Did unsatisfactory male role models in childhood cause Grayson Perry’s descent into anti-male prejudice?
Book review of Grayson Perry’s The Descent of Man
Allen Lane 2016
Penguin Books 2017
Book review by
Witty and extremely well written, in an amusing racy style and artistically fashioned (as well as displaying some of Perry’s characteristic cartoon drawings), the occasional nuggets of wisdom (the male attraction to risk, for example) are unfortunately lost in a quagmire of anti-male sentiment. There are too many unsubstantiated comments about women – to the detriment of the male species: “…all the world’s problems can be boiled down to one thing – the behaviour of people with a Y chromosome” (p.3). [Edit by John Barry: a classic example of reductionism].
The author comes across as (refreshingly) typically male in many ways, such as in learning how to control his unruly “male member” when a teenager on bus journeys, and admitting a craving for typically male symbols like red sports cars. He also endearingly shows his “tender” side in dedicating the book to Alan Measles, his childhood Teddy. Perry also draws attention to male confusion in a changing society, and the need for a male “rite of passage”. He puts in a plea for good male role models, but thinks that we should be re-fashioning the male before this can truly happen. He also commends the “Men’s Sheds” movement (p. 115).
Whilst only giving a passing nod to the biological differences between male and female, Perry whole heartedly embraces the theory of gender socialisation, even whilst he admits to himself enjoying the (typically male) phenomenon of energizing through watching violence (and I would add, explosions!) in film. He claims that this was really just a way of being part of the “male club”, but as a woman living with three males I can confirm that my menfolk watch films that I can’t stomach, and similarly they don’t enjoy the TV programmes that I enjoy on psychological character studies. (more usually preferred by women). Despite his emphasis on gender socialisation, the author also at one point switches tack and starts talking about the (biological) effects of “raw evolution” (p.83) on male behaviour in defending their territory.
However, Perry’s real agenda in the book seems to be “stiletto licking” (as opposed to boot licking). His anxiety to support the prevailing anti-male narrative is very marked, and leads him to offer unreferenced information about domestic violence towards the female, whilst barely acknowledging female abuse of the male.[1,2] He talks about male “point scoring” (p.37) whilst apparently being oblivious to the female equivalent that is equally prevalent in society. The underlying issue of the power struggles between male and female and the games that we all participate in, are only mentioned in overtly sexual scenarios, where the power differential is acknowledged to be a turn on (p.128). Instead we hear once more about the alleged oppression of women by the “constraints” of gender (p.3).
The most interesting part of this book for me as a relationship therapist, was finding out what had been the background to the development of Perry’s transvestite leanings. Systematic ‘male bashing’ from his (sometimes violent) mother, an absentee father and a violent step father are some of the elements that interacted upon the young Perry and led him to taking refuge in his mother’s wardrobe (literally and figuratively). For the author, as he got older, the “electric charge of the female” (p.52) was especially in their clothes, which is why the (over-sexed?) young Perry began to get such a taste for cross dressing. He explains this process here: “One goes through one’s early years collecting experiences, influences and traumas, and at puberty one cashes them in at a counter marked sexual preferences and one is handed back an identity card or licence that pretty much fixes one’s sexuality”(p. 127).
The real danger in a book like this is a reinforcing of mistrust for the “default male” and the apparently infamous “patriarchal society” that we (according to him) still live in. Perry even naively asserts that with more women in power, we would have a “whole new culture of leadership, one not centred around noisy, bear-pit politics, but one of consensus, steady debate and empathy” (p.26) – forgetting the tendency for female-typical aggression that is often evident in places where the management is largely composed of women.[3,4] That the abuse of power happens when women are in authority is not acknowledged – even when we have current examples like the first female Commander of the Royal Navy (2014) having an affair with a subordinate.
Perry writes with compassion and understanding in some respects – but ultimately he reveals how he has been seduced by the fashion for anti-male polemic – perhaps not surprising in view of the fact that his own leanings have always centred around the outward trappings of the essential female.
 Handbook on Wellbeing of Working Women, editor Connerley, Mary L, Springer 2016