Grayson Perry: Boys think theyre breaking the man contract if they cry

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.

Coming face to face with cage fighters in the first episode, Hard Men. Photograph: Channel 4

Often men dont even realise theyre sad, he says. Boys are brought up to unconsciously feel they would be breaking their man contract if they were to cry too much. Thats why men kill themselves more they bottle up, bottle up, bottle up, bottle up, until theyre overwhelmed by it.

Perry thinks the shocking suicide rates in the UK men aged between 20 and 49 are more likely to die from suicide than any other single form of death is just one reason why we urgently need to address our view of what being a man should involve. In a world where manual labour is declining and technology is transforming the workplace, it is hardly surprising that traits associated with violent aggression are becoming increasingly redundant.

Such stereotypes are something Perry has fought since childhood. Rejecting the figures of masculinity he was handed by fate in particular, a stepfather so violent that Perry recently claimed he fantasised about killing him Perry invented his own ideal male role model, represented by his teddy bear Alan Measles: Hes an extreme example of what a transference object can do in the right hands, he laughs, although hes just a lump of rather rotting foam now.

Perry also embraced a female alter-ego called Claire, although alter-ego is a term he now dismisses. Its just me in a dress, he says. I dont make any claims to having any understanding of what it is to be a woman. I might walk with shorter steps, thats all!

The idea of gang members putting on frocks and taking up pottery might be slightly farfetched, but Perry who grew up through the androgyny of punk and the experimentation of new romanticism thinks a lot of people could be freer if they loosened up about gender.

Gender is great, he says, and Im happy for anybody to celebrate wherever they are on the gender spectrum. Its got amazingly much easier in my lifetime.

Grayson does Australia: Its just me in a dress. Photograph: Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images

I ask where he stands on the debates about public toilets whether people who identify as female should be allowed in womens toilets. Well, [in] all situations, you have to give and take, he says. If the majority of women dont like it, then you have to listen to them. Because all identity is co-created. If I say, I am X, and you dont agree with me, am I really X?

I can shout what I want from the rooftops, he continues, before diverting into a story of a meeting he had with someone who ran a gender-equality clinic in Charing Cross. He told me his job isnt to transform person A into person B, but to get them to look like something that feels right to them, [so] that other people dont give them questioning looks all the time. Its getting them to a place where they feel happy and other people accept it. Its always about finding what really works. In the past, if you wanted to declare yourself whatever, and everyone said, Thats ridiculous, then it was hard work.

Back to the subject in hand how men can embrace a healthier form of masculinity and we run through a list of things men could do better at, from opening up more and embracing feminism to refiguring our definition of what bravery means (see below). As we skip through the list, I realise that it is probably not me who needs to sort out my masculinity issues. Instead, its some of the cage fighters and City boys and gang members. Because the masculinity Perry thinks we should aspire to is not a traditional one; it is one that fits the modern world, where problem-solving and communication are more important than being able to kill your lunch with your bare hands. And if I am still left unable to change a plug at the end of it all, at least I no longer need to wait for my dad to visit. I can simply give Grayson Perry a call instead.

Grayson Perrys 12 steps to becoming a modern man

Grayson Perry: Get me on a mountain bike and I love it. Photograph: Channel 4

1. Open up

Being vulnerable is the absolute key to having good relationships. And good relationships are the key to being happy.

2. Bravado comes in many forms

Men are very good at bungee jumping or driving fast, things that are physically dangerous, but theyre not so good at emotional bravery, such as having that difficult conversation with a colleague or partner. Men often cringe; they cant handle it. Im probably better than most because, having been through many embarrassing situations, Ive learned that you dont die.

3. Dont get too hung up on identity issues

The idea of gender fluidity is an alien concept to the vast majority of people, even in Britain.

4. Look to the future

Men are always looking back to a time when men were men and trying to bring that back. Im saying youve got to look forward, mate. Women are always looking forward. Feminism always looks to how women can be and thats fine. It doesnt stop them being women.

5. Embrace your costume

All men wear costumes they just dont think of it as a costume. Thats the thing about masculinity; it sees itself as this sort of default position, so therefore everything else is dressing up, whereas the man is just being normal. Men might not have frills and furbelows as women traditionally do, but theyve got spurious function: knobs on their watches or extra pockets on their jackets that are just as decorative as anything women wear.

6. Channel your painful past into useful things

We all find ways to comfort ourselves, or reinterpret experiences to make them seem OK. For me it was art; for other people it can be sport.

7. Feminism is your friend

Men need not be scared of it. But the name puts them off it has feminine in it. I dont think enough is talked about the rewards for men from gender equality. Women have clear goals to gain from it that are easy to measure – such as pay – whereas men stand to gain emotional benefits and become happier, which is harder to measure.

8. Realise theres a problem

Its difficult convincing men that theres a problem with masculinity because they are the least equipped people to realise they are lacking things on an emotional level.

9. Change can be subtle

Men need to learn how nice it is to be nice, how to be more empathetic to the world. Its a simple, sloshy thing to say, but lots of men are hooked into proving that they are men too much. Its to their own detriment, as much as everyone elses. I want them to be happier, thats all.

10. Taking risks is part of our nature

Men are predisposed to taking risks, and thats fine I love risks: get me on a mountain bike or a motor bike, I love it. Im an adrenaline addict. Its the same with public speaking or becoming a part of a public conversation these are all risky strategies that can go terribly wrong.

11. Let your children be themselves

Parents in this country often know their childs gender before they are born, so they start the gendering process on the foetus. Theyre already talking to it in their stomach and getting their mindset on how they will treat their child.

12. Think about how macho pursuits affect the world

Just look at Isis and what it promises to those young boys who go to fight. Youre in a group, theres a clear goal – its a real masculine adventure. Theres not much negotiation going on!

Grayson Perry: All Man is on Channel 4 on Thursday at 10pm.

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