Book Review: The Descent of Man by Grayson Perry

Once in a while we encounter an idea that changes everything in our world. And sometimes, all we need to do is open our eyes and read. The renowned linguist and political commentator/critic, Noam Chomsky, wrote in 1985:

“We live entangled in webs of endless deceit, often self-deceit, but with a little honest effort, it is possible to extricate ourselves from them. If we do, we will see a world that is rather different from the one presented to us by a remarkably effective ideological system, tone that is much uglier, often horrifying.”

Noam Chomsky, Turning the Tide: U.S. Intervention in Central America and the Struggle for Peace (p.1)

It is through the late American comedian Bill Hicks – who described his act as “Chomsky with dick jokes” – that I first discovered Chomsky, and it is through Chomsky that I became interested in politics and history, an interest which has shaped at least the past decade of my 28 years. Reading way over a dozen of his books has had probably the most profound intellectual impact on me since I exited adolescence.

With this in mind, it is with tremendous pleasure that I turn to another book which has had a similarly profound impact: Grayson Perry’s The Descent of Man.

“I have often felt the general perception of masculinity to be one that merited criticism, and Perry’s book offers a concise and captivating rebuke.”

In just 140 pages, and with charming, cheeky accompanying cartoons, the 57-year old, cross-dressing and award-winning artist dissects the concept of masculinity; its composition, its biases and its implications (both private and public). As someone from a privileged background but who has long felt an outcast – reading, politics and punk have all seemed to be targets of sneer and scepticism – I have often felt the general perception of masculinity to be one that merited criticism, and Perry’s book offers a concise and captivating rebuke.

In the first chapter, appropriately titled ‘Asking Fish About Water’, Perry explores the existence of Default Man, who quite simply “look[s] like power” (p.14), and whose “world view is woven into government, the media and business practices, giving the fabric of society a bias – sometimes obvious, sometimes very subtle – in favour of his sex, race and class” (p.15). His opinions and ideas, Perry points out, are presumed rational and right, thereby designating everything else incorrect and irrational. “If Default Men approve of something it must be good, and if they disapprove of something it must be bad” (p.17).

“Until men recognise and understand this internal dialogue, they will be forever within its grasp.”

So ingrained is this mind-set that those whom this system benefits are usually unable to recognise their privilege. Sometimes the simplest sentences carry the greatest weight; writes Perry:

“If a Default Man gets emotional, it is because he is a ‘passionate’ individual, whereas if it he were a woman it would often be blamed on her sex.” (p.16)

All of this affects the individual male, as well, in Perry’s opinion; as every man faces an internal battle against what he names The Department of Masculinity: a (stereotypical) perception of what it constitutes a “man”. This ranges from colours, clothes and children’s toys, through sports and entertainment, to attitude, etiquette and expectations. Whilst men may not realise they are subconsciously subjected to this scrutiny, failure to conform, nonetheless, can lead to insecurity, self-loathing and general unhappiness – which, within a culture that sees men talking about their feelings as a sign of weakness, can have tragic consequences. (The emotional toll  this can take, thanks to an instilled inability to properly communicate the deepest, most potent of thoughts, Perry explores in the final chapter). Until men recognise and understand this internal dialogue, they will be forever within its grasp. It is the author’s hope, therefore, that the book will go some way to helping people begin to extricate themselves from it.

“One of the most interesting and important elements of the study is its looking into the relationship between masculinity and violence.”

For me, one of the most interesting and important elements of the study is its looking into the relationship between masculinity and violence. “Anger and violence”, writes Perry, “are often the only emotions reinforced in boys” (p.73). Reflecting on his own childhood of James Bond novels and combat pilot biographies, he confesses, “The violent and brave war-hero template lay completely unquestioned in my head” (p.78). At the same time, changes in society and industry have caused some mean to feel insecure and their identities under threat, which is exacerbated by a lack of opportunity; they may then go in search of dignity in hierarchical structures such as criminal gangs. Indeed, under Perry’s analysis, the pernicious influence of the issue of masculinity casts a long shadow. He does at offer solutions, however. With an eye on violent crime – 90 per cent of which is committed by men – Perry asks:

“If the government can repeal the so-called ‘Tampon tax’, surely they could ask men to pay for the consequences of the violent chaos – chaos that they almost exclusively cause?” (p.74)

One positive problem with some books is that they so are endlessly quotable and The Descent of Man is just that. One every page sits a memorable, thoughtful sentence waiting to be digested. Perhaps the most apt conclusion would be to demonstrate this strength? “Men need a vision of masculinity”, he writes, which “celebrate[s] the true everyday happiness that comes from stable intimate relationships and a meaningful role in the here and now.” (p.105) I could not agree more. “War fits traditional masculinity like a glove”, (p.79) writes Perry – which is why it must change; and why such a transformation will benefit all humanity.

“Men need to learn to equip themselves for peace.’ (p.105)

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