Thursday, 17 November 2016

The Descent of Man

I’m not sure I’d go so far as to nominate Grayson Perry for king and queen, as Caitlin Moran does, but I’d certainly nominate him for court jester. Court jesters are traditionally the ones who can get away with saying the unsayable in the presence of the powerful and that’s just what Perry does here.

Essentially this is Perry considering the traditionally masculine role in society with an artist’s eye; whilst the conclusions he reaches at the end may not be startling it’s how he reaches them that’s fascinating. What makes it so is Perry’s background; whilst his transvestitism and attachment to his teddy bear are well known his nearly joining the army and attachment to macho culture icons was less so. It makes for a fascinating mix; he’s able to discern the significance and iconic nature of clothing (though I suspect he goes a touch too far in the popularity of wearing jeans) and identify how the traditional masculine role has been eroded by social and technological progress. That’s best illustrated in the brief passage about the Durham Miners’ Gala, which he astutely observes as a kind of funeral of a way of life.  While it’s astute he also identifies it as a social problem; where’s the outlet for rugged masculinity and its rutting stags nature? That’s a question he considers but can’t quite find an answer to; the ritualised combat of sport only goes so far.

Ultimately Perry’s conclusion is a fascinating one; the need for a feminism for men which doesn’t descend to the fatuous mentality of ‘men’s rights’. Men, he concludes, would be stronger for being flexible, vulnerable and uncertain rather than taking refuges in lists, processes and the need to be right. ‘Men’s Rights’ is hankering for a nostalgic past of heroes, of right and wrong being easy choices.  Progress, he concludes, would be men embracing more traditionally feminist values just as feminism had absorbed and transmuted traditionally masculine ones. In a time which has often felt like a convulsion of traditional men striking back at social progress they don’t like Perry’s theories are convincing on the personal and social levels. Perhaps this book’s a step along the way to dealing with the issues modern masculinity can’t or won’t face and, in identifying them, dealing with them.

(Received an ebook from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review).

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