Modern Masculinity Notes: Grayson Perry – All Man


Written by Sarah Hanney

As part of our ‘Modern Masculinity’ series, we will be reviewing the latest thinking in TV, film and literature on all things masculinity-related. The reviews will be written in the style of ‘notes’ with a summary of the media we have reviewed followed by our key observations and questions. We don’t have the answers and are still at a very exploratory phase in our thinking so want that to be reflected in our output. In this first instalment, Sarah takes notes on Grayson Perry’s ‘All Man’:

Earlier this month, the New York Times introduced Grayson Perry to America. This followed the recent UK broadcast of the high-profile and widely-discussed ‘All Man’ (Channel 4). Given our interest in Modern Masculinity, we understandably took a keen interest in the show here at RDSi. To keep the conversation going, we would like to share our key observations:

Episode 1: Hard Man

Location: North East

Subjects: Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) fighters, ex-mining communities, family and friends of a (seemingly content) young man who committed suicide

Key Observations:

  1. BEING MACHO: Perry makes some initial assumptions about what is macho/manly – tattoos, beer drinking, physicality, fighting. He is then ‘surprised’ when the men he meets also display more ‘feminine’ attributes – for example, the MMA fighters are vulnerable when talking about their tough childhoods, admit to being bullied as children, are friendly and supportive of one another, mild mannered and generally nice guys. Perry seems to be hinting that these men have a clear outlet for their feelings – they get catharsis from fighting physically, which keeps them healthy mentally. This is in contrast to other ‘buttoned up’ men in the North East with high suicide rates.
  1. PERFORMATIVITY: One of the most interesting things he explores is the performativity of masculinity (and arguably of all gender). One of the MMA fighters likes to dress as a clown – Perry relates that to his compulsion to wear makeup/dress as a woman. He also talks about putting on a mask as protection from society’s expectations/to reflect an inner part of your personality that’s hard to express. Does Perry’s transvestism allow him to inhabit some sort of in-between gender space (and therefore able to understand both)? We’d argue no, but it does seem to lend him some sort of credibility when interviewing men in the programme.
  1. DE-EVOLUTION OF MASCULINITY: In the old Durham coal miners’ society, men knew their place – they were strong, stoic providers, breadwinners via hard physical labour, proud of their work. This malfunctions in today’s society where unemployment is high and men under-perform in terms of education and soft skills.

Episode 2: Top Man

Location: Skelmersdale

Subjects: Police, young men on the council estate (gang members), mums on the estate, ex-criminal from the estate who spent a lot of time in prison and had an awful injury from being attacked with a claw hammer

Key Observations:

  1. VIOLENCE: Perry raises interesting points about the inherent violence of men – they need to provide for and protect their families, but when the ‘normal’ outlet for this (steady job, good income, prospects) is removed, they turn to violence and crime as a way to establish their masculinity and dominance.
  1. FAMILY: Fatherhood is a key theme in this episode. The young men interviewed recognise that their fathers weren’t present, didn’t provide a role model growing up, but they are now on a similar path to destruction, and likely to leave neglected children in their wake. The gang members interviewed claim to be trying to provide for and protect their families – but interviews with their female partners show that the opposite is true.
  1. GANGS AND TRIBES: The gang members are completely tribal – prowling their territory (council estate), revolted and alienated by their counterparts across the road, claiming that they have a different mind-set, values, dress sense, culture although they are demonstrably the same. Is it the case that men will always be prone to hate and conflict for its own sake? Or is this just human nature? What role do women play?

Episode 3: Rational Man

Location: City of London

Subjects: City workers including a proprietary trader, fund manager, hedge fund owner and a visit to the London Metal Exchange. Perry also interviews women who either work in the City or have been married to elite City workers.

Key Observations:

  1. POWER: These men are in control of our society, unlike subjects in previous episodes. Traditionally those in power are omnipresent and faceless, and so aren’t given the same media attention as those at the other extreme of society. But has this changed somewhat since the financial crash, and incidents like the MPs expense scandal, Operation Yewtree etc. mean that men in power are under more scrutiny than before? There are contrasting opinions about the role of masculinity for men in the City. Some think it is inherent to their jobs, with traits like aggression and confidence at the fore.
  1. CALM & COLLECTED: On the other hand, there seems to be a trend for claiming that modern finance isn’t about testosterone but about ‘calm objectivity and icy self-control’ – but does any of this have anything to do with gender? These men claim to be able to eliminate emotion, repress excitement and passion and focus on being logical and rational – ‘We’ve devolved into sensitive masculinity…aggression isn’t fashionable anymore’.
  2. ACTORS: Women close to these men claim that the men have just learnt the rhetoric to disguise their misogyny. They’ve become slick actors, good at putting a face on which links to the performance/masks element of earlier episodes. Perry thinks that ‘opportunity, luck and talent’ have enabled these men to realise a successful masculinity narrative – in contrast to those lacking those attributes in earlier episodes, who are unsuccessfully dealing with their masculinity – ‘The beast still lurks but he’s very well behaved’.

The series ends with a call for men to look forwards. What can they be? What should they be? How can they deal with the requirement to be flexible and open to change? These are questions we will be exploring further as our series progresses.

If you have any thoughts on our observations then please do not hesitate to get in touch:

Sarah.Hanney@rdsiresearch.com