Putting the kind in mankind

Grayson Perry and a tapestry he designed, The Upper Class at Bay

Grayson Perry: The Descent of Man
Penguin 2016

It takes a bit of nerve to use the same title for your book as Charles Darwin did for his 1871 study, but in a way Grayson Perry seems to be saying that modern men are fully capable of evolving, and for the better. It should be possible for them to transition from their traditional dinosaur-like sense of what it is to be a man towards something more fitting for the future, more so now that we are in the era of #MeToo and with urgent demands for well overdue gender parity.

Who is Grayson Perry? This is his official bio from the paperback:

Grayson Perry is a man. He is also an award-winning artist, a Bafta-winning TV presenter, a Reith Lecturer and a bestselling author with traditional masculine traits like a desire to always be right and to overtake all other cyclists when going up big hills.

He is also adept at self-deprecation and incisive insights, as well as being a flamboyant cross-dresser (it’s hard to miss him in this role for many of his public appearances). A three-episode TV documentary, All Man, went on to explore aspects of masculinity touched on here, but in the meantime this autobiographical memoir explores Perry’s boyhood experiences — he was born in 1960 — and his changing perceptions of what it means to be a male in a modern world. What he reflects on may be rooted in an English perspective, but much of his ruminations has ramifications in the rest of the western world, and of course elsewhere.

After a semi-biographical introduction his discussion is divided into four sections. ‘Asking Fish about Water’ expands on the status quo, at the centre of which is Default Man masquerading as the epitome of ‘normal’ or ‘natural’. For anybody wanting to be taken seriously a uniform mindset in uniform clothing is currently expected, and anybody unable to conform is ‘other’, outside the realms of power and decision-making. This default model, Grayson argues in ‘The Department of Masculinity’, has little to do with genetics and a lot to do with conditioning — This is how it’s always been, and this is how it’s always going to be. If our ideas of masculinity are brought about by cultural conditioning (blue for boys, pink for girls) then surely it’s possible to determinedly change that conditioning so that such imbalances in power and authority can be levelled out, for the benefit of both women and men, as well as anyone else on the continuum?

It’ll be a hard struggle, Grayson acknowledges in ‘Nostalgic Man’. The tug of the familiar (even when notions of what’s regarded as ‘traditional’ evolve almost unperceptively) is always dragging us men and women back towards a perceived norm. As the author writes, visions of

how men might be in the future are thinly sketched … [B]ecause they are new there is no compelling back catalogue of the kind of role models and narratives that currently form the powerful propaganda of the old-school man.

Finally, in ‘The Shell of Objectivity’ he further expounds on the disadvantages of being what he calls old-school man. Such men are expected to be strong and silent superheroes, invulnerable and firm as a rock, always capable and armed with the facts, never wrong and certainly must never display any kind of weak emotion: Be a Man! is the usual disgusted response to any male eye-watering. But this armoured shell is not just protective, it’s constricting: it stops any personal growth in the areas of sympathy, empathy, compassion; it doesn’t allow admissions of failure or an ability — let alone a willingness — to change direction, throw off rigid attitudes, admit weakness.

Much of the author’s perspective would be understandable to British readers brought up in insular cultural traditions, such as having a stiff upper lip. If non-British readers can get past the topical references and allusions there remains much to enjoy and learn, and of course its core message is universal and relevant right across cultures. Rather than discoursing on a subject that could potentially come over as dry, academic and depressing, Grayson Perry has made the issue of masculinity accessible and recognisable by throwing in lots of personal anecdotes and amusing asides, choosing visually arresting verbal images (as befits an artist) and including as additional commentary cartoons he’s based on tropes from popular culture.

If conclusions are now called for, I’d say this: this memoir is strong on analysis, but solutions are not so easy to come by; but if they were, wouldn’t we all be tackling them? Perry makes a start with what he calls ‘Men’s rights’, a list of former negatives that he turns into positives. If men can allow themselves to be vulnerable, weak, wrong, intuitive and so on, and allow themselves to not be ashamed of having what have traditionally been regarded as feminine qualities, then there might be real optimism for the future.

If not, then humankind will continue to be at war with itself, with so much individual fulfilment permanently impaired or even nipped in the bud. It’s time to put the kind back into mankind.

2018 Ultimate Reading Challenge: this counts as a memoir or journal. I’ve interpreted Crickhowell’s Book-ish monthly challenge for May (‘to read a book made into a film) as including three tv documentaries based on this

21 thoughts on “Putting the kind in mankind

    1. It’s that cliché, isn’t it, Lizza, to go on a journey one has to take the first step. Men in general need to realise there’s a problem (if state education wasn’t so focused on assessment schools might have more time to teach citizenship and personal education) before they’re able and willing to change and evolve. I believe Grayson has rightly been called a national treasure.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. An excellent post, Chris. I’ve always been interested in what Grayson Perry has to say about the world. I particularly enjoyed listening to his Reith Lectures a few years back. It’s about time we were all (both men and women) given the freedom to develop naturally. Why must we be stuck in a box and told to stay there because it is the done thing? I really hope this #MeTo moment brings positive changes for everyone.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I find so much to admire in Grayson Perry, I don’t know where to begin. We watched his documentaries on masculinity and class and both his art work and his TV work resonates with reasonableness, empathy, thoughtfulness, a desire to think through societies problems and question accepted norms.

    This book sounds terrific, an extension of his TV, art and the talking tour he did a couple of years back.

    The thing he picks up on is that this accepted way to be male does men themselves no good, let alone the rest of society and when you consider the high instances of depression in suicide in young men you can’t help but think he’s right.

    As a small example, a (female) writing tutor once told me she sometimes had problems with male pupils because they would come into her class assuming they already knew everything whereas women were more likely to accept they did things wrong. It harmed their ability to improve apparently.

    Sounds like a fascinating book and a great review Chris

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It is a fascinating book, Lynn. Even though us right-thinking peeps will have already come to similar conclusions he says it all with such wit and so many insights that you can’t help nodding in agreement. I think it should be a set text in schools!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Be more interesting than some of the set books on the GCSE curriculum. They seem fascinated with the 19th century European novel again – the most modern book my son had read so far at secondary school is Of Mice and Men. Has there been no great literature written since the nineteen thirties?
        Anyhow, yes. Grayson Perry for PM, I say 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

        1. If Scotland can put ‘The Lost Words’ into every one of their primary schools then maybe England, Wales and NI can give every high school student one? (Though some may baulk at the saucy bits!)

          Liked by 1 person

          1. What a lovely thing, putting that book into schools. How can we lose the word dandelion? Otter? Bramble? Cultural vandalism. Thanks for this nugget of information – I had no idea Scotland had done this

            Liked by 1 person

  3. I am put off straight away by the cross-dressing, which in my book is putting on an army uniform because you are cross with some people.

    Also, I am not impressed with the modern tendency towards, ‘Why can’t a man be more like a woman’ — can’t you imagine Eliza singing that to Henry? If one uses one’s faculties, one will notice that men and woman are different in more than bits added or taken away. Those differences should be celebrated and the result would be the combination as a complementary whole. (A theme I have explored in fantasy writing!)

    There still needs to be equality in all things other than where nature makes it absurd, like men doing the breast-feeding or giving birth.


    1. It’s odd, many scarcely bat an eyelid (with or without false lashes) at pantomime dames, or drag artists singing Piaf, or male film actors who play female parts, or comedians who take on a female persona for their stand-up act; but heaven forbid if men dare to ever go out in public dressed as such as though it was perfectly normal. Nor are we fazed by a Scottish soldier wearing a kilt, a Greek soldier wearing a skirt-like foustanella or a bishop tricked out in a dress-like cassock. Why should transvestites be singled out for a deviant dress sense, other than it might make one uncomfortable? I don’t find it threatening, though I can see that it might for some.

      As for so-called feminine attributes — compassion, empathy, intuition, weeping, for example — why shouldn’t I have these traits? Would you still consider this made me “more like a woman”?

      The more research that takes place the more we know that gender is not either/or, it’s more even than a continuum, it’s a spectrum. That’s not to deny that there are ‘typical’ sexual attributes, of course. “People whose characteristics are not either all typically male or all typically female at birth are intersex,” is a convenient summary on Wikipedia. “Some intersex traits are not always visible at birth; some babies may be born with ambiguous genitals, while others may have ambiguous internal organs (testes and ovaries).” While the incidence of intersex births are disputed (less than 0.02% to around 1.7%) what’s not in dispute is the existence of individuals with the condition.


      1. A lot of it is conditioning, but there are also elements of common sense. Men are not ideally suited to skirts because the dangly bits Scots are so eager to display. Hairy legs make them poor candidates for sheer nylons. Need for socks on chest make bras difficult.

        Notice a bunch of modern enlightened people at a party? Hens and cocks still separate and cluck or crow in their own groups.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I had to laugh at your commonsense examples, though I’m not sure they’re a complete rebuff to my points.

          As for the social divisions at the party, I think we must mix in different social circles and go to different parties — that’s not my general experience though I know it does go on.

          And considering that I’m not interested in motorcars, sport, making megabucks, pontificating about politics, commenting on female anatomy or any of those supposedly male topics I suspect I’ll be neither with the crowing cocks or the clucking hens but with those who share my interests, whatever their gender.


            1. I meant ‘rebuttal’ and not ‘rebuff’ (I think predictive text must have decided for me) but I take your point absolutely! Always good to consider alternative viewpoints … but perhaps not after a long busy day when one isn’t thinking straight or even amiably, sorry.


  4. I must say I’m really cheered up by the different attitude young men have to parenting. I was on the tram yesterday with a very tough-looking guy with tats and karate clothing who was engaging with his baby in the most tender way, and that’s quite common. Surely there must be some change in the man-ethos from the ground up if that’s happening.

    Liked by 1 person

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