Are man caves sexist?

When suicide kills more young men than anything else, we should encourage them to open up not express themselves behind closed doors 

Kashmira Gander
Friday 15 September 2017 16:49

‘Man grenade’ alternatives to bath bombs, ‘brose’ wine, and 'man size' tissues. There are plenty of things that prove masculinity is oh so fragile. But teetering at the top of this pile of useless, gendered nonsense is the man cave.

To have a man cave is to truly live in the 1950s, when women ruled the roost, and men were Neanderthals who needed to hide their belongings away in a room where they can cast aside the burden of being civilised. They are painted as havens where men can fart, and drink beer really fast, and swear and do whatever else it is that men stereotypically do. Sure, men and women don’t have to, and almost certainly shouldn't, hang out all the time. But isn't an entire 'cave' in which to assert your masculinity a little much? Even men's magazines like GQ have rejected the archaic idea.

Besides, what exactly is a man cave anyway? “Man caves have no ‘real’ definition as they have sort of come to life in popular media and popular imagination,” says Tristan Bridges, assistant professor department of sociology, University of California, Santa Barbara, who has studied and visted numerous man caves.

“I think most people think of man caves as sports dens, rooms with leather sofas, billiard tables, and in-home bars. But, I've found the term is used much more widely to talk about home spaces that are culturally masculinised in one way or another. Sometimes, this is in obvious ways that you or I might describe as 'masculine' at a glance. But other times, this has distinct meanings for the couples whose homes have gendered spaces like puzzle rooms, tinkering dens, or blackrooms dedicated to developing photography."

Tristan agrees that man caves support gender inequality in the home. “These spaces often play on the cultural notion that men can't really be themselves when women are around.”

“The idea that men need their own space, separate and away from everyone else, is a privileged position. And, even when couples I've interviewed use the term tongue in cheek, I still think the spaces support inequitable relationships between women and men.”

But maybe we’re being a little harsh. Why shouldn't men have their own space to potter about and relax in the home? Author of The Man Cave Book Mike Yost sees these hideaways as a force for good.

Asked whether they are sexist, he says he’s heard this accusation “a lot” but says it’s a “misconception”.

“Every spouse I've talked to is fully on board with the concept. As you know, if the spouse doesn't approve of a man cave it just doesn't happen.

“It allows a bit of privacy that you can't get when going to a public place. Depending on the theme, it provides a place for a guy to showcase items he has cherished over the years or his favourite sports teams. Like with everything, using the man cave sparingly can be healthy and beneficial. Nobody runs into the man cave to hide from the family. Just the opposite, the man cave brings families together. They are used by the whole family and is a great place to entertain. It's a healthy hobby that is never completed. The man cave is always going through some type of change which is what makes it fun.”

That sounds great. But what Yost is describing sounds suspiciously like a living room. It also stands in contrast with Bridge’s findings, in that most man caves are incomplete and go largely unused.

“I was invited into one man's ‘man cave’ that was an empty garage with two trash cans flipped over and a piece of plywood placed on top of them," recalls Bridges. "I asked if we were 'in the cave' and he laughed at me. It was a man cave in his mind. He had big dreams for this place, but thus far, they were unrealised."

“Lots of the men I've interviewed - particularly younger men successful enough to be able to dump income into a room like this - don't use these spaces. They spend incredible amounts of time putting them together, but don't have the time, friends, or interest in actually using the rooms for the purpose they tell me the spaces are intended.”

But when the pressures of masculinity is literally killing men - suicide takes the lives of more men aged between 20 and 49 than road accidents or heart disease in the UK - perhaps it’s wrong to dismiss the idea that they need unique ways to express themselves and share their emotions. It seems that what men need is the opposite of a man cave.

Enter the Men’s Sheds movement. (Notice the removal of the degrading term ‘cave’). Started in Australia, these are spaces where men come together to take part in traditionally masculine activities, including woodwork, metalwork, repairing and restoring. Women who like these things can come along, too. They are growing at a rate of eight per month in the UK.

“It’s not uncommon to hear from men who hadn’t spoken to another human in weeks before finding a Shed or who had lost their wife – their only companion – and had lost the will to live themselves," says Victoria Little, the director of services of the UK's Men's Sheds Association.

“The term man cave suggests the activity is very solitary in nature where a man might hide away on his own. Men’s Sheds are the opposite of that – it’s all about social engagement and connecting over shared purposes and interests, and of course some good chat and tea to oil the conversation.”

"Many men - though, of course, not all - find it much more difficult to socialise than women do and the activities put on by organisations for people in later life, with the aim of social engagement, are taken up by far more women - including social dining and lunch clubs, book clubs, knit and natter - with less provision to engage older men. That’s why Men’s Sheds are such a breakthrough."

“To be able to come to the shed and work and help others gives me a great deal of satisfaction. I feel a sense of worth and love the way all the men work together,” said one man who joined the movement.

So, men, don't hide away in your man caves. Stop being afraid to express yourselves in plain view of everyone else - it might just do you some good.

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