Lone Wolf & the Myth of the Alpha Male

The Grey starring Liam Neeson was a good action flick, but its portrayal of the wolf as a lone psychopathic killer was way off base. Dogs, after all, are simply domesticated wolves. Disney’s 1983 film Never Cry Wolf was far more accurate in its portrayal of wolves as social animals, though I more enjoyed the non-fiction book by Farley Mowat which inspired the movie.

Carl Safina, in a New York Times op-ed, reminds us that wolves are pack animals, not loners. But the lone wolf is symbolic of the alpha male. Safina writes that, “Alpha male connotes the man who at every moment demonstrates that he’s in total control in the home, and who away from home can become snarling and aggressive.”

A wolf pack is actually quite different. While the alpha male wolf will be aggressive with outsiders in defense of his family, but within the pack he is most often cooperative. Safina quotes wolf researcher Rick McIntyre, who compares the alpha wolf to a human man who is emotionally mature and who leads with a quiet self-confidence.

Another myth is that wolf packs are male dominated. Safina writes,

Biologists used to consider the alpha male the undisputed boss. But now they recognize two hierarchies at work in wolf packs — one for the males, the other for the females.
.
Doug Smith, the biologist who is the project leader for the Yellowstone Gray Wolf Restoration Project, said the females “do most of the decision making” for the pack, including where to travel, when to rest and when to hunt. The matriarch’s personality can set the tone for the whole pack, Dr. Smith said.
.
Or, as Mr. McIntyre put it: “It’s the alpha female who really runs the show.”

There are various permutations of patriarchy theory, but most boil down to the notion that all men are privileged by male domination of society, and all women are oppressed. Western culture today accepts this as self-evident, and only a right-wing reactionary would disagree.

Indeed, no one can credibly deny that the public realm – government, business, and religion – is a patriarchy.

But there are certain things patriarchy theory has difficulty explaining (and therefore often denies). For one, it isn’t just the top of society that’s male dominated. The bottom of society is also predominantly male. The majority of chronically homeless are men, most school dropouts are male, 4 out of 5 suicides are male, almost all war casualties are men, and 9 out of 10 workplace deaths are male.

The retort that these men are to blame for their own fates because it’s men who start wars misses the point that no innocent person should be blamed for the actions of another, even if they do share certain physical or demographic characteristics.

Besides, other men are competition for the men in authority, so it’s in the authority’s interest to keep those men down. Put another way, being used as a beast of burden or as cannon fodder by other men is not a privilege.

And sex isn’t the largest factor with privilege. For example, in the Middle Ages a princess had more privilege than a male peasant, though the prince had more privilege than the princess.

Further, women have more power at home, as both Iowa State University and Pew Research Center find. A study by Dr. Elizabeth A. Bates of the University of Cumbria also finds that at home women are often more controlling than men.

While men have often resisted greater equality for women in the workplace and in the public realm, corresponding to that is women’s resistance to men being stay-at-home husbands. Yet men desire a greater role in family life. Greater gender equality is not just about men’s attitudes toward women, it’s also about women’s and men’s attitudes toward each other.

Recognizing that the lone wolf is a myth means a shift away from Hollywood’s unrealistic loner, action film tough guy to the man who leads with quiet self-confidence rather than force; and who is central and personal rather than peripheral and impersonal in his social unit, be it his family, his workplace, or his neighborhood.

In other words, more Captain Picard and less Captain Kirk.

 

 

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Author: Dave DuBay

Dave is a social worker from Phoenix, Arizona. He blogs at thepaintedporch.net. He's also at twitter.com/Dave_DuBay.

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