I come to bury the Alpha Males, not to praise them. Maybe that’s because I was never one of them. Not the strongest. Not the fastest. Not the bravest. Not the loudest. Leader of the pack? More like the runt of the litter. Decisive? Undeniably, not. Resolute?I was the boy with the big brown eyes, who’d bite his lip and turn away if you glanced in his direction, and run away if you talked too loud.
What got me on this subject? Well, I was walking Parker up and down the terminal at BWI airport when I saw the face of Joaquin Phoenix beckoning to me from the cover of Details magazine. Joaquin got my attention (he always does), but it was the one of the story’s featured on the cover that sealed the deal. The title: “The Death of the Alpha Male: How the American Man Went Limp (And Why We’re Better Off for It).” As a “Beta” (or maybe even “Gamma” male in a world of alphas, that sounded like the best news I’d heard all day. After Tom DeLay’s arrest, of course. The folks over at Testosterone Nation were slightly less amused.
Can ya blame me? America is the land of the Alpha male. Give us a guy with a bit of a swagger, a little more testosterone than he has a license for, and penchant for clearing brush or riding a horse, and a surprising number of us go apeshit. In my short lifetime, I can think of only one president who might not have qualified as an Alpha Male: Jimmy Carter. The rest, including Bush the First and Clinton (lest we forget his news-making libido, have been pretty clear-cut alphas. But it doesn’t stop with the oval office or other elected offices. It goes all the way down to our children, as the author notes, after witnessing a toddler-aged alpha male cut loose at a birthday party.
As his path of devastation moved into the kitchen, a young father leaned toward me with a flush of admiration in his voice and said, “He’s all boy” He’s all boy. I’ve heard that phrase a lot since then, and it always strikes me as a strange thing to say.
…What “he’s all boy” really means is: Whew! This kid’s not going to be one of those fragile pussy-willows who takes two hours to shave. Maybe everyone else is going soft, but our boyo’s still got that Y chromosome roaring like a steam engine.
Hey, I resemble that remark. Both as a kid and a parent, actually. I was that “fragile pussy-willow.” And we’ve both said “He all boy” while watching our son go about the business of being himself, though in our case it wasn’t said so much in admiration as with subdued astonishment and foreboding. Being clearly in the non-alpha category, we’re pretty sure we’re raising and alpha (Parker’s teachers say he’s a real ringleader among the boys at daycare) and realizing we’re in for one hell of a ride. But hopefully we can help him be himself, while also honing down some of the rougher alpha edges.
And be certain there are rough edges when it comes to alpha males. Sometimes its those edges that attract and repel us simultaneously. I’ll be the first to admit that as much as I feared and envied some of the more aggressive, influential boys I went to school with, I still swooned over them in the locker room. (Until they drove me out of it, that is.)
Those rough edges are still attractive qualities to some Americans, and don’t think that Karl Rove doesn’t know that. Why else does Bush take every opportunity to get down to his ranch and clear brush, except to invoke the image of the cowboy and all it implies; the strength that lies behind stoic silence, the “resoluteness” to stand one’s ground, etc. And after 9/11 America wanted an alpha male in the White House. The problem is that those rough edges that seemingly soothe us also have a downside, as the author notes.
…the brawy he-mannishness of the ancien regime has been trying hard to reassert itself. Look no further than the White House, which might as well be Y chromosome’s Alamo. As any potentate can tell you, nothing says “all boy” like invading a Third World country. Decimate Legoland, win votes.
The problem is that after 9/11 America wanted a John Wayne, but now — in the clear light of day, with the dust from the towers settled — we discover we ended up with a Gomer Pyle instead. One who doesn’t have the wherewithal to see us out of the mess he swaggered us into. He can clear brush, but he can’t get us out of the weeds he led us into.
The thing is that being a real man, Alpha or not, means a bit more than being so resolute as to march off a cliff with your chin held high. Last week I came across an Alternet article entitled “Can a Man Become President.” I filed it away until I could find a way to include it in a post, and today it finally gelled. Sherman Yellen wrote:
Let’s consider the last election. The perception was the George Bush was the more manly candidate. He spoke with a western twang, walked with a swagger, appeared to be decisive, and clearly had no use for the effete Eastern liberals, intellectuals, and the sissy boys who waffled about at the U.N. Despite the fact that the twang and the swagger were cultivated by this Eastern prep school boy with Yale and Harvard degrees, Bush was considered the more “authentic” candidate by a great many voters and pundits who found John Kerry “inauthentic” with his educated Bostonian ways, actual war heroism, and his inability to take a stand and stick with it right or wrong for life.
…A real man should be capable of flip-flopping on any issue at any time. It is an essential element in thinking and living. There is no way to grow as a man without changing one’s mind from time to time. The inability to change an opinion when life and events prove your original opinion or decision wrong, is not a manly quality. It is the quality of those who prefer to be deluded by life, rather than taught by it. The best thing that could be said of Kerry, who ran an overly cautious, defensive campaign that lacked the courage he showed in life, was that Kerry flip flopped on the issues. It meant that he was a man capable of growth.
I think that after the 2004 election I may have written — and surely said it even if I didn’t write it down — that the election of George W. Bush felt as if the bully who used to rule the playground had just been made principal. Kerry, clearly the more cerebral of the two and unable to not see — or pretend not to see — the nuances that are the reality of the world we live in, came across as schoolmarmish. Just enough Americans decided the preferred someone who’d know who else to push around and wasn’t afraid to do it, over someone who might actually have some answers. He just turned out to be all swagger and not too swift.
So, in the light of our political circumstances, the decline of the alpha male seems like something of a ray of hope. Some even say the Y chromosome as we know it is on the way out.
… it has lost nearly all its genes and is now full of parasites, redundancy and decay. In evolution, it is difficult to make predictions, especially about the future; but if it goes on shrinking at the same rate it may even disappear in a few tens of millions of
years. Males, though, will remain: although they may be made in quite a different way …
OK. So this evolution of the alpha male is going to take a while, and then men will be different. Maybe by then we won’t think we need the alpha males so much. Maybe by then — ten million years, mind you — we’ll have redefined what a “real man” is in such a way that it might even include us non-alphas.
So the Alpha Males must, indeed die. Just very, very slowly. It’s not so much the death of the Alpha Male as it is a long, slow extinction. In a way, I’m kinda glad about that, if only because I still hope for my own little alpha to successfully find his place in the world. And as one of those men who’s “made in quite a different way” in the non-alpha sense, I hope that I can help teach him to stop and smell a flower or two, and to approach the world with some gentleness even as he goes charging through it.
After that, the Alpha Male can quietly go extinct. We can eulogize the idea of him, bury it and move forward.