"In their drive for domination, men may have neglected to prioritize vital aspects of being wholly human", Grayson Perry boldly claims in his new book The Descent of Man. Aptly named for Darwin’s evolutionary work of the same name, Perry’s focus is 'manliness' as it currently exists – what it means to be a man, how masculinity operates, and why differences in gender have come to mean so much in our society. Characteristically, Perry doesn’t shy away from controversy, honestly sharing his opinions; 'the consequences of rogue masculinity are… one of the biggest issues… facing the world today…starkly brutal or covertly domineering [forms of masculinity] are toxic to an equal, free and tolerant society' – a concept it is refreshing to see from a man’s point of view.

Perry’s purpose is not to set himself against men, and the book is not intended to be a criticism of masculinity. Rather, it is his underlying belief that the modern man’s desire to be 'successfully masculine' may be inhibiting his own happiness. With this outdated model of masculinity contributing to crime, war, 'disastrous distortion' of economies, and the disadvantage of women the world over, does anyone even benefit from the drive to be macho? With this belief in mind, Perry’s comprehensive examination of masculinity combines a serious global significance (that 'men seem to be the ones with the power, the money, the guns and the criminal records') with a personal suffering (that masculinity might be 'a straitjacket that is keeping men from 'being themselves', whatever that might mean').

Perry, understandably, categorically denies that being a transvestite gives him a 'special insight' into being a woman. Instead, he claims, it gives him an advantage in the study of masculinity, having been 'intensely questioning' the concept since the age of twelve. He eloquently describes his individual position, describing masculinity as 'the lumbering beast within me which I have tried to supress and negotiate with my entire life'. His arguments are somehow more believable when taken alongside the knowledge that The Descent of Man is largely based upon his own struggle with the concept, as well as the painstaking research carried out for both the book and his most recent television series, All Man, in which he visited 'ultra-male' worlds to scrutinise contemporary masculinity. His artistry also makes appearances throughout the book in the form of wonderfully perceptive illustrations; light-hearted cartoons that maintain an optimistic theme throughout the book.

His ultimate optimism is what sets Perry’s book apart from other studies of masculinity. It is difficult to discuss masculinity without touching upon feminism, which often causes tension with supporters of 'men’s rights'. Yet there is undoubtedly a larger overlap between the two sides than either feminists or men’s rights supporters would like to admit. After all, as Perry states in his 'manifesto for men', men too have the right to be weak, vulnerable, and wrong. Most of all, they have the right 'not to be ashamed of any of these'. As studies of masculinity begin to be publicly addressed outside of the academic realm of 'gender studies', the stereotypes, expectations, and outdated conceptions of 'manhood' will hopefully become more widely understood, and, optimistically, 'make the world a better place, for everyone'.

Annie Clay