The Myth of the Alpha Male

The Myth of the Alpha Male

Disclaimer: The blog which follows is an exploration of fictional characters and is not to be interpreted as a psychological analysis of real life. (But, if the shoe fits…)

To begin, I would like to introduce the concept of “opposites”.  The opposite of “north pole” is “south pole”, but there is no difference; one is merely the inverse of each other.  Both are cold, inhospitable places with permanent darkness in winter, and permanent light in summer.  The one is only the flip-side of the other.  The Yin and the Yang–exactly the same.  This is called, obviously, the polar opposite.

But the real opposite of either of those poles is the diametric opposite: the tropics.  Warm, lush, inviting, an abundance of food and water.

By this I want to show that perhaps any concept has two opposites, the ‘polar’ and the ‘diametric’.

And now I want to introduce the “Alpha male”.  The chief protagonist in our hypothetical fictional example.  We all know the Alpha male.  Alpha is the strong guy, the leader of men and the envy of women.  Who said it? “Men want to him, and women want to be with him.”  He is the main man, the guy in charge.  The Boss.  The guy who calls the shots.  You’ve seen him in almost every male lead in every movie and TV show.  And you’ve seen him in real life.  He’s the guy that can command an audience, slay the bad guys, and get the girl.  A natural born leader.  His real-life weakness, however, is that he is deeply insecure.  It’s not just that he is a leader, but wants to, needs to, be seen as one.  Status and social position are important to him.  And when in the company of another Alpha, the biggest pissing-contest ever ensues.  You just have to prove who has the biggest dick.

The polar opposite of the Alpha, is the Beta male.  He is not a leader.  He is the guy that will tell the same joke the Alpha tells, and it will fall flat.  He will make the exact rousing speech and not inspire a soul.  He’s a nothing and a nobody, and he knows it.  He will try his best not to show it, but deep down inside he knows he will never be the Alpha.  But his desire to be one is still undeniable.  He has the same insecurity as the Alpha, but lacks the capacity to hide it behind bluff and bluster.  When in the company of an Alpha, he knows he is out-classed.  There is no pissing contest, just instant and instinctive capitulation.   But in the presence of an Alpha, the pissing contest emerges again.  Not to see who has the biggest dick, but to see who gets the approval from the Alpha.  In literature, this person is hardly ever mentioned–but not never (he can most commonly be found as the trusty sidekick:  Batman’s Robin, The Lone Ranger’s Tonto, Asterix’s Obelix).  However, in real life he is as common as muck, the epitome of the Peter Principle, being promoted to his own level of incompetence where he will stay in middle management for the rest of his life and accept it as his natural place in the world.  But scratch deeper, and you’ll see Alpha and Beta is actually the same guy, one just has the capacity to bullshit better.

In literature, it is all about the Alpha.  Batman and The Joker.  They are not opposites, they are the same character seen from a different point of view.  They are infallible, and it’s their infallibility that makes them boring as muck.  This is none so true as with Superman.  Literally invincible, which makes him the most boring lead man ever. And in more “serious” literature, this was also the case of the lead man on Bryce Courtenay’s “The Power of One”, the super-human Peekay who just can’t do anything wrong.  Make no mistake, this is a brilliant book, but Peekay’s infallibility makes him ultimately an unbelievable character.  In popular culture he is Obi-Wan, Tony Stark, and Jean-Luc Picard.  Intensely likable, relatable people, who needs stronger and stronger (and more absurd) adversaries each time to test their mettle against lest they just become too perfect and thus, boring.

And this is where I want to make the case of the Omega Male.

He is the diametric opposite of both these guys.  He is supremely capable, but has no desire to be the leader of men.  He has no need to be the leader, and he has no need to be seen by the leadership.  He does not have the social insecurities of the other two.  Omega’s ambitions are his and his alone.  He wants to achieve things simply because he wants to, not so he can brag with them.  Alpha and Beta will both brag about climbing Kilimanjaro (Beta bragging that he did it with Alpha, the Alpha will ignore the Beta), while the Omega will be silent about scaling Everest.  His achievements are his alone.

Imagine a boardroom scenario:  Alpha is the boss because Beta needs him to be and Omega lets him be.  Alpha will be throwing a tantrum about what has gone wrong and what needs to be done to fix it.  Omega will excuse himself, fix the problem, and come back while Alpha and Beta are still apportioning the blame.  Alpha and Beta will be intimidated by this behaviour:  Alpha will display anger, Beta will display fear.

In literature and fiction, he is most often not portrayed, for the simple reason that he is visually boring.  His victories are not those ticker-tape parades are for.  He is not the action hero.  He is not James Bond because he does not need to be. His life is boring to everyone that observes it except himself.  But when he is done right, he becomes iconic.

The case I will make for the most famous and well-portrayed Omega, is Hannibal Lecter, in both Anthony Hopkins and Mads Mikkelsen incarnations.  Thomas Harris created Dr. Lecter as the ultimate Omega male.  A supremely confident and capable individual who has no desire to brag about his accomplishments.  “The Dude” is an Omega Male.

but I will make the case that Charlie Brown—the ultimate loser—is in fact the ultimate Omega Male.  Charlie Brown never gets the girl or kicks the football, but—after a bit of contemplation—does he really care?   His losses anguish him, but it does not define him.  He is still a good guy, helps Sally with her homework, feeds Snoopy, organises a baseball team (he still organises it and gets enough kids-and a dog-together to come play), and at the end, he just lives his life.  He is no leader, but he is no follower either.  He just gets the stuff he needs to do, done.  Another great Omega is Calvin from Calvin & Hobbes fame.  As Charlie Brown, neither a leader nor a follower, but living a life in his own mind that matters not to anyone but himself.  Arnie Cunningham in Christine is another fine example.  Perpetually bullied, made fun of, but as he said in the book, shit wipes off.  He ain’t worried about others’ opinions of him, he just do what needs doing and has no need for recognition.  If not for his seeming immortality, Jon Snow would also make a good example, but I know nothing.

These Omegas are the most fun to work with in fiction, and when done right, the most fun to read.  When all the bluff and bluster and theatrics of Batman has gone to pass, and the invincible superheroes of Harvey Specter and Raymond Reddington become boring, finding the indulgence of a greatly crafted Omega Male, is pure joy.

And now its confession time:  Mikey Marais, the male protagonist in Discovering Leigh, was an honest attempt at creating an Omega Male character.  I’d like to know if I succeeded.

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