alpha male n. orig. and chiefly Zool. a male individual that is dominant among others of its own sex, esp. in a mixed group of social animals; (in extended use, sometimes with humorous or depreciative connotations) a man tending to assume a dominant or domineering role in social or professional situations, or thought to possess the qualities and confidence for leadership.
The earliest example cited in the OED dates from 1938, by one J. Ulrich, writing in the Journal of Comparative Psychology (25: 386): "The despot may be regarded as the primary dominant, or alpha male, and the male subordinate to him but dominant over others as secondary dominant, or beta male." Both the extended definition and this early example include words with more negative than positive connotations— "domineering," "humorous," "depreciative," "despot." Did early users of the term wish to differentiate behavior they associated with animals from that they associated with educated, scientific, civilized men, drawing a distinct line between human and animal?
Amazon.com reviewer: "The melodrama also results from the authors' tendency to cast Spock as a superhero, with Kirk in the Lois Lane role of damsel-in-distress." Spock as protective alpha male, Kirk as damsel-in-distress? And what does the m-dash indicate? A hesitation to use the term? A hesitation about whether it is being accurately applied? Or, since the term is immediately followed by a definition, a worry that the term will not be understood as the speaker intends it to?
Only when you reach the OED's most recent citation, from a 2009 Daily Telegraph article, do you get the more positive sense of "alpha male" as used by Shalvis and many other romance writers and readers: "With those words Russell Crowe launched himself as the ultimate alpha-male, triggering a swoonfest." The words in question? Crowe's lines in the film Gladiator, lines that focus on his power, aggressiveness, loyalty, and protectiveness toward those weaker than himself:
My name is Maxiumus Decimus Meridius, Commander of the Armies of the North, General of the Felix Legions, loyal servant to the true emperor, Marcus Aurelius. Father to a murdered son, husband to a murdered wife. And I will have my vengeance, in this life or the next.
The OED thus clearly traces the shift in connotation in "alpha male" over the past eighty years, but it has little to say about when and why romance authors began to use the phrase. Lucky for me, a conversation about alpha males in romance over on Teach Me Tonight a few weeks ago included mention of Heather Schell's 2010 article, "The Love Life of a Fact," as well as Laura Vivanco's thoughtful review of same, both of which discuss the evolution of the term "alpha male" in the romance community.
|Differing female and male sexual strategies, a la evolutionary psychology|
This "alpha hero" thus became an avatar for the romance community, Schell suggests, enabling "the sexual strategies facts to expand from their role as mere explanation for the genre's appeal: They could become an actual part of the romance storyline. Once in the storyline, they could be easily transmitted from one novel to the next, and they could move beyond the relatively narrow confines of the romance community's internal discussion into the homes of romance readers across the globe."
In her discussion of Schell's article, Laura Vivanco suggests an earlier genesis of the term than Krentz's collection: in the guidelines for the British Mills and Boon romances. Joseph McAleer's history of the company* relates two guidelines the Boon brothers required their romance authors to follow, one of which was named the "Alphaman":
The "Alphaman," according to the Boon brothers, is based upon a 'law of nature': that is, the female of any species will always be most intensely attracted to the strongest male of the species, the alpha. In other words, the hero must be absolutely top-notch and unique. The wimp type doesn't work. Women don't want an honest Joe," Alan Boon said. (275)
McAleer's description suggests that the M&B guidelines have existed for some time, although no date is given. His article was written in 1990, so the term at the least existed at M&B at the same time, if not before, its popularization in the States. Did the M&B term arise at the same time as evolutionary psychology began to espouse sexual strategies theory, as Schell argues it did in the American romance community? Or did the concept pre-date evolutionary psychology? Does it have any connection with Nietzsche's or Hitler's Übermensch? Shaw's Superman? Anybody up for a trip to the M&B archives (donated to the University of Reading in 2011) to do some digging?
|Not just the star, but the title, too:|
a 2003 Mills & Boon Modern
...the truth status of the Alpha Hero facts for evolutionary psychology is based on the facts' freedom from the influence of human culture. If instead it was clearly understood that the romance community had adopted and perpetuated the Alpha Hero facts, then the heroes of romance novels might cease to embody the facts. The novels would no longer look like "a window into our natural preferences" (Salmon 245)—that is, a clear, transparent, unmediated view of our true selves, untainted by culture. Even if the Alpha Hero facts could survive, they would be messier, equivocal facts, tainted with human intent.
Amazing, how hypotheses in one field can inspire practice in another, and then practice, in its turn, can magically become "evidence" for the originating field at a later date...
If a romance author writing in 2014 wanted to find scientific evidence to explain/justify the popularity of the alpha male, might she in turn draw on the more evolutionary psychology studies discussed by Schell, thus setting the cycle spinning yet again?
Next week, the latest literary critic to weigh in on the rise of the alpha male in romance: my review of Jayashree Kamblé's Making Meaning in Popular Romance Fiction: An Epistemology (Palgrave Macmillan 2014).
* McAleer, Joseph. "Scenes from Love and Marriage: Mills and Boon and the Popular Publishing Industry in Britain, 1908–1950." Twentieth Century British History 1.3 (1990): 264–288.
Russell Crowe in Gladiator: Daily Mail
Sexual Strategies cartoon: Darwinian Gender Studies