The Descent of Man

Image of The Descent of Man
Release Date: 
May 29, 2017
Penguin Books
Reviewed by: 

Perry’s skewering of evolutionary rationales to explain and justify gender inequalities should keep us going for a while.”

The transvestite British potter and tapestry maker, Grayson Perry, borrows the title of Charles Darwin’s classic for his thoughts on the burdens of masculinity, and what sort of men it would take to make a better world for everyone including themselves.

He selects a quote from Gloria Steinem to set the scene: “The truth will set you free. But first it will piss you off.” This relatively slim volume is replete with equally trenchant observations by Perry himself and his original cartoons, of which “Default Man-Action Figure-Fully Poseable in Any Position of Power” and “suitable for white middle class boys only” is particularly memorable.

Perry is well-known for his acute social commentary on contemporary life; a series of highly decorated and desirable ceramics of 1999 is called Boring Cool People, and a suite of tapestries under the heading The Vanity of Small Differences explores regional class differences and their constant evolution in \ contemporary U.K.

In the Descent of Man he unpacks “what the American feminist Peggy McIntosh calls “the invisible weightless knapsack” of male privilege, “full of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools, and blank checks” to see if it is as much a burden to some men as a boon.” Perry emphasizes that he is not against masculinity or men in general “not least because I am one” but rather wishes to explore whether our modern world requires a redefinition of what goes in the “knapsack” of masculinity.

He denies that being a transvestite—his alter ego Claire is an equally public person—gives him any special insight in the “the opposite gender” but may give him a sharper insight into and more objectivity about what it means to be a man, as he is “thoroughly fascinated by masculinity, the lumbering beast within me which I have tried to suppress and negotiate with my entire life.”

Perry is well versed in contemporary thinking on sex and gender, which as he notes, is mostly concerned with femaleness and femininity as women had and have the most to complain about from the hand society has dealt them. He makes a clear case for the need for a nuanced and more pluralistic masculinity not ruled by the desire for sexual dominance, which would present a set of values more in tune with what we are actually experiencing in contemporary society.

It would have been interesting to have had more observations of the relevance or otherwise of binary thinking from a person who inhabits in both public and private two distinct and different personae, but hopefully there is more to come. Perry’s skewering of evolutionary rationales to explain and justify gender inequalities should keep us going for a while.