Writer: Grayson Perry
Reviewer: Stephen M Hornby
Typical Man In A Dress might be described as a polemic, except that it really isn’t that polemical. It is essentially a one man illustrated lecture; Grayson Perry presenting his meditations on masculinity. Dressed splendidly in vivid dresses designed by students that he teaches, Perry issues forth on the ills of retromasculinity. while some of gender politics are arguably quite dated and all counter-arguments ignored, the style and humour with which he makes his argument is beguiling.
Perry’s show begins with a one hour talk, starting in his childhood and his personal journey through gender; embodying the maxim that the personal is political. Perry reveals often painful truths about his past with great humour and positivity. The fact that his wife is a psychotherapist, may go some way to explaining his vivid self-insight. The personal then moves into the fully political as Perry outlines the key problems he diagnoses with masculinity. Inevitably, anything that attempts to summarise what’s wrong with a little under 50% of the population in a small number of bullet points will be reductive and over-simplistic. The essential points that gender is learnt, is performed, is about power and dominance for men and, most contentiously, is a mental health condition are really just distillations of the gender politics of second half of the 20th century.
Perry ignores most of the complexities of race, age, income and class which can place men and women in very different power positions to each other. He dismisses completely oppositional views from the men’s movement as dangerous and stupid. His case typically consists of showing a picture of a man shouting on a trading floor and then stating that masculinity caused the recent financial crisis. It is a specious form of argument where assertion is fact. However, there is enough of a thread of truth in it to resonate with the audience, especially when the observations are about how men behave inter-personally, cue the usual jokes about asking for directions and sat navs. Perry even incorporates the fact that his limited gender politics have been questioned and that he might be wrong and that this is OK. That’s fine, in a far as it goes, but it does rather leave you questioning what the point of the whole exercise is then.
The second half of the show gets interactive in two ways. Firstly, during the interval the audience have been asked to tweet their own observations as to what ‘ #masculinity is’, which are then projected on to stage for Perry to review. Secondly, there is a more traditional Q&A with the audience. while both forms of interactivity are potentially interesting, Perry’s responses just seem to be mostly a re-run of what he’s already said in the first half of the show. One tweet accuses him of being ‘slightly aggressive’ and preachy. Perry responds with considerable wit, taking exception to the ‘slightly’, but the point is well made. The show concludes with a manifesto that is essentially an inversion of his diagnosis of the main problems with masculinity.
An expert lecture without the expertise that a full command of the subject would give is perhaps doomed to some level of failure. But to assess the show by the standards of an academic lecture is to miss the point. Perry succeeds in making masculinity visible, in showing how it is sometimes problematic in terms of how some men perform it and in inviting us to change that. The show is a witty, particular, sometimes peevish, often insightful essay on masculinity from a unique perspective.
Reviewed on 7th November 2016