Tuesday, February 7, 2017

The Descent of Man, by Grayson Perry

Staff review by Chris Saliba

Artist, potter and cross-dresser Grayson Perry asks that we rethink masculinity in order to make the world a better place for both women and men.  

Grayson Perry can surely claim to have a unique perspective on masculinity. His upbringing was rather brutal - at the age of seven his biological father left the family and when his mother re-married young Grayson lived in fear of his violent stepfather. To make matters more complicated Perry realised as a teen that he liked to dress in women's clothes. He toyed with joining the army to escape his troubles, but through the guidance of a teacher decided to study art. The rest is history. Perry is now a respected artist, potter, writer, documentary maker and probably England's most famous transvestite, married to the psychotherapist Philippa Perry.

In the introduction to The Descent of Man, Perry says he has always been intensely interested in questions of masculinity. This certainly comes through in the text. The writing is lucid and intelligent: Perry has clearly read far and wide on his subject. The book's basic thesis is that men have long been the domineering gender, mindlessly enjoying the spoils of conquest. Men simply take their position as a privileged species, one that always get a bigger slice of the political and economic pie, as normal. But with feminism that has all come under question. Perry says that men will have to get used to the idea of losing status, so women can rise, hence the title's theme of  man's descent.

This need not be a bad thing for men. Actually, it will probably be a good thing. Perry argues men are held back by having to live up to a particular male standard (he calls it Default Man), one that eschews communication, sharing feelings and getting problems off one's chest. Men live in an unhealthy emotional isolation. If men can find new ways of being men - allowing themselves to be vulnerable, for example - then maybe they can escape the straitjacket that self-enforced masculinity can be.

This is not a preachy book, nor is it naively optimistic that men can easily change. Perry writes a lot about his own experiences, explaining his own anger issues as a young man. He's writing about a complex set of male emotional problems that he's experienced himself. Yet he also believes male and female behaviour is mostly molded by societal standards and expectations. This is the old nature versus nurture argument. Perry agrees that a lot of our psychological make-up we are born with, but believes social customs have a big impact and can almost create a tipping point to better masculine role models: if we work for modern, sensitive, sharing man, he will come.

There is much interesting food for thought in The Descent of Man. Perry wants a better world for women and men, a happier one. He wants to see the burden of an impossible standard that men carry on their shoulders to be lifted. This is a thoughtful and quite heartfelt book that deserves to be read far and wide.

The Descent of Man, by Grayson Perry. Published by Allen Lane. ISBN: 9780241236277 RRP $35

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