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Masculinity 2.0, Beta

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Guys, it looks like we’re back to “Beta,” to borrow a term from the “Web 2.0″ world. Or maybe it’s that Beta’s are back in. I’m not sure which. It was over a year-and-half ago that I bemoaned the reign of the alpha males.

And be certain there are rough edges when it comes to alpha males. Sometimes its those edges that attract and repel us simultaneously. I’ll be the first to admit that as much as I feared and envied some of the more aggressive, influential boys I went to school with, I still swooned over them in the locker room. (Until they drove me out of it, that is.)

Those rough edges are still attractive qualities to some Americans, and don’t think that Karl Rove doesn’t know that. Why else does Bush take every opportunity to get down to his ranch and clear brush, except to invoke the image of the cowboy and all it implies; the strength that lies behind stoic silence, the “resoluteness” to stand one’s ground, etc. And after 9/11 America wanted an alpha male in the White House. The problem is that those rough edges that seemingly soothe us also have a downside…

The problem is that after 9/11 America wanted a John Wayne, but now — in the clear light of day, with the dust from the towers settled — we discover we ended up with a Gomer Pyle instead. One who doesn’t have the wherewithal to see us out of the mess he swaggered us into. He can clear brush, but he can’t get us out of the weeds he led us into.

This weekend I opened up Newsweek, read their article “In Hollywood, Beta Males Best Alpha Dogs,” and began to think maybe I was out in front of a cultural trend back in October 2005.

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The testosterone-pumped, muscle-bound Hollywood hero is rapidly deflating—this summer, Bruce Willis is the last he-man standing. Taking his place is a new kind of leading man, the kind who’s just as happy following as leading, or never getting off the sofa. “He’s a guy who isn’t concerned with status,” says Justin Spitzer, a writer for TV’s “The Office.” “He’s more concerned with getting through the day and not engaging in a pissing contest with the alpha males around him.” It makes sense that our culture is embracing the mojo-free man right now. As America comes to terms with our diminished omnipotence in the wake of 9/11, the Iraq War and President Bush’s international unpopularity, we’re growing weary of Teflon-coated John Wayne stereotypes of masculinity. Donald Rumsfeld, Ken Lay, Mel Gibson, Don Imus—all chest-beating, leader-of-the-pack men, and look what happened to them. The alpha dog doesn’t hunt anymore. The new role model is a beta male.

And is it me, or is there something kinda twilight-zonish about this trend being noted (or created) by the media right around the same time as John Wayne’s 100th birthday and the death of Charles Nelson Reilly? Could you think of two more disparate examples of “American Manhood”? Could it be that the planets have somehow aligned and — as author Joshua Gidding puts it in the Newsweek article — “the pendulum is swinging towards beta,” to finally settle between the two extremes? And what are the political implications?

Then there’s Al Gore. During the 2000 election, the press seized on the conceit that Gore was too eager to please, too deferential, too indecisive. Today Gore is still the proto beta male—the on-again-off-again beard, the belly, the deference to Tipper—but he’s also having the last laugh as a movie star, an ecosavant, a best-selling author and a potential dark-horse presidential contender. You could even argue that his former boss is following his lead. Bill Clinton is remaking himself as a soft-spoken, waistline-watching humanitarian who’s happy to cede the spotlight to his wife, Hillary. If she wins, he’ll make history—as the country’s first First Gentleman. You can’t get much more beta than that.

OK, Newsweek, let’s not get too giddy. I know how fast you media types can change your minds about cultural trends. There was the nationwide post-/9/11 “cowboy crush,” after all, when people went all Peggy-Noonan-esque, declaring left and right that “the real men are back,” implying that any guy who wasn’t a firefighter, policeman, marine or some other masculine archetype might as well make an appointment with the vet (for himself) and start shopping for skirts. And right after the 2006 election, there was the New York Times declaring the “invasion of the alpha male democrat.”

…On the day she made history as the first woman to be elected speaker, she appeared on the House floor, surrounded by children and bedecked in pearls.

But even as this nurturing image dominated the news, the swearing-in ceremony on Thursday was notable for another milestone in gender politics: the return of the Alpha Male Democrat.

The members of this new faction, which helped the Democrats expand into majority status, stand out not for their ideology or racial background but for their carefully cultivated masculinity.

As much as the policy positions is the background and character of these Democrats,” says John Lapp, the former executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee who helped recruit this new breed of candidate. “So we went to C.I.A. agents, F.B.I. agents, N.F.L. quarterbacks, sheriffs, Iraq war vets. These are red-blooded Americans who are tough.”

Mr. Lapp even coined a term to describe these manly — and they are all men — pols: “the Macho Dems.”

The return of Democratic manliness was no accident; it was a carefully planned strategy. But now that the Macho Dems are walking the halls of Congress, it remains to be seen whether they will create as many problems for Democrats as they solved. After all, these new Democrats have heterodox political views that could complicate Democratic caucus politics, and their success may raise uncomfortable questions for those Democrats who don’t pass the new macho test.

…The roots of the Macho Dem strategy can be found in the party’s 2004 losses when Democrats decided that their post-9/11 candidates needed to exude strength above all else.

“Presidential politics, but also the rest of national political leadership, has a lot to do with the understandable desire of voters for leadership, strength, clarity and sureness,” says Jim Jordan, John Kerry’s first presidential campaign manager. “Frankly, in the post-Vietnam era, Democrats have come up short by those measures too frequently.”

Adds the Democratic strategist James Carville, “The fact that the party has come across as less — I don’t want to say less masculine — but certainly less aggressive than Republicans, is true.”

In other words, the Dems got themselves some cowboy boots and learned how to swagger. That was in January. Should cultural and political winds shift again, will the Beta males be dead and buried before the end of the year? Will we hear of yet another “return of the alpha male”? O will we end up with a totally new creation? A “Gamma Male,” perhaps?

One thing is worth noting, given that Al Gore’s name came up in the Newsweek article as the political example of the “Beta Male” compared to Bush’s waning popularity as the “Alpha Male in Chief.” Reading about Mr. Gore new “Beta Male” status (I suppose we should thank our lucky stars that Naomi Wolf’s efforts to make an “Alpha Male” of him were for naught) reminded me of something I blogged about during the Katrina aftermath, which clarifies the difference between the two men. Bush flew over New Orleans to assess the damage, remember? And when he finally touched down, it was mostly for photo-ops.

Meanwhile Gore flew into New Orleans to fly others out of the disaster. (Thanks, Wayback Machine!)

They were tired, weary and gracious.

Some needed medical care, and others simply wanted a shower. Many were elderly and fragile.

Rob Webb, director of Rural/Metro Ambulance Service in Blount County, said hospital patients and evacuees flown into Knoxville from New Orleans Saturday showed their gratitude as they left the plane.

“I welcomed them to Tennessee, told them they were going to be taken care of in a nice hospital,” Webb said.

An American Airlines plane arrived at McGhee Tyson Airport at 3:10 p.m. Saturday with about 130 people from New Orleans.

Former Vice President Al Gore was on the plane, helping patients. He did not grant interviews to reporters Saturday.

“My understanding was that he made this happen, that he actually arranged for this aircraft,” Webb said.

There wasn’t a lot of press about this, because Gore didn’t grant interviews at the time. If he had, I’m sure best that most right wingers could have done would have been to criticize him for burning airplane fuel, being an environmentalist and all. But when you consider the difference between the two men, the so-called “Beta Male” and the apparently anointed “Alpha Male,” you’d be excused for asking who did the most good for the most people in that time of crisis. And there are other differences between the two men, as Glen Greenwald pointed out in a Salon column.

The second-most astonishing political fact over the last six years — after the permanently jaw-dropping and incomparably disgraceful fact that 70% of Americans believed as late as September, 2003 (6 months after the invasion) that Saddam Hussein personally participated in the planning of the 9/11 attacks (a fact which, by itself, profoundly indicts all of our political and media instititutions at once) — is that the 2004 presidential candidate who actually volunteered to fight, in actual combat, in the Vietnam jungle was the one depicted as the weak subversive coward, while the candidate who used every family connection possible to avoid ever fighting was depicted as the brave, masculine, fighter-warrior who had the backbone to stand down the Evil Enemies and protect us all.

In fact, Bush comes up short not just in that category, as the Alternet article I quoted back when I was eulogizing “Alpha Males” points out.

A real man should be capable of flip-flopping on any issue at any time. It is an essential element in thinking and living. There is no way to grow as a man without changing one’s mind from time to time. The inability to change an opinion when life and events prove your original opinion or decision wrong, is not a manly quality. It is the quality of those who prefer to be deluded by life, rather than taught by it. The best thing that could be said of Kerry, who ran an overly cautious, defensive campaign that lacked the courage he showed in life, was that Kerry flip flopped on the issues. It meant that he was a man capable of growth.

Most of all a real man can say “I was wrong” and mean it. He can take responsibility for his actions and know that responsibility isn’t just admitting to error, but seeking ways to remedy that error. In this way George W. Bush is not a real man and never will be. He can drink his beer, talk his baseball stats, walk the walk on aircraft carriers, and nothing that he can do will make him a real man unless he can now become a born again humanist, not a very likely prospect.

By now, Bush’s constitutional inability to admit error has reached legendary proportions, to the point that he now reads the most recent polls on the war in Iraq in his favor. This is almost two years after the presidential debates, during which every time Kerry suggested the Iraq war was a mistake Bush’s main response was “You can’t say that and be president,” when perhaps what he was saying to himself was “I can’t say that and still be ‘the man’ or a man period.” To do so would deflating, and this is a guy who has to remain rigid, unbending, and impenetrable to any even reason or opposing arguments if you know what I mean.

Being “resolute” is just another way of saying you gotta keep your hard-on at all costs. Or, in another vernacular, you gotta “stay hard,” which underscores the softness of the “Beta Male.” Remember the description of Al Gore’s “belly” above? (Though now Bill Clinton’s “waist-watching” qualifies him for “Beta Male” membership too.) If the author of the Alternet piece is right, and I’m inclined to think that’s the case, it’s not the “cultivated masculinity” of the Democrats that’s the problem so much as it is what Greenwald calls the “contrived masculinity” of the Republican’s that’s gotten us into the mess that we’re currently in.

The bigger problem is the concept of masculinity inherent in the portrayals pols in both parties as “Alpha Males,” deemed such because they possess qualities believed to be requirements for even being considered a “real man.” The term “Alpha Male” has its roots, of course, in the dominance hierarchies of social animals, and that’s reflected in the terms used to describe both “Alpha Males” in both parties. The “Macho Dems” were “C.I.A. agents, F.B.I. agents, N.F.L. quarterbacks, sheriffs, Iraq war vets” and “red-blooded Americans who are tough,” and (probably not coincidentally) include more than a few netroots supported Dems in recent elections, like Jon Tester (Montana Farmer) and Jim Webb (former marine who picked a fight with the president almost as soon as he hit town).

Back around the start of the Iraq invasion, Phil McCombs at the Post waxed rhapsodic about Republican “manhood” in a manner that made Peggy Noonan look damn near stoic.

Is the alpha male making a comeback after years of being psychopathologized by howling fems? Is Dirty Harry alive and well? Are we heading back into a time when Real Men bring home the bacon and their women cook it up?

In wartime you need shooters, of course, and pols and ‘crats to support them — Rummy and Cheney and Wolfowitz and Ari “One Bullet” Fleischer and yeah, even Colin Powell, who tried being nice for a while, till he bumped into Dominique “Nicely Nicely” de Villepin.

Yet here and there are glimmers that something broader may be at work in American culture.

… Because if testosterone levels are indeed rising all over America, and Dominique de Villepin doesn’t get it, you can bet Karl Rove does.

“We love freedom, and we’re not changin’,” Bush said quietly in his March 6 press conference. It’s a small thing, dropping a G, but no doubt helps evoke in many a red-blooded American heart that sense of determined manliness and warrior spirit Noonan touched upon: We still make men like that.

But when wartime turns to quagmire, and you can shoot your way out of it, who ya gonna call? The same guys you sneer after the “shooters” have gone in with guns blazing and the dust settles to reveal a big mess that these guys can’t even acknowledge if they want to keep shooting straight. The same guys that a writer quoted in the Post article pretty much wrote off.

West Coast therapist Robert A. Glover is also experiencing brisk interest in his book, last year’s “No More Mr. Nice Guy: A Proven Plan for Getting What You Want in Love, Sex and Life.” He leads seminars on “Breaking Free From the Nice Guy Syndrome.”

“Five decades of dramatic social change and monumental shifts in the traditional family,” he writes, “have created a breed of men who have been conditioned to seek the approval of others.

“Nice Guys are concerned about looking good and doing it ‘right.’ They are happiest when they are making others happy. Nice Guys avoid conflict . . . and will go to great lengths to avoid upsetting anyone. . . . Nice Guys are especially concerned about pleasing women.”

The payoff they’re seeking, Glover writes, is that “if they are good, giving, and caring, they will in return be happy, loved, and fulfilled.”

Think Hans Blix.

But when this doesn’t happen, the psychologist goes on, they become angry and resentful — so that, paradoxically, “Nice Guys are often anything but nice.”

The solution, in Glover’s view, is to “stop seeking approval” and become an authentic, integrated, trustworthy Man: “Accept yourself just as you are. . . . Begin to feel more powerful and confident. . . . Embrace your masculinity.”

You can hear that same sneering in George Will’s dismissive reference to “caring professions” in his critique of Barak Obama’s criticism of the Bush administration’s post-Katrina debacle, which is actually as much of a sneer at those needing care as at those providing care. Especially guys like that other Hollywood “Beta Male,” male nurse (not just “nurse,” mind you) Gaylord “Greg” Focker of Meet the Parents.

When I was in college we had another name for the type of man mentioned above, and it was used just as sneeringly as “nice guy.” We had the “Sensitive New Age Guy,” also known as the “SNAG” whose crimes included being “… a man who listens to his partner, is sensitive to her (or his) concerns, and gives them lots of ‘space’.”

How. Awful. Expand that in to the realm of global politics and you get a politician who listens to and is “sensitive” to the concerns of other people and other countries. And while Kerry use of the word “sensitive” in relation to the “war on terror caused him trouble (unfairly I think, because it was merely a poor choice of words where “wage a more intelligent war on terrorism” would have been better), those qualities sound a lot like what will probably be needed to begin cleaning up the mess our “Alpha Males” made in Iraq, while simultaneously mending fences with other countries they’ve offended with their swaggering “our way or the highway” manner.

They’ve (we’ve?) even been immortalized in song.

Who like to talk about their feelings?

(Sensitive new age guys.)

Who’s into crystals, into healing?

(Sensitive new age guys.)

Who like to dress like Richard Simmons?

(Sensitive new age guys.)

Who are hard to tell from women?

(Sensitive new age guys.)

Who like to cry at weddings?

Who think boxing is upsetting?

Who tapes “Thirty Something” on their VCR,

Who’s got “Baby on Board” stickers on their cars, oh,

(Ooh, ooh, ooh, ooh)

Whose last names are hypenated?

(Sensitive new age guys.)

Who like “Three Men and a Baby” a movie I hated?

(Sensitive new age guys.)

Whose consciousness is constantly raising?

(Sensitive new age guys.)

Whose tax free income is amazing?

(Sensitive new age guys.)

Who thinks that red meat is disgusting?

Who’s into UFO’s channeling, and usting?

Who believes us when we say we’ve got premenstrual syndrome?

Who doesn’t know who plays in the Seattle Kingdome?

To put it another way, there’s a more positive spin on the “SNAG” or “Beta Male.”

Well, first things first, to us girls, a SNAG is defnitely anything but a sissified version of the male species. Instead, we view a SNAG as a guy who, while maintaining his boyishness, still stays in touch with his sensitive side and is not ashamed to show it. He believes in equality of the sexes, treats us girls nicely and shows us the respect we deserve. Not to forget, most girls will swoon at a SNAG because it shows the guy’s sensitive side. How do you go about beocming one? Here are 10 steps to SNAGdom from the girls’ point of view!

There’s more in that list of 10 steps, some of which might be helpful to politicians, like “Not treating ‘sorry’ like a dirty word.”

Add it all up and it comes down to something very simple; something I was just reading yesterday in John Stoltenberg’s Refusing to be a Man (the title of which caused one woman on the train yesterday to lean way over out of her seat to get a closer look at the title) when he described the predominant brand of masculinity as “a category that only seems real to the extent that those outside of it are put down,” and some thing he expands upon in his essay “Why I stopped trying to be a real man.”

So I got to thinking: If everyone trying to be a “real man” thinks there’s someone else out there who has more manhood, then either some guy has more manhood than anybody–and he’s got so much manhood he never has to prove it and it’s never ever in doubt–or else manhood doesn’t exist. It’s just a sham and a delusion.

As I watched guys trying to prove their fantasy of manhood–by doing dirt to women, making fun of queers, putting down people of other religions and races–I realized they were doing something really negative to me too, because their fear and hatre d of everything “nonmanly” was killing off something in me that I valued.

Author Stephen Ducat, whose The Wimp Factor: Gender Gaps, Holy Wars, and the Politics of Anxious Masculinity I just finished, stated it outright in an Alternet interview a while back.

The problem with our current notion of masculinity is that it’s a definition of manhood based on domination. The problem with definition of manhood based on domination is that domination can never be a permanent condition. It’s a relational state – it is dependent on having somebody in the subordinate position, which means that you may be manly today, but you’re not going to be manly tomorrow, unless you’ve got somebody to push around and control. This definition goes back to the ancient Greeks, and it makes masculinity a precarious and brittle achievement – which has to be constantly asserted. It has to be proven over and over again. It is the ultimate Sisyphean pursuit.

So, you might say that “Beta Males” aren’t really new among human beings or in nature. In the wild, “Betas” are the “wingmen” who help the Alphas reproduce. (Time to rethink that strategy, guys?) But that doesn’t mean they’re missing out.

Contrary to popular belief, apparent dominance in an animal social hierarchy may not to lead to maximum mate choice or reproductive potential. Studies in some primates have shown that some female reproductive strategies, such as cryptic female mate choice, specifically enable reproduction with males other than the alpha male. The extra strength and energy of the alpha male may thus go into protecting and feeding progeny that aren’t his.

This helps explain the existance of alternate male strategies: evolutionarily speaking, that guy skulking around the outsides of the social group and not jockeying for position wouldn’t be there if he didn’t get laid occasionally.

We’re just guys who’ve opted out of the “pissing contest with the alpha males” as the Newsweek article put it. Maybe it’s because some of us realized that everyone ends smelling like piss because eventually everyone gets pissed on. The difference is just that the alpha males never stop pissing. Eventually, they piss people off, and those people want somebody to clean it up.

That’d be us.

Who knows? Maybe some “Beta” (Edwards? Obama? Is HIllary a “Beta” or an “Alpha”?) will end up in the White House long enough to clean up the mess repair a few relationships in the process. Of course, that’ll change the next time there’s a sign of conflict. The country will call in the cowboy brigade, only to end up needing the clean-up crew again.

Never mind that the same skills that come in handy for cleaning up the aftermath of conflict might help prevent the mess in the first place.

5 Comments

  1. I want to again thank you for your clear thinking and good writing. It’s a joy to read what you post.

  2. Pingback: Recommended Reading: Masculinity stereotypes, politicians and partner choice « Finally, A Feminism 101 Blog

  3. Alpha males spend most of their time and energy defending their status, and are invariably overthrown by another alpha. Beta males tend to live longer and healthier, but they don’t get all the glory.

  4. Hilary’s an Alpha for sure, but she’s also not male (whatever her critics may contend), so I think that will be a different and altogether untested kettle of fish. Alpha females have their own issues.

  5. Pingback: FAQ: Aren’t feminists just sexists towards men? « Finally, A Feminism 101 Blog

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