by Olivia Knight
My favourite heroines – to write, to read, to watch – are alpha. In A bluffer's guide to… Paranormals, I said this of the heroines, “Alpha-females to a woman: there’s no time for simpering flowers when you’re locked in a battle against forces what man was not meant to wot of. These chicks are tough: they’ll gut ex-lovers, eat snakes to survive, lead armies, face down the devil, catch werewolves, exorcise demons, endure bitter physical hardship, and wield insane amounts of power. They’re queens, time-travellers, priestesses, sorceresses, reincarnated witches, and goddesses.” But before humbly kowtowing to their acknowledged superiority, let’s be clear what alpha females are – and what they are not.
These are NOT the heroines who prove “women are strong too” – been there, done that, inherited my grandmother’s t-shirt on the subject. These are not heroines who have to be a tougher cookie than the men to survive in a gritty dog-eat-dog man’s world (the New York Bronx accent is creeping up on me already) but get them home and they’re not only tough but warm-hearted, loving and sincere; voted most likely to be a waitress and single mum in a touching comedic drama. Above all, it is not heroines who achieve the ends of success with womanly wiles / tact / delicate social manipulation / et cetera / ad infinitum – the oh-wow-the-company-has-more-profits-with-this-compassionate-firm-but-fair-woman-at-the-helm notion. Probably nothing wrong with that, but it’s not alpha. The alpha female isn’t a feminist recuperation of strength or even palatable to most feminists. I am not singing Sisters are doing it for themselves or Independent Woman (although, if you want to know what Independent Woman would sound like if sung by kittens from the north of England, click here).
Alpha rules. Automatically, intrinsically, very often literally, albeit sometimes at the end of a sword.
‘Feels good, doesn’t it?’ he murmured. His cock was stirring against her. The room was silent, the onlookers tense and bewildered. She strove to think of something which would give her strength, some concrete talisman against the spell which held her. Thomas was a blur – the castle, a shell – the country, just land – then her mind landed on the mandala. The two teardrops interlocked; in the gold, a drop of silver, and in the blue, a drop of green. His hands roamed her back and rump, guiding her to nest his erection between her thighs. Lust swelled. She fixed the mandala in her vision as her hand ran up his chest, down his arm, and onto her sword-hilt. As she stepped back and swirled around, she drew the sword in one fluid movement and completed the circle with its blade raised and level, running smoothly across his neck. He staggered back, clutching the wound, his eyes agape. He tried to speak, but blood hissed and bubbled at his throat. The choker strangled her like a noose. She could neither breathe nor utter a word, but she stepped back neatly as Thomas had taught her and ran the duke through. His wild eyes stared down at the new wound. When she pulled the sword out, he fell, and she stamped hard on his heart. Blood sprayed through both cuts; his eyes rolled up. As his head fell back, the choker fell open and tumbled off, its curse broken. Her sword tip on the ground, her dress splashed with Kardan’s blood, she looked up at her counsellors.
‘Remember this,’ she said. ‘This is how I deal with traitors.’
Alpha heroines are Not Nice – they’re not the ones you want to be your best friends, they’re the ones you want to be. The ones who leave you ten foot tall, walking as if you’re doing the ground a favour, swanning through grateful air, eyes burning as you plan your world-domination. These women are powerful:
Abruptly, she was above the surface again, imbuing her body with the furnace-heat of that furious, determined spark. As her arms rose, the gargantuan power flowed upwards into them, a borrowed force that could tear down heaven and hell by simply outlasting them, that had existed long before them and would continue after.
She saw the Devil again, with her own eyes and with the Mother’s, no longer as the most powerful and ancient of evils to confront humanity but as an upstart. … Her mouth opened in a roar, and the words that rolled like lava from her tongue, the Mother’s words and her own, were ‘Leave my child alone!’
The sound rolled outwards from her, in concentric waves across the meadows, out onto the river, up the avenue, rebounding off the tall college walls and crashing back across them. Her body shone with radiance, her human eyes could hardly withstand the brilliance of Adrian. He stood upright, beyond the Devil, no longer needing support as the silver core of him coalesced into a whole once more and his luminous eyes met hers. A net of light spun itself between them, a spider’s web, a canopy, of pure silver. Spears of power passed between them, from eyes to eyes, forehead to forehead, breast to breast, groin to groin, each a lance through the crumbling edifice of evil between them. As the old man’s shape drifted into dust, the flaming giants rose up from them at last, again, reached out, and held each other close.
These heroines fight back – with scorcery and swords, with arson and armies. If there’s a village under attack, they don’t get rescued, they gallop in with sword whirring. If there’s a country, they rule it. If there’s a battle, they lead it. If there’s an enemy, they fight it. With the power, you see, comes the responsibility:
‘Can you even begin to understand what you’ve done?’ His voice resonated, shaking the tree she hung onto. ‘We are the guardians of fate. But you thought you knew better – you! Who can’t see the consequences of even one of your actions!’ His scorn slashed through her. ‘Thanks to you, the whole fabric of fate is creaking with strain. The further it goes off course, the harder to realign it. It was so simple – one tiny act – and for that, a man’s heart broke, another man died. And still, you wouldn’t listen to us! Now whole towns are laid to waste, whole countries teeter.’
‘Let them die,’ she screamed. He was close enough to see her face glistening with tears, contorted. ‘They deserve it!’
‘Nina!’ he bellowed.
She spun around to face him, blazing. Her eyes were wild and thick with tears. ‘My children are killing my children!’
Alpha females don’t get an easy time, as heroines: they must be strong as iron, endure without complaint, and never even whimper. I thought I put Nina through her paces, in The Dragon Lord – she suffers such unbearable pain that she habitually throws herself onto a stone floor to knock herself out, she hikes naked through rough terrain for days, hallucinating, she scrapes off her own skin with a rock – and then I wrote The Three Riddles, and learnt how to really punish a heroine. Having lost one lover and gutted the other, Pearl gallops off on her trials: alone on horseback in midwinter, eating snakes and field mice to survive, finding the burnt corpses of her subjects piled in heaps, tormented by a vulgar little being, fording freezing rivers, dragged across frozen ground by her horse, tapping its veins for nourishment, swimming an icy lake, and when she’s bleeding, malnourished, hypothermic, emotionally drained, and weak as a kitten, she gets attacked by a wolf. And that's why she's Queen: because giving up is not an option.
Featured alpha heroines from left to right: • The Bride in Kill Bill, played by Uma Thurman • Pearl in The Three Riddles in Enchanted • Queen Elizabeth I, here played by Cate Blanchett • Nina in The Dragon Lord in Magic and Desire • Angelina Jolie, here as Mrs Smith in Mr and Mrs Smith • Sarah in The Ten Visions • Officer Aeryn Sun in Farscape, played by Claudia Black
So who are your favourite alpha females? What do you most love about them? And how do they make you feel?