The Descent of Man

Coline Baralon is a first year in International Relations, with a growing interest for feminism, human rights and diplomacy.

“When talking to men about masculinity, I often feel I am trying to talk to fish about water”1, says Grayson Perry, a 57 years old British transvestite artist, in his reflective book The Descent of Man, tackling issues of masculinity, gendered norms and their future in a modern world of rising women’s rights and power.  The essence of The Descent of Man comes from the easy but essential understanding that “as women rise to their just level of power, then shall some men fall.”1.

I started this reading with excitement but also, in all fairness, with a sceptical approach. Probably the feminist approach of someone who thought she knew enough about gender to understand masculinity already or of a woman who usually frowns when talked about men struggling in our society. In point of fact, this essay on gender biases is definitely enriched by Perry’s own experience and reflexion as well as the researches he led on individuals from different social groups.

To begin with, it is interesting to wonder what we know about the ‘Default Man’. You know, the white-middle-aged-middle-class man in the grey suit, who melts into the crowd but who “looks like power”1, hence experiences close to no discrimination from society. Grayson Perry explains this denomination as simply as this: to the ‘Default Man’, what is not like Him either in terms of skin colour, social background or gender among others, is the difference, the divergent, the Other. However, the gender biases often apply unconsciously to men altogether, the other variables only nuancing to what extent men are subdued by it.

Cartoon from The Descent of Man

The concept of ‘Masculinity’ is an omnipotent social construct dating back a long way, that comes with traits and behaviours that men should respond to: virile clothes from the cocky leather jacket to the discrete dark suit, a warrior spirit including the military man or the CEO leader, the breadwinner status, emotional numbness, inner violence, etc. If each man does not necessarily fit all those criteria, they have inherently the need to report to them, as if there were a “Department of Masculinity”, as Perry likes to name it. The problem is that this definition of masculinity is so close to what people historically thought men should be or actually are, that we often forget that gender is a role, that we admittedly were forced to play in the beginning, but that we can also choose to refuse when made aware of it.

Then, what has particularly caught my attention in Perry’s reflexion, is the difference between masculinism and feminism on a theoretical basis, and the analogy with political parties in a government. By definition ‘feminism’ is the advocacy of women’s rights on the grounds of equality of sexes2, it is thereby a movement moving forward with progressive claims for an equal future. On the contrary, ‘masculinism’ often refers to the idea of maintaining rights, values, status and opinions for men, but as those are already operative, there is a nostalgic dimension, it is a conservative movement. Thus, in the same manner as in politics, both campaigns end up acting one against the other, and that is unfortunate. Defence of masculinity is associated to the past, for the traits and qualities it entails date back to the birth of cultures. Grayson Perry draws the conclusion that in consequence, as feminism questions regularly femininity and women, role models have emerged and are embodied by several figures, either writers, political actors, artists, militants… But as masculinity has not been questioned, revaluated and reconstructed enough, even men supporting gender equality struggle to find what position to take or what to aspire to.

As a matter of fact, the word “feminism” comes from the French language – féminisme – and has a peculiar, often unrecognized but yet very interesting etymology. Originally, the word is from the medical vocabulary and was used to describe symptoms ‘feminizing’ men suffering from tuberculosis, for instance a higher voice, less hairiness, etc3. When the writer Alexandre Dumas fils uses the term for the first time, in his book L’homme-femme – Man-woman – he means to denunciate women advocating the equality of sexes at the time, on the ground of the demasculinization process it entails4. What I seek to point out here, is that the very essence of the word ‘feminism’ has been associated with the condemnation of masculinity, first physically then later in terms of values and characteristics.

Indeed, the second definition of masculinism is to “protect masculine traits and qualities against the assaults of militant feminists”5. Perhaps masculinism does not necessarily mean “anti-feminism”, nevertheless we can hardly assume at first glance that men can be reassured by the emancipation of women process. It is somehow natural that they don’t – after all, most of them were taught to be confident about their rights and privileges. However, men should not feel threatened by the movement, firstly as it is definitely happening but also, as this is what initiates the whole ‘conservative masculinity’ turmoil. Basically, if the transition to gender equality will surely not be a peaceful and smooth one, it should not strengthen anyone in the belief that cave men’s force and wildness are anything worth fighting for.

Cartoon from The Descent of Man

Therefore, I believe there is a great interest to explore the idea of a renewal of the definition of ‘masculinity’, if not of ‘masculinities’ for intersectionality devotees. According to Perry, “we need a version that prepares young men for modern, urban, gender-equal society”1, which brings me back to the previous statement that old-school role models –  in the 1970s the brand Palitoy sold over 20 million ‘Action Man’ figurines6 which constituted a praise for the image of the man-soldier in the eyes to today’s Occidental middle-aged man – need to be replaced by modern-world-friendly ones. Overall, if The Descent of Man conveys anything, it is that on second thoughts men could feel reassured by feminism, as gender equality goes hand in hand with the abolition of the social pressure on men to demonstrate old traits of masculinity.



1 Grayson Perry, The Descent of Man, Penguin Books, 2017, pp. 14; 24; 34; 121.


3 Christine Bard, Le Féminisme au-delà des idées reçues, Cavalier Bleu eds, 2013.

4 Alexandre Dumas fils, L’homme-femme, Lévy, 1872.




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