Grayson Perry didn’t see a man cry until he was forty years old. Forty.
And what becomes clear in the artist’s eye-opening, moving new documentary series All Man is that even in 2016, in the (dry) eyes of many British men, showing emotion is unmanly. Sure, you might know a metrosexual, stay-at-home-dad who unabashedly gets a weekly manicure and is always discussing his emotions – but he’s only one aspect of society.
As the artist spends time with cage-fighters – plus the mother of a young man who committed suicide – in the ex-mining town of Trimdon Grange in County Durham, he investigates what masculinity actually means – and how the need to be tough has affected generations of men.
Because while women have been, on the other hand, negatively portrayed through history as hysterical messes of emotion, they’ve also got a lower suicide rate and a far better record of seeking help for their mental health. They haven’t inherited the legacy of toughness and are therefore, in this way at least, more liberated.
So as a woman who spends a lot of time thinking about feminism and how women behave and are treated differently to men in society, Perry’s look at masculinity was a fascinating insight into The Other Side. Especially the stoic miners in County Durham who kept their feelings under bolt and key, to the detriment of their mental health. Equally, now that men aren’t always the breadwinners, and their roles aren’t as clearly carved out, you can see why some are struggling to find a masculine identity.
It’s a very complex issue, but Perry does a seriously good job of finding out what makes these Durham men tick, where they see themselves in society and how they’ve dealt with the legacy of toughness their grandfathers and great-grandfathers passed down to them.
Because just as feminism isn’t just a woman’s cause, men’s mental health isn’t only for men to worry about. Surely, if women are able to better understand the pressures men face, they can help to slowly release their brothers, fathers, sons, partners from the negative aspects of manliness. Everyone would benefit, not least the women. The need to be tough isn’t in itself an issue, but when it encourages the bottling up of emotions to the point of suicide, it very much is.
As a cross-dressing artist who creates pots and tapestries, Perry unsurprisingly says he doesn’t feel the need to be a traditional masculine hero (his heroism comes from having exhibitions at the British Museum…) but he’s grown up in a family of stoic working class men who definitely did.
“Nobody wants to be seen as not being the man, everybody wants to be seen as strong” says one young man, discussing his friend Daniel’s suicide. If only he’d opened up about his feelings things might have been different, he adds.
For most women, the idea that you wouldn’t discuss your feelings with a friend is hard to imagine. But as Perry’s documentary shows, for many men that’s a normality.
As the artist surveys Daniel’s grave with his mother Thelma, he says simply but poignantly, “I think sometimes men don’t even know when we are sad.”