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.

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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.”

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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.

Where Are the Good Guys?

BaileySpur4XAngoraBlendFurFetlCowboyHatWhiteThe other day I received an email about a new book series involving a beloved character from a classic series. Sorry to be cryptic, but I don’t plan to reveal who that character is or what that series is. Suffice it to say, this character and others in the series have been reimagined as evil characters when formerly they were on the side of good. My first reaction was irritation. What gives, huh? Is it because villains are portrayed as having more fun these days?

As I groused over that email, I couldn’t help thinking about Thor: The Dark World. This is my own opinion here, rather than a well-reasoned critique of the movie (I enjoyed it by the way), but the standout character in it was Loki (played by Tom Hiddleston). Really, he would be a standout character if he just stood there rearranging socks in a drawer. But in a movie with the name Thor in the title, shouldn’t Thor—the hero—be the standout character? Maybe he was for you (he is 6 feet 3 inches tall, heh heh), but he wasn’t for me in this movie, despite the romance and the tragic bits. My eyes were on Loki every time and also on Christopher Eccleston who played a dark elf named Malekith the Accursed.

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Thor (Chris Hemsworth) battling Malekith (Christopher Eccleston); Loki at right (Tom Hiddleston)

Now, I realize movie production companies and authors have the right to do whatever they want. And I have enjoyed some of the fruits of their labor. But here’s where my blood pressure rises: when good is portrayed as weak or even boring.

In a previous post, I mentioned a quote from Sean Bailey, president of production at Walt Disney Studios. This quote came from the November 8 issue of Entertainment Weekly in an essay by Anthony Breznican:

The better you make your villain, the better your hero has to be. . . . We call it the Hans Gruber theory. One reason Die Hard is a great action movie is Gruber never makes a mistake, but he’s still defeated by John McClane. McClane is a great hero because he’s up against such a formidable adversary. (47)

But in some of the books or movies I’ve seen in recent years—Oz the Great and Powerful (2013) being one of them—the good characters seem weak and timid in the face of evil. (Looking at you, Glinda!) This kind of thing sets my teeth on edge.

Glinda

Glinda

Making heroes weak to make the antagonists seem stronger goes against what Bailey talked about in Entertainment Weekly. As he said, “The better you make your villain, the better your hero has to be.” Keep that in mind while I bring up another quote. I could kick myself for not writing down the exact words or even where I found it, but the person quoted said something to the effect that villains are preferred, because we get tired of trying to identify with people who are good all the time. (I know. I’m running the risk of misquoting here. Bad, L. Marie. Bad!)

I’m guessing “we” refers to all of us. Well, I can speak for myself, thank you. And I’d like to address something I see as a fallacy: “people who are good all the time.” Know anyone who is “good” all the time? People are more complicated than that. Even pastors yell at their kids sometimes. If we can’t identify with people “who are good all the time,” shouldn’t heroes be complex?

Robert-Downey-Jr-Iron-Man-3I love Tony Stark as played by Robert Downey Jr., because we see his foibles. The choices he makes are what define him as the hero. I love Natasha Romanov (Black Widow/Natalia “Natasha” Alianovna Romanova) as played by Scarlett Johansson. I love everyone on Avatar, especially Prince Zuko and Toph Beifong. They don’t always play nice. They make mistakes.
 
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Black Widow

Zuko

Zuko

Toph

Toph (I wanna be her when I grow up)

Love the X-Men, especially Wolverine (Hugh Jackman!) and Rogue. Also I squealed over Four in Divergent. (Sorry. That was gratuitous. I just wanted to mention Theo James.) I continue to be mesmerized by the characters on shows like Babylon 5 and Young Justice, thanks to Netflix.

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Wolverine (and not just because he has abs of steel)

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Gratuitous photo of Four (Theo James)

I’m happy to say that many of you are taking the time to make your characters complex (a shout-out to everyone I know from VCFA, as well as authors I’ve met through the blog like K. L. Schwengel, Charles Yallowitz, Kate Sparkes, ReGi McClain, Emily Witt, Stephanie Stamm, John Carnell, and Andra Watkins). There are others too like Phillip McCollum, Andy of City Jackdaw, and Jill Weatherholt who work hard at their craft. You give me hope, people. You also encourage me to get my act together and put forth the effort on my manuscript.

It takes work to make a hero complex, just as it takes work to make a villain complex. So why not make the effort to do so?

Maybe we need a better definition of good. Think about the characteristics that make a parent, a doctor, a fire fighter, or some other professional good at what he or she does. Many times that individual has to make some tough choices—i.e., disciplining a child; giving a patient a shot; and so on. When you really need a professional, you want someone tenacious and strong, not someone who cringes. But you also know that person isn’t perfect. Anyone who has a parent or is a parent knows this.

That’s what a good hero is—someone who isn’t perfect, but who tries to do the right thing. I can relate to that person. Can you?

Breznican, Anthony. “A Villain Will Rise.” Entertainment Weekly. 8 November 2013: 46-47. Print.

Tom Hiddleston as Loki and Chris Hemsworth as Thor from marvel-movies.wikia.com. Theo James as Four from pinterest.com. Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow from marvel.wikia.com. Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark from wallpapersshop.net. Zuko and Toph from avatar.wikia. Hugh Jackman as Wolverine from x-men.wikia.com.