In many respects the first episode of Grayson Perry’s All Man was one of the finest pieces of television I have seen this year. As a straight-up slice of documentary-making it was compelling, insightful and deeply moving. Even the doubts I felt about the initial structural conceit – Perry sets himself a challenge of creating works of art to represent his journey of discovery – was swept away by the reactions of his contributors, particularly the mother of a young suicide victim, to the two pieces he made.
The intellectual content was also unusually rich. The linkage of the rise of hypermasculine mixed martial arts cage fighting in the North East with the collapse of coal and other heavy industries is pertinent and important, so too was his characterisation of masculinity as a protective shell, a suit of armour that men use to protect ourselves while simultaneously weighing us down and restricting us, preventing change. These are points that I and many others of like mind have been making for a long time, but beautifully expressed here.
“I am beginning to frame masculinity as a callous, if you like, on men, to protect them from the hardships of working in very heavy industries so when they need to change, to be flexible in the modern workplace, to be emotionally resilient, they struggle because that carapace that they’ve built around them shatters or snaps or folds. It doesn’t bounce.”
With all deserved praise duly paid, there was a crucial point missing from the programme and it was this: Masculinity is a political construction. The nuance of this was revealed in the closing remarks, when Grayson Perry talked about men needing to relent, needing to let go, needing to change, as if the only force that was preventing that happening, or which could cause it to happen, was men’s own stubbornness, men’s own choices, men’s own shortcomings.
To illustrate this in practice, imagine for a moment a documentary made in the same tone about ideals of femininity, one which examined serious issues such as the gender pay gap or the lack of women in politics, boardrooms or in science and technology, and did so by going to meet ultra-feminine working class subcultures in the nail salons of Essex or Liverpool or amongst the trophy wife yummy mummies of Cheshire or Buckinghamshire. Imagine this documentary concluded that what women really need to do is to learn to let go of their gender roles, learn to change, learn to relent, basically just pull their socks up and behave a bit more like men do.
I’d imagine such a documentary would be roundly castigated for being naïve and simplistic, and the film-maker, rather than being applauded for sensitivity and insight, would be (at least metaphorically) soundly beaten around the head with copies of Naomi Wolf’s Beauty Myth and Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique.
Is the situation here so very different? I don’t think so.
There is no doubt that men, or paradigms of masculinity, need to change. Tragic suicide rates are the most salient and inescapable illustration of this, but see also patterns of male violence and criminality, rates of alcoholism and addiction, untreated depression, social isolation and all the other topics that crop up on this blog, just for starters.
But for men to change, first of all society has to change, not the other way around and that is not a personal project but a political one. This is a key lesson that men can learn from feminism (and you don’t need to be a feminist yourself to agree.) This is not to deny individual agency or personal responsibility for one’s choices, but the bottom line is that the circumstances of a single man are a lifestyle choice. The circumstances of ten million men are a political outcome.
Part of this is the basic sociology of hegemonic culture. What that means in essence is that the collated trends of human behaviour that we call a culture is not a random mutation. It has been shaped in specific ways to provide value to the powers that be. Traditional working class masculine gender roles (risk-taking, violence, stoicism, protecting and providing) were obviously desirable to a society that primarily needed working class men to spend their lives risking life and limb on the fields of battle or agriculture, hauling steel over furnaces or ripping up coal from the depths of hell and playing their designated role in preserving the nuclear family (read yer Engels). If society continues to produce men with those values it is because at some level society still wants men with those values.
Of course none of this is a deliberate, conscious choice. David Cameron’s cabinet does not sit around planning how to best produce the next generation of compliant, long-suffering cannon fodder. Instead these processes are woven into the nap of society, permeating everything from education to entertainment and is as evident in the policies that are neglected as those which are adopted.
This week the Guardian carried an interview with Grayson Perry. At the bottom of the piece was a list of twelve suggestions for how men can change themselves to survive the modern world. I found this striking. Nowhere amid this was a single suggestion for ways in which public policy could change, society could change, culture could change. (I’d happily churn out a list of suggestions myself, everything from parental/fatherhood structures to educational policies to a strategy on violence against men and boys, but that is not the point here. The point is that we have not even started to ask the question.)
The bitter irony here, of course, is that this notion that men have the power to change themselves is the ultimate patriarchal delusion, one that even Grayson Perry seems to be buying into. At the same time as identifying and bemoaning men’s inability to admit vulnerability, weakness or needs, this atomized, individualised recipe for transformation merely recycles the same disease as a prescription. In other words, programmes like this condemn men for imagining they can solve their own problems by just pulling their socks up while at the same time suggesting that everything would be better if they just pulled their socks up.
As a society we find it really easy to understand that women are products of the culture that moulds them – consider all the concerns about Disney princesses, pinkification, gendered toys etc. We find It really easy to agree that women need help and support to be liberated and fulfilled, to have full opportunities in their life, education and careers. We find this easy because we are steeped in patriarchal values. For the exact same reasons we (as a society and individually) tend to fail dismally in recognising that the exact same is true of men. Men are not masters of their own destiny. We cherish the delusion that men are in control of their own destinies, when by and large they are anything but.
I welcome Grayson Perry’s careful consideration of modern masculinity. It is helpful that what he says can be heard. However we must recognise that what he is doing is identifying problems. Developing solutions is not a matter of art or psychotherapy, but of politics.