The Descent of Man by Grayson Perry

the-descent-of-man-jpgConceptual artist, broadcaster and transvestite Grayson Perry is always entertaining, and this is an accessible, if uneven, read on masculine identity and power.

If you’ve read about or thought about gender you won’t find much that is new here, but you might find a way of talking about it to the people who say with genuine bewilderment, ‘We should just treat everyone the same’ or, ‘What about men’s rights?’ Perry’s humorous and well observed conception of the ‘Default Man’ explains why the dice are loaded against women (and some men).

He is also very strong, as you’d expect, when talking about the cultural aspects of male identity, about design and the way consumerism exploits and perpetuates gender differences for commercial gain (‘shrink it and pink it’). He draws on his own experiences of growing up with a violent stepfather, and embracing both his ‘masculine’ (mountain biking, militarism) and ‘feminine’ (fashion, intuition) sides.

The later chapters are less successful. The section on men and violence felt a little unfocused, as if he was outside his area of expertise (or had a deadline looming). He mixes in a slew of stats on crime rates, a series of snippets that felt like they’d been culled randomly from broadsheet comment pieces (the problem is no male role models in the home, the problem is bad role models in the home) and stories from  All Man, his TV programme on masculinity.

There’s not much in the book about economics (apart from the section on consumerism and a nod to post-industrialism). There are a few references and quotes from academics but none for his assertions on nature versus nurture, which feel a bit simplistic.

The problem is that Perry is addressing masculinity at the individual level. If guys could just get in touch with their caring, intuitive side, they’d like themselves better, and women would like them better too. This takes no account of the men who gain from the exercise of power. Try telling Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin that they’d be happier and more fulfilled if they adopted a more respectful and empathetic attitude to women, and allowed themselves to feel vulnerable.

This book might be a useful introduction for some but I’m not sure it will reach the people who most need it. Perhaps when your drunk uncle is on his third port after Christmas dinner and starts grumbling about how you can’t even joke about groping a woman these days, you could hand him a copy. But I doubt that he’d read it.

I received a copy of The Descent of Man from the publisher via Netgalley.
View The Descent of Man on Goodreads

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