Priestley, Alexis. “Occupy Domesticity: The Man Cave’s Quest to Replace Whale Music with Stripper Poles”
“Man cave” officially entered the Merriam-Webster dictionary in 2012 as “a room or space designed according to the taste of the man of the house to be used as his personal area for hobbies and leisure activities.” Note here the use of the term design, a fairly gender-neutral to masculine verb, as opposed to something like decorate, which imports a more feminine designation. This subtle distinction is integral to parsing out the struggle between different discourses in domestic spaces, specifically in terms of how masculinity and femininity get expressed in certain discursive and physical spaces. It is imperative to spend time analyzing this rhetoric when it leads to messages like “[Who’s allowed in a man cave?] Not women–they have authority” (xii), because the man cave space, and the rhetoric within it, is exclusionary, violent, and harmful. Objects deemed too feminine are supposed to be torched; men labeled as acting other than heterosexual are to be ignored at best, and assaulted at worst. In order to frame my analysis, I will be pulling from Dick Hebdige’s elucidation of hegemony, vis-à-vis Antonio Gramsci.
I am qualifying this particular brand of masculinity that exists within and around the man cave as a subculture, which Hebdige defines as “the expressive forms and rituals of those subordinate [groups in a society][…] who are alternately dismissed, denounced, and canonized” (2). The men inhabiting these caves are—as evidenced by the brand of manliness exhibited, and the elaborate nature of their cave spaces—heteronormative and upper-middle class. They clearly benefit from a higher level of privilege than most, but they present themselves as subordinate because doing so preserves hegemonic power.
Before I dig into what I mean by hegemonic power, let me first give a few examples of what it looks like for this dominant group to represent, or re-present, themselves as a subordinate group. In The Man Cave Book by Mike Yost and Jeff Wilser, they write that: “the man cave is […] our best and last opportunity for freedom. […] Something happens when we settle into domesticity. […] 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. Lesser men will feed this hunger with mistresses, alcoholism, a midlife crisis. […] What if there’s a way to have it all? What if there’s a way to resurrect the glory of our past, to cherish our hobbies, and to create a sanctuary[?]” (vi-vii). So a lot is happening here. There are men sacrificing freedom for the chains of married life and domesticity. There is a denial of previous identity and a denial of instinct, which signal there is something inherently unnatural about a man living in a domestic space. There’s the notion of the “lesser man” which signals an exclusionary brand of masculinity, because if a man doesn’t buy into that label, he’s outside accepted iterations of masculinity. There’s also a sense of nostalgia, or, if you’d like, the more untranslatable saudade, which is Portuguese for a “yearning: yearning for something so indefinite as to be undefinable […] a vague and constant desire for […] something other than the present” (Oxford English Dictionary). Perhaps this untranslatable word is more apropos of this situation in which these men find themselves: that “primordial urge” to restore lost pieces of an identity is indicative of a Foucauldian power structure; one which defines masculinity in a specific way in certain spaces; one which presents an ideological image of the ideal man to which these men are constantly striving; one which cannot be pinned down because rather than having some natural, locatable origin, it exists without origin; it exists everywhere and “comes from everywhere” (History of Sexuality 93).
However, these shreds of lost identity are governed by ideology, which as Louis Althusser points out, is a “system of representation,” that is “profoundly unconscious,” and acts as “structures that [are imposed] on the vast majority of men” (as cited in Hebdige 12). Hebdige points out that “ideology saturates everyday discourse in the form of common sense,” which becomes more lucid when we return to that quote about the exigence of the man cave (12). These men need that cave space because they are constrained in their everyday life.
I want to make it clear that I believe the exigence for this group of men to be a truth for them. The rhetoric of common sense is deeply embedded throughout The Man Cave Book, as illustrated in my examples later on, via what Barthes refers to as mythologizing—objects and rituals are posited as natural parts of being a man, so of course it would seem like common sense to bring those objects and rituals to a designated space where they can be in their “natural” environment. These men are not seeking to create these cave spaces in order to perpetuate dominant heteronormative masculine ideology, even though that is the actual product of their endeavors. The rituals involved in creating and maintaining these cave spaces are contributing to the performance of dominant gender roles inside this domestic space, and within the broader scope of accepted relations in society.
Let’s return to Gramsci’s hegemonic power. Dick Hebdige highlights three components of hegemonic power. The first is that hegemony is maintained by the dominant groups not just by force, but also through things like rhetorical appeals, symbols, and imagery, so that the ideology of the dominant groups appears to be natural. Here is where Barthes enters the picture with his Mythologies, where he points to various objects and rituals that have become embedded in the fabric of French culture via this process of naturalization. Because hegemony requires the manipulation of cultural meaning, an analysis of these rhetorical appeals, symbols, and imagery (like those conducted by Barthes, and my own analysis here) can prove fruitful in elucidating where and how dominant groups exercise and attempt to maintain dominance.
Within the space of the man cave, men are presented as a subordinate group who must, as Yost and Wilser write in their book, “Claim land. Go big. Grab as much as space as you can [sic]. Think like Lex Luthor, who covets land, because ‘It’s the one thing they’re not making more of’” (37). There’s a sense of urgency here, because, according to Yost and Wilser, every man needs “a place to let [his] inner manliness come out,” as if manliness is hidden or somehow altered and impure outside of this space of refuge (56). The space of the man cave is rhetorically constructed to limit the expression of natural manliness to the cave.
However, what natural manliness constitutes is, in fact, comprised of specific criteria. For instance, Yost and Wilser list forbidden activities in a man cave, which include: consuming tea, because, along with cat food (which apparently is an apt comparison) “a man should consume neither in his cave,”; watching movies with a specific list of actresses, “unless they’re naked,”; gloating, because, while the man cave is clearly an awesome space, a real man is “not a douchecanoe about it,”; emoting, “unless those emotions are directed at the most important people in your life: your favorite sports team,”; and gossiping, “not because you’re in a man cave. Because you’re a man” (65). Elsewhere in the book, we see that “a man of action,” has a quality poker table set up in his cave to “play and win” games, rather than just watch them (69). The “wise man” will outfit his man cave with a full bar, including stools, coasters, varnish, and cashews, because he is “a man of society” (105). If you are a man, and one with social credibility, you will subscribe to a certain set of conventions within your man cave. It is not about being you, it’s about being the you who is acceptable according to dominant ideology.
So far, the exigence for the man cave has been established: men are constrained in all areas of their life outside of this cave space, and thus need to claim a spot to be true men. Yost and Wilser index several accepted ways of being a man in the cave space vis-à-vis objects that can be housed and rituals that can be performed there. This is a clear elucidation of how the dominant ideology of manliness is reinforced by making it appear imperative that men claim a space, furnish it in a certain way, and perform certain activities in it.
The second element of hegemony that Hebdige highlights is that “commodities can be symbolically ‘repossessed’ in everyday life, and endowed with implicitly oppositional meanings, by the very groups who originally produced them” (16). There are two ways we can look at this in relation to the man cave: the first is how men in those spaces position certain objects in relation to the purportedly “dominant group” (that is, women); the second is how some of the objects in man caves, which were originally created by and/or for men, mean significantly different things when imported into the man cave.
Take, as an example of how certain objects are positioned in relation to the feminine domestic space, this chart from the mancavesite.org titled “Mom Cave vs. Man Cave,” which inspired the book. At the top there is the sleek chaise lounge chair and reading lamp pitted against the slightly-beaten-up throne where it’s always five o’clock. Following this is romantic comedies versus video games, e-readers versus high-tech video and sound technology, wine versus beer and liquor, “feminine” exercises versus “masculine” (even though I’ve tried all exercises on both sides. Has my status as a female been called into question?), knitting and sewing versus power tools, and pastel paints versus darkly painted metal sheeting. Not to mention the title itself and general aesthetic of the infographic. However, let’s focus on just the objects themselves. On the left-hand side, we have the objects in their original state: feminine and domestic–in their natural habitat, if you will. On the right side, we have similar or categorically the same objects as they exist in the man cave space. Because these objects have been physically positioned in this way, it appears that they cannot coexist in the same domestic space, but are essential to each. And by picking these particular objects to represent the mom cave and man cave, a particular kind of masculinity and femininity are presented.
Let’s move on to that second aspect of symbolic repossession: how some of the already man-centric objects get imbued with a different meaning in the man cave. For this, I turn to The Man Cave Book. Featured in this book are several man caves, alongside interviews with the progenitors of them. The overarching theme across all of these interviews is that the man cave is a place to collect objects that aim to “resurrect the glory of our past, to cherish our hobbies, and to create a sanctuary” (vii). An example of a man cave that serves to ‘resurrect the glory of our past’ is Stephen Rose’s 70s themed cave. As someone who was a child in the 70s, Rose “wanted it to look like something a teenager from the 70s would have actually put together,” (18). In his interview, Rose emphasizes that all of the objects in his man cave are authentic, rather than reproductions. This emphasis on the authenticity of man cave furnishings (including a useable and used stripper pole in another featured cave), along with the sense of nostalgia for childhood, are common in Yost and Wilser’s book, where there is a chart comparing the boyhood fort to the man cave. This link serves to perpetuate the naturalization of this dominant ideology of masculinity.
Along with the references to childhood nostalgia, space is an important motif in Yost and Wilser’s book that serves to reinforce hegemonic power; it’s also deeply connected to this vision of the cave as a sanctuary. They write that “you shouldn’t feel smothered. Get plenty of space. It is a cave, but it should feel like a castle” (14). This is just one example of the pattern of directives that are couched in the idea that a man cave can be whatever a man wants it to be—within reason, as long as it fits within the mold of masculinity, and as long as it has booze, because “a man cave without booze is like cereal without milk” (14).
The third component of hegemony that Hebdige outlines is that “the struggle between different discourses [is always] a struggle within signification: a struggle for possession of the sign which extends to even the most mundane areas of everyday life” (17-18). This struggle can be clearly seen when certain objects are indexed in distinct ways within the man cave with reference to how they might be seen outside the cave space. For example, Yost and Wilser write that “for a man to be comfortable in his own skin, he needs to be comfortable in his own cave. HE NEEDS A COUCH. A big one. A comfy one. If it can be described as a ‘love seat,’ it should be doused with kerosene and lit with a match” (11). This hostile rhetoric can be seen elsewhere, with a discussion of the utility of tables: “THIS ‘TABLE’ WILL HELP LEGITIMIZE YOUR CAVE. It will allow guests […] to eat meals without spilling burritos in their laps. Think strategy. Short term: less independence. Long term: greater acceptance of your cave. You must lose some battles to win the war” (Yost and Wilser 17). Throughout The Man Cave Book, the man cave is presented as a contentious space that must be fought for, and a space that lies in direct opposition to a man’s wife. Yost and Wilser write of the cave and wife that “one is your companion for life, your loyal ally, your fountain of comfort, your joy, your bedrock of strength. The other is your wife” (167).
This is one example of how the rhetoric surrounding the man cave is distinctly heteronormative. Earlier I briefly mentioned the man cave with the stripper pole, which was the wife’s idea to include in the already strip club themed cave. The owner, Dave Stanoszek, mentioned in his interview that when some of his friends get drunk, they get up and start dancing on the stripper pole. He says that “you never want to see that [so he] just turns [his] back and pours another drink” (Yost and Wilser 74). Another man cave interviewee says that it annoys him when people view man caves as “being owned by redneck male chauvinists. Rooms like this are a way to express one’s passion and interests—sometimes on a grand scale—and shouldn’t be gender-biased. BUT MAKE NO MISTAKE, IF YOU SHOW UP TO MY CAVE WEARING A PASTEL SWEATER TIED AROUND YOUR NECK, WHITE PANTS, AND SPORTING THE CLASSIC HARVARD ACCENT AND CORPORATE LAUGH, ASKING HOW MY STOCK PORTFOLIO IS DOING, I WILL SWIFTLY KNOCK YOU ON YOUR ASS and toss you out to the curb” (Yost and Wilser 45). These examples illustrate that while the man cave, of course, excludes women, it also excludes what the dominant ideology deems unacceptable performances of masculinity.
So here we have the man cave. A place of refuge for the man’s man, the guy who just wants some space from the “gravy boats, potpourri, and vacuum cleaners” (vii), along with the “scented candles, bath gels and oils, and whale music” that occupy the domestic space so thoroughly inhabited by his wife (56). It is a space that a man can control, and in this space, it is “the one time in [his] life [he] can be an interior designer without feeling like a wimp” (48). To reiterate what I stated in my introduction: this space, and the rhetoric within it, is exclusionary, violent, and harmful. Objects deemed too feminine are supposed to be torched; men deemed other than heterosexual are to be ignored at best, and assaulted at worst. As Hebdige writes, “our task becomes […] to discern the hidden messages inscribed in code on the glossy surfaces of style, to trace them out as ‘maps of meaning’ which obscurely re-present the very contradictions they are designed to conceal” (18). We as feminists need to spend time with this rhetoric to uncover the ideology driving the acceptance of the man cave. It is pervasive and powerful, as evidenced by the Missouri House of Representative’s official proclamation congratulating Jim Meehan on the “illustrious occasion of the opening of Meehan Park,” his man cave, which serves as a tribute to baseball (Yost and Wilser 52). Part of what makes this rhetoric so insidious is that it’s placed in the domestic sphere, which has a history of being overlooked or dismissed as unimportant—but this rhetoric is part of a broader debate about gender presentation and deserves to be investigated.
Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality: An Introduction. Random House LLC, 2012. Book.
Hebdige, Dick. Subculture: The Meaning of Style. Routledge, 1979. Book.
“man cave, n” Merriam-Webster.com. 2014. Web. 30 November 2014
O’Neill, Brendan. “Mom Cave vs. Man Cave.” The Official Man Cave Site, n.d. Web. 30 November 2014.
“saudade, n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, September 2014. Web. 30 November 2014
Yost, Mike and Jeff Wilser. The Man Cave Book. New York: Harper, 2011. Book.