The Descent of Man by Grayson Perry

Reviewed by Liz Dexter

descent-of-manThis book, based loosely on work Perry has done in the media and on television, looks at modern masculinity and how it can possibly be reworked to allow men more flexibility and freedom, all in his inimitable subjective, honest, self-aware and very funny style.

I’ve long been a fan of Grayson Perry, discovering his amazing pots and his alter ego, Claire, enjoying his documentaries and reading his lectures on art. His tapestries were exhibited locally a few years ago, and more recently I’ve enjoyed his guest editorship of the New Statesman and his TV series, ‘All Man’ which covered this topic in more – or perhaps different – depth.

His starting point for this book – although, as he explains, he’s been interrogating, challenging and dealing with masculinity throughout his life – was his New Statesman guest editorship and the TV series on masculinities: this distils Perry’s personal musings on traditional masculinity and the need to find new patterns and role models for men to follow in what he explains is a book that he hopes will be read by people new to these ideas and questions.

Perry is open and honest about his own background, his struggles with masculinity as a product of his home life with a hyper-masculine and frightening stepfather, his transference of his own masculine attributes into his famous teddy bear, Alan Measles, and his issues with his masculinity as an adult who exists in a world of art and transvestism but with what he admits to being strong competitive and territorial instincts. He looks first at what he calls Default Man, the hegemonic middle-aged, middle-class white man whose opinions, interests and concerns – and fear of being thought to be gay, rather than actual homophobia – are thought of as the norm.

Perry’s style is not castigating as such, except of people who try to cling to power by maintaining a harmful status quo. He’s rather sorry for modern, unreconstructed Man, noting that the traditional man is actually existing in an unhelpful straitjacket and, even when still in power at the moment, is starting to experience fear as the world around him is unpicked. Instead of criticising, he calls on us to challenge and examine possible gender biases and counter traditionally ‘male’ power where we can. His traditional men are men in the city and of the city, patrolling invisible boundaries to give themselves something to do or channelling old needs for sweat, toil and togetherness into the gym or boxing ring: in this way, he covers a range of types of men and classes as well.

Talking of the need to change, Perry writers movingly of men caught in ‘the suicidal rigidity of the cliché of masculinity’, not encouraged to talk about themselves or their feelings and dying in their droves. He talks of a need for society to prize tolerance and emotional literacy as stoicism and not crying are prized at the moment. I found him a little bit starry-eyed about women bonding and helping each other and looking forwards rather than backwards, but he is at least honest that he knows nothing about ‘being a woman’ even though he dresses as an ideal of one.

Being Grayson Perry, he’s very funny about areas like male ‘frippery’ being expressed in useless features on watches and complicated trousers and cars, and how no one has sexual fantasies about gender equality (‘except, perhaps, Nick Clegg’). He even suggests we march Gareth Malone off to the sperm bank because society needs to ‘breed smaller, more sensitive men’. This humour, and the excellent illustrations in the form of cartoons in his lovely informal drawing style, break things up and make the book easier to digest.

Perry exhorts men throughout the book to observe, undermine and then demolish the ‘Department of Masculinity’, which is always looking at men’s performance and judging it, internally and externally, from within. He calls for more flexible models of manhood and a celebration of the less hyper-masculine and visible attributes that help in everyday life rather than one that resembles a race car you will never take onto the track.

This is a book that makes you think, and, as I said, is mainly designed to be the first book someone might pick up on the subject. In a way, he’s preaching to the choir here and I would actually have preferred a little more substance, perhaps more from the TV series and the works of art he produced from it, but the book as it stands is easily readable and digestible for both someone starting to explore the topic and someone who has more background knowledge or experience of examining it.

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Liz Dexter is fairly secure in her own femininity but interested in gender studies on both ends of the spectrum.  Her book review blog is at Adventures in Reading, Writing and Working from Home where a version of this review originally  appeared.

Grayson Perry, The Descent of Man (Allen Lane, 2016). 978-0241236277, 160 pp., ill. Hardback.

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