “the playboy”, “the wounded alpha”, “the bad boy”, “the a-whole”, “the alpha in disguise”, and “the uptight alpha”. The playboy is “sexy, charming,” and “a fabulous lover” while the wounded alpha is “grumpy and surly” (Ashenden). The bad boy is more of a rebel and probably causes the reader to question whether he is redeemable. The a-whole is generally a jerk, and according to Ashenden the alpha in disguise is a hero who is “quiet” and “more laid-back” despite being very determined when it comes to competition. Finally, there is the uptight alpha who has “got rules and he follows them” (Ashenden). It is important to note that overlapping exists in these alpha types, but the fact that Ashenden is able to make a distinction between six alpha heroes speaks to the variety that seems to be more obviously distinguishable within modern alpha heroes. This is not to say that alpha heroes have been static characters historically speaking. However, the alpha hero tropes that have been elucidated by the growth and subdivision of the romance genre represent necessary modifications to suit more contemporary subject matter. The advent of numerous sub-genres within romance has triggered the need for various, modern alpha hero types. [CB]
The Lasting Popularity of Alpha Heroes
Women in the majority of modern, industrialized societies have progressed from being completely reliant on strong, working male providers for spouses and/or lovers to being able to financially support themselves or at least, substantially contribute to their familial incomes. Steven Ruggles, a professor in the Department of History at the University of Minnesota studied the U.S. Census from the past 40 years and found that, “In the mid-1970s, there were still more male-breadwinner families than dual earner families…[However,] by 2000, 70% of marriages were either dual-earner or had female breadwinners, and just 23% had solely male breadwinners” (22-23). It may than come as a surprise to many that patriarchal, romantic relationships between men and women featuring the infamous “alpha hero” have remained so immensely popular in the realm of romance fiction when women are now so much more independent than they were a mere 40 years ago. [KB]
In order to study the lasting popularity of the alpha hero among women, it is imperative to comprehend the immensity of the romance publishing industry. According to Romance Writers of America, in 2013, romance novel sales reached approximately $1.08 billion. Furthermore, 84% of those romance novel consumers were women (Romance Writers of America). Therefore, it is clear from the annual revenue of romance fiction sales ($1.08 billion) that people love their romance novels. It is also obvious that the majority of consumers contributing to that annual $1.08 billion are women (84%). Not every woman who buys romance novels necessarily buys them because she wants to read about an alpha hero. There are many women who prefer the beta hero to the alpha hero. Sarah Wendell, the famous blogger of Smart Bitches Trashy Books said during a talk that she “does not care for the alpha hero but loves to read about the beta hero.”
Despite the beta-lovers like Wendell, there are still a multitude of women who relish in their alpha heroes. As long as publishing companies like Harlequin or Avon are producing novels about alpha heroes, many of the women who make up that 84% of romance fiction buyers are purchasing and reading books about alphas. Lauren Schmelz, creator of the romance blog Write Divas, is just one of those many women that buys novels in which the alpha hero stars:
“I love reading a hot male protagonist flinging himself into harm’s way in order to protect the damsel in distress. So manly and chivalrous! The knight in shining armor comes to save the day. What woman doesn’t like to be saved especially if it’s a good-looking marine or swashbuckling pirate” (Schmelz).
Again, Schmelz is just one example out of a plethora of women who unashamedly admit to being infatuated with the alpha hero archetype.[KB]
Critics of the romance industry wonder why and how successful women can be such ferocious readers of frequently patriarchal novels. Blogger Olivia Waite criticizes and questions the longevity of the alpha male in romance:
“If the alpha male is a purely escapist fantasy…then it is an extremely specific and limiting one. And why one specific and limiting fantasy should be so overwhelmingly popular is precisely the point that critics like myself keep coming back to… If alpha heroes in all their multitudes are read purely for comfort, what does it say about our culture that we as women need so much comfort, so badly” (Waite).
Waite blames today’s culture for causing women to be such big fans of the alpha male. She states that women read the alpha male for comfort but criticizes modern culture for making women crave the comfort of an alpha male in the first place. Moreover, Waite snubs the alpha hero as an “extremely specific and limiting” fantasy. Academic scholar Catherine Roach further discusses criticism of the alpha male but questions whether it is valid criticism:
“Feminist scholars of the romance genre have long been engaged and troubled by this paradox: women seemingly love to read novels in which they are bound to men. Thus, the genre limits women (but does it?), yet the genre empowers women (but does it?)” (6).
Roach’s questions are precisely the questions that need to be explored. Does the romance genre limit women with the usage of alphas? Or does the genre with alphas empower women? If alphas do empower women, is that why women read them? The questions are never-ending but the exploration of why alpha heroes are so popular is about to unfold. [KB]
Many women enjoy reading romance novels because it reminds them of what being in love is like which, feels amazing: “It [love] can boost your feel-good dopamine—the neurotransmitter responsible for creating that romantic high—and the brain hormone oxytocin, which fosters feelings of attachment to a partner” (Benjamin). If reading romance novels releases happiness hormones than who can blame the avid romance readers? If a woman’s brain releases dopamine and oxytocin as she imagines the alpha hero in her novel than of course she will enjoy reading about him! That is biological: brain releases hormones, woman wants to continue reading about alpha.[KB]
However, several romance readers attribute the popularity of the alpha hero to evolution. Blogger Jackie C. Horne of Romance Novels for Feminists writes: “It’s not culture, which constructs men as powerful and women as powerless, but nature that makes women desire powerful, dominant, successful-i.e., alpha-men…This “alpha hero” thus became an avatar for the romance community” (Horne). Horne is saying that because of nature, women continue to buy and read books that feature alpha males. Their brains want the books about alphas because that is what their brains are wired to want. To elaborate on why women’s brains evolved this way:
“Until very recently…if a woman formed a close bondage with a man who was sensible, competent and quick-witted, one high up in the family or tribal pecking order, a man with the ability to provide food and protection for her and any children she might have, the chances of her children surviving were greater than those of a woman whose mate was inefficient” (Krentz 82).
Krentz explains that the alpha male is popular among women today because the alpha male was the mate women needed in order to receive food, protection and safe offspring until only recently ago. Thus, evolution hard-wired this “ideal” alpha-male figure in women’s brains because he was the man most likely to bring her safety. However, the flaw with this theory is there are women who do not enjoy reading about the alpha male. If alpha males were only popular because of biology and evolution, too many women would be genetic anomalies. Thus, there must be other reasons alphas have maintained such longevity in romance fiction. [KB]
Women who read romance novels are essentially reading fairytales; therefore, the alpha hero can be compared to the “Prince Charming” in any given fairytale. As writer Linda Lee points out, “Romance novels have much in common with traditional fairy tales…[they] invoke a fantasy realm” (52). According to Lee, romance novels provide an escape for women where they are free to do as they choose. Indulgence in a romance novel is, as Lee stated, like reading a fairytale because it is a fantasy; it is not true. If women are treating romance novels like fairytales that means these women do not necessarily expect to fall in love and marry men like their alphas. When a woman reads Cinderella she does not expect to meet a prince at a ball and marry him after he slides a glass slipper on her foot. In the same way, a woman does not read a romance novel and then expect an alpha male to come gallivanting into her life. Alpha males are a fantasy and that is why many women enjoy reading about them. [KB]
What is this “fantasy” that women experience when they read about alphas? Fantasy writer and romance reader Michelle Sagara gives her opinion on the matter:
“The big thing about alpha males in a romance-the thing that is fantasy is that they take care of everything themselves…They’ve got so much going on-they’re rich, they’re high status, they’re (generally) gorgeous-that they don’t require someone external to prop them in any way…You can say: that’s unrealistic…But that’s WHY it’s a fantasy. That’s what makes it an escape. It’s not a comfort because it’s same-old…it never was. Just like dragons never were. Or sorcery. Or magic swords. Or super heroes” (Sagara).
According to Sagara, the alpha male is unrealistic and thus, a fantasy. The alpha is this powerful guy who has money and status and beauty. He is a character as unlikely to walk into a woman’s life as a dragon is. The alpha shows up in romance novel after romance novel but in life, the alphas of romance fiction are rare if not non-existent. This is exactly why Sagara thinks women love the alpha male so much. It has been said that women know these fantasies are unrealistic: “[Romance readers] do not confuse reality with the fantasy presented; there is no element of belief in these genres” (Lee 56). Essentially, Lee says women read about alphas knowing very well that the men in their real lives will likely be different. When women read about alphas, they have transcended to another world.[KB]
Another common explanation women give for their obsession with alphas is that the alpha hero does everything for his heroine. When Sarah Wendell was asked why she thought women liked to read about alphas, she put it very succinctly: “There is something very reassuring about how men say, ‘It’s okay, I’ve got it.’ There is so much stuff in real life for women to balance that when a man says, ‘I will take care of you and your orgasm,’ that’s good! It’s appealing to us” (Wendell). Of course this may not be every woman’s reason for her love of alphas but many avid romance readers/bloggers give similar responses to Wendell. Bookpage.com hypothesized that: “Perhaps certain trends are a reaction to how incredibly busy women are today…With so many women working, raising children and basically being superheroes, the idea of being with an Alpha male who swoops in and takes care of everything is a stress-free escape” (Lily). The hypothesis here is that women are so stressed-out juggling their careers with their families they use romance novels with alpha heroes as an escape from their hectic lives. The alpha does everything for these women, which is fun, and relaxing for them to imagine; it’s a nice change for once. [KB]
On a different note, other women take pleasure from reading about alphas because a common theme in romance fiction is the alpha needs the heroine. The blogger Michelle Sagara gave her opinion on the alpha’s need for his heroine: “Readers give consent to the relationship not because the hero is an asshat but because…what he needs, undiluted, is the heroine” (Sagara). In defense of women who enjoy the alpha, Sagara demonstrates here that the attraction of the alpha male comes from his intense desire for his heroine. This makes complete sense; what woman would not be attracted to a man who would die if he could not be with her (and also happens to look like a God)? Krentz further elaborated on the alpha’s incredible devotion towards his heroine:
“Why do women enjoy reading about such men, whose only redeeming feature at first seems to be that they fall violently and completely in love with the heroine?…It has nothing to do with some masochistic need to be mastered. Indeed, in a romance the heroine is never mastered: she conquers the hero” (82).
Thus, according to Krentz, women not only love alphas because alphas need their heroines but they love alphas because when an alpha needs his heroine she has technically “conquered” the alpha. If this is the case, romance fiction may not be as sexist as critics make it out to be.[KB]
To further elaborate on this point, there are people in the romance industry who believe novels with alpha heroes actually conquer patriarchal norms or at least, help women to cope with patriarchal society. Surprising? Catherine Roach wrote in her article Getting a Good Man to Love that:
“Romance does deep psychic work for its readers by functioning as a fantasy antidote to patriarchy, to the extent that it is still a man’s world out there: the heroine and, vicariously, the female readers get that fantasy paradox of an alpha male who is strong and dominant, yet also caring and sensitive; sexy and desired, yet devoted totally to the heroine and her sexual pleasure; indeed he is helpless and lost without her love. Part of the reading pleasure, too, is the fantasy conquest of patriarchy” (9).
Therefore, Roach explains that the usage of alpha heroes in romance fiction is not just something that women enjoy because of biology/evolution or because they want a fantasy or want to feel needed but that women enjoy alphas because it can help them deal with this “paradox” they feel towards men. For many women, knowing that the alpha is “helpless and lost” without his heroine’s love, provides them with a sense of power that they have conquered the patriarchy. [KB]
The Emergence of the Beta Hero
Not all heroes in modern romance fiction are alphas – the emergence of the beta male has brought a little more variety to the genre. According to Amanda Diehl of the bookriot blog, “betas are more diverse in their characterization than their Alpha counterparts” but are in general “respectful…mild-mannered…free from any crippling emotional baggage,” and therefore are much closer to the “sweet, considerate guys you want to bring home to mom and dad.” Scarlett Leigh of Heroes and Heartbreakers blog says that beta heroes are “often everyday average Joes, but sometimes they do have it all – stunning looks, charm, success and wealth but retain that inner core of goodness,” emphasizing that there’s no specific characteristics that define a beta. In fact, “it’s easier to define a beta hero by what he isn’t” – the alpha (Wendell). He lacks the over-aggressive tendencies, possessiveness, and testosterone-driven dominance that make an alpha hero. According to Scarlett Leigh, “beta men are not emasculated men,” but just “showcase a different view of masculinity- focusing more on the hero putting the heroine or other people first rather than his own wants or desires,” and Professor and author Peter Graham would agree that “the beta male doesn’t buy into the basest stereotypes about male behavior.” His examination of the beta hero points out that the contemporary usage of the term “beta” can refer to “the second-most prestigious member of the group…backup to the alpha,” or one who “stands in opposition to the alpha…with [his values] being radically different from the alpha’s” (Graham). This second type of beta hero has “something rebellious” in him, because he “challenges the social order rather than succumbing to it” and he isn’t “constantly trying to prove his value in materialistic terms,” which is a direct contrast to the often ostentatiously wealthy and powerful status held by alpha heroes (Graham). [SP]
One particularly popular embodiment of the beta is the post-feminist “new lad” – a young, generally love-lorn, perfectly unremarkable main character represents an utterly “unheroic masculinity” that stands in direct contrast to the machismo of eras past (Gill). In general, beta heroes seem to have emerged in response to “alphole” or alpha-asshole hero that became particularly prevalent in the 1970s and 1980s. Smart Bitches, Trashy Books co-founders Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan coined the term “alphole” in their book, “Beyond Heaving Bosoms,” to refer to the “autocratic chest-pounders with a tendency toward rape or at the least forced seduction” that were “too assertive without any humility or honor…really, just assholes” (“Alpha New Year”). These betas were considered a refreshing break from the bombardment of alpholes and gained particular popularity in the 1980s after the peak of the bodice-rippers (Schwab). However, some readers considered betas too “dull” and uninteresting – “readers soon grew tired” of the New Age man and thus “the alpha man saw a triumphant return” (Schwab). In particular, the emergence of alpha heroes who had more beta tendencies bolstered the success of alpha heroes. The beta hero has not disappeared, and can still be seen in popular culture such as Peeta in the Hunger Games trilogy, Gus in The Fault in Our Stars, and in New Men such as Scott Pilgrim in Scott Pilgrim vs. The World.[SP]
(This clip, from Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, shows the title character and hero getting beaten up by one of his girlfriend’s evil ex-boyfriends. The so-called A-Lister, Lucas, is an action movie hero and embodies the aggressiveness and physical characteristics typical of alpha heroes. Scott is the epitome of the un-heroic “New Man” beta hero.)
Essentially, “just as every role in romance changes, the definition of alpha changes, too” and this has worked to the favor of the alpha’s popularity (“Alpha New Year”). Wendell believes that there has been a shift towards the portrayal of “alpha males who have strong moral integrity, a hidden tenderness or ability to be lethal while consistently choosing not to be.” The previously mentioned 6 contemporary popular tropes of alpha heroes includes the “a-whole” but also the “alpha in disguise, the “wounded alpha,” and the “uptight alpha” who display beta characteristics such as emotional vulnerability or a more “laid-back” attitude. As one romance blogger puts it, “the lines are being blurred between alpha and beta” and giving rise to characters like Marvel’s Thor, who “doesn’t meet the requirements for either [alpha or beta] but rather both” (“There’s Something”). There are more and more heroes emerging who don’t strictly fit all the old requirements of an alpha hero, or who were “born with a sensitive, beta-type personality but raised in an abusive, be-tough-or-get-crushed-environment…and [grew] up to be more of an alpha male” (Brockmann). It’s the beta at the heart of the alpha hero who really draws us in,” says author Charlotte Stein, and as contemporary alpha heroes seem to adapt and convey more emotion and vulnerability, they retain their popularity as the dominating male archetype in romance fiction. [SP]
The “alpha male” has existed since the outset of romance fiction, but what it means to be an alpha character has changed in the last few decades. While traditional displays of masculinity such as strength, brawn, and status are often present in alpha heroes, there is greater diversity in modern alpha male tropes that allow heroes to display more emotion. The romance fiction market consists of mostly women, and as many bloggers, authors, and researchers point out, these women use the books that they read as sort of an escape mechanism or to engage with the books as a fantasy, almost similar to fairy tales. There is a biological or evolutionary element, some say, to women’s attraction to male alpha tendencies. Many readers, authors, and bloggers point out that often in romance novels, the alpha hero is in fact tamed or conquered by the heroine, which makes the dominant male trope much more palatable by feminism. The reasons that different women enjoy alpha heroes are widely varied, and there is no 1 specific cause for it, but an interaction of many different factors that contributed to their appeal. However, some alphas archetypes were too aggressive – the alpha asshole, in particular, which became popular in the 1970s and 1980s, was not entirely palatable for the entire romance community. The Beta hero emerged as a reaction to these alpholes and is characterized by lack of machismo qualities. However, despite generally being more realistic and in many ways more palatable than alpha heroes, betas have not managed to capture the market away from their more aggressive counterparts, especially as the archetype of alpha has expanded to include more and more varied tropes. Modern alpha heroes, in adopting a few beta characteristics, have strengthened their hold on the romance fiction market and continue to maintain their popularity through the centuries. [SP]
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