Andrew Dickens meets Grayson Perry, and his cage-fighter friends, to thrash out this modern masculinity lark
When you hear the word ‘masculinity’, Grayson Perry is perhaps not the first person to spring to mind. He’s no Marlon Brando, you might say. No Ross Kemp. For a start, he’s an artist, and while making pots and painting pictures aren’t viewed as particularly feminine pursuits, neither are they, in terms of clichéd manliness, on a par with punching out a polar bear who’s just slagged off your ironmongery skills in front of your lass.
He’s also, famously, a cross-dresser, with a colourful alter ego called Claire, who used to have flamboyancy competitions with his then-flatmate, Boy George.
Like I say, no Ross Kemp.
It is perhaps his ostensible lack of stereotypically masculine traits that makes him, and not Kemp, the perfect candidate to host a television documentary that sees the artist look at different notions of masculinity, and assess whether we might be able to address them. Channel 4 certainly think so, which is why they've commissioned a three-part documentary: Grayson Perry: All Man.
“We go to three different parts of the country and look at specific issues where, I suppose, masculinity was a bit of a problem; manifested itself as a negative,” he tells me.
“We go into crime, suicide and business. I talk to young men who hang around in gangs, we go up to the North East and look at why it’s the place with the highest suicide rate for men in the UK. And then we talk to hedge fund managers working in the City Of London.”
TALKING THE TALK
When I join Perry in his north London studio, there are no bright frocks (Claire doesn’t actually get out that much, poor love). Today he’s in his paint-splattered work clothes. But the walls are adorned with his work, which could never be called muted. The same goes for their creator. Opinions – the thought-through variety – are in healthy supply. It’s the kind of interview that makes you up your game, for fear of feeling like you’re carrying an intellectual limp. It’s boot camp for the brain. Thankfully, tea and biscuits are provided.
The nature and future of masculinity is a tricky subject: in conversational terms, it’s like holding a hornets’ nest while walking across a freshly waxed floor in banana-skin slippers. Such history, such deeply ingrained behaviours, such room for causing offence. But having trodden equally complex and precarious ground in his previous Channel 4 series Who Are You?, which focused on identity and its relationship with sexuality, gender, race and memory, it’s just the kind of conversation a sharp-minded, inquisitive, hornet-bothering type like Perry really enjoys.
“Masculinity is behaviour of the people with a penis, or is associated with people with a penis,” he says. “It’s a construct, so it’s fluid. But a lot of people, particularly men’s rights people, seem to think it’s this thing that’s set in stone that you have to defend. A nostalgia trip. Contrast that with feminism – that’s always looking to the future and a great world where women are equal. Men are always looking back saying, ‘Oh, the old days when men were men. You’d cut your hand off and just wrap it up with a bit of Sellotape and then back to work.’ And that was the ideal of men. We don’t need that guy around any more; he sounds a bit of an idiot. I think that men have got to start looking to the future about what man could be. And that’s flexible.
“But various forces – commercialism in general – are invested in another, more archaic version of gender. Because they want pink for girls and camouflage for boys. If they can convince men that you can only be a man if you’ve got a £4,000 watch that can go to the top of Everest, then they’re going to do it. There’s a huge force behind the propagation of gender stereotypes."
We live in a world that, for millennia, has had a penis. So, like Perry says, feminism looks to the future with optimism, because the only way for women – you’d hope – is up. For men, in terms of power and influence, things can only go south, and even though this change will make the world a vastly more wonderful place, it’s always scarier to climb down a ladder than up it.
“True equality is when everyone has the opportunity to be mediocre,” says Perry. “Because the high-flyers, the talented, tend to succeed by sheer ability. It’s in the middle ground where bias happens, so a lot of mediocre men are going to have to move sideways to allow mediocre other people to come in."
This change is unstoppable, if painfully slow, and men have clearly been struggling to deal with it, rendering male identity more confused than Eddie Redmayne’s vocal performance in Jupiter Ascending. But Perry sees us men as potentially the biggest beneficiaries of the shift, as long as our attitudes go with it.
All Man’s first episode sees Perry travel to northeast England, where he meets a group of cage fighters – who, interestingly, he describes as being the most emotionally secure of anyone he spoke to as part of the show – but also the friends and mother of a young man who committed suicide. The statistics are well-known, but tragically unchanging: 76 per cent of all suicides in the UK are men, and that self-annihilation is the biggest killer of men aged under 45. Perry believes mental health is the biggest threat to modern men in this country, yet also the key to our collective salvation.
“I think the big area where men could most benefit from change is with their emotional lives,” Perry says. “That stoicism, that absolute paranoiac fear of vulnerability that some men have. ‘I will not be shown to have made a mistake, to be wrong, to be weak. To be anything that could possibly be interpreted as gay or female.’ You’re really missing out, because they are the very things that would help you have better relationships, be happier and less likely to top yourself.
“Men are more likely to kill themselves because they’re unwilling to open up and ask for help. The masculine script is so tied to being certain, fixed, strong and inflexible, that they snap. We operate on unconscious scripts the whole time. So we’re in habits: how to be a man, how to be a father, how to be a son, how to be a worker.”
DOING IT ALL HIS WAY
One accusation that certainly couldn’t be levelled at Perry is that he’s stuck to the masculine script. This doesn’t, however, make him feminine. If you’re expecting someone a bit camp or dramatic – think again. Perry is, in his own words, just a bloke who sometimes wears women’s clothing. He’s also probably the most comfortable-in-his-own-skin man I’ve ever met, and appears to have reached that state by shedding himself of the need to be ‘normal’.
Perry’s early years were spent on a council estate in Chelmsford, and he still has a sweet Essex lilt. His childhood involved, among other things: a period spent in the Army Cadets, an obsession with model aeroplanes, discovering the joys (including the sexual variety) of sartorial freedom aged 12, and a particularly unpleasant stepfather. Then came art school, punk, a period with a movement called the Neo Naturists (whose work mainly involved getting their kit off), before really finding his niche in pottery – also often of the sexual variety – which brought him the Turner Prize in 2003.
He was the first ceramic artist to win the prize.
If, as he suggests, scripts are learned, I wonder if the lack of a father figure he wanted to impress or imitate freed him to live a more expressive life.
“It’s because I went to art college,” he says. “You’re in a place where all the other refugees from the orthodox have flocked to. The whole of British culture is peppered with people who went to art school to escape the norm. I wouldn’t put it down to any lack of a father figure. If you’d have asked me when I was 16 about my family, I would have said it’s a f*ck-up. It was obvious to me. You ask a lot of 16-year-olds, particularly middle-class 16-year-olds, what their family’s like and they’ll go, ‘Great, yeah, my mum and dad are lovely.’ But they’re not.
“They’re not beating you up, but they’re completely neglecting you, and ignoring you, and manipulating you. They’re being just as damaging, but in nicer, polite middle-class ways. I knew that I was screwed up, so I rejected my male role models. Whereas the perniciousness of taking on the father you thought was good, but then in therapy you find out he was a bit of a sh*t, that’s quite a common scenario."
ROLES TO PLAY
Not that Perry thinks lacking male role models is helpful – quite the opposite – he just sees a lack of good, clear ones. He suggests David Bowie as an example, for his creativity and lack of machismo, before half-heartedly offering David Beckham (“he seems to be OK”) and Barack Obama (“he seems very happy”) as potential runners for the job.
If men are going through a transitional phase between hairy-handed, stoic, pint-necking breadwinner and a Brave New World in which masculinity can be cast in a thousand possible directions, like paint flicked from a brush, we might need a few more heroes. All is not gloom, however. Perry is actually hopeful for the future of men.
“If we think of middle-class, well-educated, metropolitan men as the cutting edge of where masculinity is going, I think it’s quite hopeful. I think my daughter’s [male] friends are lovely. They’re much more fluid and forgiving and tolerant, and sort of feminised in some ways. But they’re also happy being blokes as well. So I think it’s hopeful if we roll that out.
“It’s going to happen slowly, because these things are so woven into our identity. The only thing that’s more important than gender is species: the fact that you’re a human.”
Looking at Perry – listening to him – it’s hard not to think that there could be worse examples for men; to conceive of the idea that the future of masculinity might, in one of its guises, look a bit like him. He takes the suggestion well.
“I’m an example to all the other men!” he laughs. “If I model that for other people, young boys, that’s great. If they have the courage to speak out against the orthodox that’s fine, that’s good. All I hope to do is make them aware of the choices. That it’s not set in stone.
“If being like that doesn’t fit you, don’t do it. It’s boring.”
Grayson Perry: All Man begins on 5 May at 10pm on Channel 4
Images: Richard Ansett, Channel 4