Is Sherlock Holmes an “alpha male?”

… is a question I was asked on Quora.

Well, first of all I’d like to point out that there is no such thing as an alpha male as far as human beings are concerned. I in no way endorse the false belief that people should be arranged into cookie-cutter molds like alphas, cucks, or Bettys! 

But since there’s also no such thing as Sherlock Holmes, either, I suppose I see no harm in the question, though I’ll go ahead and rephrase it in terms of fictional constructs rather than pseudoscience slang:

“Does Sherlock Holmes fit into the trope of the archetypal ‘alpha male?’”

Initially I would say “no.” The stereotypical alpha male tends to hold sway over groups of other people—Holmes does this to Watson, and to his adversaries or the cops on occasion, but most of the time you get the sense that they’re a little bit perturbed and creeped out by him, which is not an alpha response. The alpha also tends to be a man of action, and to hit first and hit hard in a fight. And regardless of whether he uses his muscles or his business acumen or his ruthlessness, generally the fight is won when the opponent is subdued, not when he’s outsmarted.

Exhibit A: The “alpha male motherfucker” guy from Richard Linkletter’s Dazed and Confused.

(Love this scene? Me too. Oh, and I once interviewed the ineffectual nothing guy.)

The concept of the “alpha male” in humans is basically pseudoscience culled from observations of ape mating habits. An “alpha” gorilla is a male gorilla who gets to have sex with all the lady gorillas, while the younger males just have to watch and wait. So almost by definition, an “alpha male” has to be popular with the ladies. Many ladies.

An alpha male likes to ball chicks, and usually in a stereotypically heteronormative way. (Not in a Myra Breckinridge way.)

Myra-Breckinridge
“I’m going to BAALLLLL you, Richard!”

(… though you want alpha females, Myra Breckinridge has the best of all time.)

Anyway, we certainly know that Holmes is not that kind. He’s most likely aromantic, and almost certainly asexual. No balling here.

Now, there is at least one example in the detective/spy world that I can think of where an “alpha male” who everybody loves also seems to be asexual, and that’s Flint in In Like Flint. The movie’s hyperreal Bond-spoof of a plot has him living with four or five women, all of whom adore him, and who he rescues from the bad guys because he cares deeply for them. And yet it’s implied that when it comes to sex, he’d rather spend time in his aquatic lab learning how to communicate with dolphins:

Even Roger Ebert had to complain that Flint is just not the typical ladies’ man spy:

“… in these enlightened days since James Bond first hit the terrycloth is it too much to expect adventure? Suspense? Boffo special effects? Sexy girls? The sexiest thing in the new Derek Flint misadventure, “In Like Flint,” is Flint’s cigarette lighter.”

Perhaps Flint could skirt by as an alpha male based on his being sweet and romantic, if not sexual (I think he has sex in the first movie, but it’s clearly only a part of the spy job, not something he is compelled to enjoy). But note that to be an alpha, or at least a “caring alpha,” the writers had to go way overboard and make him a polyromantic ace who every gorgeous woman, whether in his harem or on the opposing spy team, can’t help but swoon over.

So I guess Sherlock could have been an “ace alpha” if the scant number of women listed in the stories actually adored him. But I don’t think that’s the case.

Of course, there is evidence that Holmes had at least one girl-who-got-away, the famous Irene Adler from “A Scandal in Bohemia:”

“To Sherlock Holmes she is always the woman. I have seldom heard him mention her under any other name. In his eyes she eclipses and predominates the whole of her sex. It was not that he felt any emotion akin to love for Irene Adler. All emotions, and that one particularly, were abhorrent to his cold, precise but admirably balanced mind… And yet there was but one woman to him, and that woman was the late Irene Adler, of dubious and questionable memory.”

While that does sound a bit like romantic love (and the fan-fiction and movies go even further with it, sometimes claiming she actually faked her death, started a romance with Holmes, and even had a child with him who grew up to be Nero Wolfe), this still doesn’t sound promiscuous enough to be an “alpha male.”

Could Holmes actually be the more standoffish, less bullying cousin of the alpha male, namely “The Lone Wolf?” Or as he’s sometimes referred to, “The Rebel Who Plays By His Own Rules?

(For the best Rebel Who Plays By His Own Rules of all time, check out my man Nicky Henson in my favorite film [well, it’s tied with Slapshot]. It’s the brilliant psychedelic biker gang frog-loving suicide zombie occult witch Satanic groovefest from just past the cusp of the 60s, the splendor of human achievement known as Psychomania.)

But actually, even playing the rebel sounds a bit too butch for Holmes. Holmes sometimes has gallows humor, and even a nihilistic streak, not to mention a drug habit! But he’s not exactly dangerous in the way the Lone Wolf is. You know you can trust Holmes not to try and kill you if you don’t go through with your eternal life suicide pact by riding through a brick wall on your hog. He probably wouldn’t even rile up the hormones of Cybil Fawlty.

Maybe Holmes is a bit more like the kind of characters that many creepy men write into books (or, more commonly, movie scripts) so that, really, they can portray themselves, “The Sensitive Loner?

(You see? The kid in American Beauty isn’t a psycho Peeping Tom! He’s a tortured artist! What woman wouldn’t be so charmed by the fact that he’s spying on her with a camera that she’d willingly show him her boobs? If she doesn’t love him after watching his bag video, she’s a total ice queen!)

You get a slightly less creepy, but no less sexist, “Sensitive Loner” ending to the 1955 sex-sizzle hunk pick Picnic with William Holden, in which he convinces his love interest that she’ll be far happier leaving her loving community and jumping a train with him to Tulsa, so he can pursue his dreams of becoming a bellhop:

Could Holmes just be a smarter, more genius, less marbled version of William Holden?

But no, to be a sensitive loner (which is definitely a trope that only gets the girl in movies), it seem you have to brood, while simultaneously only talking about yourself. As smug as Holmes is, he rarely broods, not even when he plays the violin. And while he loves to talk about how smart he is, he prefers far more to shout “the game is afoot!” and get to work helping others, enjoying the mechanisms of his brain as they extend into the real world to resolve problems and change things for the better.

More importantly, and I think this is a credit to Arthur Conan Doyle, Holmes isn’t interested in courting a merry gang of inferiors, be they guys or gals (Watson excluded—but even he’s a doctor!). Holmes certainly doesn’t want to convince some woman that she’s stupid unless she gives up her thinly-scripted life to follow him. He likes his women like he likes his adversaries—cunning, challenging, rare …. and equal!

He doesn’t have respect for very many people outside of himself. But the one or two times he stops to ponder the “what-if” of a woman’s love, Holmes chooses her not because she’s a blank slate upon which to paint himself, but because he respects and admires her. If Holmes was on OKCupid right now, he’d be looking for a woman who likes to flirt the same way he does—via a series of deft maneuvers that attempt to entrap the other person in Rubik’s Cube of logic.

(And hey, come to think of it, he may just be in love with Moriarty, too!)

I think what I’m saying here is, is that Sherlock Holmes is not an Alpha Male, in any sense of that fictitious term. He’s not any kind of guy who would want to find love in a fangirl or a hastily written Thora Birch character. In fact, most of the time he’s not a romantic guy at all!

As far as I’m concerned, Holmes is and was and shall always remain the archetypal Ace detective who needs no man or woman, an icon among celibate geniuses and high-functioning cocaine addicts alike. If and when Holmes ever looks for love in a woman’s eyes, I think what he’s looking for there is far more “elementary.”

D. M. Collins

D. M. Collins is a journalist and writer based in Los Angeles.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.