The Descent of Man is most persuasive and fluent when it’s considering the historical and anachronistic nature of maleness. The biggest problem with masculinity, Perry proffers, is that it’s based on a model that’s several thousands of years old, when survival depended on physical strength and male power. Or, as he puts it, “masculinity is to chase things and fight things and to fuck. Everything else is a bit of a mismatch.” This framework for men has remained remarkably persistent even as society has evolved past it, with modern jobs and relationships requiring a very different set of skills. Feminism, Perry observes, is forward-thinking, wondering how women can change themselves and their lives for the better. But masculinity is regressive, always “harking back to some mythical golden age (for men), when men were ‘men.’” The easiest thing in the world to sell to men who feel disenfranchised from modern life, he says, is nostalgia—a promise that the world can change to fit them rather than the other way around. That men can be great again.
Perry offers no analysis whatsoever of contemporary politics in his book, a fact that’s almost refreshing. But his critique of masculinity feels so tethered to the current moment that it’s impossible not to read it and feel newly informed, if not sympathetic for generations of men who’ve been reared and educated in a way that leaves them, he argues, fundamentally unfit to participate in modern life. The leading cause of death in the U.K. for men under 45 is suicide, Perry points out, because British men have been conditioned to suffer in silence. And it’s easier for awkward young men to find likeminded communities of angry, isolated people online than it is for them to forge meaningful relationships in the real world. “The appalling ubiquity of online sexist and racist abuse speaks of lonely, angry men,” he writes. “If we don’t teach them emotional literacy, they might well end up living lonely, unhealthy, shorter lives.”
Perry considers so-called men’s rights movements as a reactionary movement whose targets are misguided. Rather than railing against feminists, he convincingly argues, men should take aim at masculinity, which has sold them a bill of goods it can’t possibly deliver. What, he wonders, might “a true movement for men’s rights look like?” Rather than reassure men that their glory days are within reach, it would have to persuade them that a future in which they share equal status with women might end up being the better bargain. The book is titled The Descent of Man, Perry acknowledges, because “as women rise to their just level of power, then so shall some men fall.” But, given that their power in the status quo is so often illusory, is it really a loss? As Perry writes:
All the laughing at offensive jokes, all the pumping iron, all the drinking, competing, all the suppressed pain and hiding of sadness, all the colluding in sexist office politics, all the coping alone, all the diseases diagnosed too late, all the hours of boredom talking about sport, all of it, all of it—for what? To keep up the act to be a foot soldier for an imaginary leader who sits in the top corner office of our unconscious.
The Descent of Man, a sprightly read at under 150 pages, fits into the tradition of the 18th-century treatise, a plea for a new, enlightened social order in the manner of Mary Wollstonecraft or William Hazlitt. (Its writing, droll and studded with pop-culture references, is unmistakably contemporary.) Whether or not it can have the same enduring impact remains to be seen. But simply by framing a repositioning of masculinity as a boon for men rather than a loss, Perry is doing something novel. “An emergent masculinity may be one that prizes tolerance, flexibility, plurality, and emotional literacy in the same way that strength, certainty, stoicism have been celebrated in the past,” he writes. “Give boys a finishing line and maybe they will race to cross it.”