On the Significance of Man Cave Signs

Screen shot 2014-02-24 at 9.39.15 AMThe market for man cave paraphernalia is probably a small niche.  But, many people I’ve talked to spend an inordinate amount of money on an odd array of trinkets and tchotchkes that help them symbolically authenticate these spaces.  Most of the people I contact to ask about their man caves, man dens, or whatever they call them talk with me or write with me first about the sign outside of the room.  Literally hundreds of these signs are for sale.  Some can be customized with names, but most are not.  And some men produce their own signs or have signs produced for them by others.  Not every man cave has a sign.  In fact, the ones with signs often feel a lot less authentic than those without.  But, signs are a feature of a “type” of cave, to be sure.

berenstain-bears-No-Girls-AllowedThe signs remind me of images we culturally associate with boys’ bedroom doors.  The “Keep Out!” sign with a skull and cross bones.  Indeed, this is where the signs are placed.  They’re not in the man cave, they are a designation of the space that stands just outside.  They symbolically welcome some and exclude others—similar to the “no girls allowed” signs we think of as characteristic of boys’ clubhouses (or Calvin and Hobbes’ tree house).  When I started this man cave project, I wasn’t initially all that interested in what exactly was in the caves.  calvingrossI’m collecting photographs of some, documenting the objects and considering room setup, décor, and the placement of different kinds of objects within the rooms.  But, I was and am much more interested in the ways these spaces fit into the relationships of the people in whose homes the caves reside.  But, now that the project is underway, the stuff has captured my attention as well.  And these signs are just one very small piece.

A psychologist who studies stuff (literally)—Sam Gosling—has come up with some interesting science and a language to help address what we can learn about people from the stuff they have and how they arrange it, or how it arranges them as might more often be the case.  Gosling’s interested in what we can learn about people’s personalities from the things they have and what he refers to as the “behavioral residue” left by their routine actions in spaces they occupy.  One of the ways that we attempt to make spaces our own is to adorn them with what Gosling refers to as “identity claims.”  These are various things that make symbolic statements (sometimes just to ourselves, often to others) about who we understand ourselves to be.

Gosling distinguishes between two kinds: “self-directed” and “other-directed” identity claims (here).  The distinction lies in a consideration of the intended audience of such claims.  A self-directed identity claim might be something like an inspirational quote I keep up on the inside of my medicine cabinet.  It’s not something others regularly see (unless they’re snooping).  Rather, it’s something I put there to help me think about myself in a certain light.  The same quote posted on Facebook might qualify as an other-directed identity claim.  Classic other-directed identity claims are things like bumper stickers.  I don’t often look at the bumper of my car, but the people driving behind me are forced to.  Leaving something there to make a public statement about my identity might say something powerful about who I am, but it definitely says something powerful about who I want others to think I am.

Screen shot 2014-02-24 at 9.38.47 AMWithin the various spaces people occupy, some spots are prime locations for other-directed identity claims—like car bumpers, the backs of t-shirts, or the doors outside offices, bedrooms, or dorm rooms.  Man cave signs are a wonderful example of such a claim.  The signs work to designate the spaces as “men’s spaces” within the home.  But, they’re doing more work than that.  The signs are a way of symbolically designating the space as “manly” by symbolically denying access to women and – often – jokinglyScreen shot 2014-02-24 at 9.37.55 AM insinuating the kinds of behavior that occur in these rooms when the door is closed (or those behaviors not welcome).  What’s interesting about man cave signs is that they often exist–in my experience so far–in caves that lack other behavioral residue corroborating the claims on the signs (sometimes implicit, sometimes explicit).  For instance, many of the signs borrow symbols from construction and road work signs, connecting these rooms (symbolically) with “masculine” labor and dangerous activity.  Many also list rules about authorized behavior in the cave as well as behaviors, topics, people, and things “off limits” in the cave.

Screen shot 2014-02-24 at 9.38.58 AMYet, I’d wager that few people who actually follow all of these “rules” post signs outside their man caves.  Rather, I think these signs are probably often deceptive other-directed identity claims.  By this I mean that they exist as a public claim to participate in certain kinds of masculinizing behavior.  They also might, for men in heterosexual relationships, serve as symbolically claiming to have “the kind of wife who’s okay with something like this.”  So, it’s a claim about the relationships of people living in the home as well.  Whether or not it’s accurate is an entirely different question.

Screen shot 2014-02-24 at 9.38.25 AMSome people’s homes have gender-segregated spaces because the people who live there have such different interests or participate in such different activities that they require their own space.  So, for instance, my aunt and uncle are interested in very different leisure activities.  And they’re both passionate about their pastimes: she quilts, he fishes.  They’ve both been doing each activity long enough and are sufficiently intense about them that they’ve likely acquired a lot of stuff associated with each activity.  I haven’t been to their home in years.  But I bet she’s got a quilting room and that there’s a room in the basement or on the side of a garage that’s filled with fishing tools and paraphernalia.  These are spaces that become gender-segregated over time in ways that might feel less intentional as the activities slowly begin to require more space.  But, man cave signs are associated with spaces gender-segregated by design.  This is a distinction I’m playing with right now and it feels like a meaningful one, though I’m still in the process of articulating all of the reasons why I feel this to be the case.  And the signs are really just one piece of it.

mancave

[Thanks to http://www.mysafetysign.com/ for use of their signs in this post]

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21 thoughts on “On the Significance of Man Cave Signs

  1. Pingback: On the Significance of Man Cave Signs | Men &am...

  2. Pingback: Hither and Thither #26 | Deviation Obligatoire

  3. In the real old days there were places that only men could frequent like a man club. Remember the club where Around the World in Eighty Days had Fogg take the bet? Now they are attacked as exclusive and therefore each man has his own man cave.

  4. One thing I’ve learned over the years is that self-declared personality traits are often (but not always) potential marketing campaigns. In other words: what are they sellin’? Or more to the point, what are they hoping I’ll buy about them?

    People don’t, as a rule, waste their time walking around announcing the obvious: “Hi, I’m Brad, I’m a brunette, and it’s day time!” Nobody needs convincing that what’s right in front of their face is right in front of their face. When you know it, you know it. And, on a psychological level, you tend to assume everybody else knows it, too.

    There’s a saying that goes “A thief guards his wallet closest.” It means that thieves take extra caution protecting themselves from other thieves. They are acutely aware that there are others out there like them and if you watch their behavior long enough, you’ll notice the tells that belie their lack of trust.

    In the same way, liars expect others to lie to them, cheaters expect to be used if they hang around too long, dishonest salesmen don’t trust your information, and the loud, macho dude in the weight room is wondering what it is that scares you. People tend to see the world the way they are, not the way it actually is, so when their back is up against the wall, they’ll accuse you of being them because, hey, isn’t everybody?

    Thus, the most common metamessage that the “Man Cave” sign delivers is “I’m not comfortable setting my own boundaries, so I’m leaning on gender stereotypes that make all you equally frightened humans out there do my work for me.” Gosling relies on a lot on these stereotypes and other assumptions to form his conclusions and he misses much of the subtlety of what it means to be human. .

    Plus, the guy was seduced onto the Dr. Phil show. Dude, No.

  5. My first reaction is to suppose that most of the men that have a “man cave” sign might as well put it outside their house, for the amount of women they bring home must be limited.

  6. I love this article. Not only for the psychological aspects of the man cave, but specifically the mentality behind the sign at the door of some grown-up’s he-man/woman-hater’s club

    I have my special room in my home as well. It is the ONLY room in the house I get to decorate. I jam there. I write there. I work out, meditate, and fix stuff in there. Oh, but never, EVER refer to it by the cheesy, media-contrived name of ‘man cave’! It is my little claim on OUR home, but, unlike man caves; 1) women and children are all welcome within, whether I am present or not. 2) I got cats. I refer to my room as either my ‘studio’ or ‘the temple’, depending on my current action of choice.

    ‘Man-cave’, truly, is a slur to masculinity, despite any contrary notion. To me, it symbolizes and celebrates the retardation of men, making them seem to revel in being knuckle-draggers! No wonder women think we’re imbeciles!

  7. As a huge Batman fan, I’ve been attempting to convince my fiancee on how I need to make our basement not a man cave, but a batcave. Perhaps if I show her this article and begin referring to it as a man cave, I can pull it off. Thanks ;)

  8. The signs are a way of symbolically designating the space as “manly” by symbolically denying access to people. Sign board is use for represent the place it is for workplace or not. Like one sign board is use for keep silence another sign have use for this is a place of women. Another is danger place please make a difference from it.

  9. I think you might be reading a bit too much into this. From everything I’ve experienced, guys just want their own space to enjoy their favorite things. Man Cave signs look cool, and when other guys see that sign, it’s their signal that they’re welcome in this place.

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