The Descent of Man (Review)

Several months ago when hosting a moderately successful open mic on Masculinity, I was struck by the number of young men who wished to contribute but feared ridicule. One pointedly referred to the event as a ‘trap’, obliquely accusing me of coxing out male vulnerability for spectacle. So pervasive is this crisis of masculinity, that Grayson Perry the author of The Descent of Man exasperatedly reassures his male readers that “no one dies of embarrassment”.

I can quote Margaret Atwood till I’m blue in the face but the stubborn resistance of masculinity has tuned out most women reducing their legitimate concerns to white noise.

Grayson Perry, an artist and once overtly masculine man with a penchant for cross dressing, takes on the burden of educating his fellow men on ingrained patriarchy. In the first third of the book he takes the masculine ideal of “the Default Man”, white, middle-upper-class heterosexual man, and demonstrates its irrelevance to the majority of its gender, and why it is unwilling to forgo the advantages it has violently wrestled from others.

Grayson, puts together a helpful primer on gender. Alluding to how male privilege being largely unchallenged in the modern era has paved the way for the election of Trump, the perfect embodiment of the illogical assumptions of toxic masculinity.

Since men appear reluctant to forgo their dominion, Grayson appeals to the inevitable existential crisis if men continue to cling to outdated gender roles, whilst forward thinking women adapt and learn new skills developing male traits if necessary. The Descent of Man is almost guaranteed with automation in the fields of finance, engineering, medicine, law and accounting, with men only dominating in computing and janitorial services.

The toll of masculinity on men makes up the core of the book. Its vice-like hold on emotional intelligence, stunting men into believing in a pecking order dominated by “alpha men” and their emblems of success. Despondency at failing to achieving masculine ideals is endemic, and the absence of emotionally outlets provide fertile ground for violent movements ranging from white supremacy to ISIS. What does one say in the face of statistics that prove suicide is the lead killer of men under 45? He honestly navigates the assumption that a feminised man is a sexual turn off, removing another stumbling block for the progressive man.

Grayson has higher aspirations for men he wants for us to stop seeing them as cardboard brittle, inflexible and unable to change. As he says “ they pretty much have the same brains as women”.

The Descent of Man is an accessible must read for men everywhere and will go some way in eliciting empathy for those caught in the unforgiving and unreasonable expectation of masculinity.

Aysha Raja

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