Toward a Theory of the Man Cave
At the risk of beginning by placing my credibility in peril, I’ll just say it. For a while now I’ve found the concept of the man cave both irritating and puzzling without ever having articulated why. It’s not, however, difficult to understand the what. Allow me to quote at length from The Man Cave Book, a how-to guide to creating a man cave of one’s own:
The man cave is an opportunity—maybe our best and last opportunity—for freedom. Freedom from responsibility, freedom from work, and freedom from taste.
When single, we let our walls go bare. When married, we let our walls go pink. And something happens to us when we settle into our domesticity. After the wedding, we swallow our egos, phase out our buddies, and choke back our tears as our homes—our very homes—collect bizarre items like gravy boats, potpourri, and vacuum cleaners.
We sacrifice. We stamp out our past . . . .
But something’s not right. We feel a rumbling deep in our bellies, a primordial urge, a sense that we’ve lost a shred of our identity. (vii)
This hyperbole is typical of endemic discussions of the man cave—information I’ve gleaned from the DIY channel, social media (check out the subreddit), etc. You know: they talk (or type) man-to-man. Those who favor the concept experience not a desire for a man cave but, it seems, a great need. The man cave is the final frontier. The man cave is a shrine or an altar. The man cave is a refuge, in fact a double refuge. For it is not merely an escape from the world outside, the world of commerce, of labor, but from the world inside as well, the world of domesticity and even taste: a nested set of forces that bar the modern man (we’ll talk about which modern men) from his freedom. It seems that the modern man would, had he the choice, live simply: barren walls, few possessions, nary a thought for such luxuries as decor and hygiene. So does the modern man desire not a house but a hut, yes, a cave, the original and most humble dwelling? Maybe not: the man cave, in contrast, is anything but simple. To wit, The Man Cave Book lists seven different types of man cave, each marked by accoutrements to suit every variety of masculine taste—indeed, the dreaded tyrant taste: there’s the sports cave and the gentleman’s cave, a cave for the barfly and one for the outdoorsman. See, each man has his own taste, which he can sanctify in a room that is salvific—that is, whose power is precisely to save.
This essay is an attempt to locate that room, the man cave, within a history, and an exercise in theorizing its creation. I find the concept irritating, yes, but genuinely interesting as well. A contradictory refuge from the tyrannies of modern life that is simultaneously a shrine to its comforts, the man cave is also a reification of tastes that don’t exactly lack exposure. Traditionally masculine-oriented tastes find their expression everywhere. To give one example, the top-grossing movies in recent years—Jurassic World and Guardians of the Galaxy and Iron Man 3 and Marvel’s The Avengers—star white men whose physique and comportment I wouldn’t hesitate to call masculine. They represent genres whose audience typically skews male (although that isn't necessarily true, especialy in the case of superhero films). This is simply a way of pointing out the obvious: that people whose patterns of choices and media consumption we would identify as “masculine” find no shortage of ways to satisfy themselves. Bars and stores and film and TV, among other things, reflect this taste back to them—and yet the man cave exists precisely to preserve this taste from danger.
Each of us develops, possesses, and makes social and aesthetic choices informed by taste. Pierre Bourdieu explains the preconditions determining judgments of taste. Each of us exists within a “habitus,” the confluence of the internalization of our identities (gender, race, class) along with the values, preferences, and attitudes acquired through daily existence. We make judgments all the time regarding the tastes of others, statements like (Bourdieu’s example) “That looks pretty bourgeois.” Bourdieu breaks down how such a statement arises:
It presupposes that taste (or habitus) as a system of schemes of classification, is objectively referred, via the social conditionings that produced it, to a social condition: agents classify themselves, expose themselves to classification, by choosing, in conformity with their taste, different attributes (clothes, types of food, drinks, sports, friends) that go well together and that go well with them or, more exactly, suit their position. To be more precise, they choose, in the space of available goods and services, goods that occupy a position in this space homologous to the position they themselves occupy in social space. This makes for the fact that nothing classifies somebody more than the way he or she classifies. (19)
People tend to favor a cluster of choices, such as the lists above, but also, as is increasingly significant today, consumption of media and use of the Internet, including social media. This cluster forms a kind of cohesive unit. In a sense, we end up sorting ourselves. One could consider them stereotypes, perhaps, but these clusters of choices are self-selected and self-perpetuated (even if, to be sure, Foucault would call that self a discursive subject: a self actually constructed by the system of thoughts and ideas and so on preexisting that self). So it’s safe to say that there exists a “masculine” taste, belonging to a person, often a man, who enjoys watching sports both on television and in person, who perhaps himself plays sports or used to do so, who is fond of such drinks as Bud Light or Coors Light, who favors red meat, who buys media (large televisions) that enhance the experience of viewing sports, and so on. This is, I believe, the ideal man-cave-inhabiting subject: the man-cavedweller. It’s no accident that the kind of taste I detailed above seems to pervade our culture. It’s everywhere. The kind of person who fits into that classification (who has even self-classified, Bourdieu tells us, via his social and aesthetic choices) enjoys and exercises social power, forms part of the social majority. I’m talking about straight white men, of course. Not all, but a certain variety. You know the type. This is the person who requires a man cave; the person to whom the concept is marketed.
I’ve already explained, in essence, the ontological failure of the man cave. No mere cave but shelter and shrine, it ostensibly protects the man from the influence of other tastes. In Bourdieusian terms, that’s unlikely. Tastes change, for sure, but taste as a concept is a function of one’s habitus, a complex process and product that is not really at risk of indelible alteration. That’s not how it works. Taste is not imperiled as The Man Cave Book might suggest, particularly for the social majority. So it’s not a matter of rescue, nor of salvation.
But I want to consider the man cave as a social and psychological space. What is the significance of its being a cave? The word suggests seclusion or hiddenness, and therefore also safety. It also suggests the nonhuman: animals live in caves. For Gaston Bachelard, such a connotation would make sense. Bachelard explores the home’s powerful influence on our psyches in The Poetics of Space (1958). He writes that “our house is our corner of the world. As has often been said, it is our first universe, a real cosmos in every sense of the word. If we look at it intimately, the humblest dwelling has beauty” (4). Although this primal power often loses its hold on us with time, “all really inhabited space bears the essence of the notion of home” (5). The home is the dominant space available to us in our minds: memories and emotions associated with home are indelible. Bachelard’s discussion of the nest is particularly interesting to my discussion. He uses numerous, rich examples from French literature to illustrate his claims: for example, Victor Hugo writes that Quasimodo’s cathedral is for him “egg, nest, house, country and universe.” As Bachelard says, “It is striking that even in our homes, where there is light, our consciousness of well-being should call for comparison with animals in their shelters” (91). We do inhabit our nests; the notion of a space that is cozy, one’s own, suggests perhaps an animal need, a primal comfort. Bachelard suggests that “well-being takes us back to the primitiveness of the refuge. Physically, the creature endowed with a sense of refuge, huddles up to itself, takes to cover, hides away, lies snug, concealed” (91). The nest, then, is the prime (as well as the primal) site of comfort. This is particularly true, it seems, when one’s nest is truly one’s own: a site apart from the rest of the house, a space that seems an extension of oneself: not nest, then, but one’s snail- or turtle-shell. (And this is not true only of the man-cavedweller. Plenty of people, including me, desire to have rooms that suit their interests, reflect whatever taste they have: libraries, studios, craft rooms.) Maybe these rooms represent the inner sanctum of the self, the most sacred, secret place where few may enter.
Bachelard points out this nest’s paradox: “A nest—and this we understand right away—is a precarious thing, and yet it sets us to daydreaming of security . . . . [When] we examine a nest, we place ourselves at the origin of confidence in the world, we receive a beginning of confidence, an urge toward cosmic confidence” (103). The nest suggests an innocent, naïve confidence in the world. As for the shell, the natural fortress, it likewise suggests security, protection. When we wish to protect ourselves, “the imagination sympathizes with the being that inhabits the protected space. The imagination experiences protection in all its nuances of security, from life in the most material of shells, to more subtle concealment through imitation of surfaces” (132). When considering the home, our minds, it seems, tend toward animal metaphors. Bachelard’s talking about figurative shells, barriers erected in the mind. The home itself is a barrier, a physical separation between oneself and the rest of the world. A specialized room, as I’ve suggested, represents an escape from both the outside world and the family, a home away from (yet still within) home. So it’s a matter of comfort, on one level: a mental separation from all that is taxing.
The man cave is also a market strategy. James B. Twitchell usefully historicizes the concept of the man cave, noting that “the first hint of constructing a do-it-yourself temporary man cave out in the woods goes back to 1753, when the Frenchman Marc-Antoine Laugier published the soon-famous illustration of a primitive hut fashioned from four tree trunks” (9). Twitchell links the man cave to Romantic paintings of men in hiding, a theme that has continued through centuries. However, Twitchell’s book Where Men Hide (2006) in fact inquires into the decline he has observed in men-only spaces. A strange claim: perhaps its strangeness is due to the book’s age; only nine years later I can point to websites, books, and television shows exclusively devoted to the man cave. Twitchell explains that the decline of men’s spaces and public (homo)socializing is due not to the rise of, say, feminism (thank God!) but to the rise of individualized entertainments: TV and video games, for example. He’s blaming commodified individualism. In fact there seem to be more opportunities for public socializing, catering to increasingly specialized tastes, than ever. And the man cave as a concept is nothing if not an exercise in marketing: it requires the proper how-to books, the proper materials, gear, furnishings, and so on. It’s a space one spends both money and time to create, in order to engage in homosocial experiences. The seeming fear Twitchell’s book expresses is nearly identical to the fear underlying The Man Cave Book’s introduction: that the social majority is under threat and requires a space of its own to feel comfortable. Men need freedom. Men need security from such terrifying things as (I’m speculating here) wall decorations and TV programs they don’t like. Hence the nest/shell/cave.
I would suggest that blocking off one’s taste and identity, reifying it by erecting a shrine, does not free but rather suppresses. It closes one off from the thrill of discovery, from an encounter with something different, which can be edifying as well as pleasurable.
Let me end at my most facetious, with the allegory of the (man) cave. Recall that, for Plato, we live as prisoners, chained to the walls of the cave and perceiving shadows on the wall as reality. Only the philosophers who can leave the cave perceive objects as they are, in the light. If you enter the (man) cave, you will find that what you perceive to be the real is but the shadow of the real, not freedom but its opposite.
Bachelard, Gaston. The Poetics of Space. 1958. Trans. Maria Jolas. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1969.
Bourdieu, Pierre. “Social Space and Symbolic Power.” Sociological Theory 7.1 (Spring 1989): 14-25.JSTOR. Web.
Twitchell, James B. Where Men Hide. New York: Columbia University Press, 2006.
Yost, Mike, and James Wilser. The Man Cave Book. New York: HarperCollins, 2011.