What does it mean to be male in the twenty-first century? That's the question Grayson Perry is asking in his book The Descent of Man. Perry, an award-winning English artist best known for his ceramic vases, has filled his book with characteristically humorous illustrations — and deep observations about toxic masculinity and how it harms every one of us.
If you're already a fan of feminist theory, you'll recognize a lot of what Perry's saying — but repackaged in Perry's dry humor, and backed up by his personal experiences both as a macho man and as a crossdresser, the conversation around toxic masculinity is sparked back to life.
Perry's view is that "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." There's no holding back in The Descent of Man; in Perry's eyes, masculinity is to blame for a lot of the world's problems. Of course, that's not to say that men are to blame. Without today's strict and violent masculinity, not only would people of other genders be able to reach their full potential, but men would benefit too from finally gaining the freedom truly to be themselves.
Here are a few of Perry's best observations about masculinity:
1The "Default Man" Is Actually A Minority
"What millennia of male power has done is to make a society where we all grow up accepting that a system grossly biased in favour of Default Man is natural, normal and common sense, when it is anything but." — Grayson Perry, The Descent of Man
Most of the world's power, Perry points out, is held by a minority group — one that makes up around 10% of the U.K.'s population, and probably less than 1% of the world's: the Default Man. That's the label Perry has assigned to the white, heterosexual, middle-class men we see dominating government, boardrooms, and the media. We barely notice anything strange about it, because for so long, men like that haven't been given an identity. Where women, members of the LGBTQ+ community, Muslims, disabled people, people of color and so on are all so often defined by their identity, Default Men get to be "individuals." But once we give them a label of their own, it becomes obvious quite how disproportionately our world currently works in their favor.
2Men Need To Be Better Listeners
"Many men I know would describe themselves as feminists — though in my macho cynicism I sometimes think that feminism, like any political thought, offers men another chance to be right about everything, especially tempting if it involves putting down other men." — Grayson Perry, The Descent Of Man
Anyone who's spent any time at all on Twitter will have come across men like this: the "feminists" whose main mission on the Internet seems to be to silence as many women as possible, and then show off their feminist credentials to other men. These men aren't actually helping in the fight for gender equality at all; in fact, they're merely perpetuating the controlling and dominating characteristics that contribute to toxic masculinity in the first place. If they stopped to listen for a moment, they might actually learn something — and finally get a much-needed break from all that exhausting peacocking.
3Masculinity Is Performed
"The strict code of old-school masculinity, where shopping for clothes feels feminizing, is absorbed at a young age. The idea that you can buy the role off the peg assaults the unconsciously held notion that the man is the authentic, natural, uncorrupted one." — Grayson Perry, The Descent of Man
It's a common stereotype that masculinity is neutral, or natural, whereas femininity is all the bells and whistles and stilettos that women throw on top. But in actuality, as Judith Butler pointed out, all gender identities are performed. Perry delves into this theory, pointing out how carefully men construct the image of masculinity after all.
4Men Bully Each Other Into Masculinity
"Men are all performing for an invisible authority, the Department of Masculinity. We never know when we are being observed, so we constantly keep watch on ourselves and each other; we guard the boundaries of the role." — Grayson Perry, The Descent of Man
In order to keep their place in the hierarchy of the patriarchy, men have to repeatedly prove their masculinity to each other — which results in them continuing to oppress other genders, and to hurt each other and themselves. It sure would be easier if everyone just agreed to give masculinity a rest...
5Masculinity Is Violent
"When crimes are reported, the causes are invariably said to be the economy, imbalances in society, religious extremism perhaps. Rarely is the main reason talked about — it's just too mundane. The perpetrator was male." — Grayson Perry, The Descent of Man
Here comes arguably the most important part of Perry's book: the part where he confronts quite how dangerous and harmful today's version of masculinity really is. Thankfully, he's just spent the rest of the book showing us that masculinity is constructed and not inevitable — so if we face up to the damage toxic masculinity can cause, we might just be able to defeat it.