Content warning: Messages pertaining to violence against women and gun shootings.
Oct. 2, 2021
I’m sure you remember it was the beginning of October. Though it really doesn’t matter what kind of day it was — which day of the week, whether it was sunny or rainy — it really was lovely. Fall is my favorite season. It was sunny but breezy, and I had a window open to let the wind carry the sweet scent of falling leaves into the little study room I’d found empty that morning. I brought a mug of hot apple cider and played my “spooky study” playlist as I worked. My mom would be arriving on campus soon. I don’t remember why she was coming up, but I was excited to see her.
I was being lazy, checking Instagram and TikTok instead of working on my homework. A Snapchat notification popped up from a crudely named conversation group. Was I expecting a funny video, an invite to hang out? Again, I guess it doesn’t matter, especially once I opened it.
I could’ve stopped reading after I saw the words shooting threat. In fact, I wish I hadn’t continued reading, at least in the moment.
“Those fucking animals deserve (to) die.”
“There is a violent pro-male revolution coming.”
He was specifically targeting women at the University of Michigan. I still don’t know why us in particular. What confused me even more was the lack of concern demonstrated by University administration. They said they were taking the threat seriously, but there was no mention of classes being canceled or extra measures being taken to ensure our safety.
DPSS and the FBI said the perpetrator was found the next day, on Oct. 3, and that everyone was safe. None of my classes were canceled; my job went remote for one day.
Nothing is going to happen. From that Saturday to a week later, that phrase rang constantly in my head; when I cried on the phone to my mom, when I frantically texted my sister, when I emailed my professors saying I’d be missing class.
When we talk about violence against women, we talk about physical harm, excluding the great emotional harm that is involved as well. Female U-M students faced collective emotional damage, whether anyone wanted to admit it or not.
When the Monday following the threat rolled around, there was a false of report of shots fired on the U-M Flint campus. There was no indication of what caused the false alarm; my guess is the heightened anxiety from Saturday’s threat. However, I fell apart for a moment. My sister texted me, we’re coming to get you. I took an Ativan and stumbled out the door in my pajamas. As we drove down Hill Street, the streets of Ann Arbor were empty. If there were people about, they were mostly men. On campus, some classes were moved remotely. Guy friends volunteered to walk girls to their classes.
You can call men, like the perpetrator, many names: misogynist, incel, sicko. But these labels are outliers. Enough has been said about these types that we know they’re not socially acceptable. No, in his aggressively anti-woman language, our perpetrator here has taken on a new, more socially pervasive title: alpha male.
Who is the alpha male? Unlike misogynist and incel, alpha male is a self-elected title, a thing of pride in being the most dominant and successful man in the room. It stems from a disproven study about wolf packs; despite popular belief, there is no such thing as a designated alpha within a wolf pack.
The basic traits of an alpha male can be thought of in three main tenets: body, money and the mistreatment of women. Essentially, the core idea is that if you’ve got a great body and a ton of money, women will cower in submission to you. It’s a simple model that obliterates any nuance a man might otherwise carry: emotional intelligence, hobbies and humility, to name a few.
But simply having muscles and a good credit score doesn’t make one an alpha male. These hyper-misogynistic figures also adhere to the necessary metric of one’s status or “maleness” in relation to women. In other words, alpha males depend on women for validation of their tangible successes while simultaneously degrading them.
In the digital space, much of the alpha-male content is posted to TikTok and YouTube; videos are usually presented as advice from one alpha male to another. There are also more niche groups on spaces like Reddit, attracting smaller numbers from the alpha male subculture. With this comes a level of anonymity, thus making it difficult to identify who exactly claims to be part of the infamous alpha male corner of the internet.
Just as alpha males have retreated to social media to spread their ideology, opponents have used the same platforms to ridicule them. On TikTok and Instagram, a high volume of alpha male content is provided in a humorous context: satirical caricatures of roided-out men spewing nonsense. In one of his videos, YouTuber Kurtis Conner ripped into “Fresh and Fit Podcast,” a channel for other self-described alpha males in search of relationship advice. Conner’s response features goofy editing and feminist counter-arguments. But without his commentary, “Fresh and Fit” becomes much more difficult to laugh at when all by myself.
Some of “Fresh and Fit’s” YouTube titles include: “Should Women Be Submissive To Every Guy They Meet?”, “Girl Wants To Be A Lawyer After Being On OnlyFans?!” and “Treat Her Like Trash And She’ll Love You!” Much of their discourse revolves around “training” bad habits out of women, such as competitive dominance and lack of respect. At the core of their ideology, they believe the six things a long-term female partner should do are: “cook and clean unprompted, shut up in front of your friends, ask for your permission out of respect, refrain from meeting friends in clubs and similar spaces, have sex regardless of how she feels and give up social media.”
I have to stop myself and wonder how my male audience is reacting to these quotes. I don’t know what you’re feeling, or if you even know what you’re feeling. How much do you disagree? Do you consciously hold any of these expectations, even if not worded so harshly?
It’s easy to dismiss content creators like these as part of the endless, inconsequential depth of the internet. In the grand scheme of social media, Fresh and Fit’s following of 631,000 is large but not monumental compared to other creators. However, despite the size of their digital footprint, ideologies like those expressed via the alpha male trope carry far-reaching, even fatal consequences. The deep, misogynistic hatred alpha males feel when their sexual ego proves ineffective manifests into female-targeted shooting threats, sexual violence and physical and emotional abuse.
Even satires and criticisms of the alpha male have been warped into highly regarded cultural symbols. Movies that depict dominant, masculine figures, such as “American Psycho,” “The Wolf of Wall Street” and “Fight Club” have been internalized by the alpha male psyche as tragic stories of successful men or funny interpretations of morally grey men, rather than narratives of men spiraling because of their own self-destructive behaviors.
It’s not that alpha male content is unique. The same misogynistic ideologies and character tropes have been passed down since, well, forever. But alpha males are a distinctly dangerous form of misogyny because of the devastating consequences of their ideology. They exist not under a direct declaration of their misogyny, but a paradoxical viewpoint that they love women, are even obsessed with women, but only if those women are submissive. We allow alpha-male–adjacent messaging not just on our social media feeds, but in all competitive spaces; work places, fitness centers and for our purposes, higher education.
Alpha males on college campuses
My first time going to a U-M frat party, I was a senior in high school. Trailing behind my friends, we approached the large house, a deep bass blaring and flashing lights spilling out from inside. My group,an even split between men and women, made our way through the line to the group of amateur bouncers before one of the brothers put his hand up.
“Ladies, you can go.” Only the ladies, is what he meant.
It took some begging and naming connections, but we managed to get our whole group into the party.
I’ve heard frats do this gender-based vetting under the guise of protecting women from an onslaught of men, but I have a hard time believing that. If anything, it’s not about safety, it’s about predation. The less “competition” (i.e., the presence of other men), the better chance a brother has of finding a woman for the night. Consenting adults can do as they please, in a frat setting or otherwise, but the implications are hard to ignore — implications set in place under an alpha male mentality.
Fraternities are one of the more stark examples of alpha male behaviors on college campuses. However, if we attributed frats as the source of misogynistic behavior, we would be ignoring the bigger picture: the idea that in every dominant institution and ideological structure, the legacy of the stark alpha-male belief system pervades.
I have read the shooting threat message again and again, and I have looked around my campus, and tried to make peace with the reality of the alpha male situation. While peace is always changing and will take a lot of slow change to achieve, we can first nurture ourselves while speaking up against the alpha males in all their forms. (One prominent example is Michigan Men, a SAPAC program which facilitates discussions centered around toxic vs. healthy masculinity, self-care and social justice.)
It was not on Oct. 2 that I started living in fear of the alpha male, but that event has cemented itself in my mind as one of the worst dangers women can face. Laughing at them on social media is helpful, understanding them even more so, but stomping them out is also in my sights.
Elizabeth Wolfe is an Opinion Advice Columnist and can be reached at email@example.com.