The Descent of Man is British artist Grayson Perry’s funny and breezy take on the straightjacket of ideas around modern masculinity. As a heterosexual crossdresser Perry is, if you’ll pardon the pun, perfectly suited to the task.
In his more macho presentation Perry is a working class bloke who pushes himself hard as an all-terrain bicycle racer. In his feminine mode (as his alter ego, Claire) he’s a well known ceramic artist who dresses in garish dresses and wears outlandish, almost clownlike makeup.
His main point in this book is that while feminism has pushed women to question the gender roles that society has forced on them (and the resulting limitations) men haven’t made a similar effort, much to their detriment.
“Boys are taught to be brave but in quite a specific way, mainly when facing physical danger on the sports field or in the playground. But what about emotional danger?” he asks.
Perry wants us guys to step out of our comfort zones. One of the reasons we don’t, he suggests, is that men still run the world and we see the world that we have created through male eyes. Men and manliness are the default settings (he talks alot about Default Man, his bogeyman). It just is what it is. Women are mere adornments. Even in small things like air conditioning temperatures in offices male comfort settings are the default.
Some of this might sound simplistic or overly obvious to some men who are a bit more self-aware (ahem, ahem) and Perry can be a bit heavy handed at times: “most violent people, rapists, criminals, killers, tax avoiders, corrupt politicians, planet despoilers, sex abusers and dinner-party bores, do tend to be, well… men.”
Still, his aim is entertainment and his message is geared to a mass audience of guys who are perhaps not necessarily all that reflective. (The kind of guy who, if he reads at all, reads GQ and Maxim magazines.) The book has a jokey, very dry British humour and is illustrated with Perry’s own cartoonlike doodles.
In the end his bottom line wish is that guys simply “stop giving other men, and themselves, a hard time for not attaining the standards of masculinity.” This isn’t a book about men sitting around a campfire and passing a stick around, it’s just a plea for men to unwind a little and find their own path to emotionally mature masculinity. I found it to be a quick read, full of compassion and wit.