For some time I’ve been frustrated by the limitations of speaking about men in alpha/beta terms. It’s a construct that works well for purposes of learning Game, but it’s an extremely limiting view of male nature that makes it difficult to address and discuss the broad spectrum of maleness. Even within Game circles there are considerable debates about who gets to call himself an alpha, who is relegated to “lesser beta,” etc. It’s reductionist in the extreme, relying heavily on the single characteristic of social dominance.
While it’s true that women find socially dominant men sexually attractive, defining dominance quickly becomes problematic. We assume the college QB1 is dominant, a la Tom Brady, but what if he’s a big, shy guy? We debate whether Tiger Woods is an alpha male, or whether Bill Gates’ riches qualify him, even though it’s possible he’s only had sex with one woman. What about the brooding hipster loner who gets laid all the time? Is he dominant by virtue of the fact that he doesn’t give a f*ck what anyone thinks?
When discussing this endlessly fascinating topic, men will often cite romance novels as the perfect illustration of what women really want. The highly masculine and muscled hero who ravishes the helpless female while committing to her for life. We point to the modern day equivalent of that action hero as the ultimate alpha. But how to explain women’s desire for men who don’t fit that mold? Are they “settling?” Do we secretly wish that the male population was made up entirely of these men, so that women wouldn’t have to compete for these rare specimens? I don’t think so.
I decided to make a study of the common male hero archetypes in literature and film. The most useful source I found was The Complete Writer’s Guide to Heroes & Heroines by Cowden, LaFever and Viders. Derived from the Greek archetypos, or “first of its kind,” archetypes share characteristics that transcend time, place and culture, and access the shared memory of human experiences. The word hero also comes from ancient Greece. Prominent in tales and legends, early heroes were all brave and willing to make sacrifices. Over time the anti-hero was introduced, a flawed man who struggled to overcome ordinary life’s challenges.
The authors identify eight male heroic archetypes, seven of which are relevant to the contemporary sociosexual environment (I’ve eliminated The Swashbuckler):
1. The Chief
Goal-oriented, decisive and responsible. Seeks to control his environment, very high achieving. More interested in leading than communicating. Examples include: General Patton, Dons Vito and Michael Corleone in The Godfather, King Arthur, Mr. Darcy.
The consummate “alpha,” often deferred to as the natural beneficiary of female sexual attention.
2. The Bad Boy
Charismatic, street-smart, intuitive. From a troubled family background, attracts trouble consistently. Not interested in pleasing others. He might be from the wrong side of the tracks, rejected as a child, or is a born rebel. He is wary and self-protective, avoiding intimacy. Examples include James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause, Matt Damon as Will Hunting, Holden Caulfield, Charles Manson.
Forbidden fruit, he’s the ultimate challenge. Women can’t resist wanting to reach that closed-off part of himself by providing the unconditional love and acceptance that he missed as a child. Reforming a bad boy is a highly gratifying and tempting fantasy for women.
3. The Best Friend
Stable, supportive, tolerant. Decent, kind and responsible. Focused on the needs of others, easy going, and untroubled. Pleasant personality, well-liked by others. Examples include Tom Hanks as Joe Fox in You’ve Got Mail, Kevin Kline as Dave Kovic in Dave, Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life, Billy Crystal as Harry Burns in When Harry Met Sally, Mr. Knightly in Emma, Hugh Grant in Notting Hill.
Currently reviled by many men as the guy who always gets “friend-zoned,” there are many women who are drawn to such men. He is perceived as high value for long-term relationships.
4. The Charmer
Creative, witty, smooth. Highly charismatic: fun, irresistible, unreliable. Relies on personality and wit to get ahead rather than hard work. Was born knowing how to please others. A golden boy, he may be a player or a rogue. Examples include Matthew Broderick as Ferris Bueller, Remington Steele, Count Vronsky in Anna Karenina, Petruchio in Taming of the Shrew, Leonardo DiCaprio as Jack Dawson in Titanic.
The man most likely to achieve player status. Enjoys the limelight, excellent people skills, makes friends everywhere he goes. Because of his constant supply of admirers, he is irresistible to women but is unlikely to make a good LTR partner.
5. The Lost Soul
Tortured man filled with angst and passion. Devoted and vulnerable, but also brooding and unforgiving. A loner, a complicated man. Drifts through life, perhaps as an outcast. Examples include Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, Cain from the Old Testament, Angel in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, David Duchovny in The X-Files, Beast in Beauty and the Beast, Michael C. Hall as Dexter.
His appeal is similar to the Bad Boy’s – and even more compelling. He needs to be saved immediately, and triggers the female’s desire to rescue rather than reform. His brooding passion provokes thoughts of very intense sex, and high drama.
6. The Professor
His strength is his intellect or special skills. Expert, analytical, genuine, the smartest man in the room. May lack social finesse, as he has few peers on the same intellectual plane. Often experiences isolation, particularly in adolescence. Examples include Sherlock Holmes, Bill Gates, Harry Potter, Mr. Spock in Star Trek, Woody Allen as Alvy Singer in Annie Hall, Henry Higgins in Pygmalion, most economists, many academics.
This is the man who struggles the most to sexually attract women. Often preferring solitude, he may appear misanthropic. His challenge is to exert and display dominance via his intelligence. As he is likely to work in a male-dominated field, pursuing outside interests shared by women is a key strategy for success. Career success may also provide considerable prestige, greatly increasing SMP value, e.g. Peter Orszag.
7. The Warrior
Tenacious, principled, passionate. Driven, controlled, remote. Focused on righting wrongs, he is the ultimate protector. Honorable and intensely loyal. Examples include Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, Jan Schlichtmann in A Civil Action, Superman, Anakin Skywalker, Mel Gibson in Braveheart, Robin Hood.
Conspicuous examples are relatively uncommon in real life, though there are many men who fit this description flying under the radar. His commitment, passion and nobility will garner him intense respect among his peers. Sexual attraction is generated via the admiration of women. He is likely to prioritize his work over everything else, including relationships.
I’m not suggesting we adopt a guide to writing characters as a new paradigm in thinking about males and the women who want them. However, I think an exploration of the archetypes featured throughout history demonstrates the broad spectrum of maleness. There are infinite variations of qualities that men may inhabit and develop within themselves. Both biology and environment play important roles. Female sexual attraction is not as simple as an appreciation for social dominance. In fact, there is recent research that suggests that contemporary culture depreciates social dominance. Scott Barry Kaufman recently wrote Two Routes to Social Status on his Beautiful Minds blog at Psychology Today:
“Recent research shows that if given the choice between a dominant man or a prestigious man, women tend to prefer the prestigious man, particularly for long-term relationships. While researchers found that male dominance was attractive to females in the context of male-male competition (athletics) in both a short-term and long-term romantic partner, women did not find men attractive who used dominance (force or threat of force) while competing for leadership in informal decision making among peers.
This may seem to go against the “girls like jerks” stereotype, but I think it adds some more nuance to that stereotype. Girls don’t like “jerks”, per se but men who are strong and confident…While there is some overlap between dominant and prestigious men– prestigious men, like dominant men, are confident, achievement-oriented, and extraverted– prestigious men are also self-assured, caring, and helpful people who are genuinely high in self-esteem.”
What makes self-esteem genuine? Pride plays a key role, but researchers differentiate between hubristic pride and authentic pride. Hubristic pride is linked to dominance, while authentic pride is linked to prestige:
“Self-reported dominance was associated with lower levels of genuine self-esteem, social acceptance, and agreeableness, and higher levels of self-aggrandizing narcissism, aggression, extraversion, agency, and conscientiousness. Those with higher levels of self-reported dominance were rated by their peers as higher in athleticism and leadership and lower in altruism, cooperativeness, helpfulness, ethicality, and morality.
Self-reported prestige was associated with lower levels of aggression and neuroticism, and higher levels of genuine self-esteem, social acceptance, extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, openness to experience, GPA, and was weakly related to self-aggrandizing narcissism. Those with higher levels of self-reported prestige were rated by their peers as being more capable advisor and leaders as well as being more intellectual, athletic, socially skilled, altruistic, cooperative, helpful, ethical, and moral.”
This may leave us right back where we started. Natural “alphas” are more likely to prize dominance, while most natural “betas” prize prestige. Generating sexual attraction in women is not a straightforward process, and there’s considerable evidence that it can be done in a variety of ways. A strategy that devalues beta characteristics may significantly limit a man’s success in the sexual marketplace.