I am a fan of Grayson, and Perry’s latest tv trio investigation into ‘masculinity’ was on my watch list as soon as I heard about it. I had really loved his study of the class system, found the Portraits series fascinating and resonant, and with motherhood having made me a more ardent feminist than before, I was excited to see what insights he would be sharing.
I won’t say I am disappointed exactly, but this wasn’t the exhilarating ride of his first TV outing. It also seemed a little shallower and less thrilling than the portraits. Perhaps it’s just that the formula is already wearing thin, or maybe that I have thought about the subject matter in such depth already myself – yet there are a few points I think worth noting. (It has after all, inspired me with many new ideas: and of course, to write this piece.)
In each show he explores this notion of ‘masculinity’, but it is a pity this idea wasn’t really defined properly at the outset. It’s a complex construct and there were places where I felt it was glossed over, or even that casually sexist perspectives were bandied about carelessly. For example in part three, the investigation of the city bankers and traders, there was reference to the Heroic fantasy common to small boys as being representative of pure or essential masculinity. This angered me – it seemed that Grayson, along with the bankers he purported to be critiquing, was claiming that the desire to be heroic: alone, struggling, hunting, surviving – were the exclusive domain of the male imagination. But I remember very distinctly as a child being utterly entranced by spaghetti westerns. I loved the idea of the lone hero wandering slit-eyed across the deserts with only a horse as a trusted companion; also the Tintin stories, with the plucky hero outfoxing baddies in every corner of the world; I loved too the Tygers in their little boat and their Victorian-explorer romance. Indeed, I regard the Tyger Voyage, received as a gift from my aunt Pauline when I was four, as the single most influential and inspiring work I encountered in childhood.
I fully identified with these characters – and looking back I wish there were some female versions because as I got older I started to feel excluded from these roles, in popular imagination if not in reality (I did lead an expedition to the Amazon, after all, thus fulfilling my childhood dream of being on my own Tyger Voyage). So to see dear Grayson implicitly casting women as the ‘loving, caring, clever types’ and the men as these fools with their childish hero fantasies causing trouble – well, grrr. Even if he didn’t mean it like that.
This idea of the women being the clever, sensible ones was reinforced when in each show, Grayson’s artistic turning point or ‘magic moment’ comes when he goes to meet the women affected by the masculine world he is exploring. The women spin their wisdom, Grayson listens and gets the insights he needs to realise his artworks. Watching this process, I wonder if this is the parallel/analogous to his dressing up – he seems to get his creative clarity and insight from accessing the feminine aspect either of his psyche or the society (or both). As he declared in the show, he is in fact very masculine himself – aggressive, strong, competitive, driven. Being a man accessing the feminine rather than despising it, makes you neither a feminist nor necessarily in a particularly strong position to assess the impacts of masculinity. Perhaps he can, though, offer men something in the idea that they could try meeting and valuing the feminine more greatly .
I also think he missed a trick at the end of the banker show – he lamented that until men cast off these notions of the ‘noble hunter’ or rugged survivor from caveman days, we won’t find ‘happiness’. But in ‘Animal Spirit’ he is clearly depicting a ghastly wasteland, trampled by the raging bear-bull – and from where I am standing, this is no imaginary threat – climate change is beginning to wreak apocalyptic havoc on our lands and capitalism is crushing the poor beggars who ‘don’t fit the shape’. It is not ‘ happiness’ that we risk losing out on – it is the very land on which we stand, on which those priapic tribal tower-totems are built – these men risk their own destruction as well as ours, and that of many thousands of other creatures – much much more than just missing out on a jolly time with the kids at the weekend.
The men in the Banker episode are to me, familiar kinds of men, I feel I know them well already – and I, like Grayson, felt that I did not discover anything to ‘derail’ my view of the city and how it works. However, I was surprised to discover that many of them do have a strong sense of morality lurking under their rapacious behaviours – with one describing his kind as ‘pretty unattractive people’ (demonstrating a kind of helpless and rather pathetic self-awareness, perhaps even self-loathing); another likening himself to a Warrior Prophet (!? – clinging to an extraordinary fantasy that he is engaged in a noble pursuit), and yet another seeming to think he was keeping society going with his endeavours (and I will admit that in some ways perhaps, this is true; although in others, completely the opposite).
From my own experience of being schooled to become part of this world (in a system which in my case has produced an almost total failure on its own terms), I wonder about the processes that have led people astray to become so detached from reality and from the more truly spiritual course that they seem to hint at wanting to be a part of. They seemed to me, not the psychopaths I often imagine (and also know to be present, having met a couple) but weak, misguided, even lost little boys, as Perry shows us: acting out a childish fantasy but failing (deliberately? or is it a masculine trait to just not be able to see properly?) to notice the very adult reality of their destructive behaviour. Some of them had Moments of Doubt – like the guy who found it ‘confusing’ to meet fellow parents at his children’s school who had gone bankrupt after a weekend when he was triumphant, having made shedloads of money. I woke in the night thinking about how to steer this tender yet stunted sense of care for others in a new direction, and with fresh inspiration on this well worn track in my mind. I started thinking about the idea of women being a ‘threat’ to the male world – and the phallic towers – and how perhaps it is a cunt that has the power to bring the tower down, to empty it of energy and power, to render it soft and limp. Why are men in love with their erections and so reluctant to release them? And where is the cunt of the world, come to take them down?
I also found myself wishing Perry had picked up on the analogy of the glass and steel buildings as armour. They present a cold, sterile, impenetrable face to the world, non-stick and inhuman, impersonal – the antithesis of life, with such total control – which is just death or worse – anti-life. They remind me of the Roman turtle formation – a mass of shiny hard squares hiding the messy, breathing, squashy, tender life beneath. Certainly this is a strategy for domination and invincibility. In his portrait series I noticed that I often had the same ideas as Grayson, in my own practice and in responding to his subjects. But this time I found myself thinking that I would have made a cock pot from little mirrors and shards of glass. The bankers could have come and seen themselves reflected back in a thousand shattered pieces, like their strange fragmented souls. Inside the jar, perhaps some mud, or the hearts of their enemies (women? poor people? anything that lives?), glimpsed through glassy sharps.
I would also have enjoyed more explicit links made between the different expressions of masculinity presented. The desperately sad, trapped boys in the second episode, stabbed through every part with knives, might well be the actual victims, the invisible side-effects of the exploding glass in the city. Yet there is a thread that links the shows together – if we call that Masculinity, then it seems to me to be something about a need for honour, fierce adult responsibility, and meaningful contribution – but none of these things were picked up on by the presenter. It seemed that Perry was trying to egg these men on to get more cool and talk and dress up a bit in a fanciful way. That these honourable intentions were no longer needed. I am not convinced that is quite right. We can ask more.
Without bombastic, creative ritual (and the people in the first show clearly do understand the need for this, and were healthily hanging on to it – and Grayson’s work fitted very smoothly and constructively into the pre-existing local culture) and strict ethical rules, it seems men at all levels are flying off the rails, jumbling up their drive for a sense of noble endeavour with selfishness, greed, terror, the thrill of ‘victory’ (or perhaps a kill of some kind). These men seemed to be grasping for notions of honour and righteousness, a strong moral code, and a heroic adventure story, behind what is frequently resulting in terribly destructive and ugly behaviour. Perhaps it is true that masculinity does need to become more flexible – but it seems to me from watching this that men also need greater rigidity around them. Their impulses are not encountering enough structure and containment by Society.
Ultimately, I think Grayson didn’t really give enough credit to these various lost men. He seems to be asking men to be less ‘male’ – to tone it down a bit – while I have come away asking – not to be less, but to Be Better, Male. We desperately need powerful people to bring our structures round to a new way of being – of living within our means, of equitable sharing of resources – a softening might help, but a strong sense of honour correctly placed could really change the world.
Sarah Dixon is an artist, mother, wife, and WOMAN