The 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.
The 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. I’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.
Within 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 – jokingly 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.
Yet, 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.
Some 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.
[Thanks to http://www.mysafetysign.com/ for use of their signs in this post]