The Descent of Man
Fortunately for me I am one adjective short of what Grayson Perry pejoratively terms ‘Default Man’: a white, middle-class, heterosexual male. Default Man is ‘the reference point from which all other values and cultures are judged’, and Default Man is usually not conscious of this privilege. There are some uncomfortable truths in this book that may well put off Default Man from picking it up. This is a great pity because he should be the first to read it.
Much of what I enjoyed about this book is the witty ridicule you’d expect from Perry. (His humour is not as politically correct and diplomatic as he would like to think, but then that’s humour.) But what I appreciated about it – and I appreciated it intensely – is something a little more empathetic, and something I think all men could benefit from. Before reading The Descent of Man I took a blind approach to gender. I would like to think I am the open-minded, non-judgemental kind and therefore anything goes. Perry, however, has had me laterally thinking in terms of my own personal experience. Sure enough, there I discovered, lurking in the dark recesses of my own gender, a Default Man pulling some strings. He tries, and usually fails, to fill the big, cumbersome shoes of traditional masculinity.
And that’s the crux of this book. How pertinent, how achievable, how healthy is the traditional construct of masculinity in the twenty-first century? Here are some scary statistics Perry dares to address: suicide is the biggest killer of men under 45, more than three times as many victims as women; more than 95% of the UK’s prison population is male; and more than 90% of violent crime in the UK is committed by men. Stoic rationale is not something most men are born with. The only thing we can genuinely say is hard wired into our psyche is quite the opposite: emotions. Are men suffering from bottling up their emotions in unachievable expectations of manhood? And do some of us vent these pent-up emotions in forms of violence?
A lot of these arguments are broadly open to debate, which Perry welcomes. The Descent of Man is not a polemic. There is a personal humility and sincerity with which he writes that puts his arguments into practice. Perry leads by unassuming example. However, there is just one problem with all this rambling: most men don’t want elaborate psychology, they want a clear and concise game-plan. So, in a parody of feminism, Perry leaves the last page for a simple manifesto that could fit ‘on a postcard’. It caused me to feel a little overcome, and my eyes began to well up, and I’m no longer ashamed of that.