Considering how much time Grayson Perry has spent pondering masculinity, it’s disappointing how little he seems to value or understand it.
An award-winning artist, author, television presenter, and BBC Reith lecturer, the London-based Perry is also a transvestite and, as he rather simply puts it, “a man.” Not long ago he pursued a thoughtful if flawed exploration of masculinity in a three-part BBC TV series called All Man, and now has written a short, self-illustrated book on the subject called The Descent of Man. The book poses and attempts to answer the question that men of no other century have ever had to ask: “What does it mean to be a male in the twenty-first century?”
Masculinity is the source of a great deal of handwringing and finger-wagging in our gender-confused time. It is viewed by many as resting somewhere on a scale between problematic and abominable, and there is an increasing urgency to do something about it. Grayson Perry, who considers himself very masculine, sees it as the very source of all our troubles. “I sometimes watch the evening news on television and think all of the world’s problems can be boiled down to one thing: the behavior of people with a Y chromosome,” his book begins. “The consequences of rogue masculinity are, I think, one of the biggest issues, if not the biggest issue, facing the world today.”
Apart from the fact that this is a stunningly narrow, first-world perspective on survival, is he really suggesting that men have no purpose anymore as men beyond apartment-hunting or enrolling their kids in school (which could just as easily be done by women)? Yes, he is, and it’s time, he declares, for traditional masculinity and what he sees as its troubling components – violence, the drive for success and status, the macho posturing – to be dismantled and discarded. “The world is changing, and masculinity needs to change too.”
How do we accomplish this? “In order for equality to flourish, Default Man’s ideology has to be unpicked from the fabric of society... so that we can more easily weave a just world.” But plucking the “patriarchy” from society’s fabric like so much lint is no mean feat. It requires perpetual activism. “Resistance needs to be woven into every moment, every thought, observation, and act.” [Emphasis added] Perry even claims, “I find myself now questioning everything: Is that trash can sexist? Are traffic regulations anti-woman?” This sounds like a silly, exhausting, unproductive, joyless way to go through life, not to mention pathologically obsessive. And it won’t work.
Perry and I do agree on a few points: boys need daily contact with and attention from positive male role models, preferably their fathers; boys today also would benefit from some kind of ritualized passage to manhood; soldiering and sports are effective ways of “dealing with unsocialized masculine energy”; and “being single for a man is not healthy, no matter what some mens’ rights groups like MGTOW [Men Going Their Own Way] think.”
But beyond that, we have different solutions. Perry’s position is the politically correct, utopian fantasy that if we can just acculturate men to be more like women, peace and harmony and equality will reign. This is a denial of human nature and an ass-backward way to go about managing what Perry calls “rogue” masculinity.
Discussions about manhood today are dominated by a loud minority of voices such as Perry’s, who label it “toxic” and call for its fundamental transformation, if not its extermination. Lost in all their noisy condemnation is any recognition for the good that men do, for the positive aspects of masculinity, for the flip sides of some of the very qualities Perry derides. Violence, for example, is necessary and righteous when employed in defense of self, family and country (presumably Perry would disagree, since in his book he dismisses the police and armed forces as “legitimized violent gangs”). The male drive to compete, as another example, is beneficial when it leads to self-actualization, innovation, and prosperity.
It’s long past time that we stopped allowing the voices of anti-masculinity to sway the discussion. There is plenty to celebrate and to value in traditional masculinity. Instead of eliminating it altogether, we should be channeling it in productive, virtuous directions. We need to shift the conversation from the “descent of man” to the “ascent of man” – building up the best in masculine nature, not demolishing the whole structure.
From Acculturated, 8/24/17