Aaron S. Bayley
A few weeks ago my cousin sent me a meme that brilliantly mocked the masculine anxieties of men past-their-prime. It reads: "Middle aged man on Facebook posting quotes about how Loyal but Dangerous he is starterpack." Beneath the text are images of Joaquin Phoenix as Joker, Tom Hardy as Al Capone, Cillian Murphy as Peaky Blinders' Thomas Shelby, and Tupac Shakur, all but the latter with a cigarette between their lips (Tupac is holding a cigar).
The reason this meme is so on point is that it perfectly encapsulates the bro cultural zeitgeist; the urge of insecure men to let everybody know that they possess the same traits exhibited by the über alpha male romantic heroes of popular culture. I can't count the number of times I've scrolled digital platforms like Facebook or Instagram and seen memes depicting Gerard Butler, Charlie Hunnam, or Cillian Murphy alongside generic quotes about loyalty, courage, power, or perseverance, often wrongly attributed to the actors depicted. The fact that the men who create and post these memes are obsessed with convincing us that they're just like the brooding heroes they idolize tells us that they're most certainly not. Furthermore, it's ironic that the men who ridicule and scoff at identity politics are themselves suffering from a crisis of identity.
If we want to understand some of the role models that these men aspire to, it makes sense to start with James Bond. Not the spy novels written by Ian Fleming in the 1950s—because these men don't read—but films like Goldfinger, The Spy Who Loved Me, and Casino Royale that introduced Bond to the masses. The M16 agent known as 007 is a suave intellectual and expert assassin who charms women as slyly as he outwits megalomaniacs. (He also shows allegiance to the British Secret Service, which makes him "loyal but dangerous," I suppose.) But Bond's appeal is not just that he's handsome, physically competent, completely at ease in high-pressure situations, and successful at manipulating the opposite sex. Bond is a risk-taker and a lone wolf, two traits coveted by today's troubled man seeking validation for his existence.
In the 1980s, Cold War anxieties between the United States and the Soviet Union compelled Hollywood to flex its muscles and put American jingoism on full display. Sylvester Stallone's Rocky Balboa and John Rambo ushered in a new era of muscular patriotism in Ronald Reagan's America. While Balboa had some depth, most '80s action heroes were one-dimensional, hegemonic archetypes. They were unapologetically masculine, hyper violent, and unwaveringly patriotic as they sought glory, redemption, or to avenge the death of a loved one.
While Bond embodies the man of style and sophistication, and Balboa and Rambo represent the rugged, muscular warrior, the glorification of gangsters and mob bosses in films like The Godfather, Scarface, and Goodfellas gave the alpha male-wannabe another archetype to envy. Violent, flawed protagonists like Al Pacino's Michael Corleone and Tony Montana served as a blueprint for later antiheroes like James Gandolfini's Tony Soprano and Murphy's Thomas Shelby. With the gangster archetype, the "loyal but dangerous" maxim rings most true. The improvement of CGI technology starting in the late '90s brought us war epics like Gladiator, Troy, and 300. Russell Crowe's Maximus, Gerard Butler's King Leonidas, and Brad Pitt's Achilles placed noble, tragic heroes into the male imagination and sent many of them rushing to the nearest MMA gym.
It's not rocket science: insecure men lacking in self-confidence often use fictional characters from popular culture as their role models. From adolescence, boys are conditioned to play sports, be condescending toward girls, and crave the violence depicted in sports, movies, and video games. I used to pretend I was Luke Skywalker, but then I grew up. When boys become men the hope is that they'll mature into well-adjusted members of society by forging lasting friendships and treating women with respect. But men wracked with anxiety and lacking in self-worth often embrace hypermasculinity in order to feel safe. Women love bad boys, they are told, and often this is true. The problem is that these men don't care or are too lazy to evaluate all of the archetypes that they're obsessed with. They are not concerned with crafting an ethical blueprint for living. They are simply concerned with manipulating women and acquiring power.
What is an alpha male?
If you searched the browsing history of many of these meme-making men, you would no doubt find YouTube videos on "how to become an alpha male." (Incidentally, an alpha male would never search for YouTube videos on "how to become an alpha male.") Skilled in the art of overcompensation, alpha-wannabes pretend to be experts on things considered manly, like strategies for seducing women and schemes for getting rich. But what exactly is an alpha male?
An alpha male is a man who possesses traits that are generally considered positive, like self-respect, persistence, and courage. He embraces challenges and constantly strives for self-improvement. He is a natural leader who thrives in social situations. Being someone who other men admire and who women desire, he is at the top of the social-sexual hierarchy. However, being an alpha male does not presuppose morality. The qualities of an alpha male can be used for the greater good or for nefarious ends. James Bond and Barack Obama are alpha males. So are Negan from The Walking Dead and Charles Manson.
I don't mean to suggest that the men who create and post the "I'm loyal but dangerous" memes are all a bunch of amoral, rudderless morons, but the meme is a symptom of a larger problem: that we live in a society where men are increasingly anxious about their masculinity and cherry-picking traits that they think make them more attractive to women. That is, they are concerned only with being strong and dominant, and they are terrified of appearing soft. This misguided understanding of what an alpha male truly is leads to narcissistic behaviour and poor decisions. We're all familiar with the term "toxic masculinity." Well, toxic masculinity is the failed synthesis of alpha male traits by unenlightened men. It's a sort of subconscious cosplay.
I used to have a friend who was so preoccupied with molding his behaviour after James Bond that he came across as a caricature. He once mocked me for not ordering alcohol when we went to a bar for lunch, claiming that "real men drink" and citing, for some unknown reason, the fact that his grandfather drank and fought for Italy in the Second World War (perhaps I should've reminded him that the Italian army was incompetent and considered the weakest of the Axis powers). He also once joked about shooting gay pride parade participants with a BB gun from the balcony of his condo. This behaviour is textbook alpha male posturing: the need to ridicule and attack others in order to establish oneself as superior and mask feelings of impotence and inferiority.
But what's most ironic about the alpha-wannabe is that, for all their bluster and bravado, their heroes—the ones who either defend or exhibit toxic behaviour on social media and television—are the antithesis of what an alpha male is. They retweet psychologist Jordan Peterson, a man who can't get through an interview without becoming an emotional wreck. They praise Tucker Carlson, a man-child who's obsessed with genderless toys and female cartoon characters, and whose high-pitched laugh is decidedly unmanly. And they worship Donald Trump, another man-child who picks fights indiscriminately, can't read or write well, enjoys degrading women, and projects his insecurities onto his political rivals. What these three men have in common is that they're self-aware enough to comprehend their weakness, and thus seek the company of those they believe will elevate their status as a man. It's why Peterson goes on Joe Rogan's podcast, why Carlson is photographed with Proud Boys and Hells Angels bikers, why Trump once strolled into the dressing room at a Miss Teen USA pageant simply because he was the owner.
Perhaps the most amusing example is Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. His recent anti-LGBTQ+ ad is designed to make him look tough but comes off like a bizarre, homoerotic parody. In the video clip, news headlines touting DeSantis' anti-trans legislation flash on the screen along with tightly edited images of an oiled up Ernest Khalimov (aka GigaChad), Christian Bale's Patrick Bateman, Cillian Murphy's Thomas Shelby, Brad Pitt's Achilles, and DeSantis himself wearing sunglasses and dressing up as Tom Cruise's Top Gun character. The clip is backed by a soundtrack which sounds like music a DJ might play at, well, a gay nightclub. If Ron DeSantis was seeking to use shirtless men and fictional gangsters and serial killers to demonstrate how masculine he is, he deserves his reputation as one of the most completely out-of-touch politicians in recent memory. Since the airing of his ad, DeSantis has been brutalized on the Internet for his lack of charisma and social skills. (The ad, along with his "Top Gov" ad from 2022, is further evidence of DeSantis' love of cosplay.)
Evaluating what makes a good man should not be difficult. But with the "nice guys finish last" trope lodged firmly in his brain, the alpha-wannabe will go out of his way to feign arrogance, to ridicule the groups who are a perceived threat to his masculinity and hegemony (e.g., women, blacks, progressives, atheists, Muslims, members of the LGBTQ+ community), and to fashion himself "one of the boys," because that is what he has been conditioned to do. The very fact that he takes cues from other men is irrefutable evidence that he lacks the characteristics of an alpha male.
Not every man can be an alpha male, because not every man is in possession of the qualities that make up an alpha male. Instead of aiming to be recognized as such, the alpha-wannabe should seek first to be a well-adjusted man. Being well-adjusted is within every man's reach. A man who thinks critically, keeps his emotions in check, maintains a healthy work-personal life balance, and reflects on political and social issues before offering his opinion, is a man worthy of respect and admiration. The alpha-wannabe can learn from the well-adjusted man. He does not have to drink beer and watch football if he doesn't want to. He can be friends with women without objectifying them or seeing them as sexual conquests. He can be masculine while also showing compassion. And he can watch Barbie instead of Oppenheimer if the former appeals to him more than the latter. Because there's nothing more infantilizing than a man cosplaying his favourite fictional heroes simply as a means to an end.