Alpha Male


I came across a review the other day, for a famous Pulitzer-Prize winning play, Glenngarry Glenn Ross.

It’s not a play I have seen, but one I know of, because it has become part of the American psyche since the 1992 film adaptation starring, among others, Jack Lemmon, Kevin Spacey, Al Pacino and Alec Baldwin.  Alec Baldwin is remembered for his performance as Blake, a character not in the original stage play, but added especially for the film.

It’s the character of Blake that interests me especially, because, although he is listed in the credits by name, in the film, when asked what his name is, answers “Fuck You.” And that is almost all you need to know about Blake.

Blake is the kind of man who presents himself as an “alpha male.” The idea comes from the belief that in a wolf pack, there is a hierarchy among the wolves based on aggression, violence, and fighting. The leader of the pack is the alpha male, who has first place at the food, first choice of the females, and lords it over the rest of the pack. In the real estate agency where he works, Blake is the alpha male. Or wants to be, anyway.

He insults all the other salesmen and disparages their weaker, less successful, attempts to sell worthless properties to gullible clients. In other words, he is not just a dick, he’s a crook. But then, all of the salesmen are more or less crooks. Some are just better than others. Or dirtier. Or meaner. Or less scrupulous. Or bigger dicks.

Perhaps the most famous piece of dialogue in the film is from Blake:

“‘Cause we’re adding a little something to this month’s sales contest. As you all know, first prize is a Cadillac Eldorado. Anyone wanna see second prize? Second prize is a set of steak knives. Third prize is you’re fired….(If) you can’t close the leads you’re given, you can’t close shit. You ARE shit!”

Nice guy.

But here’s the thing. This point of view, the idea that to be best you have to be the most violent, most aggressive, most insulting to others, that in order to succeed and be alpha male; this idea is part of American culture. It’s part of corporate culture, which is almost the same thing. And when people talk about toxic masculinity, I think this is what they are talking about. To be a success, you have to be alpha male, and to be alpha male you have to be a dick.

But what’s really tragic is that the whole alpha male thing is a myth. It isn’t true, neither about human beings nor wolves.

The idea of the alpha male was started by a biological researcher, L. David Mech, who wrote a book, “The Wolf: Ecology and Behavior of an Endangered Species,” in 1968. As a result of the research he did after the book became popular, he’s been trying to get his publishers to stop printing it ever since. Because one of the ideas he wanted to change was the concept of the alpha wolf. The reason why the wolves he studied fought for leadership was because they were all caged wolves from different packs. They had no natural hierarchy, so they had to form one. In the wild the pack leading wolf achieved that position by mating and producing pups. In other words, the real names for the alpha male and alpha female are “Papa” and “Mama.”

In the wild, the alpha pair look after the younger wolves, most of whom are male. The young females go off to find mates to start new packs. In fact, it isn’t clear whether the male or the female is the leader. It might well be that there are no alpha male wolves, just alpha “mama” wolves.

But because of this bit of mistaken research, we have, in our society, the idea that you have to be tougher to survive. Meaner. More vicious.

But we aren’t a pack of wolves anyway. We are co-operative primates who from our earliest days as hunter gatherers have had to work together to survive. The more complicated our culture, the more we have had to co-operate. The guy who wants to be alpha male just screws things up by causing people to compete when they ought to be working together and by making us think that aggressiveness is the only way to measure masculinity or worth.

Now, as I have mentioned before, our society is based on myths. The mythos, the underlying beliefs that we use as our basis. But they are all just that: myths. Made up stories. And because of that, we get to choose which myths we believe in.

And the myth of the alpha male is one we just don’t need. Because it is the myth of the King Dick as leader.

We don’t need alpha male politicians. We don’t need alpha female feminists. We don’t need alpha policemen. And we certainly don’t need alpha male racists, who just stack one kind of myth on top of another.  That’s what makes them super-dicks.

What we need is to value each other for who we are. Not even for what we can do. Just who we are.


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