On Grayson Perry: All Man

After a wonderfully stimulating and very rewarding time in Vancouver, both in the city and at the university, the past few months since my return to Wales at the end of January have been rather frustrating. I’ve spent my time applying for different university posts, attending interviews, and getting lots of rejections from said interviews, whilst trying to write up the study from Canada and finish other bits of writing and planning future research activities. All very difficult when your scholarship and work keeping being attacked from all sides and the rules of the academic ‘game’ [for it is a game], are constantly changing and the goalposts seem to be moved around at whim. I don’t want to come over as bitter and twisted, but I can’t pretend that it is an easy time either, so I’ve decided to break my blog posting hiatus and write about something which I haven’t been able to get out of my mind since I watched it last night, All Man with Perry.

Perry

Having been researching and writing (or trying to write!) about men and masculinities for getting on close to a decade, it was with great interest that I sat down to watch the new documentary TV series All Man, by the prize-winning artist and TV presenter Grayson Perry. As a frock-wearing self-proclaimed ‘sissy’, with a really engaging interview style, I wondered how he would fare in the three-part series investigating contemporary masculinity in the UK.

Episode 1, was called ‘hard man’ and saw Perry [minus his frock] interviewing different men living in the former industrial area of the North East of England. Perry talked with a number of young men involved in mixed martial arts and cage fighting, some other men who were coming to terms with their friend’s suicide [the leading cause of death for young men] and older men who were once involved in the coal industry in Durham. At the end of the programme, Perry unveiled two pieces of art. The first was a giant banner that mimicked those of the former miner’s lodges and trade unions, the second was a decorated vase, both depicting images of men [and women] from the show in order to show case some of what it means to be a man in the North East of England in the post-millennium era.

I was impressed with how well put together the programme was and how easy Perry [who until now has not been seen as an expert on men and masculinities] was able to explain the issues to the TV audience. This was also done well last autumn by Reggie Yates in his BBC series on British Masculinity. I wish I could be so clear at times in my own writing. His comments such as ‘toxic masculinity’ and the idea of men ‘performing’ a role [no mention to my old mate Goffman, but we can’t have it all!] might be slightly clichéd, or easy to understand for those of us working in this field, but for many people watching at home who do ‘real’ jobs and do not spend their lives studying and writing about these issues, I found it vital to begin to explain what was going on. The important part industry and place played in masculinity making were also made clear and it was good to hear the term ‘working-class’ used as well.

But, other issues also need to be acknowledged which there perhaps wasn’t time for in an hour episode. These are only extreme examples of masculinity [and the other programmes in the series look at crime and finance], what about the boring, mundane aspects of men’s’ lives or even men from these communities who display alternative masculinities or appear different? What about the role of globalisation and neo-liberal economic policy on masculinity making? I also thought that there was a need to explore the idea of performing multiple masculinities further to bring up the fact that men switch, or what I have termed, chameleonise between different displays, consciously and unconsciously. Even Perry was doing this when he was interviewing different people on the programme and he laughed and joked in a different way with one cage fighter who liked to put on clown make-up and the other cage fighter who talked about Achilles and Greek mythology. Although men are often said to be unable to talk about their feelings, are withdrawn and have a hard time expressing themselves, in my experience of researching men, very much like the ones featured in this programme, they are able to reflect and begin to talk about problems and feelings and about what being a man means, when given the time, space and a safe, non-judgemental environment to do so. Male suicide rates  are three times that of their female counterparts and make up about 80% of the prison population. Although men are still the biggest perpetrators of domestic violence, when men are being abused they are also less likely to report it and talk about it. Finding ways to enable men to open up is vital in beginning to transform and deal with some of these issues and the impact this has on girls and women.

I watched ‘All Man’ with my mother and step-father and it was interesting to see my mother’s reaction to the former coal miners who were interviewed. Both my grandfathers had worked underground in the South Wales coalfield and whist the older men interviewed seemed to reflect back to a time where they felt respected and valued, and this work provided them with a clear breadwinner role, my mother, as the daughter of a coalminer saw things slightly differently. She commented that whilst industrial communities were tragically ripped apart in the 1980s for political reasons, life certainly wasn’t always great for the women in these communities. Poverty was a constant factor when she was growing up in the 1950s and 60s as wages were often uncertain and the masculine drinking culture which accompanied these tough jobs and where a lot of the wages were spent [and if you worked in an industry where your life was often on the line, it is hard to argue against men enjoying a drink!] did not always help when trying to organise a home and feed a family. Also the options for women in these communities were very limited in terms of occupations and with such strong gendered traditions, anyone who might have other aspirations (including men), life was even tougher.

I was left with a real feeling of sadness as the show ended and a deep feeling of helplessness. I cried a little at the way the mother of the young men who committed suicide, spoke about the artworks depiction of her lost son and the uncertain futures ahead for all the young men on the programme.  It took me back to the research I did on young men in a post-industrial community and how often things way beyond our control impact on our daily lives in ways both known and unknown.

I look forward to the next two episodes with interest and have ordered some books I have been meaning to read for a while on men and masculinity in former industrial eras. Perhaps I’ll review them in subsequent weeks and publish them here.

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