In this witty and necessary new book, artist Grayson Perry trains his keen eye on the world of men to ask, what sort of man would make the world a better place? What would happen if we rethought the macho, outdated version of manhood, and embraced a different ideal? In the current atmosphere of bullying, intolerance and misogyny, demonstrated in the recent Trump versus Clinton presidential campaign, The Descent of Man is a timely and essential addition to current conversations around gender.
Apart from gaining vast new wardrobe options, the real benefit might be that a newly fitted masculinity will allow men to have better relationships—and that’s happiness, right? Grayson Perry admits he’s not immune from the stereotypes himself—yet his thoughts on everything from power to physical appearance, from emotions to a brand new Manifesto for Men, are shot through with honesty, tenderness, and the belief that, for everyone to benefit, updating masculinity has to be something men decide to do themselves. They have nothing to lose but their hang-ups.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.00(w) x 7.70(h) x 0.60(d)|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***
Copyright © 2017 Grayson Perry
If It Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix It
I AM RIDING MY MOUNTAIN BIKE THROUGH THE forest up a long, steep track. Halfway up I see a young boy, maybe nine or ten years old. He is struggling; this track is a tough challenge for anyone not used to mountain biking, let alone a kid on a new bicycle. He can’t work the gears, and wobbles and grinds to a halt. Tears run down his face. “Dad, Dad!” he yells, sobbing. He is crying for help, but he is also in a boiling rage. I offer to help him, but he is so angry, so ashamed, that he doesn’t acknowledge me. As I pedal past up the hill, I see the father in the distance. He is standing si- lently next to his mountain bike, arms folded across his chest, staring at his son two hundred meters down the hill. He also looks angry. I have seen that father’s face on a thousand soc- cer sidelines, outside a thousand school gates. It’s a face that says, “Toughen up, don’t whine, be a man!” It’s the face of someone who hands down the rage and pain of what it is to be a man. I feel incensed on the boy’s behalf. I can’t help myself: I say to the father, “I hope your son can afford a good psycho- therapist when he grows up.” The father doesn’t respond.
I hope that in picking up this book you have already acknowledged that masculinity needs to be questioned, that
gender inequality is a huge issue for all of us and that the
world would be a better place without it. What I hope this small book might do is bring awareness of masculinity to more people-awareness being a step toward change, be cause many forms of masculinity can be very destructive. If this is the first book you have bought about gender, I am joy ful. We need to examine masculinity, not just to prevent small boys from crying with rage at their impassive fathers on a mountain-bike ride, but to change the whole world for the better.
Examining masculinity can seem like a luxury problem, a pastime for a wealthy, well-educated, peaceful society, but I would argue the opposite: the poorer, the more undeveloped, the more uneducated a society is, the more masculinity needs realigning with the modern world, because masculinity is probably holding back that society. All over the globe, crimes are committed, wars are started, women are being held back and economies are disastrously distorted by men, because of their outdated version of masculinity.
We need to get a philosophical fingernail under the edge of the firmly stuck-down masculinity sticker so we can get hold of it and rip it off. Beneath the sticker, men are naked and vulnerable-human even.
It is a newsroom cliche that masculinity is always some how "in crisis," under threat from pollutants such as shifting gender roles, but to me many aspects of masculinity seem such a blight on society that to say it is "in crisis" is like saying racism was "in crisis" in civil-rights-era America. Masculinity needs to change. Some may question this, but they are often white middle-class men with nice jobs and nice families: the current state of masculinity works for them. What about all the teenagers who think the only manly way out of poverty
and dysfunction is to become a criminal? What about all the lonely men who can't get a partner, have trouble making friends and end up killing themselves? What about all the angry men who inflict their masculine baggage onto the rest of us? All of us males need to look at ourselves with a clear eye and ask what sort of men would make the world a better place, for everyone.
When we think about masculinity and men, the issues
can quickly become scarily global and serious. A discussion about hipster fashions or who does the washing-up can rap idly spiral into a debate about rape, war, terrorism, religious oppression and predatory capitalism. I sometimes watch the evening news on television and think all the world's problems can be boiled down to one thing: the behavior of people with a Y chromosome. Men seem to be the ones with the power, the money, the guns and the criminal records. The conse quences of rogue masculinity are, I think, one of the biggest issues, if not the biggest issue, facing the world today. Some forms of masculinity-particularly if starkly brutal or covertly domineering-are toxic to an equal, free and tolerant society.
Understandably, women have led the discussion about gender. They are the ones who have been most oppressed by its constraints, after all. On the subject of gender, the feelings of many men can be summed up as "If it ain't broke, don't fix it"; the status quo seems to work for them. But I am asking, "Does it? Really?" What if half the victims of masculinity are men? Masculinity might be a straitjacket that is keeping men from "being themselves," whatever that might mean. In their drive for domination, men may have neglected to prioritize vital aspects of being wholly human, particularly issues around mental health. In their drive to be successfully masculine, men
may be preventing their greater self from being successfully happy. I want to unpack what the American feminist Peggy Mcintosh calls the "invisible weightless knapsack" of male priv ilege, full of "special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools, and blank checks," to see if it is as much a burden to some men as a boon.
I feel I need to say here that in no way am I setting myself against men in general, not least because I am one. Nor am I against all masculinity: I can be as masculine as the next guy. This book is about what I think masculinity is, and question ing it. One of the problems when talking about masculinity is the confusion between sex (male) and gender (man). The physical, definite, pretty much unchanging fact of the male body can make us think that all the behaviors, feelings and culture associated with that body (masculinity) are also im mutably writ in flesh. For many males, being masculine, act ing in a manly way, is as unquestionably a biological part of them as their penis and testicles and deep voice. But mascu linity is mainly a set of habits, traditions and beliefs histori cally associated with being a man. Our bodies take tens of millennia to evolve even slightly, but behaviors seen as mas culine can be as transient as a teenage fad, a coal mine or a forgotten deity. We need to shift away from seeing masculin ity as a closed set of behaviors and from seeing change as threatening, unnatural and feminizing. I see masculinity as being how men behave at present. I think it needs to change to include behaviors that are at present regarded by many as feminine, behaviors that are sensible, life-enhancing and planet-saving.
I can't remember the first time I realized I was male, I
doubt many men can, but that is at the nub of masculinity; it
is there at the very basement level of our identity. Before we learn to speak or understand language, we are being indoctri nated in gender. The first question most people ask when they hear of a birth is "Is it a boy or a girl?" Once we know the sex of a baby, we often coo over it in gendered ways: "Isn't she beautiful?"; "Look at him kick, he's going to be a soccer player."
So masculinity is a deeply woven component of the male
psyche. But I am a transvestite; I am turned on by dressing up in clothes that are heavily associated with being female. This is perhaps some unconscious renunciation of being a man, or at least a fantasy flight toward femininity. I sometimes like to pretend I am a woman, so from a young age I have felt that masculinity is optional for someone with a penis. Because I am a transvestite, people often assume that this gives me a special insight into the opposite gender. But this is rubbish. How can I, brought up as a man, know anything about the experience of being a woman? It would be insulting to women if I thought I did. If anything, it gives me a sharper insight into what it is to be a man, since from the age of twelve I have been intensely questioning my own masculinity. I have had to step slightly outside myself, a doubter at the gates of the crumbling superdome of masculinity. This does not mean that I have stepped into femininity, but it is no surprise that I am thoroughly fascinated by masculinity, the lumbering beast within me that I have tried to suppress and negotiate with my entire life. I have been forced by my sexuality to be come aware of what it is to be a "man."
As a twelve-year-old rummaging in my mother's ward robe, I felt dangerously weird and alone. I didn't even know that such a thing as transvestism existed or that other men felt
the same. This feeling prompted the thought that masculin ity is an act played out blindly by many men who have had no reason or impulse to question what it is they are doing. One thing I discovered in investigating the nature of identity for my TV series and London exhibition Who Are You? was that identity is an ongoing performance, not a static state. The philosopher Julian Baggini wrote that "Tis a verb masquer ading as a noun."
I can't remember a time when I embraced being a man fully, unquestioningly. I am a white man, a rather tarnished badge to wear these days, weighted with guilt and shame at the behavior of one's fellows. Manliness for my young self was problematic. Somewhere there was always a nagging suspi cion that masculinity was inherently wrong and needed to be controlled. My mother used me, her eldest son, as a sounding board to vent all her rage against men. By the age of fifteen, I had taken on board a heap of anti-male propaganda. Even today I often catch myself observing and commenting on men as if I were not one of them. Most men are nice, reason able fellows. But most violent people, rapists, criminals, kill ers, tax avoiders, corrupt politicians, planet despoilers, sex abusers and dinner-party bores do tend to be, well ... men.
I did not have good role models. My father left when I was just four years old, and I didn't really have any meaningful contact with him until I was fifteen, by which time I was pretty well hardwired with my own version of masculinity and its attendant sexuality, something that I still have forty years later. My stepfather, with whom I lived for the majority of my childhood, was a volatile and violent man of whom I was terrified. So men were unreliable, brutish, distant and uninterested in me. I have suffered at the hands of individual
men and with the constraints of gender itself. I am a male person, and I have learned to have some compassion for my self and hope to have compassion for males in general. I write this book with goodwill and in the hope that men will learn to flourish in a changing world.
This is not about writing men off: one thing that writing this book has made me realize is that, despite my gender dys phoria, I can be a very traditionally masculine man. There is a corny saying in therapy circles, "If you spot it, you've got it;' which means that if you notice behavior in others, it's probably because you behave in the same way. I have been masculinity-spotting for quite a while now, and note I display quite acutely some of the traits we associate with men. I am very competitive and territorial, particularly toward other men. I often ask other men about this and they usually deny bristling at rivals or having any other such man moments, which leaves me feeling like I am a macho monster for admitting to wanting to get one over on other guys in petty ways. Maybe my circumstances, being a transvestite and an artist, mean that I am less invested in society's ideals of masculinity than many men and that therefore I am willing to pick them out and question them, even in myself. I feel I have nothing to lose but some anti social habits.
When I was growing up, my unconscious dealt with the issue of masculinity in a very particular way: it handed the role over to my teddy bear. Maybe at some level I sensed that being fully the man I could be was dangerous in a house with my stepfather. Overt masculinity on my part might have chal lenged the Minotaur in my home and provoked his thun derous rage. The glorious workings of the unconscious had a way of dealing with this: I parked my dominant masculine
qualities with my best friend Alan Measles, my teddy. Also, given my lack of decent male role models, maybe my uncon scious thought it best just to bloody invent one, and a really perfect one at that. One that I think I may still be trying to live up to.
I had been given my teddy for my first Christmas and had really bonded with him by the time I contracted measles at the age of three, hence his surname. His Christian name came from my next-door neighbor's son, Alan, who was my best friend. Ironically, though, it was also my stepfather's mid dle name, and the name my mother used to address him, so in my head the role of alpha masculinity was a battle of the two Alans. Alan Measles featured in all my childhood games-physically at first, hence his well-worn appearance, but, as I grew up, Alan became an imagined character in the rambling, looping narratives of battles and races that I played out with Lego and Airfix models in my bedroom. My uncon scious playful imagination allocated Alan the role of benign dictator, and I was given the role of his bodyguard. A strange, unglamorous role for a child's fantasy, you may think, but perhaps vital if we think what freight Alan had unwittingly inherited. To a great extent, Alan Measles had become my masculinity. He represented for me an idealized manhood, and symbolized qualities that in my young life I felt were those of a good man. Alan also had strong connections with the mysterious organization I now call the Department of Masculinity. This is something like the Stasi, an organization that makes sure no one dissents from the dominant man script. Alan was a rebel leader; our territory had been invaded by the Germans (this was only twenty years after the Second World War), and the Germans were of course my stepfather,
so we fought a guerrilla war, from a secret valley base (my bedroom), which continued until I was fifteen.
The synaptic artillery of that psychic war still echoes in
my head. Recently I saw a picture of a new model of Jaguar car featured in a magazine. It was a red F-Type, all snarling snout and bulging flanks. I have never owned a car, but I felt a strong urge to buy one, a red one. I could afford it, and I fan tasized about it ticking as it cooled in the yard of my studio after a furious run around the East Anglian countryside with the top down. I talked to my wife about it; she humored me. Then the psychic penny dropped. Despite all my achieve ments, I was still trying to prove myself a man, but in the terms of my stepfather, who drove an E-Type Jaguar. Some where in my psyche I wanted to rock up at my mother's house and wave my big, shiny roseate-metal dick in his face.
Some people might argue that there is no point in dis cussing masculinity, as we can't do anything about the way men and women behave, they are just "born that way." Well, I'm happy to believe genetics do play some part in gender, but not much.
Many feminists and advocates of gender equality don't like the idea that biology may play even a small part in gender differences. They believe that male and female brains are ex actly alike, that all gender is conditioning, and what's more, conditioning by a male-dominated environment (therefore evil). I'm tempted to agree with them: it's certainly healthier if we see gender as conditioned and therefore more fluid.
Even if biology does play some part in gender differences, though, it does not change the arguments for gender equality. It just means we have to watch that those innate biases are not used as an excuse for unfair practices, and ensure that everybody
has equal opportunities, even if some groups will want to do some things more than others. We should not deny males the opportunity to nurture and care, just as we should not deny fe males the opportunity to kill and maim in the name of Western democracy, if they fancy it.
In 1976, social psychologists Robert Brannon and Debo rah David outlined four basic components of traditional mas culinity, or the male sex role. Number one was "No Sissy Stuff." The other three were "the Big Wheel," which de scribes men's quest for success and status as well as their need to be looked up to; "the Sturdy Oak," which describes men's air of toughness, confidence and self-reliance, especially in a crisis; and "Give 'Em Hell," which reflects the acceptability of violence, aggression and daring in men's behavior.
Of course, women also demonstrate these traits, but they are not seen as traditionally feminine. These components or rules of masculinity are strictly enforced: every man senses that his masculinity is under scrutiny and being policed, mainly by other men, just as he checks up on theirs. Every man knows that he has to behave in a certain way, dress in certain clothes, believe he has certain rights and even feel a particular way. But the world is changing, and masculinity needs to change too.
In this book I have focused on four areas of masculinity that I think need examining: power (how men dominate our world), performance (how men dress and act the part), vio lence (how men resort to crime and violence) and emotion (how men feel). This is not a book about sexism, but inevita bly, as I am writing about masculinity, I have found it very hard to avoid mentioning the myriad ways that men can be sexist, knowingly or unknowingly. This is a book, I hope, that suggests ways that our definitions of masculinity may expand.
Somewhere in every man's head there is a governor, an unconscious inner voice sending instructions through the in tercom. This governor is the boss of every man's personal branch of the Department of Masculinity. This Department wants to maintain standards. Every man's personal governor has picked up instructions from a variety of sources-parents, teachers, friends, films, TV, books-on what it is to be mascu line. He takes ideas and images from these sources and as sembles them into a model of a perfect man. The governor then sits there, constantly checking that his man is living up to this ideal. If the man fails, he is made to feel unworthy, he may hate himself, he may take it out on others. A man may not be aware of this governor-he may think that he is his governor or that men are free to behave how they like-but until he is aware of and understands the Department of Mas culinity, he will be totally under its command. I want men to be holding this book when they enter the governor's office. I want them to ask brave questions and look to the future, for we must negotiate a new deal on masculinity.
Table of Contents
If It Ain't Broke, Don't Fix It 1
1 Asking Fish About Water 13
2 The Department of Masculinity 45
3 Nostalgic Man 73
4 The Shell of Masculinity 107
Men, Sit Down for Your Rights! 143