The Descent of Man

Issue section: 
(419)

Grayson Perry has serious concerns about society in general and men in particular and this thought-provoking and engaging book lays them out clearly.

Within the book he reveals his own youthful tendency towards smashing things in temper and how his broken home and violent stepfather caused him to flirt with joining the armed forces. Unfortunately, despite his eventual decision not to join up, he refers positively to the army as an outlet for laddishness and comes worryingly close to the old man’s mantra that we need another war, only to dismiss it as a joke. He fails to note that ex-soldiers are grossly over-represented in our jails, among the homeless and on the lists of suicides.

However, The Descent of Man is a worthy attempt to challenge men’s sillier and sometimes self-destructive attitudes, because it would be good for society and good for them. In a world generally dominated by men this can only be beneficial.

We are introduced to “Default Man”. He is white, middle aged and middle class. He rules the world and by his standards all other men are judged. In Perry’s schema the “Ministry of Masculinity” controls men’s on-board guidance system and they require a self-motivated change that appears essentially to be against their nature. It seems that everything from car envy through sexist banter to territorial hoodies is reducible to machismo.

In this the Descent of Man doesn’t take us much beyond the notion that (learned) masculinity, is responsible for war and other nasty things. Men need to change their ideas in order to make the world nicer. For the solutions to real problems in the real world Perry looks not at the world, but inside men’s heads.

I enjoyed the book and there’s no harm at all in trying to change men’s attitudes to themselves and other men within the confines of capitalism. What we can all agree on is that while men might be part of the problem they must also be part of the solution. But I can’t help thinking that Perry has missed the target. He is arguing for a shift in consciousness within a socioeconomic system that thrives on competition and division. Capitalism is not about to relinquish two of its most effective tools.

The author says he hates to use the word revolution. Instead he advocates individual self-examination rather than the therapy of mass engagement. The miners did not remove page three from their magazine during their strike following a process of intellectual introspection. They removed it because they were supported unceasingly and without preconditions by the women of the pit communities and beyond.

Although the Descent of Man avoids the reality that only in struggle are dominant notions really challenged, it is a good read and a positive contribution to the debate about the role of modern men.