Masculinity for Today: The Descent of Man. {Book Review}

The rise of Donald Drumpf has instigated a plethora of important discussion, debate and determinations on why and how such a thing could’ve happened. (See my own hypothesis here). Hypotheses abound: ignored economic pain, the bubble-burst of insidious racism and sexism, immigrants “stealing” jobs, or even just “anyone but her.”

But if we are truly seeking the root cause of the rise of what many view as the epitome of toxic masculinity, I believe it lies between the front and back cover of Grayson Perry’s new book,The Descent of Man. (Though Perry himself never suggests he offers an explanation for Drumpf’s rise; he refers to him only once throughout his book.)

Let me begin with a reminder that a reference to “man” does not refer to every single walking male but rather to the masculine archetype. While it’s true that males exhibit more masculine traits more often, I do not consider the method and mannerisms of Kellyanne Conway feminine, for instance. Likewise, an artist such as Pharrell Williams exhibits qualities traditionally attributed to “feminine.”

Perry too suggests that masculinity/femininity is not something we are, but something we are taught: “But masculinity and femininity are not primarily biological, they are mainly life-long social routines we are schooled in from birth.”

To many of us it’s unfathomable, even absurd, that anyone might not wish to create a more fair society—complete with equal pay, rights and opportunity for all. But it is exactly this increasingly modern, democratic, share-and-share-alike world that likely poked the dragon in the eye. Perry explains: “The basic dynamic of masculinity – the need for dominance – appears to be completely out of kilter with the whole modernist project.”

He offers fascinating food for thought on the conflict of interest within man himself: “The brain, the very organ that has given the human race its success, may have long ago set in train a process —modernity and democracy—that may be incompatible with traditional masculinity.”  But today’s “Laws, chivalric codes, etiquette and manners have all evolved to keep man’s earthly appetites in check.”

This unconscious, feed-me-now masculinity has decided it’s time to rid himself of restrictive checks and balances on his behavior. Time to roar wildly again, say things he’s had to choke back, grab things he’s had to keep his hands off of, all behaviors which Drumpf has demonstrated. Man has shot himself in the foot and is now trying to reverse course.

Perry introduces us to Default Man: the white, middle-aged, middle-class, heterosexual male (and I might add Christian). Default Man disappears into society’s background (think of the ubiquitous grey suit) in such a way that he becomes the background. Therefore his ways become society’s ways. His beliefs become society’s beliefs. His priorities become synonymous with society’s priorities. Anything and anyone that does not meet these norms—‘weaker’ men, women, artists, minorities, immigrants, elderly—is the “other,” and the other’s ways and customs are not level with his. This is what “privileged” means.

Continued societal progress and certainly feminism threatens to phase him out. Grayson writes, “For many men, progressive feminist arguments can feel like a defeat, a slippery slope to redundancy and humiliation. You are no longer fit for purpose, we don’t need lumbering, warmongering, animal chasers any more.” But if there is no enemy to kill, no righteous war to fight, no ‘other’ to demonize, no victim to bully, who does he become? The warrior in him still needs to fight, battle and chest-thump and is tired of being told he must compromise, share, ask first, relinquish, and simmer down.

Through Default Man’s eyes a vote for Donald Drumpf was perhaps his last stand, his only valid choice in a rapidly changing world. Under Default Man’s outward grasp for power and control is an inner cry for relevancy and purpose. He can only reclaim these things, he believes, by setting the clock back to a time when people knew their place and he stood at the top: “Men, though, always seem to be harking back to some mythical golden age (for men) when men were ‘men.”

We are not talking about a minor issue or slight correction. I agree with Perry when he writes, “The consequences of rogue masculinity are, I think, one of the biggest issues, if not the biggest issue, facing the world today.” Both women and men must ask Perry’s question: “what sort of men would make the world a better place, for everyone?”

The problem is this: while women in incredible numbers continue to question their identity and refine who they are (look at attendance at spiritual/yoga workshops, or the demographics of purchasers of self-help books), men have done little to question the inherent and inherited belief sets that come with masculinity. Given its interlocking relationship with society itself, it hasn’t been up for debate.

Faced with change and progress Default Man sees only loss in power and stature. What if we show him what he stands to gain?

Perry argues that in developing only one side of their nature—the masculine—men hold themselves back from a richer, deeper life: “In their drive for domination, men may have neglected to prioritize vital aspects of being wholly human…preventing their greater self from being successfully happy,” and “The real benefit might be that a visible, emotionally aware and engaged No Longer Default Man has better relationships – and that’s happiness, right?”

The last, single-page chapter of Perry’s book is entitled, “Men, sit down for your rights!” It includes the following list that I imagine hung on every refrigerator:

“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 to feel ashamed of any of these”

Perry suggests, “Maybe we should…tell them that the war is over, and help them adapt to life in modern society.”

Because before there will be peace in our world, “Men need to learn to equip themselves for peace.”


  1. […] at some point in my life. Likely, we all have. Likely, whether man or woman, we’ve been told to “grow a pair,” or grow some “hair on our […]

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