The Tragedy of Men

In a pithy and insightful new book, the British artist Grayson Perry laments how ill-suited masculinity is for modern life.

Grayson Perry poses in front of his work 'The Walthamstow Tapestry' in 2015 (Toby Melville / Reuters)

The past seven days have been a cheering time for masculinity, which—though frequently declared to be in crisis—appears to be more performatively virile and swaggeringly cocksure than ever. In Brussels, the American president and the French president participated in a handshake that looked more like a ritual dismemberment, gripping each other’s hands so tightly that Donald Trump’s characteristic grin wilted into a dyspeptic rictus of pain and dismay. In Montana, a millionaire candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives slammed a reporter to the ground, breaking his glasses in the process, while commentators on the right crowed that the spectacle of a “puny” journalist being manhandled was a sign of order being restored to the universe.

This resurgence of machismo could be interpreted as both symptom and cause of the young Trump presidency. While many voters were appalled by a candidate who alluded to his penis size during a national debate, bragged about his testosterone scores to Dr. Oz, and boasted about his license to commit acts of sexual assault, a sizable minority seemed to respond to Trump’s old-fashioned embodiment of the masculine id. In October, a poll conducted by PRRI and The Atlantic found that many conservative men felt threatened by their diminishing status in society, and saw Trump as the candidate who could restore their cachet. But, as the British artist Grayson Perry asks in his new book, at what cost?

The Descent of Man, a pithy and entertaining tract studded with illustrations and personal anecdotes, would be unremarkable if it were just another diatribe about toxic masculinity in all its forms. But what sets it apart is Perry’s compassion for modern men, who, he argues, are floundering thanks to a model of manhood that’s thousands of years out of date. On the very first page, he describes watching a father berate his son while wearing “the face of someone who hands down the rage and pain of what it is to be a man.” The result of this ongoing bequest, he observes, is that men are “conditioned to be something that is no longer needed,” primed for conflict and dominance and aggression in societies that are evolving to prize tolerance and emotional intelligence instead.

Perry, a Turner Prize-winning potter and a self-described transvestite whose female alter ego goes by the name “Claire,” is an intuitive observer of masculine mores—his sexual predilection for wearing women’s clothing, he posits, is itself a kind of negotiation with the burden of manhood. But he’s also quick to affirm his male credentials: his instinctively competitive nature as an athlete, his urge to buy powerful cars and motorcycles, his love of war films and novels growing up. He’s someone who confesses to having grappled with childhood trauma in therapy, and The Descent of Man courses with the kinds of enlightened conclusions that stem from a period of professional self-examination. This might easily be grating without Perry’s conversational and engaging voice steering readers throughout. He’s less concerned with apologizing for masculinity than he is in persuading men about all the ways in which it’s damaging their lives.

That said, the first chapter of The Descent of Man is a brisk and no-nonsense summation of masculinity’s rigid grasp on western culture. Perry names his avatar of white, middle-class, heterosexual males “Default Man,” observing how, “with their colorful textile phalluses hanging around their necks,” Default Men run the world, taking up 77 percent of seats in the U.K. government, and making up 92 percent of executive directors of British companies. Default Man, Perry observes, has shaped society around his own image, making himself “the reference point from which all other cultures and values are judged.”

These kinds of pronouncements are requisite but nothing new, and The Descent of Man becomes more intriguing when it explores how masculinity sells a dream that only a few, privileged men can realize. Others, Perry contends, have been conditioned by masculinity to expect “a historic birthright to power, respect, and pride” that often evades them, and the result can be an angry and primal instinct to assert their dominance. Ninety-five percent of prisoners in Britain are men (in the U.S. it’s 93 percent), and 75 percent of all crimes are committed by men. The one glaring characteristic most violent criminals have in common—so obvious, he points out, that it’s rarely stated—is that they’re male, whether they’re domestic abusers or white supremacists or ISIS recruits or mass shooters.

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.”