I first heard the term “Alpha Male” in 2012. Okay, I’d heard the term before, but I’ve only ever heard it used in relation to pack animals like wolves or bison and the like. It’s probably truer to say that I first heard the term with regards to human interactions in that year. My friends used the term to describe people (often men) in their social circles and the kinds of traits they exhibited. Some of my friends were, for instance, “Alpha Males,” “Alpha Females,” “Beta Males,” “Pure Alpha Males,” “Alpha Males with Beta Traits,” or “Beta Males with Alpha Traits,” and so on. It sounded needlessly convoluted, but it was a concept that begged to be explored in depth.
Since then, I’ve read multiple think-pieces, articles, and editorials from all over. I scoured sites that focused on dating, interpersonal relationships, and self-improvement for a considerable time. I’ve noticed the rise in defining other kinds of people based on amalgamations of Alpha and Beta traits. Some of the websites I’ve stumbled across described Gamma Males, Omega Males, Delta Males, and more in order to match those terms and ideas. Finally, after a long and arduous search, I’ve come to the following conclusions:
First and foremost, nobody seems to know what these terms actually mean. Sure, there seems to be some overlap between certain ideas – Alphas are meant to be aggressive leaders who take charge, whereas Betas are more withdrawn – but some areas are grayer than others. One article will posit that Beta Males are larval stages for Alphas, while another will complain that Betas are needy and whiny losers, but then one post will argue that Beta males are ideal partners for Alpha females. Similarly, articles about Alphas will describe them as men who “always get their way” (which is a scary thing to put in people’s heads, really), or as authoritative bullies. One article will argue that Alphas don’t care how they look, but then another will state that they take care of their bodies and are in peak physical condition.
My second conclusion is perhaps more important than what I’ve listed, and it is this:
We need to do away with these terms.
Hear me out: humans operate far differently from other animals. Pack animals need those distinctions because they often congregate in small enough groups that having set leaders who decides where they go, when they eat, and who gets to breed makes sense. Human society is (allegedly) more nuanced and complex, and people have different functions and purposes within that society. There’s no concept of an engineer or a poet among gorillas.
This is to say nothing of the fact that the Alpha/Beta distinction drew inspiration from a science article from ages that has since been debunked by its own research team thirty years later.
Plus, this whole “Alpha Male versus Beta Male” distinction doesn’t necessarily help us out on the whole. Some key aspects of the distinctions are pretty vague and there are huge differences in the literature. There seems to be an ongoing debate between whether or not either distinctions are necessarily positive things, if one can transition from one to the other, if they are situational, and so on. Many sites will posit quick-fix solutions for becoming more Alpha from diet and exercise to the “fake it ‘til you make it mantra” that’s more likely to feed into a thousand neuroses than actually improve someone’s self-worth.
What’s more, this Alpha-Beta dynamic directly feeds into an ongoing problem faced by a lot of dirty heteros like myself. Straight men already feel like they have to compete with each other when it comes to winning over the right mate and securing the right job or career path. It leads to us developing a host of insecurities and lashing out against the people around us for asinine things. By establishing a vague ranking system among guys, we create further divisions between us, and resentment from insecure fellows who don’t think they measure up to these arbitrary standards.
Take a look at the so-called “Beta Male Uprising” trend of lonely nutjobs who go on killing sprees. Consider the fact that women get murdered because they reject a man’s advances, because guys are told that they will “get what they want” if they act and speak in a certain way. There have been a myriad of explanations given for how and why such violent outbursts happen, from entitlement and male privilege gone haywire to some unchecked mental illness finally firing on all cylinders. It doesn’t change the fact that it’s appalling behaviour that needs to be nipped in the bud.
There’s also the fact that there are high suicide rates among men, and it’s attributed to this idea that men aren’t supposed to express themselves emotionally, that they aren’t meant to say that they’re afraid and that they feel weak sometimes.
Articles that say Beta Males are lowly whiners and women aren’t attracted to men who are “effeminate” or want to talk about their feelings and that men are meant to be men of action rather than deep thinkers puts pressure on guys to go against their instincts.
I’m not the first dude on the ranch to say this “James Bond or Jughead” idea needs to be dealt away with, and with any luck I won’t be the last. So the question becomes: “what models, if any, should young guys of any stripe trying to figure themselves out base themselves on?”
Personally, I have a preference for three types of alternatives to the Alpha-Beta-Gamma-Omega spectrum: Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw’s distinction between Macho and Manly Characters, the old children’s instructional comic Goofus and Gallant, and Confucius’ description of what he identified as the Superior Man in The Analects.
And you know what? Here are some excerpts. They’ll do the talking for me.
From The Analects:
From Goofus and Gallant:
From Male Protagonists:
What I personally like about these distinctions is that they talk about a person’s standing. Rather than put all men in a ladder match against each other, these three choose instead to provide cross-analyses, examining things such as behaviour and attitude rather than social standing, notches on their booty-belt, or how much they can lift at the gym. It’s not even about who’s leading and who’s following, but more of a question of who’s in it for themselves and who’s working to make themselves better and improve the lives of those around them on their own terms. It’s not about hitting arbitrary numbers and milestones, but asking what’s right for you and those around you.
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