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The 'Alpha Male': Harmful Masculinity within Vancouver Municipal Politics Coverage

When envisioning an ideal leader for their city, voters commonly base their candidate preferences on both the policy positions and lived experiences that candidate brings to the table (“How to Pick a Candidate.” League of Women Voters Newton). However, others appear to have a slightly different metric for candidate suitability. On December 31, 2021, Charlie Smith published an article in The Georgia Straight claiming that Vancouver mayoral candidate Mark Marissen’s propensity for electoral success lies within his categorization as an ‘alpha male’.

Originally created to describe the behaviour of wolves and chimpanzees, the term alpha male has been co-opted by men to describe an idolized form of masculinity (Francis, Lizzy. “There's No Such Thing as an Alpha Male."). This notion of an alpha male sees masculinity in terms of power, and glorifies men who succeed in “impos[ing] [their] will on others” regardless of the consequences, according to Dean Burnett. Although the application of alpha males to human behaviour has been widely discredited by the scientific community, it has routinely been used to juxtapose beta males, another constructed category that is perceived as the less desirable counterpart to alpha males. Smith relies upon this contrast to classify previous mayors as either an alpha male or beta male, arguing that Vancouver will be managed by yet another alpha male should Marissen get elected.

However, Smith’s criteria for assessment ignores the fact that masculinity is a spectrum and that any attempt to classify people using an ‘alpha-beta’ binary will inevitably lead to exclusion. His reliance on this problematic comparison furthers the idea that in order to be successful in a political campaign, male-identifying candidates must act aggressively (and violently at times) to assert ‘dominance’ over their political rivals. By describing men’s political behaviour in such animalistic terms, the alpha male label frames hostile behaviour as a natural symptom of a confident leader. Yet when women in politics exhibit similar levels of confidence, they are often labeled as ‘emotional’ and subsequently unfit for political leadership. Furthermore, Smith’s use of the term ‘male’ when discussing mayoral candidates is, in itself, discriminatory, as it not only discounts the efforts of women who have run for mayor in the past but automatically assumes that the next mayor will not be a woman.

The effects of this exclusionary rhetoric are twofold. First, it legitmizes a political culture that based on sexism. As we have witnessed through the misogynistic behavior of Trump and other political leaders who have identified with the term alpha male, toxic masculinity has become increasingly normalized within mainstream politics. Toxic masculinity can be defined, according to the article, "What We Mean When We Say, 'Toxic Masculinity'" as a dangerous form of masculinity that emphasizes “violence, sex, status and aggression”. This reality is particularly troubling, as it prompts some to perceive sexism as an inherent aspect of politics rather than something that needs to be fundamentally challenged.

Second, this male-centric view of the political sphere dissuades women and other gender marginalized communities from running as candidates for elected office. When the political arena serves as an unhinged space for men to act as belligerent as they please without consequence, women are often relegated to the margins. These dynamics likely explain why Vancouver has yet to elect a woman for mayor despite the existence of many women candidates in previous years. Together, the impacts of a sexist political culture create a self-reinforcing cycle in which women and people who experience gender oppression are continually underrepresented as political leaders. As a result of this underrepresentation, municipal issues that pertain to women and marginalized communities are often not given adequate attention.

Interestingly, Smith does not account for this reality in his article despite its’ connection to the alpha-beta male rhetoric he employs. Instead, he chooses to discuss how ‘kind’ Marrisen is for the majority of his article, focusing specifically on a campaign ad in which Marrisen’s mother claims her “son is a kind person.” Yet Marrisen’s suitability for mayor cannot be determined solely based on statements made by his own mother suggesting that he is kind.

Whether or not Marissen is truly a qualified candidate for mayor depends on a myriad of factors, including the soundness of his commitments to serving all communities in Vancouver. While being ‘kind’ is undoubtedly an important characteristic of any elected official, neither the article written by Smith nor the original campaign video explains how this ‘kindness’ would translate into concrete policies that benefit everyone, including those “who are systematically excluded and oppressed from democratic processes.” For instance, would such ‘kindness’ actually result in a more livable city for women?

Regardless, rather than focusing on the alpha male concept at all, we'd rather read about what each candidate is committing to that will create a safer, more inclusive, liveable city for us all.

This article was written by WTC volunteer, Alexa Traboulay.

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Burnett, Dean. “Do Alpha Males Even Exist? | Dean Burnett.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, October 10, 2016.

Clemens, Colleen. “What We Mean When We Say, ‘Toxic Masculinity.’” Learning for Justice, December 11, 2017.

Francis, Lizzy. “There's No Such Thing as an Alpha Male.” Fatherly, January 15, 2020.

“Hot Pink Paper Campaign.” Women Transforming Cities. Accessed January 28, 2022.

“How to Pick a Candidate.” League of Women Voters Newton, May 2, 2021.

Smith, Charlie. “Mayoral Candidate Mark Marissen's Mom Wants Voters to Know How Kind-Hearted He Is.” The Georgia Straight, December 31, 2021.


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