The 'Descent of Man' is shortsighted and problematic

Monday, June 12, 2017 - 6:30pm

If you were to ask any college student who has taken an introductory women’s studies course to rattle off some keywords and phrases he or she learned throughout the semester, “toxic masculinity” would absolutely be in the first five. Grayson Perry’s “The Descent of Man” — a wordplay on the title of “The Ascent of Man,” a history of humankind by Jacob Bronowski — reads like it was written by someone who went to the lecture on toxic masculinity, and only that lecture.

There’s no doubt that “The Descent of Man” is easy to read; there’s a lack of complicated academic jargon, and it’s a slim work. The question is whether it’s slim enough. Perry offers his thoughts on the heavy role masculinity plays in the lives of men, and how it is manifested and performed in every part of their lives in 140 pages; every so often, there are comics to emphasize his points. The comics are funny, sometimes, but the book is out of touch with today’s popular discourse surrounding how to affect real change; the book is lukewarm at best.

“What if half the victims of masculinity are actually men?” isn’t exactly a groundbreaking question, but sure, it’s one I can get behind. But in this book, that question is framed as the reason that everyone should now actually start to care about how dangerous masculinity is, which is problematic at best. He includes a very simplistic critique of Peggy McIntosh’s concept of a knapsack of privilege, which reveals more a lack of nuanced understanding than any new improvement. Almost all of the jokes fall flat; several of them are predicated upon gendered assumptions that have long been a pillar of weak comedy.

Tired jokes and general lack of direction aside, the book contains incredible amounts of assertions that are framed as accepted truths, with little or nothing to back them up. For example, he includes a stunningly blasé discussion of “lesbian bed death”; he casually remarks, “lesbians’ sex lives dry up because they choose a partner who is just like them, and that does not result in a sexy power imbalance.”

Reading this, I paused for a minute; I then flipped back a few pages, and then flipped forward, and then I turned to the back of the book to look for an index, then I turned the book upside down and shook it vigorously, hoping some scraps of paper with his sources would fall out.

His discussions of men and women’s sexual preferences were troubling, especially his thoughts about why some women like to be dominated during sex. His casual, easy-to-read tone comes at the expense of a deep understanding; he discusses complicated concepts very superficially. In other words, this is exactly the kind of book that could let men whine about how all women secretly do just want a strong man in bed, even if they won’t say so. The contents of the book are almost counterproductive to its purported point.

Incidentally, I impulsively picked this book up off the free “up for grabs” shelf at my job, because I liked the title, and it took me about 30 minutes to read. I wish I could say I got what I paid for, but if time is money in this heterosexist capitalist market economy, then I got even less.

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"The Descent of Man"

Grayson Perry

Penguin Books

May 30th, 2017