In Hollywood, Beta Males Best Alpha Dogs

Ben Stone isn't what you'd call a player. He lives with four buddies in a squalid slacker palace. He's chubby, furry and happily unemployed, unless you count a scheme to launch a Web site charting every female nude scene in Hollywood history. One night, Ben (Seth Rogen) and his C-list posse hit a neighborhood bar where, as luck would have it, they meet two A-list blondes. Ben is (typically) unshaven, wearing a rumpled, untucked shirt, and totally drunk. Still, he manages (miraculously) to persuade stunning Alison (Katherine Heigl) to dance, and proceeds to embarrass himself with his cheesy "throwing the dice" move. ("That's all he's got," one of his friends says sadly.) Alison, out celebrating a big job promotion, is drunk enough herself not to be scared off. In fact, she invites Ben to her house, where she elicits another geeky move when she strips. "You're so much prettier than I am!" Ben says. Considering the scene is from the upcoming film "Knocked Up," you can probably guess that what begins as an unlikely one-night stand doesn't end the next morning. More surprisingly, Alison ultimately falls as hard for Ben as if he looked like Colin Farrell.

Then again, the new movie star looks less like Colin Farrell than Will Ferrell. Or Steve Carell. Or Jon Heder. Or, if he's animated, Shrek or Homer Simpson. The testosterone-pumped, muscle-bound Hollywood hero is rapidly deflating—this summer, Bruce Willis is the last he-man standing. Taking his place is a new kind of leading man, the kind who's just as happy following as leading, or never getting off the sofa. "He's a guy who isn't concerned with status," says Justin Spitzer, a writer for TV's "The Office." "He's more concerned with getting through the day and not engaging in a pissing contest with the alpha males around him." It makes sense that our culture is embracing the mojo-free man right now. As America comes to terms with our diminished omnipotence in the wake of 9/11, the Iraq War and President Bush's international unpopularity, we're growing weary of Teflon-coated John Wayne stereotypes of masculinity. Donald Rumsfeld, Ken Lay, Mel Gibson, Don Imus—all chest-beating, leader-of-the-pack men, and look what happened to them. The alpha dog doesn't hunt anymore. The new role model is a beta male.

The Emmy-winning "The Office" presents a microcosm of this cultural shift. The show's star is the preening, hilariously un-self-aware boss Michael (Steve Carell), who is constantly shadowed by his sycophantic No. 2, Dwight (Rainn Wilson). Both of them are hopelessly deluded wanna-be alphas. They compete incessantly: for the attention of female visitors, in an impromptu karate match and, of course, during a company basketball game, where they shamelessly strip down to reveal their underwhelming physiques. (If the alpha male is all about ego, the beta is about id, and in popular culture, the sillier-looking the id, the better: Napoleon Dynamite, "The 40-Year-Old Virgin," Shrek.) The soul of "The Office," and its stealth heartthrob, is actually easygoing, soft-spoken Jim (John Krasinski), who, in true beta fashion, turned down a promotion to management in the season finale. "Jim rejects the trappings of the alpha," says Spitzer, who pitched a sitcom called "Beta Male" to ABC. "He's not about the power or the money." Jim's signature move isn't a move at all. He simply turns to the camera, cocks his eyebrow and destroys his bosses without saying a word.

Stephen Colbert's puffed-up pundit character on "The Colbert Report" also lampoons self-important blowhards. The show takes the joke a step further in a biting segment called "alpha dog of the week." Colbert explained the honorific like this: "It's one thing to be an upstanding citizen, another to be such an imposing presence that people automatically fall in place behind you, deferentially sniffing your butt." The segment's logo does feature a dog—a snarling Rottweiler, complete with growling sound effect. The obvious irony is that each segment's dog designee—Paul Wolfowitz, former U.N. ambassador John Bolton—has fallen from grace precisely because of his unchecked alphaness. Bolton was called "abrasive" and "not amenable to consensus." Colbert celebrates those very qualities, and then suggests that Bolton be replaced—by a bulldozer.

Then there's Al Gore. During the 2000 election, the press seized on the conceit that Gore was too eager to please, too deferential, too indecisive. Today Gore is still the proto beta male—the on-again-off-again beard, the belly, the deference to Tipper—but he's also having the last laugh as a movie star, an ecosavant, a best-selling author and a potential dark-horse presidential contender. You could even argue that his former boss is following his lead. Bill Clinton is remaking himself as a soft-spoken, waistline-watching humanitarian who's happy to cede the spotlight to his wife, Hillary. If she wins, he'll make history—as the country's first First Gentleman. You can't get much more beta than that.

A comparable cultural shift occurred in Britain after World War II, when, in the waning years of empire, Britain's image of itself as the world's landlord gave way to less self-important models, such as Philip Larkin's jaundiced poetry and playwright John Osborne's "angry young man." Jim Dixon, the sardonic narrator of Kingsley Amis's 1954 "Lucky Jim," was perhaps the archetypal beta protagonist: lazy, disaffected and self-deprecating—a British Ben Stone. "Jim's limited expectations reflect a growing sense that Britain was losing the control and influence it exercised on world affairs," says Amis biographer Zachary Leader. "Will Ferrell is a lot like Jim." Joshua Gidding, who chronicles his acceptance of his own second-place status in "Failure: An Autobiography," also contends that we're due for a self-image correction. "We're in a failing war, and we're going to lose a measure of our power, just as England and France and Rome did," he says. "The pendulum is swinging towards beta." Maybe Stallone should have thought of that before signing on for one last "Rambo."

Still, alphas aren't totally over. Women still have to prove their alphaness—look at Hillary Clinton, Condoleezza Rice and Nancy Pelosi—even though the guys have given it a bad name. Former Seventeen magazine editor Atoosa Rubenstein is planning a Web site for "alpha kitties" like herself, whom she defines as "girls who are powerful and not afraid to be girly," not unlike Alison in "Knocked Up." It makes sense that as we grow tired and distrustful of the all-powerful male figures, we still crave models of strength and competence. After all, someone needs to tell those feckless betas to tuck in their shirts.