Book Review: ‘The Descent of Man’ Grayson Perry.

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For those of you who don’t know, Grayson Perry is a very successful British artist, initially a potter and past winner of the Turner Prize. He has branched out into lecturing and making TV documentaries. This book came on the back of a recent documentary series examining masculinity, called ‘All Man’ made for Channel 4. Perry is really interested in male identity (he is a transvestite and is married to a psychotherapist); in this book he takes an unflinching look at the position of men in today’s society.

You may ask why is a book on gender politics appearing on a martial arts blog? While acknowledging that martial arts today are not exclusively male, it’s difficult to escape the fact that they originate from a predominantly male culture and even though in the modern scene there are a lot of positive things sadly we still see aspects of unsightly macho strutting and posturing coming out of misdirected testosterone.

Something is clearly amiss when we look at statistics alone; 90% of all crime is committed by men, and at all levels of society and male suicide rate is at an all-time high.

Perry’s book is excellent at outlining the problem and the culture. While there have been some positive signs many men are clinging on to an outdated nostalgic view of masculinity; the embodiment of this is the fantasy of preparation for some kind of imaginary apocalypse; Perry says; “…we see this vision of masculinity rearing its head on TV programmes fronted by the likes of Bear Grylls or Ray Mears. They teach us how to survive in the wild, how to skin a deer carcass or build a shelter from tree branches. I would like to see them trying find an affordable flat to rent in London, or sorting out a decent state school for their children. These are the true survival skills for the twenty-first century”.

It is this same kind of fantasy that fuels the marketing of some of the less reputable ‘Reality-Based Self Defence’ schools. Add a liberal dose of the ‘Fear Factor’ and over-anxious urban dwellers will come flocking, particularly the unfulfilled male of the species, downtrodden and left behind clinging on to an outdated view of antiquated masculinity.

Perry’s view is that the decline of a particular model of masculinity has been going on for ever. For our generation of men masculinity has traditionally abided in the rigours of physical labour, a muscular idealised noble savage. Shipyards, mining, the boxing clubs of the old East End of London, these areas of male life have all but disappeared; but there is a primitive urge there, unfortunately it tends to manifest itself as a kind of comic parody of masculinity; as Perry says;

“One reaction to the redundancy of the traditional male role has been the rise of a kind of cosmetic hyper-masculinity. I see it as an overtly performed version of working-class manhood. The shiny muscles, tattoos, loud music and loud cars all hope to pump out the message that he’s still a real man despite the collapse of heavy industry and a clearly defined status. These performers pay great attention to detail: hair and beards are groomed in precision lines; torsos are waxed till they resemble figures from computer games.”

He also takes a swing at corporate blandness and the assumption of male control in the workplace; as he says, masculinity is not IN the background, it IS the background!

In no way is Perry’s book a manifesto; it does not set out precisely what the new twenty-first century man should be, neither does it act as a sop to overly militant feminism, it just asks men to GET REAL, stop living in a fantasy world and take your responsibilities seriously (particularly as the right kind of role models for the next generation).

In a Dojo situation a male instructor needs to think long and hard about how he presents himself. The good news is that there are many excellent role models who have a good head on their shoulders, are humble about their abilities, kind, compassionate and are comfortable in their own skin. Unfortunately you also come across far too many little boys hiding inside men’s bodies.

As a footnote; Perry made reference to Chuck Palahniuk’s book ‘Fight Club’, (the movie was good, but the book much better), but I would also have liked him to have referenced ‘American Psycho’ by Brett Easton Ellis, which for me epitomises toxic white collar masculinity and narcissism gone mad; as relevant today as it was when first published in 1991. The male political models are currently out there now, strutting their stuff; just think of Trump, Kushner, Bannon and latterly in the UK our own upper-crust version, the entitled members of the ‘lucky gene club’, such as Osborne, Cameron and Johnson et al, these are all part of the problem and certainly not models for the future.

For further reading I also recommend Steve Biddulph; who is excellent on anything to do with raising children, but for this topic his book ‘Manhood’ is another really thought-provoking read.

Tim Shaw

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