Alpha Males & Fiction

English: Samson, alpha male (leader) gorilla i...

Samson, alpha male gorilla in Givskud Zoo. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I had an interesting Twitter conversation a while back when World Weaver Press tweeted a link to an article about hot alpha males (“dangerous,” “possessive,” “dominating,” etc.) in paranormal romance. Being a total behavior nerd, I replied that most of these “alpha males” were actually displaying lower-ranking behavior – real alphas don’t posture, act aggressive or defensive, etc. — and we chatted briefly about the implications for fiction and PNR in particular.

Don’t confuse the “alpha male” and the “bad boy.” They’re different things. It’s a common myth, the posturing alpha male, but it’s a myth. Simply put, if you’ve got it, you don’t have to flaunt it. Only those worried about their position waste time, energy, and other resources in reminding others of their position.

Alpha Gray

(Photo credit: StoneHorse Studios)

This is something the behavior community takes for granted (though we recognize that much of the mainstream is still lingering in the “pack leader” mindset). I could spend hours explaining why hierarchy-based models of behavior modification — mostly recognizable by phrases like “dominant” and “pack leader” and “submissive” — are at best distracting and inefficient and at worst dangerous to both human and animal, and professionally I’ve done just that. Here on the writing blog, however, I’ll talk about what that means for fiction.

Hold on, did I just say that the alpha hierarchy model is bunk? Well, um, pretty close. But don’t make my word for it; listen to Dr. David Mech, the man largely responsible for the “alpha wolf” terminology in pop culture, explain that it’s an outdated and incorrect concept.

You can read more about it here.

So, yeah, natural wolf packs (and other natural social units) don’t generally have alphas, but breeding pairs. Nor do our pet dogs regard us as pack leaders, unless you’re into a particularly sick interpretation of animal husbandry. But for the sake of this post, let’s think of the unnatural amalgamation of individuals to form a new social unit which may develop a social hierarchy with an “alpha” — you know, change and conflict, like we love in our fiction.

The Strong, Silent Type

So many popular representations of the “alpha male” depict him snarling a warning at other males (often literally, in paranormal romances) to stay away from his girl, or pushing another guy against the wall, or dictating a rule or course of action, or, you know, generally throwing his weight around. For a professional behavior person, that’s a big red flag that this individual is actually pretty insecure. As I said above, if you’ve got it, you don’t have to flaunt it, and you definitely don’t have to waste energy on it.

Let’s start with a video example.

Charles Xavier and Erik Lensherr are no small social potatoes; they will eventually head great and terrible opposing forces with their phenomenal convictions and super-powered personalities. And yet Logan dismisses them with just a conversational expletive. (Hey, for Wolverine, that is about as mild as it gets.)

Wolverine: Snikt!

Wolverine: Snikt! (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Now, imagine that scene played differently: as Charles and Erik introduce themselves, Wolverine shouts angrily and leaps up, catching the bar stool in one hand, ready to strike. What do you think of his character now? “Man, that guy’s defensive. Something to hide. Twitchy. What a jerk. And I’ll bet Xavier can find what’s niggling him and use it to make him change his mind.”

Even if Wolverine crushes that upraised stool in his fist? He’s truly terrifying! But, he’s also still jumpy and hyper-reactive. The scene loses flavor, and the character loses standing.

But when he can’t even be bothered to make eye contact (so much for the “eye contact is dominant” myth) and is more concerned with getting a refill on his drink than the two super-powerful mutants flanking him, well, we know exactly where he stands.

The “Ready When You Are” Type

When conflict does arise, the alpha male doesn’t run from it, but he doesn’t make a big deal about it, either. He just deals with it and moves on.

It’s would be hard to argue with John Wayne’s persona as a representative alpha male, and indeed, here’s a clip to prove it.

Hondo Lane (Wayne’s character) is clearly annoyed with the loudmouth, but he lets the others tell him to get out. It isn’t until the guy is about to act out and hurt someone that Hondo draws the line: Don’t mess with my dog. He’s ready for action, but there’s no shouting or blustering, just what my husband calls, “No threat, but a promise.” And the guy walks around the dog, and it’s over.

(Not included in this clip: Hondo next shoos the dog out the of walkway.)

When an alpha is pushed to action, he takes care of conflict with a minimum of bravado, ego, and fuss. Malcolm Reynolds of Firefly shows how it’s done.

A real-life alpha male I know once spied a punk kid, whose parents didn’t love him enough to give him a moral education, shooting out car windows for fun. And so he chased the kid down. In flip-flops. Alpha males don’t get riled about little stuff, but they’re efficient about anything that needs doing.

The Social, Friendly Type

But alphas don’t have to be anti-social or threatening. More often, true alphas are pretty cool with other people. They’re relaxed and confident, because they don’t have to be anything else.

I’d like to introduce you to one of the most alpha males in all cinema — James Garner’s character Jason McCullough in Support Your Local Sheriff. People don’t usually think of comedies as being rich sighting grounds for alpha males, but this 1969 Western send-up has some excellent specimen moments.

Jason McCullough doesn’t want any trouble, and he’s about as laid back as you can imagine about taking resolving conflict. But he does resolve it, and efficiently.

Here McCullough is having a nice, relevant conversation when a fight breaks out. He doesn’t want to get involved, or lose his overpriced food.

And a moment later, when the fight has filled the street:

So then McCullough takes the unwanted job of sheriff in this bloodthirsty town, and soon Pa Danby, patriarch of the local gunslinging clan of bullies, hears that the new sheriff has his son in jail.

Calm, cool, collected, competent. Emotional when appropriate, unruffled when overreaction is inappropriate. No posturing, no unfriendliness. This is what real alpha behavior looks like.

The More Noise, The Less Alpha

In short, it’s the difference between Malcolm Reynolds and Jayne Cobb (Firefly). One earns respect, the other uses bluster, threats, or harm to coerce.

“Now think real hard. You’ve been birddoggin’ this township a while now. They wouldn’t mind a corpse of you. Now you can luxuriate in a nice jail cell, but if your hand touches metal, I swear by my pretty floral bonnet I will end you.”

This is not a speech to make friends, but it’s not terribly emotional and there’s no ego at stake. Mal is just doing business, and he’s not above a little self-deprecating humor while he’s at it.

“You know what the chain of command is? It’s the chain I go get and beat you with until you understand who’s in ruttin’ command here!”

That’s the statement of someone who needs to impress someone else, someone who’s frustrated and has something to prove, not of someone who knows that everyone already knows he’s in charge. Not an alpha.

Back to my day job a moment: think about how many times you’ve heard that a dog owner should be physically or verbally forceful to maintain his dominant position? Are you noticing yet why this makes more scientific trainers a little crazy? Completely aside from interspecies issues, humane/ethical issues, and the whole inefficiency of it, it’s a bit like using an assistant manager name tag to try and bluff into the 95th floor executive washroom.

The Alpha Female

Zoë Alleyne Washburne. 'Nuff said.

Zoë Alleyne Washburne. ‘Nuff said.

So what about alpha females?

I am often annoyed by stories including “strong women” who are labeled such only because they can punch someone or fire a gun or whatever, but still are emotionally-dependent or incompetent. “But she’s totally a strong female character because she yells at people!” is not a valid character argument. Nor, as covered above, is she “alpha”.

So I mentioned I was writing this post and asked what alpha females my husband could think of. The first several he mentioned were all villains. (No comment….) But there are certainly good examples out there:

  • M, in Skyfall
  • the Dowager Countess, in Downton Abbey (actually, Dame Maggie Smith in just about everything I’ve seen her in….)
  • Cleopatra (in history, as well)
  • Zoë, in Firefly
  • Queen Elizabeth I, in Fire Over England (and other films, and probably in history)

And one of the most definitive alpha scenes, male or female, ever filmed can be found in Queen Christina, a 1933 Greta Garbo film. When an angry mob storms the palace, complete with torches, she dismisses the guards and goes alone to meet them. (I’ve cut the clips together for you.)

No shouting, no snarling, no posturing, no threats. Just a calm, silent, Stop here. And they do.

But, What About Those Hot Alpha Males?

While the original article which prompted the conversation talked about how attracted women are to assertive men who are snarling at each other, the truth is that while the (separate) bad boy persona can sometimes be fun, most of us don’t really want a needy mid-level grunt whose posturing, grunting, and peeing possessively on stuff is going to cramp our style and ruin our fun. Seriously, someone who’s always thinking about how to improve or maintain his social position is not spending enough time thinking about important things like us.

We are, however, often intrigued by a competent, friendly, confident guy who is secure enough both to extend a hand and openly give credit to others, because there’s no need to hoard resources or social standing.

For example, my husband is excellent at his job and enjoys hanging out with me on weekends, but he isn’t possessive about me spending time with other people. He’s often asked to assist others because he’s good at it and enjoys being helpful. And at a shooting match last weekend, I overheard him talking with another competitor: “Yeah, she’s a better shot than I am, and I’m okay with that. I think it’s cool.”

And, man, that is so hot.

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  1. I cannot put words to how much I love this post. I twitch every time I read a blog post celebrating the “alpha males” in romance (or other genre) because they get it SO WRONG. Thank you.

  2. I found this piece via the clip from Support Your Local Sheriff. I’m so glad I clicked the link in the description.

    I’ve long thought this about Alpha males but seldom see it discussed. If you have time, you should check out the Married Man Sex Life website run by Athol Kay. He has some interesting things to say to guys about Alpha. This isn’t an endorsement of the site but rather just a point of interest.