When I was eleven, my family were invited to a crossdressing party. It was my whacky aunt’s 30th birthday and everyone had to come in drag. My mother dressed as a gangster, my father was a gangster’s mole, my little sister was Pinocchio, and I was Little Bo-Peep. I wore a floor-length, taffeta gown, a bonnet, and I carried a crook and a small, plush lamb. At the party there were nuns with beards, cowboys with cleavage, and a mobile disco pumped out the current hits of the 80s. Everyone had a blast – everyone, that is, but me. I hated every second of being in that dress. I felt like a fool. And when I was finally allowed to take it off and get back into my regular boy clothes, I had the DJ to play the rappiest record in his collection, and I breakdanced to Kenny Loggins’s “Footloose” like my life depended on it.
For Grayson Perry, though, being made to dress like a girl would have been absolute heaven. Perry has been dressing up in women’s clothes since he was twelve. He’s a transvestite. He’s also an internationally acclaimed artist, a keen mountain biker, a devoted husband, father, and the author of The Descent of Man, a book that takes a look at the current state of masculinity and asks whether it needs a major overhaul.
You might wonder what qualifies a transvestite to comment on the state of modern masculinity; after all, if he’s keen on looking like a woman, he probably doesn’t know much about being a man. But that’s where you’re wrong. Perry has spent a lifetime studying men and women and the roles they play, and he knows better than anyone how imbalanced and unhealthy the whole set-up is. Men have all the power, and they’ve made themselves the standard by which all others are measured. Women are secondary members of the human race, and men who don’t fit the predetermined masculine ideal (white, heterosexual, able to watch The Voice without shedding a tear) are seen as aberrations and dealt with accordingly. Man – or, as Perry puts it, “Default Man” – has been running the show and setting the bar for so long now that no one even notices. It’s a given. And that’s not just a bummer for non-default men, it sucks for default men too, and Perry believes that in a gender-equal world, men might well pick up some beneficial habits by osmosis. “They might learn that they are hindered both at work and at home by a world view that not only discriminates against others but also inhibits men themselves from having a fulfilling time on the planet.” He then details the ways in which men are inhibited (believe me, that’s an eye-opener) and suggests ideas about how masculinity might update its operating system for everyone’s benefit.
It’s a heavy/thinky book, but it is fucking brilliant. And the language is simple and straightforward enough for anyone to understand, even you big, dumb, fridge-sized fuckers who claim to love UFC, but really just want a hug. Also, it’s only about 150 pages long. You can handle it. Don’t be a pussy.