What does it mean to be a man in a world where gender distinctions are blurring? If anyone can work it out, it might be the dress-wearing, Turner prize-winning artist
The morning I am due to meet Grayson Perry for a discussion on masculinity, my own issues on the topic are brought into sharp focus. In particular, I think about my cold towel. Its cold because the rail on which it hangs no longer emits heat the fuse has blown and I am waiting for my dad to visit so he can change it. If it is true that we are currently suffering a masculinity crisis, then could my cold towel and I be the perfect illustration?
Of course I can change a plug, says Perry when we meet, with a hint of incredulity. But my father would not only know how to change a plug, he could have rewired the house, built the back wall. Its a generational thing.
Perry is possibly the perfect person to teach me how to man up, and not just because he knows how to avoid a 220-volt shock. His latest three-part television documentary, Grayson Perry: All Man, delves into the subject of masculinity by visiting people living out some of the most stereotypical macho roles in British society from mixed martial arts cage fighters in the north-east to loadsamoney City boys via teenage gangs in Skelmersdale, west Lancashire. Given that Perry is best known for the slightly less stereotypically male tasks of making ceramic art and wearing homemade dresses, wasnt venturing into these macho environments a little bit well, scary?
Yeah, he says. With the young men in Skem, there was one moment where we go down the subway with them and I thought: If theyre gonna rob us, it will be now. I knew that at least one of them was carrying a knife
But if you think Perry is an unlikely choice to interview subjects on masculinity, then you would be mistaken. For a start, it is a subject he has given a lot of thought to over his 56 years: Was there a flashpoint in my life that made me question masculinity? he says, a little amused by my question. Well, if you start putting on dresses when youre 12, its a bit of a wake-up call. Being a transvestite does somewhat force the issue
Perry also has an unusual affinity with his subjects that encourages them to open up to him, perhaps because, just like many of his subjects, he is a working-class male who needed to escape painful aspects of his past (albeit through art). During one heartbreaking moment in the first part, Hard Men, a cage fighter breaks down over his brothers suicide. Another occasion sees teenage gang members concede their fathers were useless role models. Rather than a gentle poking at the silly side of masculinity, Perrys show is a serious study of emotional repression and its devastating consequences.