This is a relatively short book which explores the idea and practice of masculinity, based on Grayson Perry’s engagement with the topic via a TV series he developed on the topic (All Man), together with his reflections of his personal experiences. Based on a problematisation of masculinity in modern society, the book is split into four parts, each exploring a different facet of masculinity and its contemporary meanings, processes and impacts.
The first focus is that of power, and how men, in particular a particular group of richer, often more middle/upper class men, have much of the power in modern societies and use this to perpetuate a narrow set of advantages. The exploration of how other groups, including women, ethnic minorities, the disabled etc are disadvantaged is developed here, including how shifts in power have been met with resistance by some in the powerful male group. There is also reflection on how men who are not in these powerful groups, namely the working class, find other ways to try to act as powerful agents at a more local or even personal scale. Consideration is then given as to how change in these power networks, to make societies more equal and inclusive would lead to much more positive societies which might be more at ease with themselves and others.
Next comes a reflection on the ways in which men act out their masculinity, particularly through the ways in which they dress and act. There is an interesting discussion on identity, and a fairly standard but well-crafted and insightful discussion about gendered clothing for children and the types of toys etc that they are assumed to prefer. There is a really interesting personal reflection by Grayson Perry reflecting on his own childhood and his experiences of clothes and deciding how to dress. Whilst much of the wider content of this chapter is not really new, the engaging writing and use of interesting examples helps draw the reader into reflecting about their own experiences and perspectives around how we present ourselves to the outside world, and why we do this in particular ways.
The penultimate chapter focuses on more traditional portrayals of masculinity and how some sections of society are still trapped in these ways of acting, here argued to be the result of a lack of positive male role models. Consideration is given to why very masculine persona can be problematic, using a detailed reflection of an example of a group of teenagers from Skelmersdale who had been part of Grayson Perry’s original TV series. What I liked about this discussion is that he makes the point that such potentially violent masculinity, whilst perhaps most overt in contexts such as this, is not a single class problem, it is merely that middle- and upper-class violence is often better hidden, and in the case of domestic violence, may be more mental than physical. Avoiding easy tropes such as violence being solely a working class issue (beloved of sections of the right wing press) helped in reflecting on the genuine ubiquity of the problems involved.
The final chapter considers emotions and the many ways in which masculinity can mask or prevent men from opening up and being honest about their feelings; suicide rates amongst men are much higher than women. Consideration is given to the messages boys experience in childhood that all too often lead them to believe that they need to look strong and to show little emotion. It is argued that this results in many men being unable and unwilling to be honest about their feelings in case they are thought of as weak. Grayson Perry then develops some of the strands of this argument to reflect on sexuality and possible links to childhood experiences. Finally, he begins to consider how masculinity needs to be changed, morphed to realign how men see themselves and how they see their place and role in society. There is no silver bullet here I’m glad to say, no surprise solution to what is a complex and difficult set of issues and problems, but nevertheless Grayson Perry does offer so me nuanced ideas about how we can begin to reform masculinity into something more positive and something which embraces a greater sense of equality.
This is very much a polemic and therefore some of the arguments at times feel a little simplistic. It is also a slight annoyance that where data or examples are given, it is not always clear where sources come from that could be explored further. But these are minor points. The mixture of thought and exploration of big issues, linked to both more detailed examples and personal reflections is really engaging and gives a great deal of food for thought and reflection. I can imagine this being a great ignition point for further discussion for couples or groups (regardless of gender makeup) based on the range of insights and the interesting foci by which the book is structured and as such might be a great resource for thinking about processes of change.
Some reflections on things I'm reading