[This was first published on Niume]
I’ve been reading The Descent of Man by the wonderful Grayson Perry. It’s essentially a book about masculinity and what it means to be a man. Ordinarily I might have shied away from such a book but I think Perry is well suited to such a task, being both an artist and a transvestite. What I mean is that Perry is a man who has, for many years, challenged the idea of manliness, the idea that men have to be strong and emotionless, protectors and providers while woman for some reason are expected to be demure, loving, kind and maternal. Men are not supposed to cry (try telling me that after I’ve watched an episode of Grey’s Anatomy), indeed, the only emotions they should display are anger and rage.
I have much in common with Perry, as do many men I suspect, even if they don’t wish to admit to it. In an attempt to define my own masculinity I joined the army at sixteen (and left a few months later). Perry also had designs a military career put never followed through with his plans. My older brother was the soldier, a much closer approximation of manliness, while I was never really sure where I stood in terms of gender roles. I was (and am) an introvert, cautious of social encounters with a fear of new and unknown situations and more generally anxious of life, nothing like my brother with his sociability and self-assured confidence. As for my Dad, he was an old-school journalist, heavy smoker and even heavier drinker, happiest when he was in the middle of a far flung warzone or chasing up leads for a story.
Perhaps Perry would wonder if I felt less of man because of this and I’m not sure what my answer would be. For the past decade I have been a single father. While society in general has seen a rise in mothers raising their children single handed, I’ve been the man standing awkwardly in the corner. My son appears to have suffered little from my often chaotic parenting style but I do wonder if he would have been the same person if his mother had not died when he was barely four years old. Of course, I can never answer this question, but the thought still lingers. For better or worse, I have passed on my beliefs to him, including, I suspect, my views on gender and masculinity. At fourteen, he didn’t think twice about my suggestion that we attend Leeds Pride and show our support for the LGBT community. The more conservative reader might pour scorn on me here and perhaps criticise my liberal leanings (especially in a world that appears to be lurching dramatically towards isolationist thinking and intolerance) but I would probably reply that my son is happy, healthy and loved and that these, for me, are the most important aims of a parent.
Grayson Perry has his own personal views on masculinity which are, on occasion, quite naïve and simplistic. It is certainly true that men are more likely to commit violent crime than women, however, he implies that this is because men are more likely to be criminals. The situation is perhaps more nuanced than this in that men are more likely to be convicted and to serve custodial sentences. The courts are often more lenient with women, especially those with children, and are more likely to hand out sentences that do not include time in prison. Sociologists also indicate that women are often far too busy raising families and looking after children to involve themselves in such nonsense, while men are also more affected by economic downturns because the occupations they inhabit are often more vulnerable; unemployed men who the system has failed can, in some cases, drift into crime.
Despite these minor personal criticisms, I get Perry’s point about violence and aggressive acts being more associated with men, a kind of evolutionary throw-back when humanity often had to survive through violence. Throughout the book, however, I have attempted to equate what Perry says with myself as a man and I have found it difficult to do so. This is not to say that I don’t compete with other men through the clothes I wear or the things I say, Perry has made me look at my Doctor Marten boots in a new light, yet the small group of friends I do have tend to be female anyway. And it doesn’t help that I have no interest in football.
I’ve never been particularly convinced that gender matters that much, while being more than aware that it matters to society. That’s easy for me to say, I’m a white male, a fact that automatically grants me a more favourable existence than other groups, including women. Furthermore, Perry is also a white male, the only difference is that he likes to wear frocks and I’m happy in jeans and a tee shirt.
I suspect that more women will read this book than men, which is a shame. It’s a shame because Perry is honest about his own feelings about gender when most men aren’t. With the discussion of gender comes discussions about emotion, the negative aspects of which kill men each year through suicide (more than six thousand annually). Would a man read a book written by a man who wears dresses? Well, I did, and I feel much better for it.