The al­pha fe­male is all grown up— and she’s noth­ing like the mean girls you knew in high school.

The “al­pha girl” has evolved.

ELLE (Canada) - - Contents - By Hadley Free­man


Lord knows I do, and I have the ther­apy bills to prove it. You know: that girl at school who seemed to know so much more than ev­ery­one else and cer­tainly more than you. She was French kiss­ing boys when the only thing you knew how to do with your tongue was eat ice cream. She was us­ing a hair dryer when you thought it was fancy for any­one other than your mother to cut your hair. And, most of all, she knew how to make all the girls want to be her friend and all the boys want to be her boyfriend.

Teen movies have turned the al­pha girl into a trope, with char­ac­ters like Claire Stan­dish in The Break­fast Club, Cher Horowitz in Clueless and, most ob­vi­ously of all, Mean Girls’ Regina Ge­orge, pa­tron saint of all al­pha girls. These movies cap­ture the weird truth about teenage girls and pop­u­lar­ity, which is that the girl with the most friends is of­ten a piece of work.

“Al­pha girls es­tab­lish a false sense of sta­tus through ag­gres­sion,” says Mitch Prin­stein, psy­chol­o­gist and au­thor of the new book Pop­u­lar: The Power of Lik­a­bil­ity in a Sta­tus-Ob­sessed World. “They rep­re­sent what teenage girls are so­cial­ized to be­lieve is im­por­tant: beauty, so­cial prow­ess, power. They’re able to seem in charge at an age when kids don’t want to be ruled by their par­ents.” Says psy­chother­a­pist Philippa Perry: “At school, the con­fi­dent peo­ple are the pop­u­lar peo­ple be­cause ev­ery­one else feels needy so they want to at­tach them­selves to them.” In his book, Prin­stein cites ev­i­dence from long-term stud­ies that pop­u­lar­ity can in fact ex­tend lifes­pan (whereas un­pop­u­lar­ity can have a neg­a­tive ef­fect—to an even greater de­gree than obe­sity, phys­i­cal in­ac­tiv­ity or binge drink­ing).

My al­pha girl and I met at sum­mer camp in Maine when we were 10. Her name was Jes­sica (such a clas­sic al­pha name). She was ev­ery­thing an al­pha should be, by which I mean she was ev­ery­thing I thought I should be: beau­ti­ful (ob­vi­ously), thin (even more ob­vi­ously), ath­letic and pos­sess­ing the kind of con­fi­dence that meant she talked hap­pily to boys as op­posed to hid­ing from them in the near­est bath­room. Nat­u­rally, all of us 10-year-old girls were des­per­ate to be like her—and, boy, did she know it, be­friend­ing and drop­ping each of us ac­cord­ing to her whims. It was dev­as­tat­ing.

As I said, ther­apy en­sued, and while I can’t en­tirely blame Jes­sica for this, it’s sat­is­fy­ing to partly blame her. It took me an em­bar­rass­ing amount of time to stop men­tally com­par­ing my­self to her. Al­pha girls are gen­er­ally as­so­ci­ated with ado­les­cents and teenagers—and for good rea­son. Most of us have had the qui­etly sat­is­fy­ing ex­pe­ri­ence of Googling our school-day al­phas and see­ing that their lives are no longer quite so as­pi­ra­tional. Last time I checked on Jes­sica, she was liv­ing in sub­ur­ban New Jer­sey and writ­ing a blog about or­ganic baby food—a per­fectly ac­cept­able life but not one that made me doubt ev­ery­thing about mine, like I used to. And that’s be­cause the skill sets that made the al­phas seem so cool at school don’t re­ally work in the adult world. “Women have a bet­ter sense of who they are and what they want to be like,” says Perry.

This is true, but with the rise of so­cial me­dia, it can feel like you never es­cape high-school cliques. Now, on In­sta­gram (where the beau­ti­ful kids hang out), Twit­ter (the grown-ups’ ver­sion of de­bate club) and Face­book (far too ba­sic for the cool kids), pop­u­lar­ity is quan­ti­fied, vis­i­ble and judged. Women such as Tay­lor Swift, Ken­dall Jen­ner and the seem­ingly end­less so-called in­flu­encers look like the new al­pha girls, show­cas­ing their per­fect hair, per­fect clothes, per­fect lives. The al­pha girl

didn’t die; she just went on to In­sta­gram and took photos of her per­fect pedi­cure in her Char­lotte Olympia san­dals.

But here’s the weird thing: While these young women are cer­tainly pop­u­lar, they don’t quite nail the most cru­cial al­pha in­gre­di­ent, which is cred­i­bil­ity. Maybe this is be­cause women get smarter about what is worth ven­er­at­ing. So­cial me­dia has shown us how easy it is to work the sys­tem: thin blond girl plus jazzy fash­ion la­bels plus lots of sim­i­larly photo­genic friends plus fil­ter equals pop­u­lar­ity! Once the code is cracked, the in­ter­est is gone. Also, we know how so­cial me­dia works, and all that ef­fort the Kar­dashian/Jen­ner clan put into main­tain­ing the in­ter­est of their fol­low­ers doesn’t look cool—it just looks like work. And now that so­cial me­dia gives us an even closer look at these women’s lives, it’s eas­ier to spot the ar­ti­fice.

This is why the true al­phas to­day—let’s call them al­pha 2.0—are women who bring a lit­tle grit into the oys­ter; they come across as a bit more in­ter­est­ing than the iden­tikit fig­ures we’re more used to see­ing. I’m talk­ing about the likes of Solange Knowles, Ad­woa Aboah, Lena Dun­ham, Zen­daya and Amandla Sten­berg. A celebrity who is will­ing to risk los­ing fans by speak­ing out for a po­lit­i­cal cause is def­i­nitely an al­pha, which is why, in the pop-star stakes, loud and proud Hil­lary Clin­ton sup­porter Katy Perry beats Tay­lor Swift, who stayed no­tably sch­tum dur­ing the U.S. elec­tion, and equal-rights cam­paigner and ac­tor Emma Wat­son trumps Shai­lene “I am not a fem­i­nist” Wood­ley (even though she has since re­canted this state­ment). These women don’t ac­crue a sense of cool by giv­ing the im­pres­sion of ex­clu­siv­ity, and, un­like the al­phas you re­mem­ber from school, they are def­i­nitely not mean.

As Face­book COO Sheryl Sand­berg said re­cently: “I was a stu­dent very in­ter­ested in study­ing in a school that didn’t re­ally value that. My best friend when I was in sev­enth grade told me I wasn’t cool enough to be her friend any­more, and she just dropped me. So I made new friends, and I made new friends that other peo­ple said were the smart girls. That was code for be­ing very un­cool. We were not cool. We did not have dates. Boys did not like me. I did not get in­vited to the cool par­ties. But I had very close friend­ships with girls who are still my best friends to­day.”

The new al­phas are nerdy and in­ter­est­ing and have an ap­peal based on more than as­pi­ra­tional glossi­ness. What makes them cool is their in­di­vid­u­al­ity. So, un­like the tra­di­tional al­phas, who want you to copy them and com­pare your­self to them, the mes­sage the al­pha 2.0 sends is that you should be your­self. The real ques­tion, of course, is why we need al­pha girls at all. Af­ter all, no one talks much about al­pha males any­more. The dis­may­ing truth is that, as much as women ma­ture, many of us still look out­side our­selves to see how we “should” be, and even gen­uine al­phas rep­re­sent that. But what makes them al­pha is their in­di­vid­u­al­ity, which is why the most beta thing you can do is try to copy them, never mind com­pare your­self to them. That’s what the old al­phas wanted you to do; to­day’s al­pha is one who is proudly her­self. And that’s a mes­sage any ther­a­pist would ap­plaud. n


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