In 2014, the Turner Prize-winning artist Grayson Perry guest-edited the New Statesman on the theme of the “Great White Male”. Perry, who is known for his subversive ceramics and tapestries as well as his cross-dressing alter-ego Claire, wanted to explore issues of gender, masculinity, Britishness, class and the grip that white male power still exerts on the UK’s culture and politics. In his signature essay for the issue, he characterised this force as “Default Man”.
Default Men are middle-class, heterosexual and usually middle-aged: they comprise a tiny global minority but, with “their colourful textile phalluses hanging round their necks”, Perry writes, “they make up an overwhelming majority in government, in boardrooms and also in the media.” By closely examining Default Man’s tribe – dress, behaviour, identity – he discovers that, though it masquerades as “normal”, it is in fact deeply odd and, at times, disastrous for society.
Perry argues that Default Man’s dominance was weakening – and that has been borne out in the years since the article was first published by the changing shape of the British establishment: the percentage of women MPs, for example, has risen from 24 per cent to 34 per cent. In September 2022, Liz Truss’s cabinet became the first to have no white men holding any of the four great offices of state. But in the same period, figures such as Jordan Peterson have popularised the idea that masculinity is “under assault” and must be reasserted. The global “men’s rights movement” has amplified this message.
In this context, Grayson Perry’s advice for Default Man – to relax, ditch his macho baggage, and allow his grip on power to loosen – seems as prescient as ever.
Written by Grayson Perry and read by Tom Gatti.
This article originally appeared on newstatesman.com on 8 October 2014 and in the 10 October issue of the magazine. You can read the text version here.
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