The Descent of Man By Grayson Perry – A Review

In his Descent of Man, and Natural Selection in Relation to Sex Charles Darwin examined, what were considered at the time, to be the fundamental differences between the sexes in terms of their respective reproductive strategies and the subsequent social and ethical implications that came with them. In applying, what was, revolutionary biological theory to Homo Sapiens, Darwin had firmly located our species in the natural world.

This application of evolutionary theory to our species brought with it the use of the often misattributed and equally misunderstood concept: Survival of the Fittest. It is, or was Herbert Spencer’s idiom and its impact on the social perception of the sexes that has done so much to ensure the perpetuation of much of the social disparity we unfortunately see still today. By stating that there existed physiological division of labour between the sexes that hinged on their respective roles in the production of offspring (men produced and women reproduced), Spencer was able to provide seemingly scientific credibility to the pre-existing social dynamic; one that firmly placed white men at the top of the social and physical human family tree, leaving white women a distant second and those of other skin colours and cultural backgrounds barely on the tree at all. The concept also served to reinforce the existing, and equally odious, class divisions of the day. Those at the top were reassured, if ever they needed reassuring, that their place in the social hierarchy was inherent in their ‘breeding’ alone, not by centuries of Machiavellian manipulation and ruthless exploitation of others ­– they were, literally, “made of the right stuff”; those in the lower echelons, well, they weren’t. The blame cannot all be placed on Spencer’s shoulders though. He was, after all, born into, and lived in a prevailing social milieu that conditioned his thinking: the sexism inherent in his theory already existed and so, must therefore, have originated elsewhere. It does not require too great a leap of thought to determine from where it came.

It was another unwelcome survival of a bygone era, namely, monotheistic religion and its holy certitude of male superiority which ensured that whatever was discovered by the nascent scientific community females would, almost always, be subjected to social stigmatisation and inequality. Such is the depth of human ignorance, and so ingrained is the childish need to seek comfort in bigoted, archaic superstition and tradition, even among those considered to be learned, that any semblance of meaningful and permanent social change was almost guaranteed to fail or took place at a rate, so glacial, as to be almost useless to those in need of it. There are of course some exceptions to this, but one cannot claim for a moment that the influence of the Lord has done anything to further the cause of humanistic social advancement, especially when, from the outset, one half of the species were “designed” as a lesser being.

It is the requirement for social change that artist and agent provocateur Grayson Perry expounds upon in his book: The Descent of Man. The use of this title is itself a multi-faceted critique of Spencer’s notion and its effects. Firstly, in the case of idea of male ascendance and subsequent dominance and fact that it has become so ingrained in our thinking as to be seen as natural. Secondly that this acceptance has ensured that such an outdated concept has lingered for so long that it still blights so many people’s lives. And thirdly, in that the word: descent, is also a process of deterioration and degeneration. The effects of the current model of masculinity has guaranteed that while only the very few reap untold rewards by embodying this dubious quality, the vast majority exist to suffer.

As with his TV series All Man, Perry is adept at identifying and examining the various tribes of man, or rather: masculine tribes. From the mighty alpha males that make up the business elite to the violent council estate thug whose emotions pour out of their fists. He is careful to state that he is not attacking all men: so many men are also the victims of the tyranny of masculinity. By way of supplying proof of this Perry evokes personal experience to illustrate his argument, something that provides a welcome human element and credibility to what otherwise could end up as another rant against: The Man.

The essence of Perry’s discourse is that masculinity in its prevailing form is damaging, it is toxic to the vast majority of women that come into contact with it. Not only that: It is the root of unhappiness in men who do not cut “it” in the life-long race to be a real man. The ripples of this disenchantment then radiate out to affect everyone else in society. By casting a critical eye over the cultural signifiers that serve to perpetuate masculinity and its dominant social position, namely the gendering of colours, products, dress (The traditional business suit becomes a bland, ubiquitous, nonthreatening mask behind which the psychopathic Default Man lurks) and most of all: behaviour, we are all enslaved to The Man and his absolute need to be king of the hill. There is room for some of the old school traits, competitiveness, for example is not all bad when employed in moderation and the right context. To use a Spinal Tap analogy: If there were such a thing as a masculinity amp: it should be turned down from eleven; in fact, it should permanently be limited to two or three and always be used under supervision. If men (and by default everyone else) are to be genuinely happy and function as complete beings with a sense of self-worth, we must slay the tyrant king, abandon the worship of his image and stop trying to emulate his deeds and embrace a more tolerant, feeling, expressive and caring attitude. This would also help to free us all from the highly unhealthy need to compare ourselves to each other via the current yardstick of success (money, status, big cars, big houses, bigger houses, more money, power, more money, another bigger house, a big garage for the cars, more money), which is itself skewed by the heavy gravitational pull of the black hole that is: masculinity. At the end of the book he lists a set of Men’s rights: The right to be vulnerable, the right to be weak, the right to be wrong, the right to be intuitive, the right not to know, the right to be uncertain, the right to be flexible, the right not be ashamed of any of these.

I have to say that I’m with Grayson on this and have since long been before he even wrote his book. However, there are some areas in his argument that, I feel, need developing. One of the practical ways, he suggests, in which humanity’s lot can be improved is in the area of employment: more women should be doing more of everything, particularly in the rarefied environs of the male dominated boardroom. With this I also agree, but, how sure can we be that anything will improve once women are at the helm? If we look at powerful women, even though there have been so few they have had the alarming tendency to be as bad as the powerful men. Margaret Thatcher’s term in office was in and of itself a victory for women and feminism; but look at her record: she decimated British industry, instigated the free market economy that would lead the deregulation of the banks and the 2007 financial nightmare, waged a protracted war with the IRA, considered Augusto Pinochet a friend, failed to appoint a single woman to her cabinet, sold off council housing to the benefit of property magnates and Tory cronies, and took milk from the mouths of infant school children. Are we sure she wasn’t a man? Then there’s International Monetary Fund chief Christine Lagarde who failed to challenge an arbitrary payment of £355 million worth of taxpayers’ money to a friend of Nicolas Sarkozy, while she was French Finance Minister. How manly. What about the impeachment of the South Korean President on the grounds of corruption? And what of the women who served as guards in the Concentration and Death camps throughout Nazi occupied Europe or Queen Victoria, who was happy to reign over the largest empire in history, including holding the title: Empress of India. And take Theresa May, not only did she not win a vote in the Conservative Party’s leadership election for a leader, she was not voted into office by the people of Britain; so where exactly is the mandate for her to lead the nation? And when it comes to her first real test as a leader, Brexit, she threatened to employ the Royal Privilege, which would have allowed her, by way of a unilateral decision, to overrule parliament: in essence debasing the democratic process. Luckily, there was another woman, one with principles, who prevented this by way of an appeal to the High Courts.

One of the bases of Perry’s argument is an often cited one: namely that women’s minds are different from men’s and so, therefore, is their behaviour. Women are shown to be less inclined to high risk behaviour, something that would be an attractive quality in political leaders and those controlling the financial and business sectors. This of course is a very fine thing. But, can it be said to be true of the women who would seek out these positions? Would the system that is in place allow them to behave in more altruistic ways than their male counterparts and would they even be inclined to change that system if indeed they could? How can we say with any degree of certitude that the women who wish to work in high level politics and finance are not just as self-serving, prone to cronyism and corrupt as the men who currently hold all the cards? If change is to be meaningful, that is beneficial to all, then whoever takes change must have motives above and beyond their own advancement and person success, irrespective of their gender, sex or any other criteria.

While I fully support gender equality in all forms, I’m just not sure that very much would change just because the person at the top has a vagina. In its own way the notion of women being somehow more ethical than men simply because they are female is its own form of sexism. There is the faint whiff of: the fairer sex, that should raise alarm bells. Why shouldn’t women exhibit the same despicable personality traits as men? If power corrupts absolutely, then surely women are just as corruptible as men? And, while advancement up the corporate ladder may be very beneficial for the very few women who have, and may, in the future make it, their presence may in fact do very little to improve the lives of everyone else. Having said that, even if the female presence put but a small dent in the masculine armour it would be worth it; it would be a step on the road in the right direction, but should not be viewed as the final destination.

The problem with line of enquiry that Perry holds, whether in this book or his work in general, is that it relies too heavily on identity politics. While this is the cause celeb on the Left side of the fence, in the real world it does little to promote any change and in fact goes a long way to ensure the preservation of the status quo. By reducing politics to personal identity everything becomes about “me” and those people exactly like “me”, which should come as no surprise in a time of rampant narcissism and solipsism. This has two very negative effects. Firstly: the political landscape becomes overpopulated with interest groups and sub-groups who generally fail to take into consideration anything that does not affect or represent them directly and who in many cases are openly hostile to those who appear, but may not necessarily be, their opposite. Just look to the LGTB community by way of an example. The fight to end sexuality driven persecution is an important and very understandable one, but pay close attention and it doesn’t take long for that “community’s” own brand of bigotry to reveal itself. Racism is rife here, so too is homophobia. How can people who are subjected to chauvinism be so capable of perpetuating it? The answer is depressingly familiar. It allows them to feel superior, it unites them against a perceived common foe, it allows them to pursue their own agenda. By adhering to Identity Politics, by viewing membership of a minority group, whether on the basis of skin colour, gender, sexual preference or whatever else one may choose, as a revolutionary act the very notion of revolution is cheapened and rendered useless. One can be a revolutionary by simply: being. No work is needed; it is enough to simple state that one is: X or Y or Z and occasionally attend a protest march. Possibly the most damaging aspect of this is that it does the work of those who benefit from and wish to perpetuate the status quo for them. The internecine warfare that plagues the Left renders what should be a united opposition divided by its own hand. If anything is to change these groups must realise that they are all oppressed by the same group: the wealthy minority. Until they digest this simple fact they must content themselves with celebrating hollow symbolic victories which only serve to preserve their sense of self-worth and reinforce their own narrow-mindedness.

Ultimately, I think my issue with Perry’s book is that while it serves as a vehicle to promote debate it doesn’t provide real answers, other than those that we have heard before and which have largely failed to achieve meaningful Humanistic change. Again, like so much of what is produced by any number of commentators: it is reactionary, not revolutionary.

What we really need is a shift in thinking on a species level one that is truly universal and therefore instigates true equality, respect and worthiness for those ignored and unappreciated by the current system.  It may seem like an impossible task, but there is a precedent. One of the other areas where Perry could further his understanding is anthropology. Some of his references in this area while honest are rather simplistic. I have written previously on the work of anthropologist Chris Knight, his theory on the origins of culture provides, I believe, the mechanism for change that Perry is arguing for. Knight suggests that the birth of symbolic culture was an act of organized revolution by females in order to overthrow the prevailing social dynamic, which was dominated by manipulative and aggressive alpha males. They did this by organising themselves and all of the subordinate males who were also oppressed by the dominant males, via a sex strike, into a unified group, a genuinely united entity that dictated what was best for the group as a whole and would punish those who transgressed against the common good. While Knight’s work is historical, there are modern examples of how the fundamentals of his theory can be applied and deliver results. In Belgium, Kenya and Columbia sex strikes have been used to create governments and lower the rates of gang violence. With political events, particularly in the United States, taking such a disastrous turn, perhaps the women and men marching against the new president, arguably the ultimate example of Default Man, could use this opportunity to do something less reactionary and truly revolutionary.

The descent of Man By Grayson Perry Penguin Books, Limited 2016.