The Descent of Man by Grayson Perry

The Descent of Man

Grayson Perry

The Descent of Man is a timely and essential addition to current conversations around gender.

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What does it mean to be male in the 21st Century? Award-winning artist Grayson Perry explores what masculinity is: from sex to power, from fashion to career prospects, and what it could become—with illustrations throughout.

In this witty and necessary new book, artist Grayson Perry trains his keen eye on the world of men to ask, what sort of man would make the world a better place? What would happen if we rethought the macho, outdated version of manhood, and embraced a different ideal? In the current atmosphere of bullying, intolerance and misogyny, demonstrated in the recent Trump versus Clinton presidential campaign, The Descent of Man is a timely and essential addition to current conversations around gender. 

Apart from gaining vast new wardrobe options, the real benefit might be that a newly fitted masculinity will allow men to have better relationships—and that’s happiness, right? Grayson Perry admits he’s not immune from the stereotypes himself—yet his thoughts on everything from power to physical appearance, from emotions to a brand new Manifesto for Men, are shot through with honesty, tenderness, and the belief that, for everyone to benefit, updating masculinity has to be something men decide to do themselves. They have nothing to lose but their hang-ups.


Advance Galley Reviews

This book was a brief glimpse into a growing complex issue of modern times. It is an issue that is dividing a lot of individuals along the lines of science, religion and more. It is an interesting discussion on gender but a biased one based on personal observations and experiences of the author. It's very difficult to omit all bias, hence why I am always skeptical of things that ever say bias free (general comment). This by no means a definitive work on gender. However, it is an engaging viewpoint and definitely worth a read to anyone interested in the study of gender and identity.

Grayson Perry teaches gender discourse through his personal story. Perry presents ideas about masculinity in an easy-to-read manner, putting the conversation about gender roles into the hands of anyone browsing a bookshelf. The book is short -- only 160 pages, including illustrations. It feels like Perry is telling you about the ways that modern masculinity hurts everyone, including and especially men, then sketching little diagrams to help make his point. It's an easy read, and a good one.

Grayson Perry is known mostly for his artwork and transvestism. Here he draws on his own experiences with masculinity and femininity to explore traditional ideas about what it means to be masculine, and challenge those ideas. It's an easy, interesting read, complete with some great artwork. Where it fails a little is when considering this alongside other books about gender. It works better as a memoir on Perry's growing up and transvestism. The Descent of Man is very personal - which alternated between being a positive and a negative. His experiences as a boy trying on his mother's dresses and redefining his own personal gender norms were great to read about and kept the pages turning, but what this book adds to the discussion on gender and masculinity is less impressive. Perry doesn't cite any references, though his ideas have already been brought forward by numerous other writers - most notably, Judith Butler in Gender Trouble. Anyone who has read a little into gender studies already knows what he tells us: that masculinity is a social construct; that the patriarchy and gender binary are damaging to women, men and those who identify as both or neither; that a better world, a better notion of masculinity, would allow men to be weak, vulnerable and emotional. He sets out with two clear agendas: 1) To expose the social construct of masculinity, and 2) Convince men it is beneficial to them to change the traditional idea of what it means to be "masculine". He does the first mostly by reiterating the work of other writers. By far his most valuable contribution to the gender discussion is his idea of the "Default Man" - an oblivious creature who doesn't see the detriment to society caused by traditional ideas of gender because they tend to work in his favour. Too bad Perry makes way too many generalizations with this idea without pausing to consider how some might intentionally use it to their own benefit, or simply not care about the harm it does because of their personal beliefs or gains. Additionally, by his own admission, he wishes to convince these "Default Men" that they should change, and despite showing his own experiences and how a new interpretation of masculinity could benefit him, I don't think he did that. The later chapters of the book lost the initial focus and I felt it lacked a strong conclusion as to how the "Default Man" would benefit from a change. The DM, by his nature, believes in traditional masculinity that shuns male weakness, so offering him the opportunity to be weak feels, itself, like a weak argument. Also, though he expresses many ideas aligned with feminist ideology, he refers to them as "the feminists", a separate group - it seems - from himself. And though I don’t believe he meant this to be derogatory, his clear desire to distance himself from the word was unfortunate, given the book seems in many ways a feminist one. Still, a quick and interesting read. I especially liked Perry's acknowledgement of the masculine and feminine traits that can exist alongside one another in anyone. They are not mutually exclusive. In fact, this reminded me of one of my favourite songs: When I Was a Boy by Dar Williams.

"The Descent of Man" is a UK import on the argument of the male mind and why it's difficult for men to let go of the preconceived notion of "manliness". A short 150 pages, this nonfiction book reads more like a long magazine article, with full-color satire illustrations. What's missing are more solid statistics on inequality (I've presented the same argument that women make less than men for the same job only to be told by inequality-deniers that this is only because the male worker has been at the company longer, is more qualified, etc. and it would be nice to counteract with hard data). The solutions presented in the book are also at odds. While at one point claiming that the majority of violence is committed by men and that includes war, the author suggests that men need a "right to passage" to counteract that "violent impulse" that includes violent sports (boxing) or going to war (?), claiming these options are also outlets for the so-called "male energy" to go. What the author really should do is add the word 'kind' behind 'man' in his title. What the real message here (and that's only touched upon in a few sentences in the book) is the real problem that has nothing to do with the so-called battle of the sexes: It's that in this new generation we're more concerned with getting out more than what we're willing to put in. This idea is mentioned briefly in the chapter dealing with the "new era" of men dating who feel like they're being forced to be "second to women". It's not about women telling men what to do, it's anyone telling anyone (regardless of gender) what to do and no one wanting to do anything. When he writes "The Descent of Man" I surely thought he meant mankind, because yes, that is in descent. We are in devolution, that much is true. Bringing it down to the sexes is the same argument we've heard from the beginning of time and while this book will certainly be a read for some who want to understand why men act the way they do, men will never pick it up who already have the "macho" attitude who probably equate reading the way Albert Einstein did, which was as a "nostalgic past-time". An interesting read, but the author leaves out a lot of hard data or other factors that relate to why men act a certain way such as religion.

I received this book in exchange for an honest review. I found it to be an interesting discussion of how gender begets masculinity and how this influences culture and informs the values and morals of the present day society. I was rather disturbed that the author completely disavows any role that genetics may play in the complexity of these processes. The book is definitely readable and one can see how one's own behaviors fit within the concept and context of what it is to be "masculine", "feminine", or a variant thereof. It is somewhat biased as it is heavily based on the observations and experiences of the author. It is an engaging viewpoint of the subject of what it means to be masculine however.

I rather enjoyed this book. It would be a good pair up with Naomi Kline's "The Beauty Myth". I liked how Perry ponders the question of how the stereotypical male behaviour was started and how to come up with new mindset on what is masculinity. Men's groups should get copies of this book and ponder over it together. Also it would make a good read for young people trying to find their place in the world. And mostly, pink used to be the most masculine colour and blue the most feminine colour before many ad agencies made the switch we know today.

Men. It's difficult to easily summarize what it means to be a man as there are many, often conflicting, ideas that come to mind in describing what a man is and how he should behave. Grayson Perry's The Descent of Man self-reflectively looks at masculinity. A rather quick text of the current state of affairs of how men are perceived by themselves and by others, it does not mount an attack or turn whiny but instead approaches the concept of masculinity with an aim toward highlighting the role that society inevitably plays in forming an "acceptable" version of masculinity and how that can modify attitudes and behaviors relating to equality. While there was research presented on the subject of various gendered topics, much of what was presented seemed more personal or anecdotal in nature, which helped to contextualize the points being made into more of a "here's how this manifests and plays a role in your life," but failed to progress a dialogue on the issues regarding masculinity that were initially raised. This was an enjoyable read but didn't present much new material to foster more meaningful discussions to progress thoughts and actions on the subject; rather it offered readers a rehashing of things they likely already knew. Overall, I'd give it a 3 out of 5 stars.

 


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