Being male today entails rage, pain, fear – and a grubby pair of jeans. It’s time for change, says the Turner Prize-winning artist
I am riding my mountain bike through the forest up a long, steep track. Halfway up I see a young boy, maybe nine or 10 years old. He is struggling; this track is a tough challenge for anyone not used to mountain biking, let alone a kid on a new bicycle. He can’t work the gears, and wobbles and grinds to a halt. Tears run down his face. “Dad, Dad!” he yells, sobbing. He is crying for help, but he is also in a boiling rage.
I offer to help him, but he is so angry, so ashamed, that he doesn’t acknowledge me. As I pedal past up the hill, I see the father in the distance. He is standing silently next to his mountain bike, arms folded across his chest, staring at his son 200 metres down the hill. He also looks angry.
I have seen that father’s face on a thousand football touchlines, outside a thousand school gates. It’s a face that says, “Toughen up, don’t whine, be a man!” It’s the face of someone who hands down the rage and pain of what it is to be a man. I feel incensed on the boy’s behalf. I can’t help myself: I say to the father, “I hope your son can afford a good psychotherapist when he grows up.”
The father doesn’t respond.
We need to examine masculinity, not just to prevent small boys from crying with fury at their impassive fathers on a mountain-bike ride, but to change the whole world for the better. Crimes are committed, wars are started, women are being held back, and economies are disastrously distorted by men, because of their outdated version of masculinity.
We need to get a philosophical fingernail under the edge of the firmly stuck-down masculinity sticker, so we can get hold of it and rip it off. Beneath the sticker, men are naked and vulnerable – human even. It is a newsroom cliché that masculinity is always somehow “in crisis”, under threat from pollutants such as shifting gender roles. But to me many aspects of masculinity seem such a blight on society that to say it is “in crisis” is like saying racism was “in crisis” in civil rights-era America.
Masculinity needs to change. Some may question this, but those who do are often white middle-class men with nice jobs and nice families: the current state of masculinity is biased in their favour. What about all the teenagers who think the only manly way out of poverty and dysfunction is to become a criminal? What about all the lonely men who can’t get a partner, have trouble making friends and end up killing themselves? What about all the angry men who inflict their masculine baggage on the rest of us?
Growing up, I did not have good male role models. My father left when I was just four years old, and I didn’t really have any meaningful contact with him until I was 15, by which time I was pretty well hard-wired with my own version of masculinity and its attendant sexuality, something that I still have 40 years later. My stepfather, with whom I lived for most of my childhood, was a volatile and violent man of whom I was terrified.
My mother used me, her eldest son, as a sounding board to vent all her rage against men. By the age of 15, I had taken on board a heap of anti-male propaganda. Even today I often catch myself observing and commenting on men as if I were not one of them.
I can’t remember the first time I realised I was male, I doubt many men can, but that is at the nub of masculinity; it is there at the very basement level of our identity. The first question most people ask when they hear of a birth is, “Is it a boy or a girl?” Once we know the sex of a baby, we often coo over it in gendered ways: “Isn’t she beautiful?”; “Look at him kick, he’s going to be a footballer.” Before they can spell their own names, children are well versed in the potent clichés of gender; girls play fairy dolls, make up and gossip and a boy’s world is full of spaceships and action.
As a child, I remember being so uncomfortable with the unconscious signals of gender that I couldn’t handle my aunt’s flowers and rural scenes emerging through the milk as I ate my cereal. I would always opt for blue-and-white striped Cornishware: I “instinctively” sensed the gendering in her crockery. Stripes are about as decorative as a lot of men are willing to go.
But I am a transvestite; I am turned on by dressing up in clothes that are heavily associated with being female. I sometimes like to pretend I am a woman. In forming an erotic attraction to women’s clothes, I think a part of what my unconscious was trying to tell me was that I did, indeed, have a choice. Male clothes were not a pelt that grew on to my back, they were a costume, and if something in me was rejecting the role then it certainly did not like the costume.
When I try to explain the reasons that I think may have led to me becoming a transvestite, people sometimes respond with the question, “Isn’t putting on a dress a rather simplistic way of trying to renounce maleness or adopt femininity? Surely you, Grayson, Reith lecturer, Turner prize and Bafta winner, are more subtle and sophisticated than that?” My reply is that, as in all of us, the basic psychological wiring of my sexuality was laid down in childhood, so is it really so surprising that I should use the seemingly childish tactic of cross-dressing?
The only boys’ clothes I wore in childhood that I can recall sharply are uniforms. My secondary-school uniform consisted of black blazer and trousers. First and second years had to wear a blazer with red braid around the lapels. The glowing red braid was a double humiliation, firstly as a sign of being an innocent new pupil, a target for the older boys, and secondly because it was a bit fey, braid round the lapels having overtones of a camp, end-of-the-pier entertainer. Some first years would rub ink and dirt into the braid to give it the patina of a more experienced second year. At 14, I studied every nuance of the style of slightly older boys. Collars in or out, ties fat or thin, baggy trousers short or covering the wedge shoes? I recall watching and aping the older lads’ swaggering strut, what Tom Wolfe called the “pimp roll”.
I held a constant internal dialogue about how to pass as a man. As a tranny, “passing” as a woman is something I have worked very hard on, achieved and rejected. We all work unconsciously or otherwise at passing as our chosen gender; in fact, we all work at passing in many ways, whether it’s our sexuality, class, race, occupation or nationality. Men are all performing for an invisible authority I now call the Department of Masculinity. This is something like the Stasi, an organisation that makes sure no one dissents from the dominant man script. We never know when we are being observed, so we constantly keep watch on ourselves and each other.
I often look at men and think that they seem to be victims of this drive to perform their gender. What are they afraid of? Why do they play the man so extremely, whether with muscles or knowledge or wit? I see a giant gym monster waddling alongside his family and he seems to me burdened by that bulging plumage. Who is he signalling to but other men? Though men might plead that their muscles, big cars and sharp suits are for attracting women, really they are for impressing male rivals.
When I talked to a group of men about masculinity, one thing that everyone agreed on was that the headline issue was a rejection of the effeminate. This speaks to me of the depth and complexity of men’s love/fear relationship to the feminine. When discussing manliness, the elephant in the room was not homophobia but perhaps a fear of appearing gay. This fear runs like an electric fence around the territory that is acceptably masculine.
Watching a men’s haute couture fashion show, one might easily be fooled into thinking that next season, all blokes will be wearing calf-length floral culottes and a neon string vest under oversized silver foil parkas. But go to the high street and what’s on offer will be a tiny shift in what was available last season, maybe with some slight nod to emerging trends, a “daring” colour or change in width of lapel or trouser leg. Most of the time the racks are a sea of black, grey, navy and khaki. Men are becoming more clothes-conscious, but few stray out of the territory of well-established masculine classics. To wear anything not approved by the Department of Masculinity is to bump into that gay electric fence.
During my later years at school, I was the proud owner of a camouflage army-issue combat jacket, which I teamed with a skinhead haircut. When I came home with my surprise crop, my mother said I looked like I had lice, which was nice. I think I adopted this very masculine uniform as a counterpoint to my rebellious sexuality that wanted flowery frills, heels and make-up. Perhaps I sensed one of the attractive qualities of uniforms – that they imply a public role rather than an individual private identity. They distract from the individual body as object, and I certainly wanted distraction from my body as a teenager. After the camo came a donkey jacket, the tough workman’s garment with leather shoulder patches, teamed with 18-hole Dr Marten boots. I was protecting my softie self with the hooligan armour of the mid-Seventies. When I bought my first motorcycle, my mother gave me her old sheepskin jacket to wear while I rode it. I ruined the jacket by attempting to swap the buttons and buttonholes over, so paranoid was I of being seen wearing a woman’s jacket.
Eventually I was able to afford the ur-raiment, the essential staple of any masculine dressing-up box, a black leather biker jacket. Sid Vicious wanted to be buried in his. Mine never left my back for the first two years at art college. Adopted by demobbed American airmen after the Second World War who took up motorcycles to replay the thrills of combat flying, the leather jacket has endured as the garment of speed, danger and (yawn) rebellion. It hints at a dark side, of risky thrills down twisty back roads. Fnurk.
When I first donned a leather jacket, pubs still had notices outside saying “No leather jackets”. Bikers were trouble. Whenever I donned my leather jacket and kicked my bike into life, I was taking on an anti-social role. In those days of my immortal youth and before speed cameras, I also tried to live up to it.
These youth cult uniforms seem like an extension of the little boy dressing up as Fireman Sam or Spider-Man. I think there is a time when men need to put them away. I still have my original leather bought in 1978 and half a dozen more, but I never wear one unless I’m riding a motorcycle, so tainted has this beloved icon become in my eyes. I am drafting a new bill for the Department of Masculinity. Men shall not wear a leather biker jacket over the age of 30, unless riding a motorcycle.
I suppose my irritation at what has happened to the biker jacket is symptomatic of a man’s relationship with his clothes. He likes to feel they are imbued unquestionably with his status. Someone wearing a leather jacket should have faced down the dangers of riding a motorcycle at speed and not just been shopping for vintage vinyl. But, of course, within the macho fraternity of motorcyclists, there are bikers and bikers. I was talking to a group of riders at a tea hut in Epping Forest. One guy had been to a country and western bar the night before where actors dressed in boots and Stetsons would stage mock gunfights every so often. “Ridiculous,” he said, “grown men running around pretending to be cowboys.” He said this with nary a hint of irony as he stood there in his fringed and concho-laden leather jacket, bandanna round his neck, next to his pristine Harley-Davidson. We tittered.
Realness is the pinnacle of heterosexual masculinity. Realness, authenticity, genuineness, legitimacy: all qualities that back up a man’s feeling that masculinity is somehow a baseline from which all other identities are judged or attached. Which, in turn, implies that other identities, feminine or homosexual, are not real, not authentic, not legitimate. But sorry, guys, realness is an act, too.
Often the yearning for a real man is a yearning for a real working-class man. It is no wonder then that men want to dress up as guys who worked themselves to death and didn’t whine, and maybe even got tastefully worn, grubby and faded in the process. The cowboy hat, buff work boots, Dr Martens, donkey jackets, rigger gloves and, of course, jeans. Blue jeans are perhaps the most ubiquitous carrier of working-man symbolism. I struggle with denim. It will be a while before the aroma of Jeremy Clarkson and a host of ageing “rebels” has dissipated from the artefact.
If jeans signal an almost inaudible echo of the hard labouring man, then the logo T-shirt is a more blatant declaration of tribal status. The brand of motorcycle owned, the marathons run, the surf braved, the successful team supported are there for all to read like a row of medals. Gosh, and there was I thinking this bloke was an insensitive bore when, in fact, he owns a Triumph Stag.
These status signals extend to stickers on the car, the toolbox, the locker, the laptop. Service-industry drones robbed of a satisfyingly manly role at work may declare their virility through their choice of leisure pursuit. Men will spend a fortune on enthusiasms such as handmade surfboards, carbon-fibre bicycles, alloy wheels, stereos, fishing rods or golf clubs. These toys will often be ostentatiously stored (displayed) around the home to tell visitors that the man of the house is not just some office clerk, no, he is on the edge, a maverick adventurer. Whenever our man sees or touches his sacred man-board/clubs/bike/rod, a blurry amalgam of all his risky, tough adventures swims up from his unconscious. His starring role in his own personal mythic-man script reassures him that while he works in an insurance office, he has fully qualified for his man licence, issued, of course, by the Department of Masculinity.
When I was a teenager in the Seventies, I may have been obsessed about how to dress as a woman but paid scant attention to the aesthetic of my male body. I do not remember one conversation with friends about body image. Boys today are forced to be more body-conscious, driven by the rise in obesity on one side and the unremitting visual bombardment of the internet on the other.
Today’s ideal male body used to be seen only on bodybuilders and professional athletes. The visual model of masculinity now sold to men is as unattainable as the one long peddled to women. One aspect of this sculpted muscular aesthetic is its ease of evaluation. One either has a six-pack or not, big biceps or not. When I was a teenager, the version of this was how wide your baggy trousers were, and how many buttons they had at the waist. Later, it was how many lace holes your Dr Martens had, and what number your skinhead haircut was.
Boys love the certainty of these numbers. There is none of the messy creative judgment involved in putting together a bohemian look. If you had the right number, even if it did not suit you, it was good. A hard body speaks of a clear border between inner and outer worlds. Depilation of the hard body adds to the clarity of this boundary, as well as hinting at youth and classical statues and the Photoshopped “perfection” of advertising. At the extreme end, men are resorting to plastic surgery to attain this rigidly defined look, paying for artificial pectoral implants and having their six-packs “etched” to give them the kind of definition that normally needs an awful lot of weightlifting and maybe a touch of dehydration to achieve.
Though I’ve yet to meet anyone who will admit to being one, the now-ubiquitous hipster male could be seen as a reaction against this shop-bought, gym-wrought masculinity. With his symbolic allegiance to authenticity, his beard and his bicycle, he says old school, folky, crafted; he wants handmade, local, traditional produce; he is in touch with nature. I have always been suspicious of the beard revival, particularly its association with prelapsarian, rural self-sufficiency and creativity. Beards are just another easily adopted symbol, along with the Barbour jacket, the Shetland jumper and driving around east London in a Land Rover Defender.
But perhaps behind the beards and geeky specs there is a more profound shift. Young men, particularly well-educated, metropolitan guys, seem a lot less afraid of appearing gay. Maybe the Department of Masculinity is losing its grip. Like those once unassailable high-street chains which suddenly go bust, maybe the internet is helping to break the department’s monopoly. Young men are shopping around for alternative visions of the masculine role that fit how they feel.
Actors, when they are preparing for a role, often talk of the clothes as being key. Once they are literally in the character’s shoes, they ease into the whole performance. All identities are co-created. If you wish to be seen as a powerful man, you dress the part and, hey presto, people unconsciously or otherwise start to treat you as one. If we want to transform what men can be, maybe central to their performance will be a costume change.
Extracted from The Descent of Man by Grayson Perry, published by Allen Lane at £16.99. Pre-order your copy for £14.99 from the Telegraph Bookshop