redefining the modern male with grayson perry

Hot on the heels of his newest book, The Descent of Man, we asked the former Turner Prize winner about modern masculinity and the imperative need to dismantle outdated gender roles.

by i-D Staff
26 October 2016, 8:40am

photography jamie stoker

In Grayson's Perry acclaimed TV show, All Man, the British artist explored how masculinity in all its different forms, and how in some instances, it dictated identity. From the physical showmanship of cage fighters in the north of England to the uber macho world of city banking, no side of hypermasculinity was left undiscussed. And now, Grayson has continued the thinking in his new book, The Descent of Man, where critical discussion about modern day masculinity and the need to dismantle outdated gender roles. Filled with his own personal experiences as well as personal critiques in a hilarious and very necessary book, it explores what the world would be if we could embrace a new definition of what it means to be a man. Hot on the heels of its release, we asked the former Turner Prize about the imperative need to dismantle gender roles and why feminism has achieved something that masculinity hasn't.

Do you think one difference is in the way people have learnt to pay lip service to ideas of male sensitivity or masculinity?
I think every culture in every part of the country, in every part of the world, has their version of masculinity. Obviously there are lots of common traits and different parts of the world have various levels of what I will call cultural lag, men are always a little bit behind but in some places they are really far behind as feminism is driving female emancipation forward. Women look forward. Men always look back, whether it's looking back at the 90s when Loaded was the magazine of choice or whether they're looking back to the nineteenth century and we had a heavy industry - men tend to be looking back.

Do you think somehow that femininity and feminism has achieved something that masculinity hasn't?
I think feminism is now supposedly in its fourth iteration and it means that women are way in front. Men sometimes still regard gender as a women's issue and men need to really catch up if they're going to work in the 21st Century because they're going to find, suddenly, that they're irrelevant or a lot of 'masculinity' is irrelevant. I'd say it is a skeuomorph, a previously functional feature that is now decorative.

You speak about Default Man in the book; who is he?
Default Man, as the title suggests, is what happens when nobody thinks about it. It's a choice made without realising you're making a choice. That is a defining characteristic of masculinity and so Default Man is the person who ends up in power usually, because nobody that was choosing the people that will be in power were ever aware they were making a choice. Of course, what men need to learn in all departments is that their view of the world is just as subjective, just as un-neutral, just as other, as anybody else's.

Do you think women need to learn the same?
Yeah, I mean any culture, anything like identity or gender is co-created and men have got away with it because women have been persuaded that that is what they want, or that is how it should be, or that is just how it is. Feminism has raised women's consciousness about all these things and so they're starting to complain and already men are finding themselves washed up because they're not behaving or thinking or feeling in a way that women want. I always say, if you want to pull, guys, become a feminist!

Is that why you called the book The Descent of Man?
A lot of those men's rights organisations think that the descent they're on is all the way to the bottom. I say, no, the descent that man is on is all the way back to equality. So it's like if you imagine Heaven, Earth, Hell - I'm not sending men to Hell I'm sending them down to Earth. Where everybody else is already. Sorry guys!

So say a man has read your book or seen your show, realises that he's got to change himself. Where should he start?
To read the book another three or four times! Because like in The Road Less Travelled, man walks down road and falls into a hole. Second time man walks down road, sees hole but still falls into it. Third time he walks round the hole, fourth time he takes a different road. And that is the process of awareness and changing behaviour - it is a long process. You need to hammer away at it and we're talking about social, psychological, emotional change. This can happen very slowly so we're talking generations, multiple generations, for men to really change in any global, meaningful way. But let's start now. It took feminism about 250 years, if we go back to Mary Wollstonecraft and things like that, so maybe men can change, in the modern technological age - let's be optimistic - and say 100. Speed it up a bit!

Does art play a part in the process of getting men to change things?
I think art can play a process in gender in that it operates below the radar. I wouldn't say contemporary art is necessarily the best form of communication. I'd say that films, TV, novels, music are better forms of communication. I've always said that pots are a crap way to get over a message. Art is great because it always operates below the radar, it gets you thinking you're not taking on board ideas and then, suddenly, you find you have taken them on board; I think that is where art is clever.