The Descent of Man Grayson Perry front coverI’ve been a fan of Grayson Perry for a good number of years now, like other people, first coming across his amazing pots and fabulous alter ego, Claire, with her little girl party dresses, then enjoying his documentaries and printed lectures on art. His wonderful tapestries were exhibited in Birmingham a few years ago, and more recently I’ve enjoyed his guest editorship of the New Statesman and his TV series, “All Man” about masculinity. I enjoy reading about and thinking about gender in society and gender roles, so all in all, this was a book for which I was the ideal audience. And it lived up to expectations – except that I wanted more!

Grayson Perry – “The Descent of Man”

(ebook, 18 October 2016)

Working off a basis of his New Statesman guest editorship and the TV series on masculinities, “All Man”, this distils Perry’s personal musings on traditional masculinity and the need to find new patterns and role models for men to follow.

He’s open about his own background, his struggles with masculinity as a product of his home life, his splitting off 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 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.

He doesn’t go in for a lot of castigating, noting that the traditional man is actually existing in an unhelpful straitjacket and, even when still in power at the moment, is having his ways eroded and starting to experience fear. He calls on us, instead of criticising, 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.

When Perry talks of the need to change, he talks movingly and convincingly 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 in the same way as more traditional values like stoicism are prized at the moment. He is 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.

He’s very good and funny about areas like male ‘frippery’ being expressed in useless features on watches and complicated trousers and how no one has sexual fantasies about gender equality (“except, perhaps, Nick Clegg”). He even suggests we get Gareth Malone off to the sperm bank because society needs to “breed smaller, more sensitive men”. This humour, and the excellent illustrations, break things up and make the book easier to digest.

Perry exhorts men to demolish the “Department of Masculinity”, which is always looking at men’s performance and judging it, internally and externally, from within. He calls for new more flexible models of manhood and a celebration of the less flashy attributes that help in everyday life rather than one that resembles a racecar you will never take onto the track.

A book that makes you think, and is designed to be the first book someone might pick up on the subject. In a way, he’s preaching to the choir here; 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. And highly recommended.

This book was kindly supplied by the publisher, via NetGalley, in return for an honest review.