Reviewed by Dr. George Simons at diversophy.com
Clearly written by an artist (and illustrated as well), The Descent of Man is the most articulate and easy to comprehend presentation of the masculinity crisis of our time that I have seen to date. It’s also a beautiful book to hold in one’s hands.
Men’s issues are extremely difficult to discuss in a productive way, given the feminist challenges to how gender is socially constructed, and the problems attributed to male hegemony. While women are actively defining meaningful lives and filling roles hitherto restricted, men are faced with abandoning or desperately reinforcing deteriorating traditional roles without meaningful path toward a new identity, often a becoming a source of violence to themselves and others. Their pain is usually felt as shame, anger and frustration rather than as an avenue to empathy and community with clear direction for the future.
It is difficult to both support the aspirations of women and the feminist movement while at the same time being a male activist calling attention to the costs of masculinity, being at once both disposable and blameworthy for the destructive forces we seem to willy-nilly collaborate with for survival in the capitalist metanarrative of the commodified world. Gender is performative, but there is no up-to-date playbook for men.
Perry is fully open about his own development as a man in search of meaningful identity from childhood going forward and uses the critical moments and phases of his story to richly illustrate the crises that are often hidden in the unconscious male temperament and stoking their tempers as well. Trying to be a man is a burden we bear in so many ways, or, as the author puts it, “Identity is an ongoing performance, not a static state.” We either try to fit the mold or seek to break it, often unsupported. There is no community of men as they are assumed to be the dominant assumption. Rather we consciously and unconsciously police ourselves and each other to toe the line, to “man up” to a fading architype. We pose as the purveyors of common sense applicable to all. As Perry put it, “we assume that men just are, while women have to work at it.”
Some men reading this book will have to deal with the openly admitted transvestite habits of the author and may stop reading it for this reason. Don’t! It is this very proclivity that enables Perry to help us recognize the power of uniforms to shapes as we use them to shape ourselves. We are deluded by the fact that at least 80% of mall space is dedicated to women’s fashion, into thinking that we are not concerned with what we see in the mirror and what we tell the world in how we dress ourselves.
As the co-creator of a men’s center and actively developing gamification resources for exploring the condition of manhood and the challenges of developing our future, saving our sons from disaster, I was enriched and inspired by Perry’s stories, insights and analyses. As an aspiring writer of sorts, I was also delighted by his clever prose. Thank you, Grayson Perry.
Penguin Books, 2017. ISBN-10: 0143131656, ISBN-13: 978-0143131656