The Descent of Man

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Read 11/12/2016-13/12/2016

Rating: 3 stars

I went to see Grayson Perry’s stage show Typical Man in a Dress recently. It was entertaining, part lecture, part performance. Grounded in the research carried out for this book, there were some interesting observations.

The format of the book echoes that used in the stage show. It reads a little like a lecture and is interspersed with illustrations that poke fun at the nonsense men subscribe to in defining themselves as masculine. It’s a little flippant at times, a little too glib, but there is enough in the way of thinking around the subject of masculinity differently that made it a worthwhile read.

I bought the book as part of a birthday voucher shopping spree. It went onto my TBR pile and I ended up picking it up to read after seeing Perry on the Graham Norton Show last week. What was interesting about this appearance was that every other guest was a woman, and some of Perry’s pronouncements were met with wryly raised eyebrows. Especially from Sandi Toksvig.

Reading the book, my own eyebrows rose wryly on a number of occasions. For Perry, this unpicking of what masculinity is, and who The Great White Male is, here renamed Default Man because his views have become the default setting for Western society, is a trip into the unexamined. Perhaps because, as he admits himself, he falls within the scope of his definition of Default Man. He probably hasn’t felt the need to examine his privileged position in society all that closely before. My eyebrows rose because much of what Perry believes he has uncovered isn’t unknown to people like me. I could probably be defined as Default Woman. I’m white, educated from working class beginnings into the professional middle class, comfortably off, and aware of the glass ceiling still hovering above me. I know Perry’s Default Man well and I’m tired of him.

At times, Perry seems defensive in his elucidation of his theory, perhaps because he knows he is part of the issue under examination, and not as removed from it as he would like to be. Yes, he’s an artist (and a good one – my favourite living artist, in fact). Yes, he’s a transvestite. Yes, he was brought up in a working class home and, like so many other white people my age and older, lived at a time when education was freely available to facilitate an escape from that working class beginning. But he is still white and male and now occupies a position where his voice can be heard above the voices of others who have equally valid things to say, but who aren’t white or male.

I really like Grayson Perry. I like the way he engages with the world and responds to it. He is thoughtful as well as provocative. His work is challenging and stimulating. It’s also funny and a wonderful commentary on modern life. He is in the world, and the world informs his art. At the beginning of this book, though, while he was setting out his stall and doing his apologist routine, I wondered whether he’d taken a step too far from being an artist and was entering the realms of stating the bleeding obvious with no purpose other than to state the bleeding obvious.

Here’s a statement from chapter one:

Default Man has been governing much of our world for a long time. He has done many things well, but it is time for him to relinquish his dominance. I think diversity in power can only make for a better society. Women and minorities bring very different life experiences to bear on their decisions.

Now. I had a couple of reactions to this. Inside my head, I said, ‘No shit, Sherlock.’ Women have been saying out loud that it’s time for men to share their position of privilege for more than 100 years now. I took a moment to savour the irony of this, that we have been campaigning for equality and saying all people have skills and opinions that mean they can run the world, too, but here comes a man to back us up with his book, his chat show appearances, and his touring stage show. And then I felt patronised. I didn’t cheer or think, ‘Thank goodness! Grayson is here, talking sense! The struggle to be taken seriously is over!’

To be fair, the paragraph that follows acknowledges the impact feminism has had, and further along is recognition that change has been slow and needs to pick up momentum, so I shelved my feelings of mild outrage and carried on reading.

Perry’s theory is that masculinity is the reason change has been slow. He separates masculinity, sex and gender, saying

The physical, definite, pretty much unchanging fact of the male body can make us think that all the behaviours, feelings and culture associated with that body (masculinity) are also immutably writ in flesh … But masculinity is mainly a set of habits, traditions and beliefs historically associated with being a man. Our bodies take tens of millennia to evolve even slightly, but behaviours seen as masculine can be as transient as a teenage fad, a coalmine or a forgotten deity. We need to shift away from seeing masculinity as a closed set of behaviours…

Masculinity, for Perry, is how men behave in the present moment. It isn’t fixed. It can be reconfigured, and needs to be if men are going to be able to handle equality in society.

I’m with him on that. As someone who is rational, logical, pragmatic and all manner of other things more typically associated with being a man, I’d add that masculinity as it currently stands is a nonsense. We are all human, and we have a myriad of different aspects to our characters that should never have been gendered. This engendering of behaviours is a trap, and it causes all manner of problems, not just power disparity. It’s a contributing factor to mental health issues, inappropriate aggression, abuse, all kinds of ills in society, as we all struggle to fit into the rigid mould society says is ours. One thing that shocked me when I read Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things earlier this year was how much hatred I hold for myself as a woman, hatred that is rooted in definitions of femininity and how women are perceived.

There’s nothing wrong with being a man, just as there’s nothing wrong with being a woman. There’s nothing wrong with the two genders being different, either. I like plenty of men, and I like them for who they are as people, rather than because they display any particularly male behaviours. Having said that, I am fascinated by how different men can be and, when they do behave in the ways defined by society as masculine, I am equal parts amused, confused and irritated.

But these are my opinions, and I’m here to read and contemplate Perry’s opinions.

My interest was engaged by Perry’s exploration of Barthes’ theory of exnomination as it applies to masculinity. Barthes defined exnomination as the blending of an ideology with the notion of common sense until the ideology becomes invisible. Perry believes that this is what has happened with the current model of masculinity. Masculinity has ceased to be a fluid, adaptable thing. Gender bias in the favour of white middle class men has become, for them, as normal as gravity. Perry also suggests that the different liberation movements of the 20th century have served as mirrors that show this masculine ideology is not a neutral identity against which other identities are to be measured.

… feminists and civil rights campaigners made white men visible in ways they had never been before. They started to give the default dominant group equal ‘otherness’, and white men didn’t like it. This feeling of visibility prompted men to adopt a victim status befitting an oppressed group.

And so we have the rise of men’s rights groups, because (some) men feel that their core identity has been attacked. They are unable to see feminism as a call for equality. They see it as a land grab on their position of power. I’d never seen it laid out like that before, and it clicked with me as I read it. In my first professional job, 21 years ago, I worked with a volunteer who was trying to get onto the same career ladder as me. He was my age, a nice man, not an aggressive twat by any means, nor a misogynist either. But he was what can only be described as crestfallen. His whole demeanour was that of someone who, without really recognising it, expected life to go smoothly for him because he was a man, and was puzzled that it wasn’t doing so. In one conversation we had about how difficult he was finding it to progress in our profession, he wistfully told me, “I don’t know how I’m supposed to be.” That’s the first time I’d encountered a man seemingly suffering the effects of women’s fight for equality. He didn’t know how to be. His identity had been eroded.

I think Perry has articulated something important in this. I have a tendency to get angry at men who are involved in men’s rights groups and not listen to what they say. I can’t even consider sympathising with them because, oh, I don’t know – fuck off and get over yourselves? Perry’s theory gives me another way of understanding their behaviour. It’s a potential starting point for a conversation that takes the route of allaying their fear of attack rather than, in their eyes, stridently reinforcing it.

Chapter two is what I bought the book for. This is where Perry starts to examine how both masculinity and femininity are engrained in our psyches from a very young age. He returns to the idea that masculinity and femininity are primarily learnt behaviours, and only partially biological. He talks about how we begin to be aware of our gender between the ages of three and five and how the machine that is social conditioning kicks in to impress on us that gender identity is a fixed thing. Perry talks about the use of colour and decoration in ‘girlifying’ gender neutral items, and how the demarcation between boys’ and girls’ toys has become more rigid in the past 30-40 years.

Looking back on my childhood in the 1970s, I’m aware that my mum’s influence was strongly positive. Her message to her three children was that we were people and could be what we wanted to be, gender didn’t come into it (although she acknowledged that my sister and me should expect to have to work that little bit harder to overcome the male bias in the world). I was free to have blue as my favourite colour. We were poor, so I played with my older brother’s cast off cars and Action Men just as much as I played with dolls and toy kitchens. I’ve got a fair dollop of my dad’s engineering mind in me, so I would help out with DIY and jobs on the car, because I needed to be useful and because I was interested. My dad occasionally grumbled that I was more like a boy than my brother (not true), but he never told me it wasn’t something I could do. I don’t recall ever feeling that if I did certain things or liked certain things, I was somehow less of a girl. Nor do I recall boys being as rampantly anti-female as I have witnessed my nephews being and my best friend’s sons being. I don’t recall any of the boys I was friends with at school feigning violent illness over something possibly being thought of as girlie. Where has that come from, and how can mothers be complicit in it?

It’s interesting to read Perry’s take on it, as a man who is a transvestite and crosses that gendered boundary. He deconstructs all of the silly little things that we use to signify masculinity and reflects on them through his own experience as a man. He’s funny on uniforms, particularly leather jackets and denim. He’s insightful on what people mean when they talk about real men. He has some good observations on body image and what the current trend for being ripped means in relation to work involving heavy labour being on the decline.

The chapter about violence and anger is even more interesting. I liked how Perry weaves the things he discovered when making his series All Man into the narrative here. He uses real life conversations with men who embody masculinity to argue that how masculinity is defined needs to change so that society becomes a healthier, happier place for everyone, but most of all for men who are bound up in lives of violence and rage and harming themselves as much as the people around them.

In the final chapter, Perry considers emotion and vulnerability. He acknowledges what I said above, about the engendering of behaviours being a contributing factor to mental health issues. Some of what he says about seeing vulnerability as weakness and wanting to avoid shame and humiliation doesn’t just apply to men. I recognised some of my own behaviours in what he discusses. What was interesting for me was his theory about sexual preference – what turns us on. Perry is talking about it in relation to the penis and how that male organ can act as a “one-man ‘wrong crowd’ who will often drag [men] into bad behaviour.” What interested me was what he said about family relationships and their possible influence over our sexual fantasies in later life. I should make clear that he’s not talking about incest or child abuse. He’s talking about where we take our early cues from, based on how we observe our family behaving. This made me think about my own sexual preferences. You’ll be happy to know I’m not going to discuss them here, but in thinking about them, I’ve realised why I behave the way I do in general. It has been a proper penny dropping moment.

Half of me loves this book, then, because I like a bit of psychology, especially when I end up working out what makes me tick. The other half found it a bit slight, a bit dinner party theory written up and illustrated. It’s a book I hope plenty of men read, though, because I think Perry has hit on something that needs to be considered more widely.

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