Allow me to defend the beta male. Of course, he’s perfectly capable of defending himself, but he probably won’t – we love that about the beta – because he’s too relaxed and good-natured, or busy writing a song while reading a novel and cooking dinner, to care about the insult to his good name that is Seth Rogen.
Blame Judd Apatow. The American writer-director-producer-zeitgeist-definer behind movies such as The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up, Pineapple Express and so on has created a new comedy archetype, the man-child. Often played and written by Vancouver’s Seth Rogen, the Apatowian hero is a pop-culture-hoovering, semi-employed, bong-fisted good guy reluctantly forced into adulthood by movieland circumstances (a romance or angry pot dealers). These guys lack ambition and openly admit their emotional retardation. Thus, it wasn’t exactly flattering to women when critic Lisa Schwarzbaum, reflecting on the Apatow trend in Entertainment Weekly, asked, “[Are] movie guys the new girls?”
As a filmgoer, I appreciate Rogen and his cohorts for imbuing the modern comedy with a new, loose, improvisational style; I haven’t seen these guys onscreen before. Their highly human doughy physiques and open emotional wounds – witness the protagonist in Forgetting Sarah Marshall hysterically weeping through a breakup – make them a long-overdue counterpoint to untenably masculine movie stars like Brad Pitt and George Clooney. The sensation that someone onscreen is “real” is so very rare (Matthew McConaughey is surely some kind of basement experiment made of latex and titanium) that it’s easy to confuse the Apatowian guys with something that exists. In fact, the real-life beta male is smarter, sexier and without a taint of loserdom.
In the animal kingdom, the alpha male is the dominant member of the community. He’s like a cartoon caveman, commanding deference. The betas are wingmen, collaborative and conciliatory. In human terms, betas make the best mates. They do more in the house, and probably in the bedroom, because they know how to hasten the greater good. The beta has poetry in him, and a touch of youthful idealism. He’s sure of who he is, and not constantly trying to prove his value in materialistic terms. (Alpha: Your expensive car doesn’t make you interesting.) The beta can earn a lot of money, or a little, but the money’s not the thing; he profits because he works well with others.
Until recently, we’ve been told the alpha is the ultimate male to bait, at least according to the Rules franchise. It’s spent 13 years advising women on the strategic submission that will land the alphas (in a nutshell: Raise skirt hems, ignore phone calls). When the first Rules book was published in 1995, its reverberations felt like a response to the idea of ’80s power-suited women dangling from the top of the corporate ladder, barking at cowering, emasculated Mr. Moms down below. “No man will ever love an alpha woman,” advised one British newspaper a few years ago. Eventually, so goes this line of thinking, all Mr. Moms will resent the powerful women paying the bills, and the women come to loathe their softie men. Wrote Rules authors Ellen Fein and Sherrie Schneider, “Trust in the natural order of things….Namely, that man pursues woman.”
Nature is a cruel mistress, however, and a few of us bathed in schadenfreude when Fein, in 2001, announced her divorce. This summer, she remarried. According to news reports, Fein met her new husband at a weekend summer camp for singles. He’s been described as a divorced dad with “longish hair” who caught her eye while riding a bicycle. Camp? A bicycle? Shaggy hair? Of course, Fein’s beloved is a successful entrepreneur, but I sense a little beta in reports of their romance: They courted in a paddleboat. Would Conrad Black do that?
So if even the woman who literally wrote the book claiming that men should be hunters and women should be gathered is not immune to the beta’s charms, maybe times really have changed. As one friend put it: “Alphas may be leaders, but I don’t want to be led.” The selfishness that motivates the get-ahead alpha doesn’t strike me, even from a biological point of view, as a big selling point: If he’s only looking out for number one, then where does that leave me, especially now that I can bring home my own dinosaur? As the economy stumbles, and the Bear Stearns alpha males pack their boxes for prison or the unemployment line, betas will become even more desirable. Goodbye, Donald Trump; hello, Jon Stewart.
The so-called beta males I know aren’t the louche stoners populating the Apatow campus, nor are they the SNAGs of my university years (Sensitive New Age Guys with ponytails who pretended to like Ani DiFranco). You know you have a beta if he’s opinionated, but open to other opinions; if he’s creative, but encourages you to shine, too; if he’s strong, but not afraid to show weakness.
There’s something rebellious about the beta male; he challenges the social order rather than succumbing to it. The beta male doesn’t buy in to the basest stereotypes about male behaviour, and that’s hugely sexy. The third-generation banker with the BlackBerry carpal tunnel and the big bank account – what a wuss, following the prescribed path with blinders on.
I know many couples who appear, from the outside, to consist of alpha women and beta men: a publisher and her carpenter husband; a dot-com mogul and her stay-at-home-dad partner; a filmmaker and a contractor. But ultimately the categories prove slippery; these women aren’t fire-breathing in their shoulder pads, and these men aren’t impotent financial parasites. In their day-to-day lives, the partners in successful couples are both alpha, both beta, switching back and forth from moment to moment, like most of us. What’s irksome about the alpha-beta divide is the concept that men and women exist as polar opposites: Since when do we succumb entirely to biology? Don’t we build whole civilizations on the principle of overcoming our animal natures?
What I love most about males who show their beta side is how much they love women. The post-Apatow era has given rise to a new online comedy series about a group of twentysomething guys described gushingly in The New York Times as an ode to the beta male. The show has a big following and is poised to be reinvented as a TV series. It’s the story of three friends – the next generation of men – who figure out fast that while sex is easy to find, love is elusive. Without women, they’re unmoored, incomplete. The show’s title? We Need Girlfriends – the ultimate beta mating call.