The fall of the
From the wild to the workplace, the alpha male’s strong-arm tactics are on
the wane. ShortList’s Tom Ellen hails the nice rise of the Beta Age
or George, life is blissfully simple. He
wakes up every morning to be offered
F first dibs on breakfast. Then, having
filled his belly with fine fare, he spends
the rest of the day using his natural strength and high
social ranking to bully and intimidate his inferiors,
before persuading the most attractive female in his
immediate eyeline to come home with him. Yes, for
George, life is one long holiday.
We should mention at this point that George is
And what’s more, his idyllic simian existence
is currently under threat. Recent studies at the
department of ecology and evolutionary biology
at Princeton University suggest that alpha-male
baboons — such as George — are suffering from
dangerously high stress levels. It appears the
constant fighting, screeching and careful guarding
of their social status have finally combined to wear
the most ostentatious,
of the species down.
But it’s not only in the jungle
where alphas are beginning to
lose their grip. Recent years
have seen the beta quietly, but
steadily, gain ground. In music,
the journalist-baiting swagger of
Liam Gallagher has given way to
the charming, fiercely intelligent
wit of Alex Turner. In business,
modest, mild-mannered types
36 / WWW.SHORTLIST.COM
such as Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates command
international respect, while barking dinosaurs
of Donald Trump’s ilk have become figures of ridicule.
Even our DVD collections are brimming with fictional
betas, such as Tim from The Office, who are
shown gloriously besting their showier rivals
to get the girl in the end.
So, the question is: what’s brought about this
seismic shift in the masculine hierarchy? Why, in
spite of all his yelling and chest-thumping, has the
alpha male fallen from favour?
OUR DEFAULT SETTING
Professor Eric Anderson, author of Inclusive
Masculinity: The Changing Nature Of Masculinities,
believes that, despite its traditional supremacy
in the animal kingdom, the ‘alpha’ type is not
necessarily the most natural form of manliness
for highly evolved human beings.
“Men are emotional
creatures,” he tells ShortList.
“We like to cry, we like to
bond with our mates, we
enjoy physical tactility.
So all these hyper-macho
tropes are highly unnatural;
it’s the ‘beta’ male
that’s the true version
Clearly, this is the
Zuckerberg: the poster
boy for beta males
sort of statement that
would have Kenny Powers
snorting derisively into his beer. If alpha males
are so “unnatural”, why have they enjoyed
such unchallenged dominance in the past?
According to Anderson, homophobia plays
a major part.
“In extreme homophobic atmospheres,” he
says, “heterosexual men feel pressure to prove that
they’re not gay. They do this by acting like Rambo —
showing off, being sexist and aggressive — because
these traits are all typically coded as ‘straight’.
However, over the past few decades, as society
has become more accepting and open, men have
felt less compelled to align themselves with this
old-school, alpha-male behaviour.”
If, as Anderson maintains, ‘alpha’ is not man’s true
default setting, but rather a defence mechanism
designed to signify ‘straightness’, then why should
we keep up the act in a world that’s increasingly
relaxed about people’s sexual preference? Why not
just be our natural, ‘beta’ selves? These are clearly
the questions running through the minds of men
across the country.
“We’ve recently seen the rise of the ‘bromance’,”
says Anderson. “Straight men becoming more
honest about their close relationships with each
other. The coining, and widespread use, of the term
‘metrosexual’ has helped too. That meant straight
men could take better care of themselves and be
softer, nicer and less aggressive, without anyone
assuming they were gay.”
But there’s more to it than this. The simple
fact is that, in 2012, ‘alpha’ behaviour has not