‘When it comes to opening up, men are useless’

Laid bear: Grayson Perry poses with his childhood teddy, Alan Measles. © PA

Cage fighters. Gangs. City traders. In his new documentary series, the cross-dressing artist Grayson Perry interviews some of the manliest of manly men. Is masculinity in crisis?

Last night on Channel 4, a thick-muscled, tattooed cage fighter named Andy broke down while speaking about his brother’s suicide. Being pulverised by his opponent in the MMA ring, he explained, was the only time he could release his emotions.

This is the heartbreaking consequence of masculinity in the 21st century — at least according to Grayson Perry. In the past, he says, men were rewarded for being strong and stoic. Now, as technology chips away our need for manual labour, these traits are less useful. ‘Female’ skills like problem solving, teamwork and communication are the currency of modern life. It can leave men feeling utterly lost.

‘Often men don’t even realise they’re sad,’ explains Perry. ‘Boys are brought up to feel they would be breaking their man contract if they were to cry too much.’

This has devastating effects: the leading cause of death for men under 50 in the UK is suicide. ‘They bottle up, bottle up, bottle up, bottle up, until they’re overwhelmed by it,’ says Perry.

That is why he decided to find and interview the extremes of masculinity for his latest documentary series, All Man. Last night he spoke to Newcastle cage fighters like Andy; in the next two episodes he will interview teenage street gangs in Lancashire and ultra-rich bankers in the City of London.

Perry is not the most obvious choice to delve into the milieux of the modern man. He is best known for his brightly coloured pottery and tapestries, winning the Turner Prize for his ‘uncompromising engagement with personal and social concerns’. Then there is his ‘alter-ego’ Claire. But he believes that he is uniquely suited to this project; he has been thinking about masculinity since he was a child. ‘If you start putting on dresses when you’re 12, it’s a bit of a wake-up call.’

Man up!

Feminists have been talking about the problems of traditional gender roles for decades, and many are relieved to see that men are starting to look at themselves in the same way. After all, the unrealistic pressures of manhood are clearly holding men back. If they can learn to get in touch with their emotions, or express themselves through art or sport, perhaps fewer will resort to violence. Society will be far better off.

What touchy-feely nonsense, say others. There is a place for all types of men: from those who like to wear dresses, to those like the tough survivalist Bear Grylls, who can kill and eat an alligator with his bare hands. That strength and resourcefulness is not ‘useless’, as Perry has scoffed about Grylls in the past. It is an extreme example of the skills used in careers like the army or the police force — vital jobs which are still mostly done by men.

You Decide

  1. Does it break the ‘man contract’ for boys to cry? What about other emotions?
  2. Has masculinity become ‘useless’ in the modern world?

Activities

  1. Draw three columns on the whiteboard: masculine, feminine and neutral. Take it in turns to write down personal characteristics in the column you think most appropriate. Once everyone has had a turn, discuss the results as a class.
  2. Write a paragraph explaining what you think it means to be a man in the 21st century.

Some People Say...

“Men and women are from different planets.”

What do you think?

Q & A

I hate talking about feelings...
You’re not alone; many boys — and girls — find it very difficult. But pushing down your emotions usually makes you feel worse in the long run: it is important to express them somehow. If you can’t talk to someone straight away, practice by writing down or even drawing your emotions — whatever feels natural. If you feel really desperate, remember you can always call ChildLine on 0800 1111.
Is manual labour really doomed?
After the industrial revolution, robotic and computing trends will probably make it even rarer in the future. But you don’t have to waste away indoors: getting exercise outside is a great way of improving your mental health, and people of all genders will always need to do things with their hands — like cooking, painting or putting up shelves.

Word Watch

MMA ring
MMA is an acronym for ‘mixed martial arts’, a combat sport which takes place inside a caged ring.
Cause of death
The Office of National Statistics says that, in 2013, 78% of all UK suicides were men.
City of London
A central area of the UK’s capital with city status (like Westminster) particularly known for being one of the world’s major financial centres. You can recognise it by its cluster of unusually shaped skyscrapers.
Turner Prize
Annually awarded to a British artist under the age of 50. Perry, who is now 56, won the prize in 2003.
Claire
Perry describes himself as a transvestite, or a cross dresser. This means that, although he identifies as a man, he enjoys dressing in women’s clothes. He says that Claire’s style is based on ‘Little Bo Peep’.
Violence
According to the Ministry of Justice, for the year up to 2012, men were responsible for 89% of violent crimes. Men are also more likely to be the victims of violence.
Mostly
As of March 2015, 28% of police officers in England and Wales were women. In the year up to July 2014, 10% of armed forces recruits were women.

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