Most people are familiar with the concept of the alpha male. Aggressive and dominating, he exists in our society as a result of our evolution as primates, when relatively small social groups were typically led by the healthiest specimen. However, alpha males are leaders by virtue of more than just physical superiority. They tend to be at least moderately intelligent, they socialize well, and they see themselves as providers â€” not just for themselves, but for their mates and the members of their social group. A true alpha is capable of being an excellent host, a persuasive salesman, a successful coach, a masterful storyteller, and a confident and charismatic leader.
The beta male, who is subservient to the alpha, tends to get far less attention; he is generally more relaxed and less achievement-oriented. The ideal beta is, above all else, loyal, and he makes an excellent soldier. Although there’s a substantial amount of understated competition between beta males to establish their position within a social hierarchy, and though many daydream about obtaining the top spot, few are prepared for the genuine demands and responsibilities that the position of alpha male requires. An alpha who isn’t up to the task, or a beta male who has somehow ascended to the alpha position, is appropriately referred to as a “failed alpha.”
The alpha male is generally comfortable in his own superiority, seeks out a long-term mate of a similar status, and doesn’t feel any compulsion to emphasize his position once it’s been established. The failed alpha, on the other hand, is insecure, aggressive, and prefers a mate who is obviously deferential to his wishes. Overly mindful of threats to his dominance, the failed alpha mistakenly conflates arrogance with confidence, perceives debate as dissent, and consistently engages in dominance games to reestablish his superiority. The failed alpha will never, ever, ever throw a game to let a lesser opponent win.
There is, of course, another type of male, who can most easily be defined by his basic response to a confrontation, a situation that provokes a standard fight-or-flight response. The alpha’s instinct is to dominate, or at least attempt to do so. The beta’s first instinct is to submit. The third type, the gamma male, responds by attempting to escape.
The concept of a “gamma male” isn’t a novel idea. There are a few different definitions and theories about it, although there’s no formal definition that I’m aware of, and there seems to be very little consensus. I’ve seen it explained as a sort of alpha-beta hybrid, which I think is stupid. In my opinion, the gamma male is distinctly different from the alpha and beta and could almost be described as the exact opposite of the failed alpha.
On a football team the alpha is the quarterback, the beta is an offensive lineman, and the specialty players â€” punters, kickers, kick returners â€” tend to be gammas. The gamma male is generally uninterested in competition, but when he is interested, it tends to be against abstract concepts such as statistics, as opposed to direct confrontation with an opponent. Self-sufficient and autonomous, a gamma male respects and enjoys the company of an alpha male but tends to be very reluctant to join a pack. And although he steadfastly refuses to occupy a position within a social hierarchy, the gamma male is a social creature.
The character of Sean Bateman (James Van Der Beek) in Roger Avary’s adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’s second novel, The Rules of Attraction, provides an excellent example of what I consider to be the archetypal gamma male.
The Film: The Rules of Attraction
The Song: “Stop!”
The Artist: Erasure
The Rules of Attraction (2002) is the second feature film directed by Roger Avary, who won a Best Screenplay Oscar for Pulp Fiction (1994) alongside writer-director Quentin Tarantino (he received a “Stories by Quentin Tarantino & Roger Avary” credit in the film). Avary also collaborated on Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs (1992) and the Tarantino-scripted True Romance (1993) in various capacities.
Avary’s first directorial effort was Killing Zoe (1994), which is a cult favorite but not a film that I find particularly impressive. On the other hand, I think The Rules of Attraction is the strongest adaptation of any of Ellis’s novels (I prefer the books Less Than Zero and American Psycho to the film versions, although I should admit I haven’t actually read Rules) and by far the most interesting to watch. Avary indulges in a variety of stylistic excesses and filmic tricks and manages to make them work without them feeling forced, as they do in films like Natural Born Killers (1994) and Southland Tales (2007).
The movie begins and ends at the same place â€” the “End of the World” party at Camden College â€” which appears consistently as a stand-in for Ellis’s own alma mater, Vermont’s Bennington College. By showing us the same scene three times at the start of the film, rewinding back to a common start point to show us three different points of view, Avary introduces us to Lauren (Shannyn Sossamon), Paul (Ian Somerhalder), and Sean.
Although in the book the three characters receive roughly equal treatment, the film tends to focus on Sean. Petulant, self-absorbed, overwhelmingly selfish, Sean still somehow manages to be charming and vaguely popular, even though he treats just about everyone with disdain.
Sean fits the profile of a gamma male because he seems to exist outside of any realistic social structure at Camden. In just about every scene where he interacts with other characters, Sean’s dominant expression is annoyance. He doesn’t have any close friends, and he responds to most situations with a tendency to hunt for an escape route. He goes to parties with the single-minded intention of finding someone to spend the night with rather than socializing to any degree.
Sean’s attempts to dominate and extract payment from a delinquent customer (played with spacey abandon by Fred Savage) are entirely unsuccessful. His negotiations to buy cocaine for Victor (Kip Pardue) establish him as entirely independent but also show his sneering contempt for subservient betas like Mitch (Thomas Ian Nicholas). And Sean’s flirtation with disaster at the hands of his supplier and creditor, Rupert (Clifton Collins Jr.), eventually ends with the basic gamma-male response â€” Sean attempts to run away (but, unfortunately, only succeeds once).
Although The Rules of Attraction isn’t explicitly set in the ’80s, there are a few clues that that’s when the events take place. Although ecstasy exists, cocaine is still the dominant drug. And the majority of songs used in the film come from the mid-’80s. The fall semester opens, brilliantly, with “Six Different Ways” by the Cure, which was released in 1985. Other songs from the decade are featured prominently, like Yaz’s “Situation” (1982) and George Michael’s “Faith” (1987).
To Avary’s credit, he isn’t shy about using songs from other eras, such as a cleverly reversed “Out of the Races and Onto the Tracks” by the Rapture during the “Edge of the World” party, and a delightfully seductive “When I Get You Alone” by Robin Thicke during the “Dress to Get Screwed” party. (We didn’t have those kinds of parties at Harvey Mudd. For us, dressing to get screwed meant wearing your pajamas to an exam.) But when all the sound and fury has ended, when everyone’s selfish heart has been broken, Avary chooses to close with the 1988 Erasure hit “Stop!”
It’s hard to explain why this song works so well over the credits except perhaps that it provides the film with one more abrupt turn, one last bit of flash, before it concludes. The movie ends the exact same way it begins, by cutting through in the middle of a sentence. And as a reference to the use of reversed sequences in the film, the credits are run in reverse as well, beginning with “The End” and scrolling upward to conclude with the names of the actors. In any other capacity I wouldn’t have much interest in either Erasure or this song, but somehow in The Rules of Attraction it feels just right.
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