Pub. Date: 27/10/2016
Publisher: Penguin Books; Allen Lane
Grayson Perry has been thinking about masculinity - what it is, how it operates, why little boys are thought to be made of slugs and snails - since he was a boy. Now, in this funny and necessary book, he turns round to look at men with a clear eye and ask, what would happen if we rethought what makes a man? Apart from giving up the coronary-inducing stress of always being 'right' and the vast new wardrobe options, a newly fitted masculinity could allow men to have better relationships - and that's happiness, right? Grayson's thoughts on everything from physical appearance to a brand new Manifesto for Men are shot through with the belief that, for everyone to benefit, upgrading masculinity has to be something men decide to do themselves. They have nothing to lose but their hang-ups.I wish I could say I knew more about Grayson Perry than I did, before I started reading The Descent of Man. I was vaguely aware of him and his work through some of my friends who studied art, but I hadn't encountered any of it myself. As such, I picked up The Descent of Man without any preconceived notions as to who Perry himself was or what he might have to say. When it comes to writing about gender, and writing about gender roles, so much is subjective that an author's own life is often crucial to understanding their arguments. Grayson Perry, then, is a fascinating man. As a transvestite and an artist, many might put him firmly outside the box labelled 'traditional man'. Yet he also comes from a difficult family past and feels the competitive joy of sports and motorcycles, edging him potentially back into that box. He walks the fine line between 'in' and 'out' and it gives him the chance to cast a fascinating light on the inner world of 'being a man'. As
I was particularly struck by a comment of Perry's in an interview with Penguin Books, in which he formulated a thought that had occurred to me while reading The Descent of Man:
'Women look forward. Men always look back'With the increasing presence of feminism and women's right at the forefront of contemporary concerns, many young women and girls are growing up with a stronger sense of their opportunities, possibilities and even struggles. There is a sense in which we (women) are all looking forward to a future in which equality will have been reached for all and gender norms no longer constrain us. Of course this is a gross generalisation, but there is undeniably a shift in how women see themselves and their futures. The male conception of self has not developed alongside that of women, and the different types of Man Perry identifies within The Descent of Man all seem stuck in the past. There seems to be a nostalgia among young men for a time they never lived in and probably wouldn't much appreciated if they did. It's a direct cause for Trump's 'Make America Great Again' slogan, a desire for a time in which everything was simpler.
The Descent of Man shows clearly that trying to define what a man in the 21st century can be is not an easy process. Neither is trying to define what a woman is, what her role may be or, heaven forbid, should be, but women are successfully bringing this conversation into the spotlight. Perhaps what men need is to care more about themselves and other men, to look for a better future together, rather than a just ok-ish present for some of them. While feminists still have to work on making their movement more intersectional and multi-issue, it is going in the right direction. A lot of this work depends on emotions, something that is also central to The Descent of Man in many ways. It is about connecting, about sharing, and about revealing, before it is about building, progressing and succeeding. The Descent of Man ends with Perry's suggestions of the tenets of feminism for men, goals that, if adopted, could lead to a world with happier men, loving men and successful men.
Perry's writing style is both insightful and witty. He writes with an easy that makes the book feel conversational, as if you've sat down for a good chat with a stranger during a flight overlay and walk away with a different outlook on things. Perry's assessment of men, and the societies they live in, can be very sharp and to the point, but there is always an awareness there. Unlike other books on gender, such as the very academic but fascinating A History of Virility, Perry's The Descent of Man openly shares the pressures he himself feels to "be a man", "behave like a man" and what he does when those pressures close in. He understands, in other words, rather than condemning at first sight behaviour that might seem outlandish. There are lough-out-loud moments in The Descent of Man, but also moments of quiet reflection which hit close to home. As a woman, I feel I did walk away from this book with a better awareness, if not, perhaps, understanding, for the struggles that are particularly male.
I give this book...
The Descent of Man gave an amazing insight not only into Grayson Perry as a person and a writer, but also into the mind of a man looking at men. Written with humour and sharp perceptiveness, Perry takes the reader on a journey (partially of self-discovery) through what being a man can mean. I'd mainly recommend this book to those interested in gender and masculinity, but also to those looking for an eye-opener in general. It's funny, the things that can come to the forefront when you least expect it.