Hey you! Yes, you! Bear Grylls man – all macho and rugged with your Swiss army knife and jutting jaw. You’re finished, mate. Done for. Fit for the scrapheap. An embarrassment to humanity. A caveman in a computer age. This is the thrust of Grayson Perry’s latest offering for Channel 4: an attack on masculinity and manly men.
When I met him in his north London studio, Perry was dressed as a man, not his trademark alter ego Claire. But this was a diversionary tactic, as I soon discovered. Nothing about masculinity is pleasing to Grayson Perry. And very few men manage to make his list of acceptable chaps: in fact we had to struggle to think of the four he eventually selected. And top of the long list of those he certainly didn’t select was Bear Grylls. The great adventurer is, says Perry, “a hangover”.
“He celebrates a masculinity that is useless. Try going into an estate agent in Finsbury Park and come out with an affordable flat. I want to see Bear Grylls looking for a decent state school for his child!” And it’s not just the arm muscles that don’t work for Perry. It’s the whole he-man package: including at its core the idea that manly men must put up with danger and life’s slings and arrows because, well, that’s what men do.
Bear Grylls: a hangover from another age?
Nonsense, says Perry. The stoicism that we think of as a vital part of masculinity is damaging and wrong. We men should be courting vulnerability – we should be more than willing to cry and run when the creepy crawlies attack us in the woods, because this vulnerability is what makes us open to relationships, and relationships are the making of us all, men and women, in the modern world.
As Perry puts it, “Men might be good at taking the risk of stabbing someone or driving a car very fast, but when it comes to opening up, men are useless.” Of course these days the stabbing and fast driving are dimwitted things to do: it’s opening up that works, but we can’t do it.
He accepts that this is a big change. For much of human history, masculinity of the Bear Grylls type was a boon. It worked. It built empires and wealth and drove progress – he admits all that – but now in the 21st century, “masculinity is a decorative feature that is essentially counter-productive.” We are done for if we don’t change? I enquire in tones slightly more feminine than I intended. “Exactly.”
The evidence, he suggests, is in his new series, particularly the episode that focuses on crime. It is indeed difficult to make a case for the masculinity of the young men he meets on an estate in the former mining town of Skelmersdale in Lancashire. We see them puffed up with bravado and happy to take risks in their endless petty battles with the hulking sweaty police who follow them around, but could they do anything useful? Speak a language – even English? Cure cancer? Nurse a mentally ill patient? Or even hold down a job in the local Asda distribution centre?
These men come across as utterly defeated. If life is a great manly battle for success and prowess, they’ve already lost. They’re thin, wan little chaps who stand around in their estate, hating (for reasons they can’t explain) the boys who live on the next estate. And that’s about it. And poverty, Grayson Perry insists, cannot be the whole reason for their plight. After all, girls grew up on the estate, too: are they chasing around in stolen cars or dealing drugs or bashing each other over the head with hammers? Mostly not. And yet they are every bit as disadvantaged. Perry asks the boys why this is the case and they are, he says, “dumbfounded”.
Those boys have never thought deeply about anything, especially not themselves. Nor have most of the other men he interviews. “I got the impression,” he says, “that when I asked them to talk about masculinity, it was like asking a fish to talk about water. Self-examination was alien to them. Gender was a women’s issue.”
Perry is tough on masculinity and the causes of masculinity. He’s also aware of how utterly ghastly it is to be a modern man, particularly if you’re at the bottom of the social scale. “They’ve been sold a pup and you can’t suddenly turn around and say, ‘You know all that stuff about the dignity of working with your hands – well, it’s not really necessary any more.’ ” Only, of course, that is exactly what modern society has done to an entire generation of men. As Perry puts it, “Of the 15 professions said to be on the up employment-wise, only two are traditionally male.” And they are? “Computer programmer and janitor.”
Weep for masculine men. Not in front of them perhaps and don’t expect them to join you, but watch this series and weep for them anyway.
And then what? I ask Perry what his blueprint for new manliness might be and he admits quite openly that the masculinity he thinks would be successful might also be a bit, well, dull.
“Who has sex fantasies about gender equality?” he asks. “Our sexuality is formed in the past – we are invested in sexual differences.” In other words girls (even in Skelmersdale) fancy risk-taking, manly men. And men fancy women who are girly and soft-skinned and fluttery around the eyelids – in other words, as Perry says, “to an outdated stereotype of women”. And so it goes on: even though the male attributes are useless, they are still the ones that turn women on.
But things can change. Human behaviour changed when we stopped hunting and gathering and started to domesticate animals and practise farming. Now the male of the species has to make another profound change, Perry argues, and the time to start is now.
How convincing is all this? Grayson Perry is a funny old cove. He’s bright, articulate and in touch with his feminine side, to the extent of dressing (sometimes) as a woman. But he is also, as he admits, the victim of pretty ghastly male experiences, principally a stepfather who was “an alcoholic, violent, scary person”. My own father – BBC newsreader Peter Woods – abandoned my mother after getting her pregnant while married to another woman and fathering other kids. So I too have a dim view of those Philip Larkin called “fools in old-style hats and coats”.
However, the restless energy of masculinity that Perry suggests leads to crime and social collapse is also surely responsible for much human progress. Risk taking might be OK in sport or war, Perry sniffs, but not in much else. Really? Hasn’t risk-taking, sweaty masculinity powered all manner of cultural and artistic achievement? Has not capitalism – which has arguably been the chief driving force of the staggering rise in wealth that we’ve seen around the world in recent decades – been fuelled at least in part by the crazy pursuit of the dreams of men?
Or are we to agree with Perry that the game is up, and it’s time to hang up the club and animal skins and join the women reading in the library? Or perhaps we could keep the clubs and go to the library, too?
Years ago I was passing through Bath Rugby Club’s training ground and chatting to the captain Stuart Hooper and a former player, the very talented ITV rugby pundit David Flatman. For reasons I can’t quite remember, we were discussing machismo. First: what it is? Then, because we’re new men: how you spell it? And then (the epitome of girly) how you pronounce it? “Ma-chees-mo” rather than “ma-kis-mo” because the word is Spanish not Italian.
This is the modern locker room. Hoops and Flats can heave weights but they can talk linguistics, too. Grayson Perry’s men are losers. Not all men will feel themselves properly represented by his Channel 4 broadside. We need not be the stars in his show. We are better than Grayson Perry suggests.
Or, if I’m being feminine about it, I hope we are…
Grayson Perry: All Man begins on Channel 4 tonight (Thursday 5th May) at 10.00pm
Grayson Perry: All Man headlines a new arts strand being launched on Channel 4. Among the highlights is Random Acts, a 12-part Arts Council England- supported series of short films showcasing the work of new talent across the country.
Justin Webb regularly hosts Today, Radio 4