Woman to Woman: The Alpha Male

On a day when the sharp scent of peppermint permeated the air (I’m not sure why it did), Kitty came to me with a request while I lounged outside.

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Kitty: Can we talk, woman to woman?
Me: Sure. What’s on your mind?
Kitty: Can we talk about boys for a minute?
Me: I’m pretty sure we’ll fail the Bechdel test if we do.
Kitty (unfazed by my remark): Would either Gandalf or Jordie be considered an alpha male?

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Me: Um, well, maybe Gandalf. Jordie . . . frankly no.
Kitty: Good. Then I will choose him as the companion of my heart.
Me: Huh? Why?
Kitty: I am alpha.
Me: Uh . . .
Kitty: Thank you for helping me clear that up.
Me: Uh . . .

I found this conversation timely, since I’d just finished reading Nine Coaches Waiting by Mary Stewart, which has an alpha male secondary character. While reading it, I wondered whether or not the concept of the alpha male has changed since the 1950s when the book was written. With Sigourney Weaver’s awesome performance as Ellen Ripley in the 1986 film Aliens, an increasing desire for strong female heroines ensued (hence Charlize Theron as Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road; some men complained about her role, however, according to the Chicago Tribune). Has the fictional alpha male evolved consequently?

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Under Gandalf’s disapproving gaze; Sigourney Weaver as Ripley

First, I wondered about the universal characteristics of an alpha male. When I picked up another Mary Stewart book, also from the 50s—Madam, Will You Talk?—I found a description of a dude who is “singularly good-looking” and who “had that look of intense virility and yet sophistication—that sort of powerful, careless charm which can be quite devastating” (Stewart 11). Though he was not the alpha, this description seemed apt for alpha males on one level.

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I decided to compare that description with one found at this post at Romance Novels for Feminists, which mentions romance author Jill Shalvis’s view on the subject:

Rather than describe a male character’s characteristics in detail, Shalvis uses the shorthand “alpha” to signal to readers that the character possesses a certain type of über-desirable masculinity, a masculinity characterized by toughness, strength, and the need to protect those around him, particularly his girlfriend/spouse/mate.

So far, only women have given an opinion. What do men think? I found out at AskMen.com:

An alpha male has certain unmistakable characteristics. A natural leader, he is a pack-builder. He leads, provides for and protects his pack (his significant other, his buddies, his teammates, and so on).

the-alpha-male-gray-wolf-canis-lupus-jim-and-jamie-dutcherInteresting. In the young adult novel I finished writing months ago, my 17-year-old main character views himself as alpha, but meets a female (the other main character) who disagrees. He has to learn how an alpha really behaves. The AskMen article, “Signs You’re Not An Alpha Male,” vividly discusses this behavior. You can find that article here.

We’re used to fictional alpha males like James Bond; Dirk Pitt (Clive Cussler’s books); James T. Kirk; Batman; Aragorn; Odysseus; Beowulf; Green Arrow; Daredevil; Gaston; Jack Ryan (Tom Clancy’s books); characters Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Humphrey Bogart, Samuel L. Jackson, or Jet Li played; anyone from the Fast and Furious movies; Duke Nukem; Wolverine; Superman; Robin in Teen Titans; the Man with No Name Clint Eastwood played in westerns; Russell Crowe as Maximus or Jack Aubrey; Tony Stark; Captain America (Steve Rogers); Hal Jordan (Green Lantern); John Stewart (also Green Lantern), Thor; Black Panther; Frank Woods (Call of Duty); Nathan Drake (Uncharted); and many, many others. While some might be viewed as relics of a bygone era, others reflect the changing face of the alpha male.

the-avengers-captain-america-and-tony-stark537ba26276348

Cap, Bruce Banner, Tony Stark; Black Panther

In a Slate.com article, “Omega Males and the Women Who Hate Them” (click here for that), I learned about an omega man:

While the alpha male wants to dominate and the beta male just wants to get by, the omega male has either opted out or, if he used to try, given up.

Yikes! But I don’t want to get off on an omega man tangent here. Yet it shows an interesting backlash of sorts against those viewed as “domineering” (see the Romance Novels for Feminists post) alpha males.

Maybe that’s why James Bond received a reboot. According to this article by Paul Whitington at Independent.ie., “[Daniel] Craig’s Bond [in the film, Casino Royale (2006)] was young, confused and even vulnerable.”

Daniel-Craig-in-Casino-Royale-daniel-craig-25723023-1005-424

So today’s alpha male is strong, but tries to keep it real by admitting to foibles (i.e., Tony Stark admitting he’s a “piping hot mess” in Iron Man 3). Yet audiences are divided on the evolution of the alpha male.

But let’s get back to Mary Stewart. When I opened Nine Coaches, I expected to find an archaic viewpoint. Stewart, however, showcased an alpha male and a strong heroine, neither of whom is threatened by the strength of the other. I love that!

What do you think of the alpha male? Got a favorite or a strong opinion on the subject?

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Can their love survive?

AskMen Editors. “Signs You’re Not An Alpha Male.” AskMen.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 May 2015.
Grose. Jessica. “Omega Males and the Women Who Hate Them.” Slate.com. N.p., 18 Mar. 2010. Web. 24 May 2015.
Horn, Jackie C. “Evolution and the Alpha Male.” Romance Novels for Feminists. N.p., 26 Sept. 2014. Web. 25 May 2015.
Stewart, Mary. Madam, Will You Talk? New York: William Morrow, 1956. First published in Great Britain in 1955. Print.
—. Nine Coaches Waiting. New York: William Morrow, 1958. Print.
Whitington, Paul. “Film… From Craig to Connery: The Many Faces of James Bond.” Independent.ie. N.p., 12 Apr. 2015. Web. 24 May 2015.

Black Panther from Marvel.com. Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark, Chris Evans as Captain America, and Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner from news.doddleme.com. Daniel Craig as James Bond from fanpop.com. Sigourney Weaver as Ripley from oblikon.net. Book cover from Goodreads. Alpha male gray wolf from fineartamerica.com. Other photos by L. Marie.

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46 thoughts on “Woman to Woman: The Alpha Male

  1. I’d say that an alpha male is a charismatic and resourceful leader, who men and women adore and admire in equal measure. To me, if he doesn’t earn the respect of women ( by treating them with respect) he’s a strong character and possibly domineering but not alpha. I suspect I may be unique in this view though.

    Cheers

    MTM

  2. Nice post. I’d have to agree with your final word from Mary Stewart here. No-one is stronger and more alpha than my wife, Julie – apart from me, of course. (That was a joke btw, just in case the sense of humour has gone awol, which in conversations about gender roles, it often does.)
    I’ve always been seen as an alpha male. I remember the day I realised I’d have to become one or die, growing up in the neighbourhood that I did. Being thoughtful, sensitive and all those other ‘feminine’ things was a no-no. But eventually I became attuned to the role and its advantages/disadvantages. Outward appearance saved me from violence as much as it attracted it. It made me attractive to girls. The only problem with that is by the time they discovered my sensitive side, I was on to the next one, using my Alpha status like the wolf (dog) that I was. I could generally bum all the smokes, drinks, rides, money I liked from my ‘pack’ and never have to pay them back, apart from getting in the way of the odd punch or kick now and then.
    But is that really what makes a guy Alpha? I’ve come to think not.
    It’s all really about inner strength – and those sensitive qualities I wasn’t ‘allowed’ to show back then. Forget appearances. Some of the toughest looking guys I know are weedy on the inside and wouldn’t last five minutes outside their shell.
    So, my Alpha male hero – Gandhi. (No, not Gandalf) No-one told him the way to the gym. And since when have sandals and a bed sheet been kick-ass, super-hero clothing? But try telling us Brits he wasn’t Alpha. He growled and the Empire rolled over.

    • John, I get where you’re coming from. I grew up in a rough neighborhood with two brothers. You had to be tough or you got beat up. So tough dudes were highly valued. Sensitive nice guys were pushed to the side (even though many of these tough dudes were secretly sensitive, nice guys, but couldn’t show that side).
      Inner strength–totally. That seems to be the key to a lot of things.
      I’m sure your wife is awesome. 🙂

      • My wife is awesome! She’s standing behind me right now, with a bread knife. I think in fiction – films especially – we find it hard to show interiors. It’s easier to portray (and sell) two dimensional characters, both male and female. The story-telling ghettos that we live in, are populated by impoverished characters. Not because the writers are no good – it’s just easier to sell scripts where the industry bosses don’t have to think to hard. Books at least give us other options.

      • Ha ha! Hope she puts the bread knife away.
        Yeah, creating three-d characters is a tough job. And you brought up a sad point. Sometimes writers are forced to dumb down the plots or stories get edited for the sake of time. I heard that the latest Avengers was initially 3.5 hours. But an hour was lopped off for the sake of time. So I’ll bet there were some great scenes in there that wound up on the cutting room floor.

  3. Interesting question. I do know a lot of alpha male types as well as a few betas and omegas. One Pi Male, but that’s more of a favorite food thing. I think both genders have seen an evolution, so the alpha male isn’t what it used to be just as the alpha female is different. There’s more acceptance to putting women in strong roles and men in weaker roles. A hero can cry or bleed while a heroine is able to fight back with more than a hair pull. The ‘alpha’ side of things strikes me as nothing more than a role, which can be fit into any story. It’s interesting how many times you see it used for an arrogant male that is labeled a jerk while it’s used for a strong, independent female. So I think it’s developed a slight negative connotation for guys while retaining its positive for women. Changing times and still trying to find the balance is probably part of this.

    It’s such an odd term. I’ve heard alpha attached to so many things like ‘alpha nerd’. I guess we simply use it to denote the strongest personality in the room.

    • It is an odd term. You brought up an interesting double standard–a man is viewed as a jerk while a woman is viewed as strong. I think some of that needs to change. Women can be jerks too. It’s frustrating to me sometimes to see an over-the-top character who acts like a jerk, punches dudes way bigger than she is, and totally gets away unscathed just to satisfy people clamoring for “strength.” That makes we want to tell the writer, “I get the need to make a woman strong. But don’t insult our intelligence while you’re doing it.” Strength is more than just beating someone up. Ingenuity and wisdom are strengths too.

      • At the very least, she needs to stronger than the people she’s hitting. I think part of that stems from boys being raised to never hit girls. You also see people complain when a guy does hit a woman back and, even in self-defense, he becomes the bad guy in that instant. I assume we’re still trying to find that balance.

      • Very true. We need a balance. I agree that the woman needs to be stronger or at least have some good weapons. Otherwise, it’s not realistic at all. Lately, I’ve seen movies where the guy hit the woman after warning her. The audience clapped when that happened. In a fight where a trained female agent fights a trained male agent, some hitting needs to happen.

      • I agree. There’s a lot of battles where the women aren’t even attacked while the guys are fending off the horde. Definitely a sign that the writers/directors are trying to make strong female characters, but are scared to have them get hit. Never really been in an audience where that cheering happened.

      • I also have noticed that while a guy might lose a limb or something, a woman seldom has permanent scarring from a battle. Well, I guess Furiosa is the exception.

      • There’s ‘Dredd’, but that’s a pretty violent movie. Still need to see Fury Road. Trying hard to think of woman characters that get scarred. Coming up blank.

      • I can’t think of one either. The only movie I can think of where a female is scarred or loses a limb is the true story of that girl who lost her arm to a shark.

      • You’d think Ripley, Lara Croft, or a female superhero of some kind would get a scar. I guess Black Widow mentioned having one in Winter Soldier, but we never saw it.

      • We saw it. Remember the scene where Captain America grabbed her at the hospital after the flash drive disappeared out of the candy machine? While she told her story, she lifted her shirt and showed him her scar.

  4. I’m with Kitty. I’ve never been attracted to alpha males ~ not in books, movies, or real life. I prefer quirky side kicks! :mrgreen:

    It’s been ages since I’ve read any Mary Stewart, but I know I flew through Nine Coaches Waiting, The Moon Spinners, The Gabriel Hounds, Touch Not The Cat, The Crystal Cave, The Hollow Hills, etc.

    Come to think of it, Merlin is my kind of guy ~ happier living in a cave off the beaten path than hanging with high society and royals.

    • I forgot about Merlin! I always liked him. I also like a quirky guy. Did you read The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society? There were two guys in that book I totally love!!
      I have Moon Spinners in my pile! 🙂

      • I did read it! And liked the guy “she” ended up with . . . but not the alpha male she “kicked to the curb.”

      • I totally agree. I loved the guy she wound up with. Made me long to visit Guernsey!
        I might have to reread that book soon.

  5. I’ve always viewed alpha males as leaders more than as ‘hot.’ What’s really interesting to me about this post is this: Every reader brings their definitions of character to a story. No matter how I try to develop a character to have specific qualities, readers will type them based upon their own experiences and expectations. I’ve had different readers call the same characters “nuanced” and “cliche.” With evolving definitions, it’s even harder to craft characters that resonate. Great post.

    • Thank you. I agree with you, Andra. The classification is really subjective. I’ve seen some shows where a character the writers seemed to think was cool was the one pushed toward alphadom. Unfortunately, that was a turnoff for me. Expectation plays a huge part, as you say.

    • I do too, Jill. And thank you. I thought of your characters as I wrote this. The romance genre usually has a good matchup with an alpha male and a feisty heroine.

  6. I love alpha males in thrillers but not so keen on the real life type! But I do think the alpha male has changed a lot over the years to take account of the changes in how women are portrayed. The old Jimmy Cagney grapefruit-in-the-face type of courtship probably doesn’t work so well these days… 😉

    • I thought of that very scene as I wrote this! 🙂 But I left Jimmy off the list, hoping someone would bring him up. There are a lot of scenes like that that don’t work. In one of the books I read, the alpha male kept referring to the heroine as “little one” and would grab her arm to get her attention. She would threaten to scream, but never did. 😦 She never once kicked him in the shin or somewhere else delicate.

  7. In fiction, why not start with a basic alpha template then add in desirable balancing aspects of beta and omega? (ie-laid back, cool-joe type etc)
    Bottom line: However crafted, our characters need to resonate with readers in some manner!

    • Good idea. And I agree that the characters need to resonate with the readers.
      I really enjoyed Disney’s Sorcerer’s Apprentice, which had a beta male who had alpha male traits. So that combo could work, especially in films to which kids gravitate. They feel powerless, but need to know that they can be leaders too.

  8. I have just finished reading The Empty Throne, which is book eight (and it’s still not the last one!) in the Saxon series by Bernard Cornwell. The main character, one of my all-time favourite characters, is a really tough guy ( and good guy) called Uhtred of Bebbenberg. (I may have spelt that wrong without googling.) He is the strong, dominant figure, though it must be recalled that the books are set in a time when women had no standing and definitely weren’t warriors. Although one woman in the eight books bucks the trend. As a Whovian, I feel uneasy about the talk of a future incarnation of the Doctor being a woman. Not because women can’t play tough, lead roles, of course they can-you yourself mentioned Ripley, it’s just that that I cannot see the character as anything other than a man. That may be down to my own shortsightedness. I also feel this comment may not be very relevant to your post! Sorry, I think I may have drifted 🙂

    • I’m with you on the Doctor Who issue, Andy. I’m all for equality. But some things don’t need to change. (And I know they turned the Master into a woman.) In one episode of Doctor Who, he had a “daughter.” They could bring her back to the show or resurrect another female time lord.

      I haven’t read any of Bernard Cornwell’s books. I would probably read that series. I’ve read many books where women were second-class citizens. Some make me cringe, yeah. But I still enjoy a good heroic tale.

  9. Bring on the alpha males! I’m all for them. Weaknesses are good, though. Especially flipped-strength weaknesses, like being a bit of a jerk about a girl going off to do heroic things on her own because his inclination to protect is so strong. (Fodder for character growth for both, right there.) Or being both persevering and stupidly stubborn. So their strengths never make them invulnerable and their weaknesses never make them mamby-pamby.

  10. I think your closing comments about Mary Stewart’s alphas hit the nail on the head. Whether it’s females or males, for me a real alpha is someone who on top of the usual alpha qualities doesn’t feel threatened by another’s strength/or another’s alpha-ness.

    Most importantly for an alpha male, that means being completely comfortable around an alpha female (and vice versa).

    • Very true, Celine. A strong person never loses strength points by acknowledging the strength of another. Perhaps that’s why so many people love the Avengers (at least there is a consensus on the first one). Black Widow is pretty strong and is respected by her teammates.

  11. I honestly don’t give much thought to labels like “alpha male”, though as a writer, maybe I should? I honestly just see people with a certain set of behaviors and characteristics. Maybe I don’t think of them that much, because as you mentioned, everyone seems to have their own view.

    • The fact that you don’t look at labels sounds great, Phillip. And really, they aren’t important. We all know about the tropes. But we can strive to go beyond stereotypes.

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