The Descent of Man by Grayson Perry is not a forensic study of its subject and so doesn’t lend itself to a particularly academic review. However, it introduces a couple of phrases to the lexicon that are well worth contemplation.
The book is premised on the notion that ‘upgrading’ men to improve their ‘adaptability’ to the modern world would be of huge benefit to men, women and the planet. Grayson Perry’s premise is well understood, and his opinions which fill the book are intelligent and apt.
Ample ink is spent pointing out male domination of various aspects of human affairs, something of a stream of consciousness, sprinkled with empathy for the position of men in 2018 and heavy dollops of ridicule of boorish male behaviour. Perry is knowledgeable without going the extra mile, and as a result The Descent of Man is as valid a review of masculinity as any well-intentioned and considered opinion on the subject.
One criticism might be the lack of attention paid to the female role, not just in the shared suffering of males and females under social rigidity, but particularly in how men miss out on much of the richness of life that has traditionally been labelled as a woman’s work, particularly child rearing, or to put it more simply: loving.
Another weakness of the book might be that Perry, like many who call for gender equality, focuses on equality of outcome (£) rather than opportunity (life) and therefore neglect the fact that many women prefer to work less, or with greater flexibility, while men are often left to be the sole earner in the family, with the double burden cultural expectation of long hours and limited outlets for exploring feelings, creativity and the beauty of life, making Jack a dull boy.
The two distinguishing features in the book are concepts that come from Perry’s incisive way with words, and serve to summarise aspects of the male experience succinctly:
- Default Man. Powerful white, middle-class, heterosexuals, “a group that punches far, far above its weight”[i].
Perry convincingly explains that (at least here in the West) we live in a world in which norms and expectations are set by the Default Man, who is seen as a rational actor, focused as he is on efficiency, profit and ambition at the expense of other, far more tangible and useful things. Perry chooses default as a nod to the financial crisis that this group created.
Most interestingly he points out that while most groups afforded an identity by society are defined by something distinct or different from the background, Default Man “is the background”.[ii]
What would a world dominated by another group look like? The problem with answering this question, as the author points out, is that it is nigh on impossible to get Default Man to even acknowledge his own existence as part of a distinct community. The word community, banded around so freely after the Grenfell Tower fire, has become a synonym for both poor and weak.
So, Default Men are a community, but the genius/conceit of this community is that they believe they have achieved their status through individual talent, rather than community privilege. Here they can liberally apply their rugged individualism myth to everyone else who doesn’t fit the norm: failures are simply individual weakness, nothing to do with class, creed or the absence of a silver spoon.
Because of the lack of threat to Default Man’s lofty status, he remains complacent, feeling no urge to examine his own identity, believing himself to be in his natural position: on top…” Default Man thinks he is the zero longitude of identities,”[iii] a distinct identity and community presenting as normal, natural and to be taken ever so seriously.
The second valuable concept is…
- The Department of Masculinity.
What is this Department? It is what men defer to when we consider whether an action is right or wrong. Because it is a mind phantom, men remain on constant alert for the Department lest they fall down in their performance of masculine.
Perry’s contention is that men are not after the approval of women, rather they are seeking the thumbs up from other men, and the top men from whom we can earn approval are the Default Men staffing this non-existent but potently punitive Ministry.
The Department of Masculinity is essentially the internalised Default Man, living in every male mind. It is an Orwellian concept and a very useful one for those wanting to understand the male psyche. It helps the reader to go beyond mere condemnation of a certain behaviour or attitude. It has the benefit of offering both empathy and the possibility for change; once a man is aware of the Department’s malevolence, he can begin to challenge it.
One example is the author’s claim that the ugliness of male homophobia is really a fear of falling foul of the Department of Masculinity. Most men don’t care about the sexuality of others, but they do care about being perceived as normal, acceptable and sufficiently default. In this example, the homophobia masks two things: personal insecurity as a man and profound indifference to which gender another person is sexually attracted to.
Not an authoritative text, The Descent of Man is nevertheless valuable, thought provoking and written with no little flair. A good read for anyone interested in going beyond labels and thoughtless assumptions.
The Descent of Man by Grayson Perry is published by Penguin Books.
By Tom Charles @tomhcharles
[i] Grayson Perry, The Descent of Man, Penguin Books 2017, p.14
[ii] Ibid. p.15
[iii] Ibid. p.17