A big man-made problem: Masculinity and what to do about it
Title: The Descent of Man; Author: Grayson Perry; Publisher: Penguin Random House UK: Pages: 127; Price: Rs 499
Fans of the film Godfather may recall that scene in the beginning where Don Corleone's godson Johnny Fontane breaks down while revealing his problems and the exasperated Don gets up and shakes him, bellowing: "You can act like a man." Good advice? No, but not only because it is from a mafia supremo.
A lot of problems in our modern life, especially in recent times, are arguably man-made – with a stress on the first word. Or rather from the men, conditioned to display a pattern of particular attitudes and behaviour that is "expected" from them for ages.
But this sometimes can have less than salutary effects for people around them.
"Most men are nice, reasonable fellows. But most violent people, rapists, criminals, killers, tax avoiders, corrupt politicians, planet despoilers, sex abusers and dinner-party bores do tend to be, well... men," says artist, broadcaster and author Grayson Perry.
And in this incisive, persuasive, honest, and above all, witty book, he seeks to understand the root of this problem and what can be done about it, for it can – and does – have dire effects on society.
Ascribing this state of affairs to masculinity, or at least the version presently existing, he says it needs to be questioned but the first step is creating awareness of the problem – or rather, creating awareness that there is a problem.
If you think these are the hyperbolic rants of a feminist sympathiser, Perry, who stresses that he is not against men in general or even all masculinity, takes pains to create a compelling case for his contentions, why the issue needs attention and how men are also its major victims.
"Examining masculinity can seem like a luxury problem, a pastime for a wealthy, well-educated, peaceful society but I would argue the opposite: The poorer, the more underdeveloped, the more uneducated a society is, the more masculinity needs re-aligning with the modern world, because masculinity is probably holding back the society," he says.
For it is this "outdated version of masculinity" – of seeking power, dominance, or even to be right, of exhibiting strength and ambition – that is leading to crimes, wars, subjugation of women, and economies being "disastrously distorted". And then, some forms of such masculinity, "particularly if starkly brutal or covertly domineering – are toxic to an equal, free and tolerant society", warns Perry.
In his account, which blends personal experience, acute social observation -- though mainly in the Western context -- and analysis, including differentiating between sex and gender, a concept of the "Default Man" and how perceptions of masculinity by both sexes help to shape it, he focusses on four areas of masculinity which he thinks need overhaul, or even expansion with traits usually deemed "feminine".
These are power, or how men dominate much of our world; performance, or dressing (a particular highpoint) and acting the part of man; violence, and why men resort to it and crime; and finally, emotion, or how they feel.
As Perry elaborates on these, his writing becomes slightly uneven, with the latter chapters not as perceptive as the initial ones, but this is set off by some sparkling, aphorism-like turns of phrase. For instance, "Fulfilment of masculinity is often sold on the strength of peak experiences: Winning battles, pulling women, pure adrenaline, moments of ecstasy. But life ain't like that."
A collection of cartoons, a succinct summing-up and, lastly, a "Manifesto of Men's Rights" (which can fit on a postcard) are further compensation.
Finally, it must be revealed that Perry is a self-confessed, unapologetic transvestite. If this leads you, male reader, to query if he is even remotely qualified to discuss, let alone pass verdict on, such a "male" subject like masculinity, then the book is definitely for you. But do read it with an open mind.