Friday, September 26, 2014

Evolution and the Alpha Male

While reading Jill Shalvis's latest Lucky Harbor contemporary romance, It's in His Kiss, I couldn't help but notice how often Shalvis used the word "alpha" to describe not only the male lead, but also his group of male buddies. (Anybody with an e-book version out there who could do a search and find out exactly how many times the word appears??)  Rather than describe a male character's characteristics in detail, Shalvis uses the shorthand "alpha" to signal to readers that the character possesses a certain type of über-desirable masculinity, a masculinity characterized by toughness, strength, and the need to protect those around him, particularly his girlfriend/spouse/mate. Seeing the word repeated so many times got me wondering—when (and why) did romance writers start using the word to describe their male protagonists?

The trusty Oxford English Dictionary includes an entry not just for "alpha," but also for the phrase "alpha male":

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?

Interestingly, none of the other examples cited in the OED reference popular romance, although the first example from a work of fiction rather than science comes from genre literature: the fourth original Star Trek novel, 1977's Price of the Phoenix: "He's—an alpha male. You know the idea of ranking the dominant males in a primate group, alpha, beta, gamma" (8). I don't own a copy of the book, so I'm not sure who is the speaker here, or who is being spoken of. I would have guessed Captain Kirk before reading this line from an 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.

Schell's article, published in How Well do Facts Travel? The Dissemination of Reliable Knowledge, argues that the term "alpha male" became part of romance discourse in large part through romance writers' attempts to counter negative assessments of the genre, particularly criticisms of its gendered power dynamics, being made by feminist scholars of popular culture in the early 1980s. Searching for a positive explanation of genre romance's appeal, Schell argues, the romance author/contributors to Jayne Ann Krentz's 1992 essay collection, Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women: Romance Writers on the Appeal of the Romance, turned to the realms of sociobiology and evolutionary psychology to explain why their heroes were domineering and their heroines inexperienced. Though the collection does not cite scientific scholarship directly, Schell points to striking similarities between its authors' justification of the alpha male and hypotheses being popularized by evolutionary psychologists during the 1980s that "human gender relationships might be understood as a vestige of our ancestry, reflecting the sexual strategies most successfully used by past hominids to reproduce" (emphasis added).

Differing female and male sexual strategies, a la evolutionary psychology
In addition to arguing that, evolution-wise, men and women have inherited very different mating strategies, evolutionary psychology's sexual strategies theories also suggest that it makes evolutionary sense that women would choose "successful" men as sexual partners; successful men will pass along genes that will make their children more likely to survive. It's not culture, which constructs men and powerful and women has powerless, but nature, that makes women desire powerful, dominant, successful—i.e., alpha—men.

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
Whether the alpha male concept entered romance via the Boon brothers or via Krentz, though, does not change Schell's most ironic point. Since its birth in the 1980s, evolutionary psychology has been the subject of controversy and criticism by feminist scholars and by scientists in other fields (see this brief Wikipedia discussion for the major players in the controversy), particularly around the issue of whether its theories could ever be proven through scientific study. During the late 1990s and 2000s, some evolutionary psychologists began to turn to romance novels to provide evidence for its sexual strategies theory. With little awareness that romance writers were likely been influenced by the earlier popularizations of the sexual strategies hypothesis, such scientists used romance novels (and romance novelists' justifications of the alpha hero in Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women), as proof that their theories were valid. As Schell concludes:

...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.

Illustration credits:
Russell Crowe in Gladiator: Daily Mail
Sexual Strategies cartoon: Darwinian Gender Studies


  1. I have that ebook. I was surprised to find it was only used 8 times. During the book it felt like it was a bit more.

    1. Thanks, Sherri, for checking on that for us. Surprising that it was only 8--definitely felt like more to me, too!

  2. This was fascinating... I don't find alpha males attractive at all, and I've wondered how they got to be such a thing in romances. Was also quite surprised to see Star Trek here! That novel is not in my collection, but I may have just made an ill-advised Amazon purchase, so I'll come back and provide some context if I can. :)

    1. Thanks, Hannah, for stopping by. And do let us know if you end up buying/reading the Star Trek novel. Am really curious who the speaker was, and to whom he/she was referring...

    2. Hey! So, I bought the novel. It turns out the speaker is Dr. McCoy, and he's actually referring to the apparent villain of the novel. He's giving Spock a kind of psychological profile of the mysterious villain, Omne. (I haven't read the whole book yet, just that first eight pages to get to the quote, so I don't know who or what Omne turns out to be.) Here's the full quote:

      "Something else, Spock. He's--an alpha male. You know the idea of ranking the dominant males in a primate group alpha, beta, gamma. Jim and I always figured it works for men, too. But this Omne--he's so alpha he'd have a tough time even finding a contest."

      So, McCoy does specifically say he's using a term for animal behavior and applying it to humans. Regarding the hesitation, this scene takes place right after the Enterprise has received Jim Kirk's body, and I think it's just supposed to indicate that McCoy's still worked up emotionally. (I get the impression Kirk doesn't stay dead, or that they sent up a decoy body or something, but you get the idea.)

    3. So interesting, Hannah! So the alpha-male description is sort of a sign of praise ("Jim and I always figured it works for men, too"), but only if you don't take it too far. Will be interested to hear more about what Omne does that's "alpha"...

  3. Inquiring minds want to know how the convention of the hero as alpha male has changed recently. Someone should write a book about it. Someone with a mind as bright as her hair. Someone who thinks about the conventions rather than feels them. A biker chick with a PhD. She doesn't really need to be a biker chick.