“we never know when we are being observed, so we constantly keep watch on ourselves and each other; we guard the boundaries of the role. we are all the authority figure and the prisoner” (p.54)
grayson perry is a contemporary british artist widely-known for dissecting british “prejudices, fashions and foibles”. his book, the descent of man, tells his own story with frankness and candor as he analyses masculinity and whether it benefits men and/or society.
he describes masculinity as a straitjacket which is holding back men from being themselves (p.3). an example is that men are perceived to have less feelings than women and therefore “simpler”. but this notion heavily restricts men in their ability to express emotion and downplays their emotional complexity. for both men and women, it’s important to make deep connections with others and this is usually done with communication and emotions. this may explain why the biggest killer for men under 45 is suicide. another example would be the pressure on men to be self-sufficient. in the current economy where millennials are economically insecure and less well-off compared to their predecessors, there is likely to be an incongruence between the real and idealised self. there is likely to be frustration when men are sold a narrative of power and male domination (p.36)
the first part of the book demarcates the boundaries between sex and gender and illustrates why they aren’t the same thing. an example is our gendered toys which is not related to our biology. so why are toys gendered? simple answer: marketing. we can expect more sales when girly toy won’t be passed on to a younger brother. another theory has been linked to the introduction of the ultrasound. as prospective parents are aware of the sex of the baby, there is ample time for them and family/friends to shop for gendered toys. gendered ideas can also change over time. for example, in 1918 the ladies’ home journal writes “there has been a great diversity of debate on the subject, but the generally accepted rule is pink for boys, and blue for girls”. yet by the 1940s pink had become feminised. this shift has been linked to eisenhower’s wife who loved the colour pink and wore a pink gown to his inauguration. that settled it.
“the only validation a man craves for his masculinity in from those who really understand his achievement: other man”
what surprised me of the book was perry’s own experience with masculinity. i assumed that someone that cross dressed would feel sexually liberated to express themselves and have transcended the boundaries of gender. but i guess that’s what makes his art evocative. the fact that he attempted to adopt a hyper-masculine identity in his adolescence greats a prodigious demand to rebel against masculinity.
he adds, for him, sartorial masculinity was tantamount to masculinity as he admits to dressing in a black leather jacket and doc martens, signalling to others that he was dangerous and rebellious. yet for men, it’s important to tread the line carefully as “putting a lot of effort into the costume and detail needed to look the part implies an insecurity about his performance of a biker’s core masculine values, confronting danger and taking risks”. instead a man should be authentic, real and genuine and this idea of masculinity is used as the baseline for other identities to be judged hence femininity or homosexuality is perceived as aberrant. the yearn for “authenticity” is why men “dress up as guys who worked themselves to death and didnt whine, and maybe even got tastefully worn, grubby and faded in the process”. similarly, i think there’s an interesting parallels to modern-day, urban consumption of designer or streetwear that is “a more blatant declaration of tribal status” as it signifies how men squander money to bolster their gender roles with i.e. supreme or armani. perhaps this shift is also due to the development of technology where men spend more time in front of their laptops that they now shop for their masculinity. and men are shopping for their masculinity. the adoration of superfluous pockets patched onto menswear and marketised as functional, is in fact, as decorative as lace on womens clothings. apt is ralph lauren’s statement “i don’t design clothes, i design dreams”.
i was also interested to read about the rise of “cosmetic hyper-masculinity” that has supplanted the “real, industrial, working class man”. the “cosmetic hyper masculine man” according to perry, ” pays great attention to detail: hair and bears are groomed in precision lines; torsos are waxed till they resembles figures from computer games”. perhaps driven by the rise of the internet, boys/men are becoming more body-conscious, assimilate to pressure faced by women, men are expected to shape their bodies and achieve an unattainable physical version of masculinity. his analysis of gender and class were equally fascinating as he says that hyper-masculinity is often adopted by men with the least real power (i.e. working class men).
last but not least, how does masculinity develops in the future? well, masculinity actually looks to the nostalgic past whereas femininity and in particular, feminism is forward-looking, embracing change (p.90). for example masculinity looks to the past for a golden age for a time of war, hunting and heavy industry; an era where men dominated. however, the current economy suits a feminised workload, we no longer need a masculine man to heavylift and we definitely no longer live in a dangerous, primal society. even politically, we have shifted away from colonisation and conquering towards collective action. masculinity with its impulse to dominate is at odds with modern society and its drive towards a fairer society (p.22). we are no longer a warmongering public; if there’s going to be any war, it better be against climate change.
masculinity will too have to adapt. we have to reinterpret what it means to be a man. i’m certain it will evolve as identity is an ongoing performance. to quote julian baggini “i is a verb masquerading as a noun”. we have to encourage more gender fluidity, more versions of masculinity and highlight progressive, feminist, male role models. i hope im not being too optimistic.
“examining masculinity can seem like a luxury problem, a pastime for a wealthy, well-educated, peaceful society, but i would argue the opposite: the poorer, the more underdeveloped, the more uneducated a society is, the more masculinity needs realigning with the modern world, because masculinity is probably holding back that society” (p.2)