Often clad in towering heels and brightly-coloured dresses, the Turner Prize-winning artist Grayson Perry is far from the archetype of traditional masculinity.
In fact, the 56-year-old transvestite, who goes by his alter ego Claire, has been questioning his own gender identity since he was 12. “I always saw masculinity as optional,” he writes.
Perry believes that his transvestism permits him a greater distance and “sharper insight” into the many layers of manhood, which forms the focus of his new book, ‘The Descent Of Man’.
For him traditional masculinity is too prescriptive and narrow, with its values of power and wealth, alongside character traits of stoicism and efficiency. It permeates all areas of life from relationships, work, politics and even men’s outfit choices – the plainer the better, thanks.
Perry believes this version of manhood has dramatic consequences for all of us, especially men.
“Crimes are committed, wars are started, women are being held back, and economies are disastrously distorted by men, because of their outdated version of masculinity,” writes Perry.
But that’s just the tip of the iceberg, he says, on a personal level the stiff upper lip approach renders men “emotionally illiterate” and unable to forge healthy relationships. This leaves them incredible fragile but unwilling to show vulnerability – a dangerous combination when it comes to mental health.
Perry argues the traditional masculinity that currently dominates only benefits a minority elite: The Default Man.
White and middle-class, they occupy the majority of positions of power in government and business. Anyone who does not match with the Default Man’s ethnicity, class and gender are seen as a minority group. The Default Man’s view is the default world view.
But even while times change and more diverse voices rise up, traditional masculinity digs in its heels. Perry describes it as nostalgic and inflexible, longing for a time when men held ultimate power, while feminism, on the other hand, is forward-thinking and keen to bring about change. This explains why the two camps are often at loggerheads with one another.
US President-Elect Donald Trump offers the ultimate and (most timely) representation of Perry’s Default Man.
“With his slogan ‘Make America Great Again’, he’s really saying ‘Make Men Great Again’,” Perry tells The Huffington Post UK. “Trump is offering the white male working-class voter masculine nostalgia.”
“Because of Trump’s position of privilege and inherited wealth and power, he’s never had to think about his masculinity, because it’s always worked for him.”
He argues that the masculinity that Trump supporters have bought into “isn’t working” for a lot of men.
“It’s a myth and men have got to adapt to the future not to the past,” he adds.
“These men are sticking with masculinity they’ve inherited. It comes from the past, the days of heavy industry and farming. But it doesn’t work anymore. Not only are they gonna find it hard to find a partner, they’re gonna to find it hard to get a job, because people aren’t gonna want to work with those types of men.”
Differences in class, ethnicity and religion will define how big a slice of the man pie you receive. The further removed from the Default Man, the more meagre the serving.
“Working class men often feel because men are in power that they’re in power. They have to realise that they are as much victims of the establishment masculinity as women are in many ways,” he says.
“There’s this idea that because men are in charge they think that they’re in charge, but really they are just getting the crumbs from the top table.”
While women have long been the most acutely affected by gender politics, Perry asks whether many men are also victims of masculinity.
Perry is keen to stress that this is an attack on masculinity, not on men themselves – after all he is one.
Throughout the book he acknowledges his own masculine traits, such as “competitive point-scoring” with other men, with unflinching honesty and talks at length about how his childhood – with an absent father and violent step-father – left deep-rooted issues that weren’t fully explored until his late 30s, when he started therapy.
His work is an investigation into masculinity for men, as a tool to help inform and empower them to take charge of their own lives.
For Perry, masculinity is beyond crisis. Our definition of ‘being a man’ needs to change and fast.
Suicide is the single biggest killer of men aged under 45 in the UK, according to new UK-wide statistics compiled by CALM and HuffPost UK.
The data shows that more than 4,500 men kill themselves every year in Britain, with men three times more likely than women to take their own lives.
Men are less likely to seek help than women, and if they do it is usually to their GP rather than a family member or friend.
“For many, masculinity is a fatal burden,” writes Perry. “These figures are but the tip of the iceberg of lonely, depressed men who feel unable to reach out for meaningful human contact. We need to shout from the rooftops that masculinity is whatever you want it to be.”
For Perry, men need to become more in touch with their emotions. The straightjacket of “emotional self-sufficiency” is taught from a young age and is at the heart of the problem.
“Men think that talking about emotions and relationships is women’s business,” he tells HuffPost UK. “They have low tolerance to their own feelings. What they’ve got to learn is to let them in… I’ve spoken to a lot of men about feelings and they think if they started crying they’d never stop. It’s all or nothing. There’s no throttle control.”
Men desperately need to learn to be more flexible and vulnerable to better equip themselves for navigating their lives, he says.
“Life isn’t like driving a car, you have keep your hands on the wheel. You can’t just turn the steering wheel and hope for the best, you have to turn it one way and then the other in any given moment or situation. The set of emotional skills men need to learn are there so they can behave appropriately in any context.”
Touring the UK with his show ‘Typical Man In A Dress’ to promote the book and discuss its theme, he wanted to use himself as an example to other men, under the premise of ‘show don’t tell’.
“Standing up there on stage in a short dress, dancing about, having a laugh and being very uninhibited is almost as much as a lesson as what I was actually saying in some ways to men,” he recalls. “I’m up there saying: ‘I’m not worried of looking like an idiot. I’m not fearful of ridicule.’”
At the end of the book, Perry introduces a manifesto for men, which outlines a new set of rules to fit a more “pluralistic masculinity”. These include the right to be vulnerable, weak, uncertain and wrong – among other things.
He nods to the more positive sides of masculinity as a template for the modern man, including tenderness and supportive qualities. While Donald Trump may epitomise the traditional male order, Barack Obama is used to illustrate another, more hopeful and forward-thinking approach.
“His [Obama’s] calm thoughtfulness, emotional ease, wit and eloquence in the face of gross expectation and intractable problems is breathtaking.”
Perry believes that men have to be at the forefront of this change, but that women have an important role to play, as well as the networks surrounding men, from partners to parents.
Deliberately appealing to typical masculine pastimes, Perry writes towards the end of the book: “I think that men need to look inside themselves (open the bonnet), become more aware of their feelings (read the manual) and start adapting (upgrade).”
Grayson Perry ‘The Descent Of Man’ is out now. To coincide with International Men’s Day, Perry has launched a Super Mario-style simulation game, The Default Man, where players can experience the trials and tribulations of Default Man, smashing through all obstacles to reach the very top.
The Huffington Post UK’s month-long ‘Building Modern Men’ initiative aims to highlight the pressures men face around identity and to raise awareness of the epidemic of suicide.