Who's afraid of the big bad alpha female? Well, just about everyone. The dominant, free-roaming alpha female is a human invention. Among wolves in the wild, the alpha female isn't leader of the pack but merely the alpha male's main squeeze. He always gets to gorge on the kill first and to lope off after any she-wolf he chooses.
Before the emancipation of women that was triggered by the industrial revolution, the only way a female could claw her way to alpha status was through political power borrowed from a father or husband. Cleopatra, Elizabeth I and Catherine the Great were tough, shrewd operators who played the royal hand they were dealt to the max.
Over the past 50 years, the top echelons of business, government and education have been opened to women to an unprecedented degree. But women remain rare as hen's teeth at the corporate-CEO level, and the U.S. still hasn't elected a woman president or even vice president.
What's screwing it up? Sex, of course. What else is new? Old-guard feminists may squawk, but sex fiendishly complicates the alpha female's relationships at the office and out and about in the mating game.
Men don't have it easy. Their boring, sexless professional dress has barely budged since the 19th century. They still have to suit up in a rigid, body-shrouding uniform with only a dangling phallic tie peeking out for fun or flirtation. But women's office dress these days can cock-tease up a storm—sensuous fabrics, curvy silhouette, bare legs and drop-dead designer shoes with dominatrix stiletto heels. What's a guy to do? The alpha female boss says "Shut up and fall in line." But on the subliminal level where sexual desire percolates, her fashionista look beckons and winks, signaling that it's animal time.
How should an alpha female handle her off-site love life? Does she drop the cool command-and-control mask and go all kittenish and cuddly? Or does she cruise the party scene for beta men who dream of ticklish titillation by the woman with a whip? In short, does the rise of the workplace alpha female require the emasculation of men? Surely, alpha females, with their competitive drive for A-list service, won't really be happy with a cowering legion of limp-rag lovers.
A gnawing problem for the alpha female is her interactions with other women. In her duties as supervisor, she can come across as a bitch on wheels—whereas male managers are just called demanding. But too much friendly collaboration can make her authority leak away.
The battle of the sexes has been a hot issue since the dawn of civilization. The Bible trumpets that God made man in his own image and that Eve was an afterthought, patched up from Adam's rib. Then Eve goes alpha by forcing the forbidden fruit on weak-willed Adam. Result: our exile from Eden and God's law that wives must submit to their husbands.
Jehovah's sexism was a tactic in the Hebrews' struggle against paganism, then overrun with alpha females. A remnant of those pushy ladies can be seen in Lilith in the Apocrypha, popular tales that never made it into the canonical Bible. Lilith was Adam's first wife, whom he divorced because she wanted ascendancy in the sex act. What we call the missionary position, with the man in charge and the woman pinned down, was the only way to go.
Lilith was originally a wind demoness whom the Hebrews encountered during their captivity in Babylon, a great metropolis portrayed by the Bible as a sewer of sin. It's true that prostitution was pretty open there. But Lilith was a pale shadow of Babylon's main alpha goddess, the fierce Ishtar, who ruled love and war. Another regional bruiser was the Mistress of the Beasts, a shapely maiden always depicted strangling two large animals with her bare hands.
Judeo-Christianity's fear and horror of the alpha female are vividly displayed in the Book of Revelation's nightmare apparition of the Whore of Babylon. Why hasn't this gal gotten her own movie yet? She's pictured riding a seven-headed, horned beast (symbolizing the seven hills of decadent Rome) and holding a golden cup filled with "the filthiness of her fornication." That cup is her insatiable vagina, brimming with semen that she has extracted from men's balls like crushed grapes.
The alpha female waxes and wanes like the moon throughout cultural history. In the Victorian era, women were idealized as the sanctified mother and devoted housewife. But movies soon discovered that the alpha female was great box office. After a spate of saccharine Victorian moppets in early silent film, Theda Bara, the man-destroying vamp, became a smash hit. The ultimate alpha female of film and fashion would be embodied in Marlene Dietrich, who was channeling the recreational sadomasochism and bisexual gender-bending of super-sophisticated Weimar Berlin.
Alpha female stars marched boldly into careerism in 1930s and 1940s movies in which manic Bette Davis and obsessive-compulsive Joan Crawford had trouble keeping sexual chemistry alive with their male leads. But eroticism returned with a bang in the postwar sex bombs inaugurated by Marilyn Monroe. In the naked materialism of "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend," Monroe, wrapped in incandescent hot pink, did sashaying burlesque moves to advertise her alpha conquest of a herd of tuxedoed male clones.
In the 1960s, alpha females got more athletic and Amazonian, as typified by bikini-clad Ursula Andress in her sensational emergence from the sea in Dr. No, a knife strapped to her waist and pink conch shells in her hands (a conflation of male and female genitalia). The next big step was taken by the formidable stars of blaxploitation films, above all the curvaceous Pam Grier as ruthless Foxy Brown, who mowed down everyone in her path.
Alpha females brassily reclaimed careerism in the 1980s, starting with Joan Collins's campy Alexis Carrington on the primetime TV soap Dynasty. Glamorously recycling Joan Crawford's mannish shoulder pads, Collins showed how to combine sultry sexuality with a hard-nosed lust for business. That decade also spawned Madonna's Dietrich-inspired blonde ambition, with its predatory chain of boy-toy pickups.
Angelina Jolie seemed to inherit the alpha female mantle in the 1990s, first as the punk fashion model Gia Carangi and later as superheroine Lara Croft, but she lost interest when she morphed into a global humanitarian. There was a trace of the surly, knife-wielding Gia in Rooney Mara's brooding performance as a biker-chick computer hacker in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, but that character was too paranoid and recessive for a true A-list alpha female.
Jessica Chastain's steely undercover CIA agent in Zero Dark Thirty had balls to spare and, as a fanatical loner, may have been hurtling toward Joan Crawford territory. In The Hunger Games, Jennifer Lawrence created an appealingly human portrait of a future-world alpha female, armed like the goddess Diana with a lethal bow and arrow in a passionate struggle for survival. Nevertheless, Lawrence's stubborn girliness (light-years away from Ursula Andress's tawny tigress) may limit her reach to her own age demographic.
Consider Rihanna, for example, who has channeled Halle Berry's stylish Catwoman to pose as a killer vixen in scrumptiously seductive Instagram photos scattered to the world. But alas, all that dominance is just a ruse to win back her scummy abuser, rapper Chris Brown. The multitalented Rihanna, so charismatic behind her shim-mering haze of smoke, seems oddly uncomfortable with her own power.
Is the alpha female starting to fade again? Today's young women, raised in a communal milieu of coed dorms and casual hookups, may be more team players than sexual autocrats. Significantly, in E.L. James's soft-porn trilogy, 50 Shades of Grey, a mammoth international best-seller among women readers, the alpha male reigns supreme, making the young heroine his eager sex slave.
But after every eclipse, the alpha female always returns. She is embedded in human-ity's collective unconscious. What she represents is the magic and mystery of sexual desire, which wells up from irrational depths and which neither men nor women have ever been able to fully control.