The unacknowledged descent

Not unlike numerous others, I have been interested in gender related debate for a while. Much needed and progressively wide-spread as it has been, it had also been first and foremost notably focused on feminist issues. Grayson Perry’s partly autobiographical reflection on modern masculinity ‘The Descent of Man’ is therefore a rather welcome addition to the ongoing gender discussion.

Arguably not coincidentally using Darwin’s eponymous seminal title, Perry does not focus on ‘sexual selection’ but social conditioning instead; the intention nobly aiming to initiate/ continue the re-evaluation of humanity and the part gender roles play in the modern world. Questioning and criticising stereotypical views of gender roles is not new, nor particularly revolutionary (even from a male narrative perspective), a direct spell-it-out approach that is not veiled in allusions that are testing readers’ ability to read between the lines is however refreshingly blunt. The key concern of men being ‘half the victims of masculinity’ is established almost immediately. And presumably all readers interested in Sociology/ Psychology/ Literature/ Art and other gender related disciplines scream in unanimous approval. Yes, the age-old patriarchy controls men as much as women. Yes, men are vulnerable against the culturally indoctrinated sets of behaviours too, quietly. Yes, we need to talk about this if we strive for the much campaigned for equal world. The question remains how. Perry himself does not offer (many) answers: he employs a style similar to a Socratic dialogue to probe and to get the reader to consider what defines and how to re-define modern masculinity. After all, awareness is the first step to change.

Many of the identified stereotypical representations are nothing unexpected. Men are competitive; stereotypically perceived traits like ‘anger and violence’ are tolerated in small boys; to be a man means to ‘toughen up’ and consequently losing sensitivity to one’s own feelings. Personally, I however welcomed Perry directly addressing the new challenges 21st century males face. While the roles of Prince Charming and a knight in shining armour have been established centuries ago, the new media myths these versions of masculinity have morphed into are generally not much talked about, sadly. The new idealised visual stereotypes of a chiselled and muscular perfect specimen of a man undoubtedly breed a new generation of ‘more body-conscious’ (increasingly younger) men who feel they do not live up to the expectation. Increasing numbers of men are struggling with their body image, are ‘pumping iron’ to meet the projected bar, or are turning to ‘cosmetic hyper-masculinity’ offered by obliging plastic surgeons world-wide (frequently men themselves). Statistics show exponentially growing numbers of men suffering with eating and other mental disorders to defeat a sense of failure as real men in the traditional ‘narrative of male domination’, whether physical or economic. This dialogue certainly needs to be had, and accepted, in a more public sphere. It can be a lonely place to try and defy ‘tribal [group] mentality’ surrounded by peer pressure and scrutiny ‘by other men’.

Consequent overcompensation, impotent new generations of angry young men and/ or disengagement with individual identity to avoid humiliation ultimately lead to unhappiness. And a permanent state of cyclical Catch-22 without any clear direction what it means to be a man without unconsciously rehearsing ‘an ongoing performance’. I appreciate Perry’s emphasis on the need for a new type of good role model, ‘a new male archetype’ ready for life in a gender balanced society. It sounds prescriptive (ironically much like the stereotypical model of masculinity) but perhaps instead of negotiating what not to be, in what situation, some sense of clear direction is needed. Especially as even the more progressively thinking men nowadays face cynical accusation of embracing gender equality, and (dare I say it) feminism for self-serving purposes of … maintaining power and control. What is (and trust me, I would class myself as a feminist) a man to do?

Admittedly, much as I agree with many of Perry’s messages, I did find some of his arguments steeped in (calculated?) binary opposition. Although the comparison to feminism and femininity could have been intended for illustrative purposes, I could not help but find them divisive and somewhat stereotypical. Assigning competitive drive and ‘point-scoring behaviours’ to men in contrast to ‘feminine skills … [such as] empathy’ appear to continue the established oppositional gender narrative. While the progressive nature of feminism may be hailed as an example to follow, contrasted with the nostalgic nature of male heroic past navel gazing appears to pit the genders against each other yet again. This while Perry proposes that men should be offered ‘some kind of reward to those not succeeding in their drive for dominance’ which to me seems adhering to the stereotype that men need to win. In my view that does nor re-define a stereotype.

Regardless of the broad perfunctory nods to women adopting what is considered stereotypically male behaviours – which as a competitive individual I disagree with – or the possibly intentionally controversial and judgemental statements that ‘all the world’s problems can be boiled down to one thing: the behaviour of people with a Y chromosome’, I whole-heartedly agree that in this day and age we should aim to be accepting of ‘a plethora of masculinities’. Possibly preferably even move on from the gender defined female – male role distinction. The overarching reminder surely is that notwithstanding the gender, race, religion … what we all share is ‘our membership of the human race’.

*image copyright Grayson Perry (2016)

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