Thursday, December 21, 2017

The Descent of Man by Grayson Perry

Paperback, 150 pgs, Pub May 30th 2017 by Penguin Books (first pub Oct 20th 2016) ISBN13: 9780143131656

Until a friend recently pointed him out, I’d never heard of Grayson Perry. I have since looked at his artwork online and am as impressed over his painting and his clothing choices as anyone would be. They are quite…wildly spectacular and suggestive…of a world where sexuality is a choice.

Somehow, despite Perry telling us that he experienced and acted out of a deep well of rage in his youth, we feel comfortable with him telling us what he thinks we’re misunderstanding about sexuality and gender disparity. Perry calls himself a transvestite, and I guess we’ll have to accept his definition of that. He doesn’t go into detail (thank goodness) but he does mention his wife in this work and she is female, so far as I can tell.

Whatever. This book is an amusing and non-judgmental look at masculinity and the effect it has had on the female sex psychologically and every other way. Perry makes some really funny and caustic observations on his way to telling men they can let down their compulsion to carry the world on their shoulders. Half the world is ready to take up their share of the burden, and, oh by the way, you can get yourselves some better clothes while you’re at it. Something pastel, perhaps?
“Actors, when they are preparing for a role, often talk of the clothes as key…So, in the great gender debate, maybe clothes are one of the key drivers of change…If we want to transform what men can be, maybe central to their performance will be a costume change.”
Much of what Perry writes in this book is what women have been saying for some time, so I never felt uncomfortable or surprised by his ideas. However, Perry had a unique set of questions I’d never seen raised before, like
“I asked a men’s group what women may not know about men. What came up was just how attracted to risk men are. These were middle-aged, middle-class men in therapy, yet they all had tales to tell of reckless driving, drug taking, sex and violence, and they told them with relish. In all-male company, risk is a shared enthusiasm.”
Perry goes on to say that if the popular notion of masculinity is in need of an update, who better to figure it out than concerned groups of men? But ‘the men’s movement’ tends to lay the blame at the feet of women, whereas if traditional working-class men feel left on the rust heap, they would be better served to look at the sexist patriarchy—the very thing feminists are attacking—rather than women and feminism.
“…Men are their own worst enemy.”
In a chapter entitled “The Shell of Masculinity,” Perry explains that in childhood men aren’t given the tools they need to be expressive of their needs and feelings, and this can hamper their development later in life and in relationships. I think this is pretty much received knowledge, and knowing it means we need to have mothers and fathers prepare their sons for a world that is fundamentally changed, more rewarding of introspection and insight into one’s own behavior rather than the dog-eat-dog, first-man-to-the-top-of-the-heap-no-matter-the-human-cost attitudes we had been rewarding.

Another thing Perry tells us is that for many men,
“sex boils and ferments below a crust of civility. The comedian Phill Jupitus describes masturbation as the ‘male screen saver.’ If a man is not concentrating on something, his brain goes into sleep mode and sex swims into his awareness. [I particularly like this analogy.] Instead of a view of Yosemite Valley or a swirling universe, a back catalog of diary porn shuffles across his mind screen, and the desire to jerk off takes over.”
My sympathies entirely, gentlemen. What effort you must expend to keep from reaching over and putting your hand up the skirt of the nearest babe. I’d no idea what you were wrestling with, and yet…friends of mine do not report such overwhelming urges that they cannot keep themselves well under control.

Perry moves from this discussion to “a strong component of masculinity is nostalgia.” This piques my interest because I have noticed that definitely among the men I have known. Mothers are so practical and utilitarian and not so backward-looking, in my experience. Perry suggests our sex drive is always on the hunt…for the past, for our childhoods. The emotions we attach to our sex lives,
“the power plays and dramatic roles we act out in our sex lives, we learn as children…The scripts of our sexual fantasies are usually roughed out by our experiences as children. [Including fetishes.]”
Perry has spent so long in therapy he has really talked out among men many of the things people discuss when they talk about gender equality. And yet, he says, gender “difference and an imbalance of power are big components of what turns us all on, not just the kinky ones.” From here Perry notes fetishes often have a distinctly nostalgic flavor, and sexual nostalgia may be the reason men are hanging on to old stereotypes. What turns them on is sexually and politically out of date.

This is something I’ve never heard articulated in quite this way before, though I have seen it manifest often. It seems a worthwhile avenue of exploration.

In his final chapter, Perry reminds men that they can lay down the burden of holding up the world, and they are allowed to declare a few things; for instance, men have “The Right to be Wrong,” and “The Right Not to Know,” and maybe most important, “The Right to be Weak.” Yes, this is the part where we can all enjoy the power imbalance for a little while at least, pulling out those sexual fantasies for something entirely novel…

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

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