In a world where a man who talks openly about kissing and grabbing women without consent can be taken seriously as a candidate for leader of the “free” world, you may wonder how toxic masculinity has spun out of control. As an antidote to all the bully posturing, perhaps the wisdom of a famous cross-dressing artist can help explain how we got here and how we can move forward, so it is time to pick up Grayson Perry’s The Descent of Man and begin to unravel the mystery of toxic masculinity.
If you have already spent some time pondering feminism, masculinity, and gender, you really have two choices as you read Perry’s screed: You can quietly applaud from the choir loft or utter a mild rebuke that it doesn’t go far enough to liberate us all from the shackles of rigid gender roles. On the other hand, if you have not really examined assumptions about gender and how they affect the world, prepare yourself for a brief but fairly inclusive overview of entertaining and insightful musings on gender, violence, fashion, and injustice.
If you aren’t already familiar with Grayson Perry, he is a famous artist, cross-dresser (he refers to himself as a transvestite and sometimes “tranny,” something I decline to do), and host of a television program titled All Man, which was also an exploration of masculinity. At the outset of the book, Perry says that some may think his cross-dressing gives him a better understanding of women, but he insists that it instead gives him a better understanding of men. Though he mentions cross-dressing a number of times in the book, it plays a relatively minor role in this overall thesis, with the exception of his emphasis on fashion.
For a man of a certain means and status, wardrobe options are limited. When doing any kind of business, a fairly bland suit with a fabric “penis,” as Perry says, wrapped around his neck is the default choice for what Perry describes as the Default Man. The Default Man represents all the power and privilege of being male, but Perry acknowledges that not all men share the power and privilege of maleness equally. Still, the Default Man is the assumed cultural archetype for Western society. His clothing is bland, Perry avers, because the Default Man is in a position to observe and objectify others, not to be observed and evaluated himself.
To care about fashion is decidedly unmanly, and, indeed, men who fuss about their appearance are often assumed to be gay by homophobes and self-appointed gender police. Men from other social classes may not be condemned to the prison of the gray suit, but are still considered effeminate in the event that they spend too much time worrying over hairstyles and clothing choices. This is why, of course, cross-dressing is so emotionally and, for some, erotically charged.
While noting that men are responsible for most of the violence in the world, Perry claims that aggressive masculine behavior is entirely, or almost entirely, the result of conditioning that begins even before birth as parents, family, and friends begin choosing clothing, toys, and decorations that “match” the gender of an expected child. Infants and children are treated differently according to their gender, so it would be surprising if boys and girls did not behave differently. Boys learn early to suppress their emotions, be fiercely independent, and solve problems with violence.
Perry gives many compelling and interesting examples of how boys and men experience violence and emotional isolation, but I wish he had spent a little more time talking to the men who seem immune from this conditioning and to people of all genders who fail to fill the role of stereotypical male. For example, if gender is all conditioning, why is it that at least some gay (and some straight) men fail to follow the dictates of the gender binary? What disruptions alter the course of the conditioning? If we are hoping to modify gender roles for future generations, we need to explore alternative paths to non-binary or, at least, non-destructive masculinity.
Though he gives some a passing mention, Perry mostly ignores the experiences of nurturing men such as at-home dads, male carers, transgender men, transgender women, and intersex people. Perry claims gender is a matter of performance in that we all perform behaviors, dress, and emotions that indicate our gender. In other words, we perform masculinity or femininity by taking on the attributes of either gender. In this sense it would seem that anyone would be free to change the mode of performance at any given time.
The use of the word “performance” in this sense recalls the work of Judith Butler, who distinguishes between “performance” and “performativity.” Butler explains here that performativity is about the effects our behavior as related to gender has while performance is a choice to take on a role. If gender were merely a performance, bullying and other forms of gender policing would probably not be such a problem. The shame people feel when they are unable to conform to gender expectations is related to what they are, not what they do. Perry is probably wise to avoid the treacherous philosophical waters of gender identity and deep linguistic analysis, but the question of how deep our inclinations run and can be modified haunts the discussion like the baggage of an old relationship.
In chapter four, he begins by declaring, “I think we like the idea that gender is in our genes because it is convenient, it lets us off the hook.” If he is correct and gender is not in our genes, is not biologically determined, then we have a much better chance at making changes. We can expand the emotional lexicon of boys and men. We can increase male capacity for empathy. We can end war and violence and finally bring peace on earth.
After declaring that we are free to change our gender expression, he paradoxically says this: “Men, bless ‘em, are tethered to a monster, a demon conjoined twin, a one-man ‘wrong crowd’ who will often drag then into bad behaviour. The penis is at once us and not of us.” He says a boy’s sex drive keeps him from understanding the importance of platonic relationships and forming adequate social support networks. Here, near the end of the book, he seems to be speaking of a kind of gender essentialism, which contradicts most of what comes before.
He says, “Men, particularly when young, view the world through a heads-up display of sexual desire.” I’ve never been a young girl or woman, but I have a suspicion that sexual desire also occasionally clouds female judgment and causes them to behave less rationally than they may otherwise hope. And some boys, I am certain, are not so driven by their sexual desires. Regarding biological determinism, Perry clarifies, “We may be genetically predisposed to be straight or gay, identify as male or female or in between, but I think the attitudes, cues, contexts, power relationships, props and costumes are supplied by conditioning.” This clarification is crucial.
While some men “perform” masculinity well and succeed throughout their lives, other boys and men (or people assigned male) find it impossible to “act like a man” and, further, have no desire to join the fraternity. Removing the toxic part of masculinity can make more room for varied forms of gender expression.
In the end, Perry seeks to liberate men from the confines of narrow gender conformity. Once men are freed from shame around weakness and vulnerability, perhaps they can have more compassion for themselves and for those around them. Perhaps, finally, boys who like My Little Pony can say so without fear of bullying. Perhaps, finally, men in the throes of grief can cry openly without being told they need to pull themselves together.