A Room of One’s Own

The return of the cave man.

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In a bygone era of gray flannel suits and ad copy that read as sincerely as a minister’s sermon, masculine sanctuary within the realm of the family home came in three flavors: the study, the workshop, and the bar. Kids weren’t allowed in these places, not just because Dad needed some time away from the tiny demons who had sabotaged his dreams, but also because there was nothing for kids to do in these places. They were adult rooms where serious business transpired. The study was for drinking Scotch while pondering the works of Aristotle and Hugh Hefner. The workshop was for drinking beer while building a new doghouse or set of bookshelves. The bar was for drinking Mai Tais while flirting with the neighbor’s wife.

It’s possible a great degree of contemplation went into the various iterations of these three templates, but not probable. The goal wasn’t to express one’s specific personality; the goal was to affirm one’s status as a type: the Head of Household, the Man of the Family, the Boss.

Today, all that’s changed. Today, we have man caves. Credit Maytag with coining the phrase. In 2004, its market researchers determined that “every guy would like to carve out his own little place in his home.” Maytag dubbed that little place the man cave and set about creating appliances to furnish it, including the Skybox, a vending machine designed for the home market (i.e., it dispensed canned beverages for free.)

While the Skybox has been discontinued, the phrase “man cave” has flourished. In 2006, the NBA began using the phrase to sell $900 leather chairs, TVs framed in team colors, and other upscale furnishings for affluent hoops junkies. “We wanted to connect with the fan going into these larger and larger homes,” senior director of retail licensing Pamela Gray told The Cincinnati Post. “Men are really involved in decorating more and more.”

By 2008, the man cave concept had established itself enough to inspire a TV show of its own, the DIY Network’s Man Caves, which is hosted byprofessional TV carpenter Jason Cameron and former professional football player Tony “Goose” Siragusa. The former is on hand to do most of the planning, sawing, and spackling. The latter is there to occasionally wield a hammer, and to hit viewers over the head with man-sized helpings of beer-commercial-style manliness.

Of course, what’s most striking about the man cave conceit is how, well, juvenile it is. Man Caves has now created 27 mantuaries for the nation’s beleaguered fathers and husbands (and one or two single dudes), and few of them are places in which you could imagine Ward Cleaver feeling comfortable enough to settle down and read his evening paper. The Beaver, on the other hand, would love them all. Indeed, ask the average 12-year-old to build the bar of his dreams, and he’d probably equip it with hot dog machines, air hockey tables, motorcycles, couches built out of Cadillac parts, the world’s largest model race car collection, and stripper poles. In one episode, Snoop Dogg — dreaming the dream of every teenage stoner on the planet — even had a direct phone line to Denny’s installed in his man cave.

But if today’s men don’t seem quite as grown-up as their grandfathers did, they show a much greater flair for decorating and design. Of course, men, or at least straight men, are wary about talking too enthusiastically about the way a well-proportioned ceramic tile can really open up a narrow room — so they develop strategies for masculinizing their passions. In the 1970s, their medium of extravagant creative expression was the custom van: Small block engines were the perfect beards for beaded curtains. In the 1990s, professional wrestling gave straight men a venue to unabashedly appreciate fringed Speedos; silver lamé high-tops; and greasy, fussed-over Botticellian mullets – not in a gay way, but simply as a sourcebook of ideas to use in their own efforts to unleash their inner peacocks.

Now it’s Man Caves. Each episode starts with a theme song that sounds as if it were composed by that nameless heavy-metal band that has scored virtually every beer commercial of the last 30 years. Naturally, there is much talk of lag screws, forcer bits, and other examples of arcane hardware that only a truly virile Home Depot purchasing agent would know. Dream projects are presented as ways of reaffirming — sort of — the man of the house’s authority. One guy requests a cigar lounge in his basement because his wife and daughter make him smoke outside. Another man whose girlfriend has just moved in and domesticated his bachelor pad wants to establish a tiny preserve for hanging out with his buddies, who used to get the run of the place and now no longer do.

As projects are begun, rules are laid down: All ironing boards and vacuums stored in a basement that’s about to be transformed into a neon-lit showcase for flat screens and kegerators are noisily banished. Accountants and sales executives are teased for their white collar impotence and encouraged to blossom into “hammer-toting handymen.” Ultimately, however, they never seem all that interested in learning the lost arts of anchoring drywall or building a box column. That was stuff their grandfathers did; the real male bonding takes place during the big reveal at the end, when the triumphant presentation of touch-screen jukeboxes and custom wainscoting prompts poignant displays of teary, acquisitive manliness. • 21 May 2009

Greg Beato is a contributing editor at Reason magazine. Follow @GregBeato on Twitter.

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