It's a man's world: The future of masculinity

By David Herkt

Perry reveals that the brutal physicality of tattooed Mixed Martial Arts fighters often conceals a surprising sensitivity to masculine bonding. Photo / iStock
Perry reveals that the brutal physicality of tattooed Mixed Martial Arts fighters often conceals a surprising sensitivity to masculine bonding. Photo / iStock

Grayson Perry is the heterosexual, married-with-one-child, motorbike riding, Turner Prize-winning British artist, well known for both his ceramics and for wearing frocks. He has turned a life-time of cross-dressing for private play into a public signature and a political statement.

From this unique perspective he has assessed the current state of masculinity in the upcoming TV documentary series, All Man.

Grayson Perry with one of the boxers from All Man.
Picture / Swanfilms Ltd & all3media Int
Grayson Perry with one of the boxers from All Man. Picture / Swanfilms Ltd & all3media Int

It is a gritty overview by a singular observer. Perry's reactions are part of the story as he examines three worlds of ultra-male experience: cage fighters in Northern England, police and drug-dealers on a Lancashire housing estate, and hedge fund managers in London.

He reveals that the brutal physicality of tattooed Mixed Martial Arts fighters often conceals a surprising sensitivity to masculine bonding. Hoodie-wearing young crims, with their obsession with status and honour, create substitute families in the absence of despised fathers.

Perry also documents City financiers inhabiting a world without women, where the gender-bias is "house-trained" but hides behind class, education and wealth.

"What I try to call out," he says, "is despite the fact you might deal with numbers and the economy, your view of the world is still very biased by the fact you are masculine. They won't have it, most of them. They don't like me calling them out on the fact that male objectivity is male subjectivity."

Boys and men, Perry adds, are not brought up to recognise that they are as emotionally complex as women. "They are numbed to their own experience a lot of the time. All men operate as prison guards and prisoners at the same time, always checking each other out to see that they don't stray from the very narrow path that masculinity prescribes. Most men don't see it, so they live in a constant state of feeling unworthy of being men, which means they have to overreact to it the whole time, and so they're f***ed up by it."

Perry also had to confront up to his own prejudices about men. "I had to face up to the fact that I am one myself," he says. "One of the things I learned when I was making the series, is that I have a predisposition to many things that other men have. I like competiveness. Risk-taking and adrenalin are some of my great addictions."

Artist Grayson Perry.
Artist Grayson Perry.

Perry is a passionate and daily motorbike rider, owning a Harley-Davidson and a KTM. He has even customised a Harley-Davidson Knucklehead in frilly pink and pastel blue as an artwork. Motorbike analogies come easily to him.

"Men are terrified of being vulnerable and vulnerability is absolutely essential for a good relationship. When I'm talking to men, I always compare relationships to the contact patch of a motorcycle tyre - the softer the tyre, the better grip it has with the road. In a relationship, the softer you are, the more vulnerable you are, and the better contact you have with the other person."

A fear of vulnerability and contact is reflected, he believes, in the elevated suicide rate for men. In Britain suicide is the biggest killer of men under 45. In New Zealand, the rate for young men is three times as high for as women.

"Men have a brittle exterior ... and they don't have fluid relationships with people, so when they deform, they shatter. And that shattering often results in suicide."

"Men like to say to themselves that this is normal. We have to call them out on it. It is not normal ..."

All men operate as prison guards and prisoners at the same time, always checking each other out to see that they don't stray from the very narrow path that masculinity prescribes.
Grayson Perry

Perry thinks it will take generations to modify this experience. "The only way we can change it," he says, "is through positive discrimination, because when people see or experience a gender-equal world, they will have to adapt to it ... And when we have a different experience for men, they might find they like it, and the world might be a nicer place to live. I want to say to them, "There is an upside."

Perry grew up in an abusive home. His father left when Perry's mother became pregnant to the milkman, a part-time wrestler, who would eventually become an antagonistic and violent step-father.

As a child, shuttled from home to home, Perry constructed a self-comforting fantasy life, frequently revolving around his teddy bear, who he named Alan Measles.

"I had very negative male role models when growing up, which was why I created my own ones. Alan Measles was one I created to replace the rubbish ones I had around me."

He discovered his transvestitism as a teenager, but it wasn't until he was 19 that he first acted on it in public. "The excitement, the thrill, the buzz of it, the erotic charge - I don't think I've ever been able to get it again. It takes a bit of courage to go out there and not give a damn. The horrifying thing you realise is that when you don't give a damn, no one else does - or certainly in a modern Western democracy."

He doesn't want to be a woman or change his gender. What began as private erotic play has now become an artistic trademark.

Dressed in a midnight-blue dress and jacket, with a black ostrich-feathered hat, Perry was awarded a CBE at Buckingham Palace in 2013. Recently, lecturing at the Sydney Opera House, he wore huge maroon platform shoes, red tights, patterned blue sateen nappy-shorts and a puffed sleeve, red-patterned blouse.

"The typical transvestite wants to look like a woman, usually the woman you see in the street. So I kind of stuck with that script for about 25 years, because that was what you did. And then I suddenly realised, when I was about 40, that it really was quite boring, because you went out dressed up and no one noticed you as a woman. So I just I just followed my erotic desires, if you like," he laughs, "and went for the crack cocaine of femininity.

"My taste has changed over the years because you have to learn to become a transvestite, just like anything else."

All Man screens on Sky Arts next month.

WHAT DOES MASCULINITY MEAN TODAY?

Jeremy Wells, radio host and television presenter:

The world of advertising and marketing is still out of touch with the notion of modern masculinity. Traditionally masculinity has been represented through images of sport, DIY and beer. If we're to be completely honest, masculinity in 2016 is more about vanity, Facebook and multi-partner porn.

Jesse Mulligan, radio host and food critic:

Jesse Mulligan.
Jesse Mulligan.

There are two types of man in New Zealand - the one who talks easily about his thoughts and feelings, and the one who is suspicious, sometimes phobic of such talk. I've found each type of man naturally gravitates towards the other - you might not be surprised to hear I'm in the first group, though I've learned it's better not to identify too strongly. Occasionally you'll meet the proverbial "guy who can do both" - my mate Ben Hurley, for example, probably the most popular New Zealand man I've ever met, who can slum it with the bawdy unself-conscious sideline banter, but can also dial it down when the occasion demands. Conversationally I'm happiest doing lobby chat at Writers Week, but there are times I'd like to be able to do an effective 30 seconds with the CEO in the lift.

Max Cryer, former broadcaster, author and language expert:

In 1964 television gave New Zealanders its first view of British football - and at moments of triumph, the players were seen to give each other a hug. The Auckland journalist who "reviewed" television at the time went into a conniption and railed, aghast at the morals of television for showing such corruption - since he considered it disgraceful, unmanly behaviour. He must be whirring in his grave now, to see All Blacks give a hug or two at match-winning time, and other New Zealand men give a brief hug for mateship or congratulation. Since 1964, the New Zealand concept of "masculinity" has adjusted a few of its earlier misperceptions.

Dick Frizzell, artist:

When I was a boy back in Hastings, 1955, with five sisters, the masculine/feminine thing was very easy to negotiate. Boys chopped the wood, mowed the lawns and took out the compost; and girls did the dishes, folded the laundry and cleaned the bath. Not in a million years could you imagine otherwise. I couldn't picture Mum being the chief engineer at the freezing works any more than I could see Dad cooking the dinner ... complete with jam roly-poly pudding! And a subsequent generation of stroppy daughters-in-law haven't really convinced me otherwise, despite years of valiant effort. Except that I'm happy doing the dishes.

Ben Mitchell, Shortland Street actor:

Shortland Street actor Ben Mitchell.
Shortland Street actor Ben Mitchell.

The old view of masculinity is socially constructed. People today confuse masculinity with gender. Masculinity to me is an unshakeable strength, clarity of direction and efficiency. I break it down to values - strength, courage, mastery and honour. It's more of an attitude to life and how I go about things.


Colin Mathura-Jeffree, socialite:

I'm a man. At 44 years old, I'm aware of who I am. To be masculine is a broad range of attributes from physical to intellectual. To be masculine doesn't degrade women in any way. You have to realise the feminine in you to validate the masculine. Don't be stupid in assuming that manliness makes you strongest, we are in strength second always to the force of nature that it is to be a woman. But there is a magnificence to the realisation of one's authentic nature. I celebrate my masculinity in many ways ... just run your hands over my muscular, hairy thighs and see.

- Canvas

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