Review: Where Men Hide

Alright, so this is a bit of an essentialist text, but the images are amazing.  The book is the result of a collaboration between James Twitchell (an English and advertising professor at the University of Florida) and Ken Ross (a photographer).  Professor Twitchell happened upon an article that mentioned a recent showing of Ross’ photography as he was waiting to get his hair cut.  Ken’s undertaking was a collection of photographs from spaces occupied primarily by men.  He called the show “Men’s Rooms.”  So, Ross shot dens, masonic lodges, boxing gyms, old bowling alleys, bars, hunting lodges, barber shops, and more (read more here; see some of the shots here).

James Twitchell teamed up with Ken, asked him to take a few more shots of some spaces he thought might add to the collection, and writes short cultural histories of the spaces documented in Ross’ photography.  Twitchell explains their significance to the men that occupy them and also historicizes the cultural forces that have pulled men away from these homosocial man dens of old.

Relying on more than a few biological determinist arguments (a personal favorite is referring to men as “males” in the same sentence that women are referred to as “women”–a slight-of-hand that subtly frames men’s behavior as somehow more innate than women’s), Twitchell crafts a heavy-handed argument in favor of men needing their own spaces to be quiet, bored, reflective, creative, violent, and most significantly, without women.  Twichell documents the demise of these spaces and though the text does present men’s environmental and behavioral needs as innate, he does not (as many do) blame women or feminism for this transformation.  Rather, relying partly on Putnam’s argument from Bowling Alone, Twichell argues that the fabric of community has been fundamentally altered in contemporary social life.  Twichell believes that men like himself are unfit for the new models of community available.

While Twitchell makes the claim that men have been hiding for centuries (perhaps forever), the book is a phenomenal illustration of how gender gets literally embedded in the architecture of our lives.  Many of the rooms Ken Ross shot are in garages, attics, and basements–spaces converted for strange uses by the men that frequent them.  Some of the activities documented in Where Men Hide were once performed in more public spaces and gradually moved into hiding.  I appreciate the notion that Twitchell does not believe men are going to these dens, cabins, and dungeons to work or to play–he thinks they go there to hide.

The photography is astounding–all black and white photos taken at angles in the various rooms that highlight the order amidst what often initially looks like piles of chaos.  While Twichell bemoans the loss of masculine spaces like these and the camaraderie they enabled, like many conversations of masculinity, he fails to take account of how these spaces are preserved today.  There are plenty of “men’s rooms” around today, but the men are collecting different things and bonding in new ways.  These men’s rooms deserve our attention too and are no less authentic.

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