Last month, my fiancée’s parents went out of town for about ten days on business and asked if I would look after their golden retriever. Anyone even passingly familiar with the breed understands what this entails—goldens are among the most energetic and sociable dog breeds in existence. I’ve known Murdock, the little dude I was taking care of, since he was a puppy and the two of us have always gotten along pretty well. I’ve never owned a pet of my own, but I do enjoy their company whenever I have the opportunity.
Around the second or third day that I was looking after Murdock, he and I exchanged an unexpected moment. Having gotten over the initial depression that came with his regular masters being gone, he decided to challenge my dominance. Upon my entering the house, he barked, got into an aggressive position, and refused to follow basic commands that we both knew he fully understood. I was surprised but knew well enough what to do. I vocally expressed my dissatisfaction with him. I looked him in the eye as I spoke, never blinking or breaking contact. I placed a leash on him and took him outside for a walk, using my strength and voice to insist that he remain at my heels. He went where I instructed, he sat when I commanded, and he ate after I did.
For the remainder of our time together, he was obedient, attentive, and followed my lead in essentially everything. He knew I was the Alpha Male.
That phrase has made me uncomfortable my entire life. Growing up, it always rang with the same echo that followed my locker room bullies’ guffaws as they left me shivering and angry. Even when the term isn’t explicitly used, Alpha Male mentality is a cornerstone to patriarchal thinking.
Masculinity, as it has traditionally been defined, is a culture of competition, and the Alpha Male variety involves one individual who is raised and revered. Some might argue that this is not entirely a bad characteristic, or at least not an inherent evil.
“Friendly competition” was another phrase that made my younger self cringe but one with which I have become a bit more comfortable as I have aged. Friendly competition supposedly built character, created challenges that fostered individual growth, and made for stronger, smarter, more well-developed human beings. This might be true, as long as the competition is actually friendly and not tethered to egos and superiority obsessions. When Alpha Male thinking is brought into the mixture, such a separation is impossible.
The insistence that only one man may hold the top spot at any given moment, and that that top spot is to be so prized, is often touted as being some sort of biological given. In the wolf packs from which Murdock is descended, the Alpha Male holds his place until he is challenged and defeated.
In a Darwinian worldview, this makes perfect sense: the Alpha is the strongest and best suited to survival, meaning that the pack’s chances of survival are greater by following his lead, and the species’ chances to thrive into the future are greater if he is given priority for breeding—remember, the term “survival of the fittest” does not refer to physical strength and not dying so much as it does to living long enough to breed and pass along one’s genes.
The issue is that we as humans (and we as males) are not bolstered by these mentalities, yet we continue to value them. Dogs only maintain the Alpha instinct because we have not bred it out of them, finding it useful in building their loyalty to us. There’s little evidence to suggest that even early nomadic tribes functioned under Alphas. Even if they did, it was coming together against individualistic impulses that allowed us the privilege of building societies where we can worry about critiquing cultural constructs more than about killing and/or gathering our next meal.
The Alpha Male of any pack is necessarily brought down eventually. He may grow old and get sloppy or weak. A young pup may get lucky with challenging him, in which case the pack will likely replace the new guy soon after (and probably not with the old one). Maybe somebody just happens to come along who is stronger or smarter or faster. This is why male lions often kill the sons of the lionesses in their pride. No matter what, there is only one supreme spot, and inevitably, the quest to either keep or attain that spot results in grotesque action.
I mentioned earlier that competition can prove valuable for challenging and improving ourselves. I write that having been the kind of kid for whom PE class only exercised an ability to hide in plain sight. I can say now that competing with my peers has legitimately made me a better writer, a better athlete, a better student and problem-solver. However, I doubt that any of that improvement would have been as strong or powerful had I needed to be the singular best at any of those.
The first time that I ever heard the phrase “If you’re not first, you’re last,” the deadbeat father character in the Will Farrell movie Talladega Nights was imprinting it on his son in a textbook foreshadowing of conflict. This line encapsulates the parody-esque ridiculousness of single-minded determination towards supremacy.
Alpha thinking demands supremacy, and supremacy commands some form of domination, if not outright subjugation. Peers become either distractions or opponents. Compassion literally becomes weakness. Masculinity that embraces this form of thinking becomes inherently destructive because to be anything less is to allow one’s Alpha status to become jeopardized.
I understand if some of this sounds hyperbolic. Of course I am not suggesting that the big guys in my weight room are plotting my evisceration as I stand in the corner doing deadlifts. It does stand, however, that those so often trumpeted as Alpha Males get there by trampling others, and not necessarily their direct competitors. By venerating the Alphas, we encourage this behavior.
It has never surprised me when male athletes, be they quarterbacks in small town America or high-profile professionals, are caught committing acts of physical or sexual assault. It horrifies me every time, but it does not surprise me when traditionally masculine cis-men who are revered for their Alpha Male behavior of physical aggression and dominance over competitors act in even more aggressive and dominating ways in their own lives, regardless of societal standards.
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What are those standards to men who have proven they are the best of us, and are treated as such? The same can be said of any position of particular prestige or power. The executive who feels comfortable bulldozing poor people’s houses might consider himself asserting his status—the rest is collateral in the form of weak bodies. Even the office boss who brags about his weekend conquests and ensures you don’t get promoted over him rather than creating a decent work environment plays into Alpha thinking.
My alternative to this has typically been a competitive nature focused on progress rather dominance. I don’t need to lift more than every other guy in the gym—just a little better than I did last week, and hey, that guy next to me is doing five more pounds than I am, maybe I can tack on a little extra and match him. I have two goals every time I play a for-fun game with friends or family: do a little better than last time, and try not to be last. If I win, great, that’s a round of bowling or a card game session I can be proud of. If I don’t, I have something to work towards for next time. And if I come in last, the bar resets and my potential is officially limitless. I understand if this method might not work for everyone, but for me, it has inspired a level of compassion and success I had not thought possible previously.
In any case, what better way is there to redefine this type of masculinity than to challenge it full on?
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