October 25, 2016
Book Review: The Descent of Man by Grayson Perry — A man’s man is yesterday’s hero
by Matt Haig
Grayson Perry’s timely, entertaining book explores how rigid masculine roles can destroy men’s lives
It is a strangely embarrassing time to be a man. You only have to watch the news, or log on to Twitter, or just open your eyes, and you will see a man doing something atrocious. Very often the man we see is Donald Trump, but Trump is just the most visible example of the toxic masculinity on offer. It is there, in some form or other, all over our virtual and actual reality.
Of course, men have always done terrible things. You could pinpoint any moment in history and men would have been doing something despicable. Pol Pot and Hitler and Stalin were men, for instance. So was Jack the Ripper. So is, indisputably, Donald Trump.
And, away from the big names, as Grayson Perry puts it in his new book on masculinity, “most violent people, rapists, criminals, killers, tax avoiders, corrupt politicians, planet despoilers, sex abusers and dinner-party bores, do tend to be, well… men”. This has always been the case, in every patriarchal society in history. But the difference nowadays is that we are beginning to understand that part of the problem with men is not their gender but rather the gender role dictated to them.
For decades now, female writers and theorists have been dismantling their biological gender from the perceived feminine roles that can restrict or harm their lives. It is only recently that we have started to do this with men too, to see a man as distinct from the concept and construct of masculinity. Maybe one of the reasons for this is that we have a tendency to regard men as the normal human state of things. Society is shaped by men, literally, in the sense that town planners and architects have traditionally been male (an issue that Perry touches on, looking at how public toilets and even air conditioning are geared towards male comfort levels) and so we aren’t trained to notice them. Us. Men just are.
Perry claims this is also one of the reasons why men dress how they do. The grey business suit, for instance. “A primary function of their sober attire is not just to look smart,” he notes, “but to be invisible… the business suit is the uniform of those who do the looking, the appraising. It rebuffs comment by its sheer ubiquity.”
Life as performance is not a new idea. As the melancholic Jaques famously tells us in Act II of As You Like It: “All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players.” Merely players, maybe, but performing different roles. Perry himself is arguably the perfect person to write about masculinity, as he is not only a man – “a white man, a rather tarnished badge to wear these days, weighted with guilt and shame at the behaviour of one’s fellows” – but also a man who, along with those early Shakespearean actors, likes to wear women’s clothes from time to time.
One of the strongest areas of the book is here, on the topic of clothing. He reminds us of the codes we often follow, without thinking too deeply about them; how men often dress functionally for work, while women’s attire is expected to be more frivolous and decorative, one big “extraneous addition” tacked on to the male status quo. But Perry admits that wearing women’s clothes doesn’t give him special immunity from the masculine role. The reason he can see the perils of masculinity, despite being a self-confessed sissy, is because he is familiar with those roles, has known many of them himself – “if you spot it, you’ve got it”. In two lovely biographical anecdotes (of which there are many), he writes about how he used to be horrified as a child whenever he had to eat his cereal out of a bowl with a floral pattern and he would slowly see the flowers appear as the milk went down; and of the thrill he got from watching violent movies on television and then talking about them the next day with his school friends.
‘There’s a slight contradiction about a man in the public eye calling for men to shy away from public life.’ Photograph: Ken McKay/ITV/Rex/Shutterstock
While The Descent of Man, as with Perry’s TV series All Man on which this book frequently draws, may be an attack on certain aspects of masculinity, it is not an attack on men. Perry rightly acknowledges that masculine values, such as stoic self-sufficiency, can be chronically damaging to men, and can harm their relationships with their partners and with themselves.
Indeed, with suicide now the leading cause of death for men under the age of 50, this is an urgent issue. Men need to do more speaking out and less manning up. Yet because we see men as the default setting, the risk is that we see their problems as the natural order of things. Men may reap many economic and social benefits from adopting the cloak of masculinity, but their self-imposed emotional sphere might be claustrophobic for some. “Old-school men” can feel a failure simply by asking for help.
The solution, according to this book, is not to abandon masculinity altogether, but to shift it a little. He points to a new model of manhood, a more tender model, embodied by Barack Obama and David Beckham. He calls out to his fellow men, suggesting we need to learn that embarrassment is not fatal, that change is possible, and that men need to “stop giving other men, and themselves, a hard time for not attaining the standards of masculinity”.
The book is written clearly and accessibly, and is so natural you can almost hear the sound of Grayson Perry’s voice in your head as you read. If there is a criticism, it’s that there is a slight contradiction about a man very much in the public eye calling for men to shy away from public life and “sit down for [their] rights”. There is nothing more old-school male than believing your opinions are worthy of books and television shows. A subtler contradiction is that the attack on “old-school man” is perhaps a little on the brutal side, a little bullish in tone, as if subscribing to the patriarchal idea that men are tough enough to take it. Maybe there is room for all kinds of masculinity, including tough-guy lumberjacks and ice-road truckers, as long as everyone is kind to one another.
These criticisms are, however, only slight. At a time when an old-school man like Nigel Farage can defend Trump’s sleaze talk as “alpha-male boasting”, and when Trump contextualises his “banter” by resorting to the mythology of the male space of the locker room, clear and accessible discussions of masculinity are long overdue. This book, with its non-macho slender girth and personal, engaging approach, is a breeze of a read, and one that makes you see our male-manufactured world a little differently. And you can’t really ask for more than that.