In a world which seems to want to move away from using gender to understand identity, artist Grayson Perry’s All Man is a fascinating look at the complexities and contradictions that make up modern masculinity, studying the extremes of society to get to the root of the “vortex of male dysfunction” he sees in Britain today. Each week sees Perry embedded in a different example of hyper-masculine culture, cage fighting in week 1 and police and criminals in week 2, using these as a jumping off point to investigate what we interpret as making up modern masculinity.
Perry’s the glue that binds the whole enterprise together and he proves himself an engaging host for this sort of filmmaking. Like Louis Theroux he often seems so out of place in the extreme environments he finds himself in, wearing a t-shirt and suit braces to a cage fight, that he manages to disarm and engage with his subjects in a way that only an outsider can, whilst never looking down upon them or inviting us to sneer. He defines much of his engagement with concepts of manhood with this outsiders eye, claiming that his transvestism gives him “enough distance to turn around and look back at that tower of power that is masculinity”, and its this that allows him to really pierce to the heart of the issues brought up by the subjects of his films.
Out of the two broadcast so far, episode one was by far the strongest, with Perry’s starting point of investigating the world of cage fighting leading into a powerful exploration of greater issues of northern working-class masculinity in the post-Thatcher age. He deftly covers and questions a range of issues, from the centrality of violence in being a man to the stigma of confronting male emotion and the tragic consequences it can bring, with his encounter with the mother and friends of a young suicide victim being genuinely affecting. Perry seeks to defy expectation at every turn, debunking myths and surprisingly ending up suggesting that the supposedly savage or base world of cage fighting contains lessons for all modern men on dealing with emotions, and that it’s a far more healthy alternative than the destructive repression and stoicism idolised by many.
The ‘gimmick’ of the series, so to speak, is that at the end of each episode Perry makes two pieces of art summing up his experiences and what he feels the community he’s been embedded in has taught him about masculinity. Speaking as an unsophisticated swine who’d do anything to avoid going to an art gallery this was the segment where I expected to lose interest with the series, but some of his pieces are surprisingly effective at conveying the themes of the episodes, with the model of a young man he creates in the second episode in the style of a Kongo fetish figure being the standout piece so far.
Even for a manly man like me who thought he knew all there is to know about blokes, lads and geezars, All Man can surprise and enlighten on what masculinity is in modern Britain. Next week sees Perry looking at the ‘acceptable face’ of extreme masculinity in the financial sector, and I highly recommend you check it out.