The Bachelor Pad: Myths and Reality

— Cross-posted at Sociological Images

There is not actually a great deal of literature on “man caves,” “man dens,” and the like–save for some anthropological and archeological work using the term a bit differently.  There is, however, a substantial body of literature dealing with bachelor pads.  The “bachelor pad” is a term that emerged in the 1960s.  It was a style of masculinizing domestic spaces heavily influenced by “gentlemen’s” magazines like Esquire and Playboy.  Originally referred to as “bachelor apartments,” “bachelor pad” was coined in an article in the Chicago Tribune, and by 1964 it appeared in The New York Times and Playboy as well.

It’s somewhat ironic that the “bachelor pad” came into the American cultural consciousness at a time when the median age at first marriage was at a historic low (20.3 for women and 22.8 for men).  So, the term came into usage at a time when heterosexual marriage was in vogue.  Why then?  Another ironic twist is that while the term has only become more popular since it was introduced, “bachelorette pad” never took off–despite the interesting finding that women live alone in larger numbers than do men.  I think these two paradoxes substantiate a fundamental truth about the bachelor pad–it has always been more myth than reality (see here, here, here, here, and here).

The gendering of domestic space had been a persistent dilemma since the spheres were separated in the first place.  Few men were ever able to afford the lavish, futuristic and hedonistic “pads” advertised in Esquire and Playboy.  But they did want to look at them in magazines.

A small body of literature on bachelor pads finds that they played a significant role in producing a new masculinity over the course of the 21st century.  As Bill Ogersby puts it, “A place where men could luxuriate in a milieu of hedonistic pleasure, the bachelor pad was the spatial manifestation of a consuming masculine subject that became increasingly pervasive amid the consumer boom of the 1950s and 1960s” (here).  The really interesting thing is that few men were actually able to luxuriate in these environments.  Yet Playboy–along with a host of copycat magazines–spent a great deal of money, time, and effort perpetuating a lifestyle in which few men engaged.  Indeed, outside of James Bond movies and the Playboy Mansion, I wonder how many actual bachelor pads exist or ever existed.

In the 1950s–despite a transition into consumer culture–consumption was regarded as a feminine practice and pursuit.  Bachelor pads–and the magazines that sold the images of these domestic spaces to men around the country–helped men bridge this gap.  More than a few have noted the importance of Playboy’s (hetero)sexual content in helping to sell consumption to American men.  Barbara Ehrenreich said it this way: “The breasts and bottoms were necessary not just to sell the magazine, but to protect it” (here).  Additionally, the masculinization of domestic space took many forms in early depictions of bachelor pads with ostentatious gadgetry of all types, beds with enough compartments and features to be comparable to Swiss Army knives, and each room designed in anticipation of heterosexual conquest at a moment’s notice.

Paradoxically, bachelor pads seem to have been produced to sell men the historically “feminized” activity of consumption.

I’m guessing that many of the “man caves” I’ll see in my research wouldn’t necessarily fit the image most of us conjure in our minds.  But the ways men with caves talk about them are replete with images not yet fully realized by men who are most often economically incapable of architecturally articulating domestic spaces without which they may never feel “at home.”


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9 thoughts on “The Bachelor Pad: Myths and Reality

  1. Great post. I think it’s not surprising that bachelor pad come into use at a time when the practice was unusual – it would have stood out more during that time. (on a separate point, I haven’t looked at the numbers yet, but does the higher rate of living alone for women occur among those who are not married, or just among the total population? If it’s the latter I might attribute it to single motherhood.)

    • Thanks Philip. It clearly did stand out during that time and the fact that so magazines were able to find such an eager-to-read population speaks to some of the struggles of even the upwardly mobile families at that time (boredom, isolation, etc.). I might be wrong, but I believe that outside of single parenthood, women are still more likely to live alone than are men. Single living is counted among “nonfamily households” by the Census, but is that also true for single parent households?

  2. Tristan,

    A good friend of mine–unmarried, homeowner–did renovate his basement into what he refers to as “Man Town”. This includes a large TV and home theater system, couches, and of course, beer on tap. Fairly typical of the genre. And while there’s certainly a fair amount of implicit and explicit assumptions about masculinity and gender division, I think there’s also something bigger going on. And this is expressed, in part, in the show I posted above: “man space” is not just about defining gender roles or even excluding women (and only included as a matter of sexual conquest as indicated by Playboy). There is a strong element of excluding outside society much more generally. That is, what happens in “man spaces” can often include (or, is supposed to include) activities and even various expression of worldviews that are seen as deviant by social standards–overt and inconsequential sex, violence, etc. So in some ways, its as much about an expression of masculinity as different and apart from social norms as it is about division between men and women. And so it raises questions about whether “man spaces” are simply an expression of “primal release” (a good functionalist reading of the phenomenon–the social safety valve), or if they say something deeper about a perception that there is something fundamentally unique and different separating men from society at large–like, at the genetic level. Of course, I doubt there is any such data to support that–at least in terms of articulated and recorded data. But, I think even the TV show gets at that–fairly openly.

    Just a thought.

  3. I am struck by the atomization inherent in these imagined ideal spaces. The apartments are really inhospitable to the cluster-think of Kimmel’s GUYLAND where the man-boys reinforce each other and serve as their peer’s mind-police. These spaces are empty and do not invite socialization or conversation. Chairs are yards apart from each other when there are more than one per room, the dining table suggests that more than one or two persons could dine, but where would they go before and after. My recollection of the 50′s and 60′s Playboy (et al) culture is that it was never about camaraderie, buddies, or groups, but always about a single idealized male (like Goffman’s fellow mentioned elsewhere in this BLOG) who operates like a lone wolf, stalking women, taking his prey, and ejecting the evidence afterwards. There would be no need for a keg in these apartments. There are no pool tables.
    Were idealized 50′s men supposed to be more self-contained? supremely confident? happy to operate and hunt on the edges of society?
    And is this unattainable ideal ultimately answered later initially by the “fire in the Belly” counter culture dudes and more currently by the frightened misogynistic pack mentality of Guyland?

    • Thanks for replying. You’re absolutely right. These spaces seem the spaces of lonely men. Bill Ogersby has talked a lot about the artists who produced these images and others like them in Playboy and also why Heffner wanted them there in the first place. Part of why I think the bachelor was a myth is that he was presented as this lone wolf, as you say, who didn’t need other men’s approval or recognition. He was wealthy, had great taste, and spent his time with women rather than trying to prove himself among men. This image really flies in the face of a lot of what we think we know about masculinities – particularly the white masculinities at whom these ads are aimed. I think the “solutions” you offer by men at the end of your comment is probably right. Each of these ways can be seen as men responding to various “masculinity dilemmas” (as Amy Wilkins calls them) – more and less successfully.

  4. I love that you’re addressing this, Tristan.

    I’d like to point out that historically masculine men have always absolutely adored and thrived in ‘empty’ (or lonely) minimalist spaces, and expressions of power and prestige.

    A “man cave” would speak to that.

    Feminine women, on the other hand, lean heavily towards life, clutter, nic-nacs, sentimentality, and fullness — which is where their spaces would look less “lonely”.

    • I think that while it’s a really popular argument to make that “men have always…”, the more interesting finding is that men have not always done much. In fact, the vast majority (perhaps even everything) we think of men as having done throughout history is simply false. What it’s meant to “be a man” has varied so much throughout time and across cultures that often things are defined as “masculine” in one culture or time period and “feminine” in another. The more interesting question, from my perspective, is: at what point and under what conditions do things like “bachelor pads” and “man caves” emerge? Answering these questions can illuminate a great deal about the status of gender relations and gender inequality.

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