Getting to know the new Alpha Girl
She's always been popular, pretty and a bit of a bitch. But now, 'Alpha Girl 2.0' is here, and she's powerful, smart and fired up
Every woman has an alpha girl in their past. 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.
American 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, Regina George in Mean Girls, 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, a psychologist and author of the recently published book Popular: The Power of Likability in a Status-Obsessed World. "They represent what teenage girls are socialised 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."
According to 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 life span (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, US, 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 toilet. 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 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 them 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 Philippa Perry.
And 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 debating 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 fashion influencers look like the new alpha girls, showcasing their perfect hair, perfect clothes, perfect lives. The alpha didn't die, she just went on to Instagram and took photographs 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 blonde girl plus jazzy fashion labels plus lots of similarly photogenic friends plus Valencia filter equals popularity! Once the code is cracked, the interest is gone. Also, we know how social media works and all that effort that 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 is even 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, who come across as that bit more interesting than the identikit figures we're more used to seeing, such as singer Solange Knowles, model and activist Adwoa Aboah and actors 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 girl, which is why, in the pop-star stakes, the loud and proud Hillary Clinton supporter Katy Perry beats Taylor Swift, who stayed notably schtum during the 2016 US election, and equal-rights campaigner and actor Emma Watson trumps Big Little Lies' Shailene "I am not a feminist" Woodley. These women don't accrue a sense of cool by giving the impression of exclusivity and, unlike the alphas you remember from high 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 that are still my best friends today."
The new alphas are nerdy, 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 boys (or men) 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 the genuine alpha represents 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.
This feature first appeared in the November 2017 issue of ELLE Malaysia.