Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Grayson Perry

I'm not sure whether or not I've spoken of Grayson Perry, the transvestite artist who won the Turner prize and got a CBE from Prince Charles (who, admirably, did not look the least bit startled or abashed in presenting it), before. In introducing him thus, however, I am falling for one of the simplest and most galling tendencies in popular British culture at the moment and, at the same time, being frightfully binary in my discussion of gender.

Perry wins the Turner prize.

Yes, it's going to be one of those posts in which I muse aloud on things such as Feminism and society, so if this is not your bag you maybe want to look away now and hit the 'Beer Review' tag to your right!

Would you like to know more?

I saw this article having been alerted by ChapDad (his blog is here) on the Book of Faces. Being someone I respect, ChapDad has previously pointed me in the direction of Grayson Perry and, to my shame, I have done no more than confirm the identity of the artist without really looking into the art nor his story. ChapDad was extolling the down-to-earth qualities of Perry and the article seemed to be talking about identity in a most provocative way.

And what I read there (you can access the article here, it's called 'Just because you don't have a dress on, doesn't stop you being a tranny' and I relate that without comment, because I'm not entirely certain that would have been Perry's take on the interview) caused me some disquiet and also some challenge about how I, too, view the world. I think it also impacts quite heavily, if I may, on Feminism at the fringes. That is, beyond the day to day important Feminism and into the realms of, at the moment, Feminist theory.

And I am as bad as the interviewer at the Grauniad by using
an image of a cross-dressing Grayson Perry to start my
own thoughts on the article. It's as though all I see
Grayson Perry as is a transvestite too. So much for me being
progressive. Mind you, I love the fact that the family are
together here.
The article appears in the Grauniad, the newspaper for people in the UK who are lefty-liberal and consider themselves intellectual. It spoke much about the interviewer and, with that, about the society in which I feel part in the UK. The interviewer seems a tad confused about transvestism, in that the view is put forward subtly that transvestism is something that can be picked up, an identity that is much like clothing. It was Perry's response that had me paying attention: "you don't stop being a transvestite because you're not wearing a dress". And that, arguably, is the best explanation I've read about transvestism in particular and gender identity generally that I've read in a very long time.

In this regard, I'm viewing transvestism as an expression of masculinity that is outside of the norm. And, in this regard, I see my critique of the article as stemming from my understanding of gender equality and, thus, Feminism.

Allow me to explain still further. I used to teach a course about ideologies and, in the course of that, we spoke about John Stuart Mill's famous idea that everything was permissible so long as it did not harm others. That is, you were sovereign of any decisions that did not affect other people. Self-regarding and other-regarding action. Many people will defend the right of others to carry out such things as cross-dressing providing that they do not, in so pursuing their right to do so, impact or infringe on the rights of others. However, there are shades here. My students were always of the opinion that whilst the sexual orientation of a teacher was entirely self-regarding (excepting the case of paedophilia) the outward appearance was more important. So that homosexuality was 'alright' but that transvestism was not. Reading around the topic there was an article from the States, in which the opinion was put forward that cross-dressing was part of a sexual fetish called autogynephilia - that is, where the cross-dressing male is 'turned on' by the thought and sight of himself as a woman. Reading the article, this may well be true of Perry, but I am less convinced that it applies universally.

See, I would suspect that Perry views things more from this
perspective than any other. In the article it is stated, baldly,
that Perry's girlfriends (and one assumes his wife) have
embraced the cross-dressing tendencies. Does this suggest
that they have done so out of love for Perry, or gone for him
because he cross-dresses or that it is down to the circles in
which Perry moves.

Or is this all a chimera - Perry is unusual, an oddity, and as
much a part of the art world as the pots and pictures and
tapestries. There is a fascinating section on the reasons for
Perry going into pottery in the interview.
Perry also discussed the concept of identity without a sense of self when talking about a self-portrait being produced for a TV show (that I rather suspect I shall be watching). In this portrait the subject has been shown as a city, a concept I have often played with in my own head actually, and I rather like the little bit I could see of it. There are streets and thoroughfares named with traits and concepts that play a role in the life of Perry. Interestingly, the interviewer sees the street named 'casual sexist' and believes that it is part of Perry bluffing, a method of hiding any great truth about the full personality. This is, in part, because of Perry's known penchant for cross-dressing. The fact that Perry uses terms such as 'tranny' when discussing clothing choices and identity suggests, to me, that this term on the map of the self-portrait is no bluff but a very honest and very vulnerable part of himself. The fact that the interviewer sees nothing wrong with Perry using the term 'tranny' and even seriously asks about how far transvestism affects Perry's sexuality in terms of attraction (no, Perry is not gay) speaks volumes about where we are in the UK.

In the interview, Perry claims that his
drug, albeit obliquely, is humiliation.
That's why there's no attempt made to 'pass'.

I find it fascinating that this is not only
accepted without challenge by the
interviewer but left hanging as though that
explains everything. There are also lots of
references to the fact that Perry has had a
great deal of therapy.
And where do we seem to be in the UK? We seem to be in a place where it is understood that dressing in clothes designed for the opposite binary gender is considered deviant. It is fine for creative types and rugby blokes on a bar crawl - that is, where it seems to have a special outward meaning or no significance - but it is not alright or accepted that people can identify that way. My society seems to believe that one can drop something like this in a way that sexual attraction cannot be dropped. That there are heterosexual people who don't actually want to 'pass' or have no interest in being bi-curious is a mystery and one that people don't want to have to face. In fact, this is something that the article goes into some depth on, where Perry has to almost defend his transvestism in the context of being a straight male as not being a cynical ploy to gain attention nor as a cry for help from a man denying the fact that he is gay.

The interviewer notes with some amazement at the outset that Perry rates 7 out of 10 as a male (on Perry's scale) and 0 out of 10 as a female. As if this should be based on the clothes that Perry wears. Indeed, if you have read it, you'll note that the interviewer is put off by the fact that Perry arrives in masculine garb. Perry has attended the BAFTAs and been awarded the CBE in a 'mother of the bride' outfit; the alter-ego of 'Claire' is well known in the work produced and caused quite a stir when the award of the Turner prize was made. In other words, cross-dressing is seen as something that Grayson Perry should 'do', part of the performance and part of the popular image. As an artist, the freedom is there to express through cross-dressing but, and this is important, only as a gimmick and there is no freedom to admit to being a cross-dresser whilst dressed in clothes that reflect the binary gender set by sexual organs. That is, Perry cannot be seen as a transvestite dressed in male clothing. There's even a picture in there of Perry painted with bell and ribbon tied to his genetalia. I found it fascinating that this picture was included, as evidence of the fact that Perry is 'out there' and much of the reported speech aims at showing that Perry remains an artistic snob (which I'm sure is true) and avant garde.

Grayson Perry. Perhaps the most honest depiction? I somehow
doubt that Perry has any inclination to cross-dress all the time
nor that he would consider himself a woman. Ergo, I would
suppose that 90% of the time he's just this. And happy with
it. So why should we expect Perry to behave in any given way
at any given point?
So, where does this leave the Feminism that I stated was tied up in all of this at the beginning of my discussion of the article? It means that even a famous, well-regarded and popular transvestite, almost accepted, has to defend what they do in some detail and is expected to behave in a particular manner. I haven't read any interviews with Eddie Izzard, but I suspect that he has a similar issue with things when it is brought up. In his comedy, Izzard has been known to state that he is an executive  transvestite - something that clearly stems from the impression that transvestism is deviant and dirty - and that he does not wear women's clothes because they're his. And that is interesting too. There are plenty of references to cross-dressing in UK society but these are very carefully controlled, in a world where men are held to a ridiculous masculine standard (that bears little or no relevance to the actual role of men in evolution and more to the state-mandated use of violence for political ends and tribal control) the fact that people challenge it is dangerous. So it is that openly cross-dressing celebrities are held to account and softly disparaged - it's alright for them, that's creative types for you. Into this, I suspect, Feminism could have much to say. However, until this challenge is something that is more widespread, I suspect that Feminism has more important things to worry about.

Why then am I harping on about it? Simply, equality. One of the quotes I have up on my classroom wall reads: "Be the change you wish to see in the world" and if this interview, in a lefty-liberal newspaper that prides itself on being lefty-liberal and equality-minded, is anything to go on, a truly gender equal society is far away indeed. So, if I wish to be the change I wish to see in the world, I must critique the article, challenge the need to expect people to conform to certain images they project to the world and offer some explanation as to why that might be so.

In short, if Grayson Perry cannot be who he is all of the time, and must defend what he does or refer to himself in slurs to reach the 'common man' then we need to seriously consider what we're doing. It's one step from women born in the 1960s referring to themselves as "silly girls" when stating opinions or Jamaican descended British people born in the 1960s referring to themselves as "darkies" when discussing cultural politics. We wouldn't expect it, nor would we support it, but it is quite alright for people whose gender does not fit into neat little boxes. And I am not okay with that.


  1. Ahoy!

    Yes. Interesting musings. I would add that I suspect Grayson Perry is probably being himself most of the time, and the years of therapy that he's had (therapy being a wonderful thing) has given him the self-knowledge and self-acceptance to do just that. He is a straight man who makes pots (because reasons) and likes to wear women's clothes (because reasons). That accounts for his artworks and his public image, both of which are inevitable, but what impresses me in everything he does is how normal he sounds whenever he opens his mouth to speak. It would be easy to mistake his frocks for affectation, but if he does nothing with his voice, and makes no attempt to pass as a woman. For me, it's similar to the whole drag queen thing, most of which seems to be exaggerated, over the top femininity which again has little to do with what actual women actually do. I consider things like Priscilla Queen of the Desert and Ru Paul's Drag Race as a fetishised celebration of a heightened mode of femininity that women have long since outgrown.

    But yes, Perry's performance of certain roles is something that excites him and gives him pleasure, rather than being a gimmick of any kind. I'll lend you his autobiography if I can find it. In short, he's a pretty mixed up kid who's always cross-dressed, but he fully explores himself in his therapy and his art, and the result is a man who is completely in touch with who he is, and completely unashamed and non-judgmental about anything that he does, despite the rest of world still thinking he's a bit of a weirdo. The article approaches him from the 'weirdo' perspective, and that's sad for society as a whole, because what they're missing is the opinions of a very knowledgeable, very engaging, very down-to-earth bloke. Check out his Reith Lectures from last year to see what I mean: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00729d9/episodes/player

    1. Thank you.

      And yes, I'm watching 'In the Best Possible Taste' and I see exactly what you mean. He's not a weirdo by any stretch of the imagination, and he is very very quick.

      I would love to have a conversation with him but, at the same time, I wouldn't because I get the impression he'd figure me out very quickly and then gently, playfully, mock me. And he'd be so nice about it, so witty and compassionate and nice, that I'd consider it a compliment. He's a dangerous man. And I think I like that. But I fear his mind.

      I shall have to read his autobiography.