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BOOK REVIEW: "The Descent of Man" by Grayson Perry

Penguin Books
"The Descent of Man" by Grayson Perry
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BOOK REVIEW: The Descent of Man by Grayson Perry (Penguin Books) 2017

Recently, I read about Grayson Perry’s new book, The Descent of Man, and was impressed that someone out there was finally addressing the issue of what it means to be male in the 21st century.

This book is definitely needed in these troubled times.

Broken up into four chapters, essentially, “Asking a Fish About Water,” “The Department of Masculinity,” “Nostalgic Man” and “The Shell of Masculinity,” Perry, who is a transvestite (his alter-ego is “Claire”) and married to a woman for many years, could no longer ignore the adverse effects that unchecked “masculinity” has been having on society – and the world – for far too long.

Writes Perry in the first few pages: “Examining masculinity can seem like a luxury problem, a pastime for wealthy, well-educated, peaceful society, but I would argue the opposite: the poorer, the more undeveloped, the more uneducated a society is, the more masculinity needs realigning with the modern world, because masculinity is probably holding back that society. All over the globe, crimes are committed, wars are started, women are being held back and economies are disastrously distorted by men, because of their outdated version of masculinity.”

Perry, who lives in London and is an award-winning artist and ardent bicyclist, has met with many young men over the years and sees them growing into emotionally-vacant adults with no core to guide them.

The author offers personal anecdotes from his past. His abusive stepfather and his realization that he liked wearing women’s clothing, while still being sexually attracted to women. And being a natural observer of human nature, Perry noticed in the 20th century and, now, into the 21st, that many men are floating along – lost and confused – and you see some looking for something to do to define them as masculine, even if it takes embracing extremist ideologies, as we see in the headlines almost daily.

As Perry puts it: “We need to firm up what it is to be a man in the 21st century, because other retrograde forces are happy to promote a seductive, familiar, easy-to-assemble package.” And that, dear reader, will only take us back to square one and more problems.

Interestingly, later in the book, Perry says that for millennia, young men have participated in ritualistic “coming-of-age” ceremonies and challenges, noting the rather extreme Vanuatu land divers, saying, “I sometimes think that Western society would benefit enormously if we had in place some ritual program to channel all that chaotically unfocused male feeling. A war perhaps?

Perry adds that he is merely “jesting” at the suggestion of starting a war to get young men some emotional focus, but at the same time you read it and sense that Perry feels things have gotten so bad for young men in the 21st century – disconnected, lost, bottled-up – that something as extreme as sending young men to war might right the ship, as it were.

But Perry isn’t really saying that. He does agree that a version of a “difficult or painful trial” would be beneficial to best prepare “young men in the West for modern, urban, gender-equal society.

Perry talks of the “old-school men” out there – the Trump voters and Tory supporters – who want to either “Make America Great Again” or embrace the Imperialist Britain version of the “stiff upper lip,” and all that. They either don’t see or simply ignore how their embrace of “emotional numbness,” and their passing it down to their boys, has created a crisis among males, especially among the middle classes, Perry says, a part of society that is notably repressed.

Remember poet Robert Bly’s 1990 book Iron John: A Book About Men? A New Age-y approach to the burgeoning men’s movement at that time.

I remember reading it years ago and there was a bit of a feminist backlash at the time. But Bly, who noticed “the crippled inner life of men in U.S. culture” a few decades ago, was on to something at the time. Bly recognized that the Vietnam War and the changes wrought by the “Sixties,” against the older, more conservative generation – a great divide had developed between men and their sons and for years – up until present day – had resulted in a  rift that has not really healed.

Sure, the war in Vietnam ended more than four decades ago, but the forward-looking men and those embracing some mythical, 1950’s-styled lifestyle, are at odds and will remain so until men as a whole step back and take a look at how bad things have become - not better - since the publication of Iron John.

But back to The Descent of Man

Perry notes that while women are leading the discussion on gender and equality and the “male” question, more women are shown to be spending time with other women – in quality ways – where they “learn true intimacy” and therefore set the bar even higher for “marriageable” men. It’s a vicious cycle, and women need to keep that in mind, the author suggests.

Men, of course, live longer when they are in a relationship and have a supportive companion, either in a gay or straight relationship, he writes.

Perry’s suggestions are positive and will mean men (particularly white males) have to take a step back and allow for more true equality between the genders, because if they do, they will be more likely to improve their lot in the long run.

I found Grayson Perry’s The Descent of Man a very quick (only 140 pages or so, with accompanying art and illustrations) and a book that many men (and women) should read. I think Perry is getting an important conversation started, one that needs to be addressed in a serious way.

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Andrew W. Griffin

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Andrew W. Griffin received his Bachelor of Science in Journalism from...

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