The Myth of the Alpha Male, or, the joy of the Omega Male

Disclaimer: The following blog explores fictional characters and is not to be seen or interpreted as a psychological analysis of anything in real life. If the shoe fits, though…

To begin, I would like to introduce the idea of “opposites”.  The opposite of “north pole” is “south pole”, but let’s face it, there is no real difference, is there?  One is merely the inverse of the other.  Both are cold and inhospitable places with permanent darkness in winter and permanent light in summer.  The one is simply the flip side of the other.  The Yin and the Yang: different, yet structurally the same.  This is called, obviously, the polar opposite.

But the actual opposite of either of those poles is the diametric opposite: The tropics.  Warm, lush, inviting, an abundance of food and water.  A place to live in abundance and comfort.  (Unless you are like my wife, who would rather sit in the poles…)  In this, I want to show that it can be argued that any given concept has two opposites, the polar and the diametric.

And now, I want to introduce the stock character for all romance and action books and movies: The “Alpha male”.  The chief protagonist in our hypothetical fictional example.  We all know the Alpha male.  Alpha is the strong guy, the leader of men and the envy of women.  Who said it? “Men want to him, and women want to be with him.”  He is the main man, the guy in charge.  The Boss.  The guy who calls the shots.  You’ve seen him in almost every male lead in movies and TV shows.  And you’ve seen him in real life.  He’s the guy who can command an audience, slay the bad guys, and get the girl.  A natural-born leader.  His real-life weakness, however, is that he is deeply insecure.  It’s not just that he is a leader, but he needs acknowledgement as one.  Status and social position are vital to him, his ego, and his self image.  And when in the company of another Alpha, the biggest pissing contest ever ensues.  They just have to prove who has the biggest dick.

The polar opposite of the Alpha Male is predictably the Beta male.  He is not a leader.  He is the guy who will tell the exact same joke the Alpha tells, and it will fall flat.  He will copy the exact rousing speech word for word and not inspire a soul.  He’s a nothing and a nobody, and he knows it.  He will try his best not to show it, but deep down inside, he knows he will never be the Alpha.  But his desire to be one is still undeniable.  He has the same insecurity as the Alpha but lacks the capacity to hide it behind bluff and bluster.  When in the company of an Alpha, he knows he is out-classed.  There is no pissing contest, just instant and instinctive capitulation.   But when in the company of another Beta, a pissing contest happens, just not as you’d expect.  It’s not to see who has the biggest dick but to see who gets the approval from the Alpha.  In literature, this person is hardly ever mentioned, but if he is, he is most commonly found as the trusty sidekick: Batman’s Robin, The Lone Ranger’s Tonto, and Asterix’s Obelix.

However, in real life, he is as common as muck.  He is the epitome of the Peter Principle, being promoted to his own level of incompetence, where he will stay in middle management for the rest of his life and see it as his natural place in the world.

But if you scratch deeper, you’ll see Alpha and Beta is actually the same guy; one just happens to be a better bullshitter!

In literature, it is all about the Alpha.  Batman and The Joker.  They are not opposites; they are the same character seen from a different point of view.  They are infallible, and their infallibility makes them boring as muck.  This is none so true as in the case of Superman.  Literally invincible, which makes him the most boring lead man ever. And in more “serious” literature, this was also the case of the lead man in Bryce Courtenay’s “The Power of One”, the superhuman Peekay who just can’t do anything wrong.  Make no mistake, this is a brilliant book, but Peekay’s infallibility makes him ultimately an unbelievable character.  In popular culture, he is Obi-Wan, Tony Stark, and Jean-Luc Picard.  Intensely likeable, relatable people who need stronger and stronger (and more absurd) adversaries each time to measure their mettle lest they just become too perfect.  And thus: boring.

This is where I want to make the case for the Omega Male.

He is the diametric opposite of both of the Alpha and Beta.  He is supremely capable, but has no desire to be the leader.  He has no need for it and no desire for the leadership to take note of him.  He does not have the social insecurities.  Omega’s ambitions are his and his alone.  He wants to achieve things simply because he wants to, not so that he can brag with them.  Alpha and Beta will boast about climbing Kilimanjaro (for different reasons), while the Omega will be silent about scaling Everest.  His achievements are his alone.

Imagine a boardroom scenario: Alpha is the boss because Beta needs him to be, and Omega lets him be.  Alpha will throw a tantrum about what has gone wrong and what needs to be done to fix it.  Beta will scramble for solutions that will meet Alpha’s approval.  Omega will excuse himself, fix the problem, and come back while Alpha and Beta still apportion the blame.  Alpha and Beta will both be intimidated by this behaviour: Alpha will display anger, Beta will display fear.

In literature and fiction, he is hardly ever shown for the simple reason that he is visually boring.  His victories are not those ticker-tape parades are for.  He is not the action hero.  He is not James Bond because he does not need to be. His life is boring to everyone who observes it except himself.

But when he is done right, he becomes iconic.

The case I will make for the most famous and well-portrayed Omega is Hannibal Lecter—in both Anthony Hopkins and Mads Mikkelsen incarnations.  Thomas Harris created Dr. Lecter as the ultimate Omega male.  A supremely confident and capable individual who has no desire to brag about his accomplishments.  He just does them because he can!  The Dude is an Omega Male. I can also make a case that Charlie Brown—the ultimate loser—is in fact the ultimate Omega Male.  Charlie Brown never gets the girl or kicks the football, but in the end, he doesn’t really care.   His losses anguish him, but it does not define him.  He is still a good guy, helps Sally with her homework, feeds the dog, organises a perpetually losing baseball team, and at the end of it, he just lives his life!

Charlie Brown is no leader, but he is no follower either.  He just gets the stuff he needs to do done.  Another excellent Omega is Calvin from Calvin & Hobbes fame.  Like Master Brown, Calvin is neither a leader nor a follower, but he lives a life in his own mind that matters to no one but himself.  Arnie Cunningham in Christine is another fine example.  Perpetually bullied, made fun of, but “shit wipes off”.  He ain’t worried about others’ opinions of him; he just does what needs doing and has no need for recognition.  Jon Snow would also make a good example if not for his seeming immortality.  But I know nothing.

These Omegas are the most fun to work with in fiction and, when done right, the most fun to read.  When all the bluff, bluster, and theatrics of Batman has gone to pass, and the invincible superheroes of Harvey Specter and Raymond Reddington become boring, finding the indulgence of a greatly crafted Omega is pure joy.

And now it’s confession time: Mikey Marais, the male protagonist in Discovering Leigh, was an honest attempt at creating an Omega Male character.  I’d like to know if I succeeded.