The Current

Man in the mirror: Why artist Grayson Perry says masculinity needs a makeover

Provocative British artist Grayson Perry has been questioning manliness and suggests redefining masculinity could change the world.
Artist and cross-dresser Grayson Perry says it's time to redefine masculinity to reflect our changing world. (Jochen Braun)

Many of us have an image in our heads of a traditional man — whether that's the stalwart man working with his hands or the authoritative figure in a suit.

But there's a growing chorus of men arguing that we need to expand our definitions of what it means to be masculine.

"Nostalgia is a big part of traditional masculinity now because, you know, it is looking back to those days when masculinity was a necessity to sort of survive in a job," British artist Grayson Perry tells The Current's guest host Duncan McCue. 
(Penguin Random House)

Perry has taken a look at modern manliness in his new book, The Descent of Man and his TV series All Man.

"Now I think masculinity is sort of like woodwork. Some people, that's their job, they are a carpenter, they need to be able to do it. Some people do it on the weekend as a hobby and other people don't need it at all."

Perry identifies as a transvestite, dressing occasionally in women's clothes as his alter ego, Claire.

"I've been dressing up since I was maybe about 12-years-old, so I guess I was forced to question what masculinity was," says Perry.

He argues that masculinity needs to become more fluid, since the traditional view where men are discouraged from showing a range of emotions is taking a toll on men's mental health.

Perry has written a manifesto of men's rights that includes such things as "the right to be vulnerable," "the right to be weak" and "the right to be uncertain." He sees many men moving in that direction, but says the road will be long.

(Grayson Perry 2017)

"Gender is such a powerful thing, you know. It's taken centuries to evolve into what we have nowadays. And so it's going to take a while to change it," predicts Perry.

In order to encourage change, Perry wants to show that there are rewards at the end of the journey.

"Men often think that feminism and change is threatening to their happiness," says Perry.

"And I say, 'Look, guys, there's a new world perhaps you're not fully aware of just around the corner.'"

At Grant's MMA Rival Boxing Gym in Toronto, boxer Nick Fantauzzi has a multi-dimensional view of masculinity.

"In my opinion, being a man, it's not about toughness even though, yeah, you want to be tough," says Fantauzzi.

"But excelling in all different aspects of life, whether it be with a girlfriend, with your family, with your friends. To be a man, you have to take care of the people that are in your life and in return they take care of you."

Amanda Dorey, (first on the left) is a member of the Ottawa Capital Kings Troupe. (Kidd Gloves )

On the other hand, Ottawa's Amanda Dorey says she deliberately portrays an exaggerated hyper-masculine character in her drag king shows, where she dresses up as her character, David Coppafeel.

"You gotta puff up your chest a little bit, you gotta walk around with a strut," Dorey explains.

"Being overconfident, it's not me at all but it's David, so I just go with it."

In Australia, the Triple M group of radio stations had long been aimed at the "manliest men" who loved rock, sports and comedy. But over the last year, they've decided that image needed a reboot if they wanted to stay relevant.

"If we build better men for the future, then we build a better future for everyone." says Mike Fitzpatrick, head of content at Triple M's 33 radio stations.

The station launched a study on what masculinity means to Australian men, including having researchers live with male listeners. The study suggests boys as young as four already hold very traditional views of what it means to be a man.

"The constant themes that come up [with young boys] is that you don't cry. Everyone has to listen to you. You need to be strong. You don't show emotion. Go out with your mates. Drink beer," Fitzpatrick tells McCue.

"The majority of [that] they're getting from their father, and their father's friends but the rest they're getting from the media. So I think we have a responsibility to ensure that these guys know there's more to being a man than just that."

Listen to the full segment at the top of this web post.

This segment was produced by The Current's Karin Marley, Kristin Nelson and Ines Colabrese.