As bigoted, chauvinistic, bare-chested horseback riding men seem to be taking over the world, it’s a relief to read Grayson Perry’s call for a gentler masculine ideal in The Descent of Man. Perry, a transvestite British artist who (apart from his much-hailed art) is known for dressing up in pink baby dolls, might not be the obvious person to go to for advice on masculinity, but in his book he gives us just that, and with wisdom, honesty and humour.
Perry terms what he calls ‘Default Man’, the educated, white middle class man (usually in a suit), a man against whom everyone else, women, blacks, gays and any minority appear as aberrations. Default Man is oblivious to his position of privilege, mainly because he has never experienced anything else.
This book is not about man bashing. Default Man himself is in a straightjacket and needs to be set free, argues Perry. Society’s expectations of men need to change in order for men’s behaviour to change. And not only those of white middle-class men, but of men in all parts of society. He holds up President Obama, David Attenborough and David Beckham as examples of men who embody a new male ideal, describing them using terms such as, ‘emotional ease’, ‘compassion’, ‘curiosity’ and ‘intense joy’.
Men need a vision of masculinity that is not just predicated on the thrilling highlights of an out-dated romantic narrative – it needs to celebrate the true everyday happiness that comes from stable intimate relationships and a meaningful role in the here and now.
Perry is funny, honest and sensible. I only wish he had looked beyond the borders of the UK, though. A glance at Scandinavia, for example, would have provided him with some examples of societies where these masculine ideals are further adapted (although by no means universally so) to mostly positive effect. The Descent of Man is a short, light and accessible book (complete with Perry-esque illustrations), meant to be read by all of us, rather than a few academics. The question is whether the men that would benefit from reading this book will buy it…or if Perry is preaching to the converted.
The Descent of Man is published by Allen Lane, 145 pages.