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