Grayson Perry: The Descent of Man
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