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Alpha Malaise

2010 December 15

I keep hearing the word “alpha” and it keeps making me retch, so I’ve decided to crack my knuckles and take a punch. I am fed up of the way it is applied to humans. Specifically men. Specifically as a “good thing” for men to be and for straight women (more on a queer point of view later) to want to have in their partners.

Underlying it all is the idea that being an alpha male is a good idea (for men) and that having alpha males is a good idea for society.  I disagree.

So let’s look at some definitions to get the balls rolling. I’m using wiki and an A level in Biology here, so Actual Scientists please have your white lab coats and clipboards at the ready to score me on this one. The David Attenborough lexicon would have “alpha male” as a perfectly acceptable term for the dominant male in a group of pack animals (note that not all alphas found in nature are de facto male, and often you will find an “alpha pair” as the sole breeders in a group). This usually resembles a social set of multiple females and their young, sometimes including juvenile males. Social dynamics vary from species to species but generally the defining trait of the “alpha male”  is that he is the only sexually active male in the group – all the females mate with him alone and he will chase off or kill other males who approach.

stags fighting

Problem solving - if you are a male red deer

So far, so Darwin. By constantly battling to be top dog, the male maintains his status as physically fit to father offspring and consequently he’s the best genetic offering for the females. Now, let’s step away from the forest and into the urban jungle to look at human animals.

Why do we like to apply this term to men?

Superficially, it’s all very easy, obvious and media-friendly to ascribe animal behaviours and terminology to people for a handy reference point.  The list is vast and serves as shorthand for personalities. “Alpha male” carries with it all those connotations that we like to think of as traditionally masculine – aggression, sexual dominance, high status. However, like all metaphors it can be carried too far to be rendered meaningless, and this is absolutely the case with “alpha males”.

The parallels between humans and animals only go so far. We don’t live in a forest. We don’t hunt our food using our own hands and teeth. We don’t compete for space, food or shelter in the same way that animals do. We don’t live like animals, so why are we aspiring to their structures? Our society is complicated and challenging, and yes, there is competition, but the idea that we are basing all our actions on base instinct inherited from our ancestors, and that this is a good way to live is absurd, and frankly, oversimplistic.

Figures rubber stamping a document

Problem solving if you are a business man

Worse still than caveman antics, the term has become something for men to aspire to without really thinking of the consequences of persuading 50% of the population to butt heads and massacre every other man in sight. There are hundreds of websites dedicated to becoming an alpha male.  Some are quite tame and offer encouragement in leadership and confidence – good things for any person, but some are just plain nasty. Problems abound, including that contention that “feminine” traits are weak – read bad – and “masculine” traits are strong – read good.

Let’s get this straight from the get-go. I hate the use of the word “alpha male”. Whenever I hear it, my brain automatically erases those two words and replaces them with “wanker” or “desperately insecure”. I think it’s a terrible metaphor both for masculinity and for relationships between (straight) men and (straight) women, and the more we can question it the sooner we can throw it into the bin and come up with something a little bit better.  So on to the questioning.

What are the implications of having “alpha males” in our society? First, it creates a hierarchy in which the men who can bag the most women are the best.  Being an alpha is about being the manliest of men, and that means not being “feminine” or “gay” – both are of course bad things to be.

The inclusion of alphas in our society immediately makes it a sexist one – no room for the gay, the bi or the queer. No room for anything other than manly-men and womanly-women. And it places us all in an “us versus them” scenario with prospective partners.

Sexual conquest is all. This sets up a contest for male dominance which requires female (and other male) submission. In order to “win” the female must “lose” – as must the other men trying to get her. Women are a prize or a target. Other men are competition. Hardly the basis for a co-operative or productive society. This kind of scenario is clearly seen in the seduction community / pick up artist style of thinking which aims to reduce a woman’s confidence (often picking targets with low self esteem in the first place).

This is the power of the playschool bully and it’s high time that they grew up.

What we are looking at here is in fact a  zero sum power exchange in which no one wins.  Rather than both parties coming out of it feeling postive or ready to build something for the future, one of them is tricked and the other knows they have played a trick. It might be smug and satisfying to con someone into bed, but I don’t think that kind of underhanded behaviour is a worthwhile measure of a man.

Being an alpha male, or trying to be one, is bad for men. There are a few ways in which this works. The first is the manipulative gameplayer outlined above. That’s a common (and deeply unpleasant) way of living, but if all you want is sex, then it might make someone a terrible person but it might not make them feel bad about themselves. The other ways probably will. For one thing, if masculinity and self worth all about how attractive men are to women, then there’s a problem. This is a game that we women have been playing for a long time (being attractive to men, that is) and it’s not a lot of fun, so I don’t really advise it.

muscular male torso

Looking good, feeling yourself? Image from Flickr via dallasmuslworship

Look at the chap here, for example – he’s quite hard not to look at. You want to be an alpha? You want to attract the most ladies? Well, this is what you need to look like then – a torso you could play the xylophone on, and frankly who cares about your personality? Not sure about those pants though, baby. Here, let me help you with those.

A world in which we encourage men to become alphas is one in which we are telling them that their appearance and sexual attractiveness is their only important feature.

The other reality of the alpha male is a lonely and isolated existence, in which other men are to be rejected for fear they take away “your” women, and women themselves are only of use for the notch they can put in your bedpost. The nature of being an alpha is to be uncollaborative and unyielding, thereby contributing towards “strong and silent” archetypes that have coloured our view of maleness for many years, resulting in an idealised brooding male.

Being around an alpha male is also bad for women. It means being one of many “conquests” instead of someone special. It means always worrying about being played or being tricked.

It means that your partner just wants you for sex and possibly just to display their own ability to have sex with you. It means being valued for your ability to make them look good rather than because they enjoy your company or even, heaven forbid, like you. And in order to maintain this status quo they will constantly have to put you down in order to feel big, hard and clever. Ladies – this one is a keeper.

Having alpha males at all is bad for a proper, grown-up society. The alpha male condition reduces the wonderful variety of men in our midst into nothing more than adrenaline pumped, testosterone fuelled, muscle bound animals. Suitable only to fight each other and die for the glory of impregnation. It replaces personality with a set of operational parameters. And frankly, I want better for the men in my life and the men in the world.

And so should you.

7 Responses leave one →
  1. Russell permalink
    December 15, 2010

    Thank you so much for saying this. I probably should have more to say but I don’t, so just… thank you.

  2. December 15, 2010

    I am very proud to not be an Alpha-male! I’m hardly the strong and silent type, more the round and laughing type. Added to that, I work in a profession where asserting dominance over your colleagues means that people might die (I’m training as a nurse) and I have no interest in being the alpha male or anything else of my social group.

    The fact that there is a strong “male dynamic” that wants us to be Alphas is disturbing, as you rightly wrote above. I find it more disturbing that so many men want to believe in this ideal, not realising that it’s the characteristics found in the victims, not the bullies, that will ultimately come out on top. I think it was Glee’s Kurt who told bullies “one day you will all work for me” just before being thrown in a dumpster. For some reason men still think that to be the bigger man is a literal, not metaphorical, term.

  3. December 15, 2010

    Interestingly, the whole alpha concept mostly seems tied to wolf packs when people think of alpha animals in nature, but they don’t actually have anything like that heirarchical structure naturally. If I remember some old books right, wolves only do the whole alpha thing when they’re held in captivity and not allowed to walk away from each other; in the wild they live in family units and bud off to form new groups instead of squabbling over dominance.

    So yes, the alpha male concept is a mistake in animals too, arising from us messing with their lifestyles.

    • Jenni permalink
      December 15, 2010

      Love this article, S. Especially the conclusion.

      As Rob mentioned animals, I’m mention something I’ve been thinking about for a while…

      I really want to do a post on gender as it relates to animals and humans. So much of our ‘common knowledge’ about the animal world is wrong, and/or interpreted through the eyes of a patriarchal society. Just this week a guy tried to tell me about how ‘scientists observed monkeys inventing prostitution’. Feck off. Sounds like some scientists don’t know what the term ‘anthropomorphism’ means.

      See, some see lion prides and think ‘oh hey look, the females do all the work and the ‘alpha male’ gets to sit at home and have sex with lots of females, it’d be great to be a male lion’ like the lion with the mane is a guy whose many wives keep him and bring him his dinner in front of the TV every night. Truth – no-one would want to be born a male lion. They have very little chance in the world, thrown out of the pride before they mature, many of them die, some never find a pride… whereas the female get to live with their family group and chase and kill furry things (er, cats LIKE to do this).

      Also, compare the way we view, say, a queen bee, where we almost view HER as a victim, being made ‘fat’ and pregnant all the time. Er… what’s the difference between her and the lion, (both the waited-upon sole sexually active member of their group who take no part in childcare) except that we as humans seem to believe that females don’t like to have sex…

      Also the people who imagine that dominant men are ‘monkey’ men have clearly just decided to ignore the matriarchal primates out there!

      And don’t forget matriarchal elephants, dolphins, hyenas, killer whales, buffalo and horses, there goes ‘stallion’ as a synonym for ‘alpha male,’ then…

      Possibly some kind of pun on the animal ‘kingdom’ or ‘kings’ of the jungle’, for a BadRep series. Hmm.

      Feel silly doing it though as most of my knowledge about animals comes from books I had as a kid and watching animal shows on TV… anyone know any friendly zoologists?

    • wererogue permalink
      December 16, 2010

      There’s a great interview about the (non-) existence of Alpha males among Wolves in nature here:
      From an excellent article about the folly of dominance methods of training dogs, here:

      I really like this article, and support its message and intent. The one phrase I’d dispute is “In order to “win” the female must “lose”” – as I understand it, the woman is also competing for a high-status mate. But our societal ideas of status (including “Alpha”-status) are really messed up (prizing features that don’t provide value equally) which means that the competition is too, especially in a society that supposedly values emotional connection over biological imperative.

      • Sarah Cook permalink
        December 16, 2010

        Hey wererogue,

        Thanks for that – much appreciated and great links. When I put in order to “win” the female must “lose” I was thinking in terms of mf sexual-social relationships, the stereotype of the woman submitting to the overpowering dominance of the man. What I wanted to say, and perhaps did not express myself especially clearly, was that those sorts of relationships can be damaging for both parties because they express sexual relationships as a permanent and non-negotiated (non-consensual) power-exchange which is normalised, and in many instances, validated and supported, by mainstream societal prejudices and media. The whole “ug caveman!” thing.

        Yes, women also could be seen as competing for alphas, which isn’t something I touched on much in the article, although female/female competition is an issue I do want to write about.

        • wererogue permalink
          December 16, 2010

          I see your point – objection withdrawn ;)

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