O Brother, How Art Thou? Grayson Perry's 'The Descent of Man'

by Juliette Jones

11 September 2017

 
cover art

The Descent of Man

Grayson Perry

(Penguin)
US: Apr 2017

You don’t have to be a cross-dressing artist and cultural maven to write a book about masculinity, but it probably helps. Here comes Grayson Perry, perhaps or perhaps not dressed as Claire in one of his second-self get ups: green platform shoes, orange tights and an improbably colourful dress, maybe.

As well as being a Turner prize-winning artist best known for making ceramic vases, Grayson Perry is a bit of a darling of the UK’s slightly maverick television channel Four. He has turned up hosting programmes about taste and how it relates to the British class system, architecture and gender (he designed Julie’s House, a fairytale dwelling in the Essex countryside). He has recently been on the miniseries All Man, an examination of the hottest part of masculinity’s furnace, looking at the worlds of cage-fighting, dawn raids with the police force, and City of London bankers. Everybody’s a bit vulnerable to the heat, as it turns out.

Because The Descent of Man is a book about modern masculinity and where it’s going wrong, it encompasses a heck of a lot: pretence, fragility, rage, where exactly women fit into all this, love, what we can do about it. It’s as short as it could reasonably be: the pages host a graceful tread across lots that could reasonably and usefully be said about the perfect storm of testosterone and societal expectations of men. Any shorter, and it would be too dense with ideas, the non-fiction literary equivalent of those phenomena which turn up in science books from time to time, the tiny piece of matter with the mass of a mountain.

Perry knows that the world’s basic settings are white and male. He wrote an article in The New Statesman about this, called “The Rise and Fall of Default Man”. Default man, says Perry, is at once “a death star hiding behind the moon” and “the zero longitude of identities”: if not exactly hiding in plain sight, then wielding a power often dormant in its visibility, but all too effective in its consequences.

This New Statesman essay contains the seeds of The Descent of Man, the wrongheadedness and effects of the global factory settings being a white, middle-aged man. A lot of The Descent of Man is about how easy it is for default man to swim along unhindered (the first chapter is called “Asking Fish About Water”), but that it’s also easy to crash on the rocks if you don’t look where you’re going.

From the get-go, Perry assumes that there’s something base called masculinity. (Even Germaine Greer admits that each gender’s hormones are likely to have a considerable effect). That whole debate would tear Twitter, say, right apart. But looking out onto the world, you’d be forgiven for recognising something murky in the water: whether that is man handing misery onto man via biology, by example, or if there’s such a thing as the collective male unconscious. Perry’s take on it is that it’s something like a plant: under some conditions, it might grow noble and free, but in today’s jungly world, it may need some cultivation.

Perry says that, for him, the convenient excuse of genetics just won’t bloody do, certainly when it comes to equality overall and making excuses for one gender (men, it will be men) over the other. He dives into the subject of masculinity recognising that he doesn’t need to understand the origin of the beast. Perry admits in the book that feeling masculine often comes naturally to him: when he is cycling competitively, for example. Who is to say that the mindset involved with getting ahead in the art world might not be laced with masculinity?

While feminists of all stripes have been busy challenging the concepts of femininity for years, masculinity has been much more monolithic: you could run away with the idea that dismantling it, or criticising it, would be like dismantling or criticising the moon. The last thing the books is, though, is an attack on men. Sometimes there might be out and out male collusion in continuing the problem: Perry roundly criticises the internet-led backlash against feminism (take an ashamed bow, Daryush Valizadeh) in the chapter “Nostalgic Man”. But for Perry, saying that the trappings of masculinity—dress codes, ways of speech, notions of social class—are all mens’ fault would be throwing the baby out with the bathwater. The Descent of Man is shot through with Perry’s own illustrations: a footballer wearing a top saying “Talking 1, Suicide 0” is a reminder of the recent tendency of men to truly crash and burn.

Perry says that his love of sometimes cross-dressing probably gives him enough distance from the rhythms of daily masculine life that he can comfortably examine and comment on modern masculinity. But this isn’t ivory tower stuff: the distance is horizontal rather than vertical. Perry makes the codes and mores of masculinity seem at once a drudge and a danger. He writes about the threat of advancing technology: “the modern project of enlightenment, technological advance and human rights is also a perfectly targeted attack on the ancient physical dominance of the male body”, the fact that most criminals are male, why that is and how it manifests itself. He also writes at length about what men feel they can and can’t wear, and why, noting that many of these things aren’t easily shaken off: not only does society dictate so many of these things, but their roots take hold during childhood.

Above all, perhaps, Perry knows what men can be like. He knows that just putting an arm around any given man and trying to convince them to fight the good fight won’t work. “Men will come on board only when they feel there is something to gain from change” he says quite early on, and you can’t help but agree, given all the examples of the male adult equivalent of throwing toys out of the pram.

The Descent of Man is not without flaws. There isn’t very much said about the push-pull of heterosexual courtship, and the male’s traditional role in that. Presumably, Perry is not a fan of a dating guide. It would be nice to hear him talk about how the woman was won, and where it got us. But The Descent of Man is still a good read: gently prescriptive without being bossy. Indeed, The Descent of Man is a spider’s web of a book: fine, delicate and strong, catching and highlighting the trappings of modern masculinity without force.

The Descent of Man

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