For too long, I thought of Grayson Perry as ‘that artist that wears a dress who won the Turner Prize’. It was his set of Reith Lectures which alerted me to the fact that this was also someone thinking deeply and clearly and brilliantly about modern life and modern art. This was then followed by his excellent Channel 4 series, All Man, looking at masculinity – which is built upon and expanded in this book, The Descent of Man. It is a concise, funny and insightful exploration of modern masculinity with a strong foundation of honesty and openness about Perry’s own journey as a man.
Perry is excellent on male foibles and motivations and how they manifest themselves: in marathons and Tough Mudders, in film knowledge, in quizzes, in small cycling overtake manoeuvres on the way to work…and so on. He has a strong belief that violence begets violence, that our view of men and manliness needs to evolve, and that we need to cultivate an entirely new form of 21st century masculinity. How do we tackle the fact that 90% of violent crime is committed by men, and that men are increasingly likely to commit suicide? How do we channel male energy that is no longer expended in caveman hunting or heavy industry? How do we parent differently and find role models that might well be hidden at home?
He uses different archetypes – Default Man, Nostalgic Man – to bring out different traits that are identifiable and that are, largely hidden: because white men are, in most areas of life, the default. As he points out at one point, “When talking about identity groups, the word ‘community’ often crops up. The working-class community, the gay community, black people or Muslims are always represented by a (male) ‘community leader’. We rarely if ever hear of the white middle-class community. ‘Communities’ are defined in the eye of Default Man. Community seems to be a euphemism for the vulnerable lower orders. Community is ‘other’.” One of the points of Perry’s book, in a sense is to look at ‘Default Man’ as if he is other, as a subject to be explored and a ‘problem’ to be addressed.
Of course, I’m part of that white middle-class male community: and there is plenty of self-reflection and points of (embarrassing) recognition here. And plenty of laugh-out loud moments – not least because of his brilliant illustrations which punctuate the book: you can imagine the shape of the ‘Department of Masculinity’ in one of them. My favourite section is when he’s talking about feminism and how some men are even using this (public declarations of how they are feminist, wearing a ‘This is what a feminist looks like’ T-shirt) as a way of doing masculine one-upmanship: I’m a better feminist than you, and therefore a better man. Perry quotes the Guardian journalist Helen Lewis who simply says, “It’s easy for a man to be a feminist. Pick up a mop.” On which note, I’m off to clean the kitchen floor.
Read it – whatever your gender.
BUY IT HEREThe Descent of Man