"Alpha" and "Beta" Males

Jeff over at Feminist Allies has a series of posts up on the intersection between feminism and “alpha males.” In his latest post (part three of the series), he writes:

The first prominent train of thought in this regard is along the lines of “the term “alpha male” is just too fuzzy a term (or is an inappropriate term, or is the out-and-out wrong term to use here)” to the point that, rather than helping us understand the realationships between men (and women, and those of other various genders) and feminism, it actually gets in the way.

I’m all aboard this train of thought; I’m never exactly sure what “alpha male” means at any given time. Sometimes it seems to be an application of observations about animal behavior to humans (the “evo-psych definition”); other times it seems to be more a way of dividing people up into “winners” and “losers” (the “ranking definition”).

The Evo-Psych Definition

The evo-psych definition is adapted from whatever other animals fit the speaker’s stereotypes; the Wikipedia entry on the subject refers to chimpanzees and canines.

I think one of the most telling aspects of evolutionary psychology is how we often compare different genders to different species. Men are compared to wolves; women are compared to birds; both are compared to whatever species of primate supports the author’s point.

The Ranking Definition

More often, though, “alpha male” is simply used in a loose sense to denote a set of traits which are loosely correlated at best. This is the conventional definition that people, even those who don’t buy into the evo-psych basis, throw around. Alpha males are rich, powerful, strong, confident, good-looking, extroverted, popular, aggressive, attractive leaders. “Beta males,” by inference, lack these qualities.

Jeff writes:

And yet–we do have to consider that people throw this term around as if it does mean something definite, as if it were something simple and easy to recognize (or create in yourself).

I don’t agree that because people use the term, there’s something to it. By lumping disparate characteristics into a single category, associations between them are supported or fabricated. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy: we expect men who meet a few of these standards to meet the rest, and so we assume the qualities that aren’t there. Also implicit in this definition (and reinforced by the overtones of Brave New World) is the idea of a hierarchy – alpha males are seen as superior to beta males, and beta males are expected to aspire to become alpha males. Alpha males are “winners”; beta males are “losers”. Who wants to be a loser?

“Alpha Males” and Feminism

The context of these discussions is how the categories of “alpha male” and feminist intersect. Jeff’s point in his first post was that the two categories are incompatible insofar as “alpha male” establishes a hierarchy of domination:

Given the flavors of feminism that I tend to embrace, the very notion of the ‘alpha male’–here used in a loose way, like most people use it, I think–can be seen as anti-feminist inasmuch as one’s feminism embraces non-dominance/hierarchic thinking and one’s alpha male-ness embraces domanance/hierarchy.

I think it’s no coincidence that a Google search for “alpha male” turns up a lot of “seduction” sites, often explicitly anti-feminist, telling men how to procure the attention, affection, and bodies of women by acting like an “alpha male.” The idea of “alpha male,” no matter whether we’re using an evo-psych or ranking definition, is inextricably tied up in anti-feminist ideas of access and entitlement to women. It’s also implicit in a lot of the denials of male privilege out there – the claim is that male privilege is reserved for the “alphas”, and therefore isn’t really about gender at all.

Over on Alas, Stentor turns the argument around and asks can “beta males” be pro-feminists? His argument:

Looking at the feminist and (pro)feminist responses to the alpha male question, though, it seems that it’s alpha male (pro)feminists whose existence is unproblematic. Indeed, the paradigm case of (pro)feminist action — boldly calling out another man on his sexist behavior — is also a classically alpha male act. So perhaps we should be asking whether it’s possible for beta males to be (pro)feminists.

It’s an interesting comeback, but not one I can support. For one thing, it’s very rooted in extrovert privilege; while feminism is typically going to involve men abandoning a comfortable status quo, and shyness is not an excuse to condone sexism, I don’t believe it should be required for introverts to act like extroverts to be accepted as feminists. For another, it’s a fallacy to think that the only way one can call another man out on sexism is with “alpha male” tactics. And, of course, it still perpetuates the alpha/beta hierarchy, which to my mind is incompatible with feminism.

It’s been proposed that, instead of distinguishing between “alpha” and “beta”, we focus on the distinction between “aggressive” and “assertive.” I like this distinction better insofar as it focuses on classifying behaviors rather than people.

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8 thoughts on “"Alpha" and "Beta" Males

  1. “I don’t agree that because people use the term, there’s something to it.”–jfpbookworm

    I hope what I was saying wasn’t taken to mean something like “because people use the term that the term holds true” or some such, Jeff. What I meant was that, when people on what I see as a feminist/feminist-leaning blog like Pandagon (i.e. jedmunds and Amanda, in this case) bandy about the term, that it needs to be examined in more detail–not just chalked up to ‘well, that term doesn’t mean anything. I think that, to the extent that jedmunds and Amanda used the term ‘alpha male’, that it means somthing to them, and that whatever they meant by it was worth critiquing and examining.

    Aside from that, I much appreciate your comments in this post. Very much more good food for thought.

    I would ask you this though: What would be an example of a man calling another man on sexism that doesn’t also fall into the problem of domination hierarchies–if, indeed, we (men, women and those of other genders) find ourselves steeped in them like fish swim in water?

  2. What worries me about this discussion is how much our understanding of “male feminism” is rooted in gender stereotypes– defining it primarily in terms of conflict with other men just seems to reinforce ideas about male aggression and desire for dominance, creating an atmosphere in which terms like “alpha male” have more power and authority than they should. We’ve heard time and time again from prominent feminist bloggers, both male and female, that the most important (sometimes even only) feminist work men can do is confronting other men on sexism and misogyny; by contrast, one very rarely hears women called upon to be more assertive and confrontational in their feminism.

    I’m sure there are myriad reasons for this– women arguably risk more by speaking up in these situations than men do, and feminist men may have more authority and opportunity to call other men on sexism than women do, so maybe it does make sense to expect more “active” feminism from men than women. Still, I wonder how much of the discrepancy comes from the idea that men naturally are/should be more assertive than women, so we can expect assertive feminism from them in ways we don’t expect it from women. It seems odd that these expectations for male feminists just happen to coincide with the traditional male gender role (albeit the more positive aspects), and odder still that with the wide spectrum of different feminisms and feminist issues out there, so many can only conceive of effective male feminism if it involves fighting with other men.

  3. Alpha males are rich, powerful, strong, confident, good-looking, extroverted, popular, aggressive, attractive leaders. “Beta males,” by inference, lack these qualities.

    That’s interesting: I don’t know if it’s deliberate, but you seem to have expanded the definition so much it is pointless. Which may be an issue of semantics, or may not…

    I’d personally pare down your definition a bit:
    Alpha males, in an essentialist definition, are powerful, confident, extroverted, aggressive, people who desire to be leaders.

    “Beta males,” by inference, lack these qualities.
    Not necessarily lack ALL of them. Just SOME of them.

    You can be rich, confident, and popular without being an alpha male, for example. IMO.

  4. That’s interesting: I don’t know if it’s deliberate, but you seem to have expanded the definition so much it is pointless. Which may be an issue of semantics, or may not…

    I don’t think I’ve expanded the definition all that much; I’ve simply listed a bunch of the concepts that “alpha male” describes in various contexts. It’s true that they don’t usually all appear at once. But yes, part of my point is that the usage of the term is so vague as to be almost meaningless.

  5. Jeff,

    I agree with you the term is vague. Though vagueness doesn’t seem to stop us from using some other terms which have widely disparate meanings. I think there are a lot of definitions of “racism” floating around, for example, which probably range from “nothing short of outright slavery” to “anything whites do” and everywhere in between. But it’s still a reasonably useful term in context.

    I personally detest the communication errors that result from overbroad terms and multiple definitions, so I’m with you on this one in general. Even for useful terms. (Just think of all the comment wars which could be avoided if everyone’s blog had a sidebar saying “the definitions of racism, sexism, and feminism which shall apply on this blog are:_______”) I don’t think that “alpha male” is an especially egregious example, and I don’t really use the term much myself. So I apologize for the side track.

  6. I have some confusion in clarifying/defining alpha males.

    The dominant/controling/confident man – seems a common thread among some. Where the dominance and controling relate to women and presumably “less dominant” if not “submissive” males I see problems with feminism.

    Where we get into confidence and perhaps even charismatic leadership in some ways there need not be a clash with feminism. Sometimes the “confidence” may of course be a mask.

    Aggressiveness vs. assertiveness seems a key factor for me. Being assertive whether alpha or beta is helpful. Obviously, many alpha males as well as non-alpha males may take any confronting of their behavior as being “aggressive”

    Confronting sexism for men is different than confronting sexism for women. When we as men ignore sexism or tacitly support it with other men we perpetrate the continuation of sexist behaviors both within ourselves and with other men. Where women try to ignore sexism, they get unfriendly reminders of their denial.

    Men also are threatened more by and more affected by actions to confront and stop sexism from other men. It’s different when a women talks of the sexist behavior of a man. Many men can deny it much more easily. We are in a sense “betraying our gender” when we confront sexism with other men.

    In the 1960’s – the Black Power Movement largely told White Americans to work on racism in the White Commmunity and to move away from trying to work with Blacks.

    We similarly need to work on our “Men’s Community”. It’s much harder! We need to confront our homophobia as well as take responsibilities we may not have faced before.


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