A Little Help, Here

In the comments to my post on Alpha Males, jeffliveshere posed the following puzzle:

Maybe it’s my lack of imagination, but it’s difficult for me to come up with examples of men in popular culture who are confident-but-not-dominant, and most of the ones I can come up with are, strangely, comedians, like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert…

I can come up with a few. Keep in mind, a lot of my TV watching is limited to various Discovery-owned channels and I haven’t been to the movies in about a year.

My Other Boyfriend™, Mike Rowe, Dirty Jobs (not afraid to admit that he doesn’t know what he’s doing and perfectly willing to act a fool, yet so very, very hot);

Jamie Hyneman, Mythbusters (the very definition of low-key, yet very much the boss and the authority figure);

Cesar Millan, The Dog Whisperer (his whole thing is that dogs who are aggressive are out of balance and that the pack leader — whether male or female — must be calm and assertive, not aggressive);

Jill’s Other Boyfriend™, Anderson Cooper (not a shouter like so many other cable-news types);

Commander Adama, Battlestar Galactica (at least once he got over his resistance to accepting civilian authority over the fleet).

Add your own in the comments.


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72 Responses to A Little Help, Here

  1. monkey says:

    Seriously, read the New Yorker profile before you put Cesar Milan on that list.

    But for another example, as long as we’re including fictional characters, Giles from BTVS? (Got Buffy’s back when she needs him, but more than willing to recognize that she’s the boss.)

  2. zuzu says:

    I read the profile, and I watch the show. I know the criticisms of him. It doesn’t change the fact that, even though dominance theory is controversial in dog-training circles, what he stresses is leadership through being calm and assertive, not aggressive and dominating.

  3. monkey says:

    Ok. I’ll cop to being a pretty strong advocate of positive-reinforcement training, whereas Milan is an advocate of aversives, so I was already reading with, as it were, my hackles up. And I seem to have recycled the issue with the profile in it, so I can’t give verbatim support for what I’m saying. But, as I’m recalling it, in the profile, Gladwell narrates the moment when Milan suddenly figures out how to both train dogs and make his wife happy at the same time: by being “calm and assertive” (or, depending how you interpret Milan’s techniques, domineering and pain-inflicting) with both, as though his wife and his dogs were exactly the same. Differences over training methods aside, that to me is enough to file him firmly under “not feminist.”

    As I said, I don’t have the issue to refer to right now, so please correct me if I’m misremembering.

  4. zuzu says:

    I’m not claiming the guy’s a feminist, though I had a different reaction to that passage of the story: he realized that he had to listen to his wife if he wanted to make her happy, and stop trying to control her through machoness. That this realization carried over into his dog training is no big surprise, given that dogs are great students of human behavior.

    I do still have the issue at home, so I’ll check later to see if my recollection is accurate.

  5. monkey says:

    Ok, fair enough; after I submitted that last one I thought “oh, but is it really about being a feminist?” And not really. Because who knows, maybe right now Anderson Cooper is home chuckling to himself over Caitlin Flanagan’s latest bon mot (although I firmly believe that he would never do such a thing). But it does seem like this is, at its simplest level, a “good guys” list, and I guess the extent to which Milan should be on that list depends on how you interpret him.

  6. Frumious B. says:

    I’ll armwrestle Jill for Anderson…

  7. lou says:

    Viggo Mortenson!

  8. Natalia says:

    My boyfriend thinks that Milan is sexist, and I’m more middle-of-the-road on this woman. I don’t think the language he always in his book is necessarily feminist-positive, but from what I’ve seen on his show, I’m tempted to think otherwise.

    Like him or not, I’m fascinated by him.

  9. Amber says:

    Zuzu, Mike Rowe is totally mine. STEP OFF!

  10. Natalia says:

    Wait… I just called Cesar Milan a woman. W00T! I guess deep inside I believe he’s a feminist after all.

  11. plucky punk says:

    Ewan MacGregor. Totally.

  12. Antigone says:

    Captain Picard from Next Gen (what, it’s still on tv). He may be the boss, but he always listens to his officers and crew, and NEVER dismisses any concerns (even from Troi who says stuff like “I have a feeling that something’s wrong here).

    The only time you can tell he’s possessed is when he says stuff like “Do you think a captain has to justify every order to his crew?”

  13. KnifeGhost says:

    Natalia: I read that post 4 times before I noticed. I don’t know what that says about any of us.

    Anyways. Mike Holmes from Holmes on Homes. VERY manly-man, but treats everyone he works with (his crew and subcontractors) with great respect. At least on camera.

    A lot of hockey players, and most coaches. Craig MacTavish jumps out. Of course, a lot f hockey players are mcho pricks, too.

    Sayid on Lost. Jack’s too whiny, and Sawyer’s a little too far off in prick territory.

    Gregory Peck in pretty well every movie he’s ever been in.

  14. Amber says:

    If we’re going to talk about TV/movie characters and not just actual men being themselves then I vote for Detective Munch on Law & Order SVU. He is extremely intelligent and sure of himself but doesn’t use testosterone intimidation tactics like the other male detectives.

  15. zuzu says:

    Anyways. Mike Holmes from Holmes on Homes. VERY manly-man, but treats everyone he works with (his crew and subcontractors) with great respect. At least on camera.

    Yes! And he’s not afraid to get emotional.

    Amber: Yes, and the late, great Lennie Briscoe as well.

    And Mike Rowe is MY dirty boy!

  16. piny says:

    Amber: Yes, and the late, great Lennie Briscoe as well.

    Aren’t we forgetting someone? “Detective Ed Green” put up with Lennie Briscoe for six seasons. Didn’t step on a single punchline.

    And Sam Waterson? Hello?

  17. Grace says:

    Gregory Peck, absolutley. I love Henry Fonda in 12 Angry Men. I also have a fondness for Sam Waterston.

  18. Amber says:

    I’d put Tim Gunn (Parsons Design School/Project Runway) in this category.

  19. Rachel says:

    Keith Mars from Veronica Mars. And he’s a really good dad, too.

  20. Benji says:

    Sam Seaborne, ex Deputy Communications Director on The West Wing. Smart, confident, respectful of others.

  21. Leah says:

    Another fictional detective, Detective Robert Goren from Law and Order: CI.
    I’m actually surprised no one has said Barack Obama …

  22. LS says:

    Gil Grissom, CSI. Very low-key, quietly leading.

  23. d. says:

    One of my favorite things about Babylon 5 is that it portrays a variety of men (erm, human and alien) who are powerful and influential and masculine in various ways without being macho. Seems to come up a lot in science fiction in general, since gender and gender roles is one of the things played with in the genre.

    Also: How does sexual orientation tie in? Because I have it on half-decent authority (‘i slept with a guy who slept with…’) that Jill’s Other Boyfriend ™ is gay.

  24. piny says:

    One of my favorite things about Babylon 5 is that it portrays a variety of men (erm, human and alien) who are powerful and influential and masculine in various ways without being macho. Seems to come up a lot in science fiction in general, since gender and gender roles is one of the things played with in the genre.

    Not to geek out hardcore or anything, but that’s one of the things I like most about Babylon 5’s Big Question: the overarc of the show is an analysis of the use of power for the sake of protecting others. It’s inevitable that a smart treatment of that subject matter would involve a critique of masculinity.

  25. piny says:

    I’m actually surprised no one has said Barack Obama …

    Out of my league.

  26. KnifeGhost says:

    I love Henry Fonda in 12 Angry Men.

    Absolutely. I had a big Henry Fonda/Gregory Peck phase last summer. (If only I had any interest in slash, that would make a good one.)

    Aaron Sorkin’s male characters tend follow the pattern. Casey and Dan on Sports Night, even Isaac in a wise old man sort of way. Just about every male character on West Wing, particularly President Bartlett, President-elect Santos, Josh Lyman (when he isn’t freaking out over an election), Leo McGarry, so on…. We could start a parallel discussion of strong women in TV, and it would be as full of Sorkin characters.

    BJ and Trapper John on MASH. Hawkeye was a little too goofy/brooding.

    Sidney Poitier. Hot.

    More hockey players! Trevor Linden, Steve Yserman, Kirk Muller… Classic lead-by-example captains.

  27. Jonquil says:

    Alton Brown.

    Keith Mars is an excellent choice. Perhaps Dr. Wilson (House), who is defnitely beta to House’s alpha, but is also clearly as competent with his patients as House, while being a kinder person.

  28. kfluff says:

    If you’re cruising basic cable, then I’d suggest Tyler Florence from the Food Network. Unlike many of his uber-Alpha male colleagues (see Bobby Flay mount his cutting board, for instance), he seems more than capable of helping a sister out with a recipe. Knowledgeable, but not authoritarian.

  29. piny says:

    Oliver Platt (except when he played a Savanarola henchman who assaulted Catherine MacCormack), Dave Chappelle, Christopher Eccleston in Jude and Doctor Who, BD Wong on L&O: SVU (except for the part where he’s a shrink–not hot), Ian McKellan. Oh, and Wallace on Veronica Mars.

  30. piny says:

    (see Bobby Flay mount his cutting board, for instance)

    Hah! No, thanks.

  31. d. says:

    Alton Brown is My Other Boyfriend (TM) !

    Not to geek out hardcore or anything, but that’s one of the things I like most about Babylon 5’s Big Question: the overarc of the show is an analysis of the use of power for the sake of protecting others. It’s inevitable that a smart treatment of that subject matter would involve a critique of masculinity.

    Interesting, and not something I’d considered before.

    What else has always impressed me about B5 is that it managed to have a wide enough array of powerful female characters (both main characters and one-episode add-ons) with a wide enough array of personalities that it was able to examine different (and often negative) ways that power affects men *and* women without female characters’ various experiences being a statement about them qua women.

  32. Thomas says:

    d., you’d have to fight my wife for Alton. Her crush is so bad she’s suggesting naming theoretical future sons Alton.

  33. piny says:

    d., you’d have to fight my wife for Alton. Her crush is so bad she’s suggesting naming theoretical future sons Alton.

    Hee. “Alton, Alton II, Alton III….”

  34. piny says:

    “Altina….”

  35. Katie says:

    gay men dont count! most gay men i know are like that so, i think we have to take ian mackellan and a few others out.

  36. Sarah S says:

    I would nominate almost any character ever played by Johnny Depp. He always seems to play these quirky non-stereotypically masculine guys who are usually very respectful and don’t feel the need to be hyper-sexually agressive or display hyper-masculinity. And right now I’m thinking about his character from Chocolat… and said character may or may not be naked.

    And rock on to whomever said Barak Obama. I read his book a while back and it was really good. Most political biographies are such ghostwritten bullshit, but his was written before he got famous and it is a really good look at so many interesting facets of his life.

  37. d. says:

    d., you’d have to fight my wife for Alton. Her crush is so bad she’s suggesting naming theoretical future sons Alton

    Tragically, he’s married! Of course, that means that if he gets divorced, your wife probably has a better shot than I do.

    Maybe I’ll name my next pet Alton…

  38. Kat says:

    Sayid on Lost.

    MMM. Yummy.

  39. piny says:

    What else has always impressed me about B5 is that it managed to have a wide enough array of powerful female characters (both main characters and one-episode add-ons) with a wide enough array of personalities that it was able to examine different (and often negative) ways that power affects men *and* women without female characters’ various experiences being a statement about them qua women.

    Good point–the alien societies came in handy there. I liked that it made the relationship between power and personality symbiotic: maybe your personality attracted you to power, but it changed you as you accumulated it.

  40. piny says:

    What else has always impressed me about B5 is that it managed to have a wide enough array of powerful female characters (both main characters and one-episode add-ons) with a wide enough array of personalities that it was able to examine different (and often negative) ways that power affects men *and* women without female characters’ various experiences being a statement about them qua women.

    And in the course of this comments thread, I’ve been thinking about the racial makeup of the not-macho crowd, and how that might be a function of these characters being written by writers who were conscious of their race.

  41. zuzu says:

    Sayid on Lost.

    Played, if I’m not mistaken, by the guy who played Kip in The English Patient. Who is also a good example.

  42. EL says:

    1. I second Picard.
    2. I second Keith Mars.
    3. I add Sandy Cohen from The OC.
    4. I second President Bartlett (but so disagree on Leo McGarry – I like him, but dominant – hell yes)
    5. While we’re on Adama, what about his son too? (Still on the DVDs for Season one, though, so maybe things change)

    It’s true about the comics though: Colbert, Jon Stewart, Dave Chappelle.

  43. Alton Brown’s the first name that popped to mind, but there are others.

    David Foster Wallace is soft-spoken, polite, extremely helpful and (contra the impression his fiction may create) not ostentatiously erudite in daily interactions.

    Also, from Season 3 to the show’s finale, I’d say Angel fits the bill.

  44. Tammy says:

    George Clooney, the actor not the typical assholes he plays, seems like a cool guy to me.

  45. Raincitygirl says:

    I don’t know that you can include Commander Adama in that list. Okay, yeah, he’s sorry about that military coup and accepting civilian oversight now, but he’s also the one who was willing to have Sharon’s pregnancy forcibly aborted in 2.13, and gave Roslin the idea of banning abortion in 2.17 (oh, the irony of those two actions in conjunction. A woman who wants to stay pregnant strapped down to a gurney, and women who don’t want to be pregnant forced to become human incubators, just like the Cylons were doing to human POWs in 2.05). I betcha if Starbuck was desperate for an abortion he’d change his tune, but all young women who aren’t his surrogate daughters are shit out of luck.

    Mind you, given that the producers and writers of the show were apparently smoking a lot of crack while making the second half of Season 2, maybe it’s not fair to judge BSG characters based on their actions in later S2 episodes. I mean, right up until 2.14 (i.e. the utter train wreck that was the black market episode – worst episode EVER, hands down) I would’ve unhesitatingly put Lee Adama on the list. Totally okay with taking orders from a woman, willing to go against his own father to protect democracy, etc.

    Billy Keikeya counts as a genuine Good Guy: again, totally willing to take orders from a woman, politically idealistic, willing to speak truth to power, takes stands on principle, unhesitatingly provides first aid to the guy who’s been sleeping with his girlfriend.

    And Helo may not be the brightest bulb on the Christmas tree, but he’s definitely a good egg. Mind you, I’m not sure if Helo is intellectually dumb so much as idealistic to the point of naive. He’s always so astonished when the people he thinks are the good guys do things that are morally ambiguous that I find myself wanting to slap him upside the head and remind him he’s a character in BSG, not Star Trek, and he really needs to stop assuming everybody has good intentions.

    Tyrol was definitely a mensch up until 2.19, but maybe we can overlook that incident and allow him to maintain his good guy status on the grounds of “writers smoking crack”.

    Anders is pretty much a tertiary character, but he seems to be a good guy, from what little we’ve seen of him. Doesn’t cop any attitude about a woman who’s got more military expertise than him running things, thinks Starbuck is the bee’s knees and doesn’t get insecure over having a girlfriend who could kick his ass, etc. Again, possibly not the brightest guy ever, but definitely not a sexist.

  46. ballgame says:

    I would add many characters played by Jeremy Irons through the years.

  47. Gah, can’t believe I forgot this:

    Andre Braugher in, well, pretty much everything, but particularly on Homicide.

  48. Magis says:

    It’s a Yankee thing you see.

    Many many from Lou Gherig to Derek Jeter.

  49. Raincitygirl says:

    Gregory Peck in “Gentleman’s Agreement”?

  50. Nomie says:

    plucky punk beat me to Ewan McGregor, who is an awesome and stand-up guy.

    Ian McKellen has the confident-but-not-macho thing down. I wish he was my grampa.

    I’ll keep thinking about this.

  51. zuzu says:

    Andre Braugher in, well, pretty much everything, but particularly on Homicide.

    Oh, I disagree on that. Pembleton was rather aggressive.

    G, though. G fits the bill. Plus, Yaphet Kotto.

  52. Rachel says:

    I disagree about Andre Braugher, too – Pembleton was totally dominant. That was his whole interrogation style. Plus in the cross-overs with L&O, he had a tendency toward verbal bitch-slappery with Det. Curtis.

    G or perhaps “the perpetually snarky Tim Bayliss” – less dominant, but still very confident.

  53. j swift says:

    I don’t know that this is much help if the long list of “good” alpha male are all actors or celebrities who are portraying a character or doing a schtick for a t.v. show. Are these real examples or are they just acting roles and professional personas for their work?

    While I would agree that actors portray a lot of admirable qualities they still put their pants on one leg at a time.

    Celebrity, in my mind, is way over rated in our culture. It does not matter whether they stand in front of camera, catch passes on the football field or whack a little white ball down long stretches of grass, that public image is not necessarily the real person.

  54. Lexica says:

    Eddie Izzard, high heels and all.

  55. Esme says:

    Mandy Patankin. David Duchovney. Jim Carrey.

  56. KnifeGhost says:

    right up until 2.14 (i.e. the utter train wreck that was the black market episode – worst episode EVER, hands down)

    Sing it. Although I don’t agree on every detail (I’d prefer to attribute the abortion thing to crack, rather than something inherent to Adama. That was a departure.) your analysis is pretty well on. Billy was a bit shy/quiet, but he had it in him to grow into the kind of guy we’re looking for.

    j swift: I don’t think the distinction is all that important. We’re looking for people/characters we can point to as examples, rather than making the claim that the dudes are actually like this in real life.

  57. Armagh444 says:

    Al Gore.

    I’m not kidding.

    And no, I’m not trying to make some sort of weird and quasi-cruelly ironic Naomi Wolfe reference.

    He’s not your typical alpha male, but he’s always had complete competence and confidence in his own abilities without having to denigrate those around him or treat women as if they were objects or somehow “less than.”

    The call was for “men in pop culture who are confident but not dominant,” and he seems to fit the bill pretty nicely.

  58. Starfoxy says:

    I would say Mal, Simon, and to a lesser extent, Shepherd Book and Wash from Firefly/Serenity. I also like that Jayne, the typical Alpha-male, was often the ignorant comic relief. (Wash was funny on purpose).

  59. Maia says:

    Oz from Buffy – of course since he was specifically engineered to make every woman who over-identified with Willow swoon, it’s a little bit of a cheat, but I can’t believe no-one mentioned him already.

  60. Tom Head says:

    Almost any character ever played by Jimmy Stewart.

    Cheers,

    TH

  61. Raging Moderate says:

    Atticus Finch.

  62. AlieraKieron says:

    See, as much as I love, (love! Did I mention the love?) Mal, he’s COMPLETELY a dominant type. He frequently fails miserably, which is the running joke. But he’s an alpha male all the way.

  63. Sarah S says:

    Speaking of Lost, Hurley from Lost is a classic non-alpha male. He has some low self esteem issues that could easily wander him into Nice Guy ™ territory, but he is smart enough to reign it back and is an actual nice guy instead.

    I’m also thinking of the guy that Liam Nelson played in Love Actually, the grieving widower who was totally not alpha and taught his little adopted son how to impress a girl by being a talented and good person, and not at all by putting the girl down or pushing her around. That was one of the best examples of positive maleness and masculinity that I’ve ever seen on film.

    And Silent Bob from the various Kevin Smith movies may be the most passive male to ever exist in film.

  64. Kyle McLachlan as Dale Cooper from Twin Peaks any day!

    Also, I’ll take Jeremy Irons as Kafka or as Bev from Dead Ringers.

  65. KnifeGhost says:

    Eddie Izzard, high heels and all.

    YES. I almost mentioned him a while back, but I was trying for not-comedians.

    And, Raging Moderate, Atticus Finch is one of the prime examples I had in mind when I suggested Gregory Peck in everything ever. Good call.

  66. Captain Picard from Next Gen (what, it’s still on tv). He may be the boss, but he always listens to his officers and crew, and NEVER dismisses any concerns (even from Troi who says stuff like “I have a feeling that something’s wrong here).

    The only time you can tell he’s possessed is when he says stuff like “Do you think a captain has to justify every order to his crew?–Antigone

    You must have been watching the same episode I was on Tuesday when I was at the gym, or it’s an odd coincidence, because the ‘possessed’ episode was just on. I think Picard is a pretty good example, although I think it’s interesting that both Picard and Adama are military(-ish in the case of Picard) captains…you might say that they exist within a system of dominance where they’re at the top, right? But one could exist there in the way Picard does, or in the way, say Jack Nicholson’s character from A Few Good Men does, I suppose. Still, that you can tell Picard isn’t really Picard is when he starts only using the system of dominance to do his job.

    On a larger note: I don’t know all of the examples people are giving, but I do appreciate y’all verifying that I do, in fact, suffer from a lack of imagination! :)

    And I’d agree with some big ‘yes!’s as regards: Giles from BTVS, Ewan McGregor (from RL–and did you see him in that reality show about driving motorcycles across the world? fantastic, plus he talks about a dream where he was Obi-Wan walking around naked), Viggo M, Eddie Izzard, and various others.

    I’d take issue with Sayid as an example of this, at least in some ways…I mean, at least first season, if I remember correctly, his response to control a situation was to torture Sawyer, right? Plus, I thought he treated Shannon crappy. Though he does have a calm confidence…and in later shows seems completely uninterested in the whole domination stuff.

    I would also take issue with Adama, for reasons somebody else already sketched out.

    Cesar is a very interesting case, because, at the very least, I think he has one foot in ‘dominant’ and one foot in ‘assertive’–or he manages to exist in what I think is something like a gray area there. Maybe these descriptions run the gamut from confident to assertive to dominant? All aspects of similar behavior?

    These examples are great though, and really can help (fictional or not) as role models, in my opinion; at least, as people one can point to and say, “Yeah, more like that.”

  67. Nomie says:

    Starfoxy – I think Mal is a failed alpha-male type. And Simon often has a total lack of confidence when he’s not in the infirmary.

    However, Shepherd Book and Wash both get my vote. I think Wash and Zoe’s relationship is one of the best marriages that’s been put on the small screen in years.

    How about Calvin O’Keefe from “A Wrinkle in Time”? Smart, sensitive, an athlete but never stuck up about it, and he falls for the geeky girl in glasses.

  68. piny says:

    plus he talks about a dream where he was Obi-Wan walking around naked

    Well, of course–wait. His dream?

  69. Mickle says:

    Wesley Crusher, most of Miyazaki’s heros, and I want to add Dr. Reid from Criminal Minds – but he’s only confident in certain situations, so, like Simon Tam, I’m not sure he counts.

  70. piny–
    Well, he said it was his dream. He was likely just tapping into the communal consciousness of Ewan-lusters. That show–it’s called The Long Way Round–is a *must* for Ewan fans, I’d say; plus, it’s just an interesting (if a little bougie–two rich white guys ‘roughing it’ on bmw motorcycles) picture of a couple of people bonding…

    And I thought of another possibility, hinted at here: People have pointed out Angel and Giles–how about Joss himself?

  71. Waitaminut–Wesley Crusher…well, I suppose he did like to stand up to Picard. But that would make Picard domineering…I’d put up Wil Wheaton, though, now that he’s an author and everything.

  72. truk says:

    Fictional: Jean Luc Picard, Benjamin Sisko (most of the ST good-guys actually), Giles, Oz, Angel

    Real life: Joss Whedon, Matt Groening, Morgan Freeman, Alan Rickman, Bruce Lee, Nelson Mandela, Hugh Thompson (the Mai Lai pilot – look him up if you’re not familiar with the story).

    Not a complete list, these just off the top of my head.

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