Grayson Perry All Man: Episode 1

When a transvestite potter took to our screens in 2012 to discuss the definition of ‘class’ and the intricacies that define the various classes in Britain, the nation watched with curiosity; and by the time the same artist was back in 2014 with a documentary series that discussed ‘identity’, a similar phenomenon was observed. But when that same man, Grayson Perry, decided it was time to tackle the concept of ‘masculinity’, the nation was up in arms that someone appearing so feminine dare address such an issue. When Perry listed macho-man Bear Grylls as an example of a male who “celebrates a masculinity that is useless” in an interview preceding his latest TV documentary, headlines from right-leaning papers like The Daily Mail blasted the artist for launching “a stinging verbal attack” on the survivalist. The actual statement Perry made was not as radical as the papers described it. Firstly let’s address the facts: Bear Grylls is a white British male who could quite happily survive on ready-meals in front of the telly (a convenience that thousands of men enjoy each and every night), but instead restricts himself to a diet of slaughtered beasts on an island where sleeping amongst nature’s most deadly animals is just as natural as giving oneself an enema to aid hydration. Grayson Perry, on the other hand, is a Turner winning artist who provides an excellent social commentary through the art he produces. So it’s hardly a surprise that Perry would choose to criticise this unnecessary survivalist lifestyle that Grylls chooses to lead. Perhaps though, the controversy exploited by the tabloids only served to assist viewing figures for Grayson Perry: All Man which premiered earlier tonight on Channel 4. Good. Because this is a documentary that people really need to see.

Until now, I have restricted myself to writing only about fictional TV. But breaking my rule seemed necessary not just because I think that masculinity is something that needs to be redefined, but also because in my opinion Grayson Perry provides one of the most acute and distinctive social commentaries of today’s society. Although the artist is most prominently recognised for his transvestism and outspoken nature, the first episode of his latest documentary proved that he should instead be known for his incredible empathy.

The episode began with scenes of manly men. Men that you wouldn’t want to aggravate. Men fuelled by testosterone with the sole aim of inflicting pain or injury on their opponent. Or so the viewer thought. Perry’s tactful and empathetic character immediately allowed his interviewees to expose their true nature to the artist. Within the first segment of the documentary, one of Grayson’s cage-fighting subjects was already in tears over the suicide of his brother. This sudden and moving confession allowed Perry to investigate a phenomena that clearly had some correlation with masculinity: unforeseen suicide. The documenter highlighted the astonishing statistic that suicide is the single biggest killer of men under 45 in Britain. Speaking with the mother of a victim of suicide, Perry learned of her son’s seemingly fine and typical, average life. It became clear that many of the victims of this correlation between masculinity and suicide might have been because of the “broad-shouldered, pint-wielding” man’s inability to express emotion. This lack of a vocabulary with which to communicate, Perry argued, was severely harmful to the male psyche.

As in his previous documentaries, Perry produced works of art in an effort to convey his findings and reflect his feelings about the people he’d met and the experiences he’d had. Using the mediums with which he works best, tapestry and pottery, the artist made two pieces: Death of a Working Hero and Shadow Boxing. His tapestry seemed to be created in typical Perry style; religious iconography alluded to, typographical details included, as well as being heavy in autobiographical content. But what really made this piece special was the procession in which the tapestry was led through a church to the poignant reactions of those in attendance. In a particularly notable moment, the mother of a suicide victim whom Grayson had spoken to earlier cried when she saw what he had made in honour of her son. This moving and unique ability that Perry has to access the innermost feelings of working class people makes him second to none.

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People unfamiliar with Grayson Perry’s prior work might have been shocked at the somewhat heavy nature of the first episode of his documentary, but Perry is right in saying that this subject is a conversation that needs to be had. Men need a vocabulary with which they can discuss their feelings and emotions. Why else would so many commit suicide unprovoked and with no suggestion of depression beforehand? Help for this symptom needs to be accessible to all males, young and old, whether it be in their school, work or family life: something ought to be done. After all, it took so little persuasion on Perry’s behalf to encourage his subjects to speak, so why shouldn’t it be the same elsewhere?

Grayson Perry: All Man will continue for two more weeks at the same time on Channel 4.