The Descent of Man

The Descent of Man

by Grayson Perry


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What does it mean to be male in the 21st Century? Award-winning artist Grayson Perry explores what masculinity is: from sex to power, from fashion to career prospects, and what it could become—with illustrations throughout.

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 What would happen if we rethought the macho, outdated version of manhood, and embraced a different ideal?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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780143131656
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 05/30/2017
Pages: 160
Sales rank: 260,700
Product dimensions: 5.00(w) x 7.70(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Grayson Perry’s first art prize was a large papier-mâché head he awarded to himself as part of a performance art project at college in 1980. Since then he has won many other awards, including the Turner Prize in 2003. He is now one of Britain’s most celebrated artists and has had major solo exhibitions all over the world. His 2013 BBC Reith Lectures were the most popular lectures since the series began. He won a BAFTA for his Channel 4 documentary on the creation of six new tapestries entitled “The Vanity of Small Differences, All in the Best Possible Taste”, for which he was also awarded Best Presenter at the Grierson British Documentary Awards.

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

Acknowledgments 145

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