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.

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On Queering Parenting and Gender-Neutrality

by: D’Lane Compton and Tristan Bridges

–Cross-posted at Social (In)Queery and Your Queer Prof

 

Becoming a parent is fascinating, but becoming a parent who studies gender and sexuality, and—for one of us—identifies as queer… well let’s just say that creates a whole different level of awareness and curiosity. Prior to becoming parents, we both had a fine-tuned appreciation of the ways that gender and sexuality structure our experiences and opportunities. Anne Fausto-Sterling draws a great metaphor comparing the onset of gender binaries to the process of water erosion. river formation diagramAt first, the erosion (read: gender) may not be visible. Small watery tributaries begin to form—the arms of future rivers that could, at this stage, easily change route. Gradually, streams emerge, slowly becoming rivers. And before long, you end up with something like the Grand Canyon. Yet, looking at the Grand Canyon disguises all of the crises that the fledgling streams navigated—a watery path whose flow, course, and geography were yet to be determined. Gender, said Fausto-Sterling, is no different. It takes time to learn to think of it as permanent and predetermined when it is actually anything but.

Just to put this in context, let us provide an example illustrating this issue as well as the sociological imagination of children at work. It involves a trip to the grocery store, a bold 3-year-old girl and her mother. At the checkout line, the girl trotted up to Tristan’s cart with her mother, pointed at Tristan’s son, and asked her mother, “Is that little baby a boy or a baby girl?” The mother looked at Tristan. He smiled, revealing nothing. “That’s… um… a boy, honey,” the mother responded, with a questioning tone (guarding, I’m assuming for the possibility of having mistaken a him for a her). “Why?” the little girl asked. Rolling her eyes at Tristan, the mother looked down and gave that classic parenting response—“Because!” she said. “Will he always be a boy?” she continued. The mother awkwardly chuckled, shrugging her shoulders, grinning and shaking her head at Tristan. “Yes, honey,” she laughed, “He’ll always be a boy.” And with that, they moved on.

The questions seemed odd to the mother, but the little girl clearly wasn’t joking. And she learned something significant in the interaction, even if her mother wasn’t actively teaching a lesson. In fact, some of the most important lessons we teach children are probably not on purpose—showing them what’s worthy of attention, what to ignore, what should be noticed but not discussed, and more. This little girl learned one of the ways that we think about gender in this culture—as a permanent state of being. To think otherwise, she learned, is laughable. This little girl seemed to understand gender as a young stream capable of becoming many different rivers. Her mother seemed equally sure that the stream had a predetermined path. And here’s where things get tricky—they’re both right. It’s likely Tristan’s son will identify as a boy (and later on, as a man). Most boys do. GenderBut treating this process as inevitable disguises the fact that… well… it’s not. This question came out of a 3-year-old because she’s actually in the process of acquiring what psychologists refer to as “gender constancy”—an understanding of gender as a permanent state of being. She’s not there yet, but interactions like the one discussed above are fast helping her along. These beliefs are institutionalized throughout our culture in ways that don’t make interactions like these completely predetermined, but make them much more likely.

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Gendering Your Household by Smell

There’s a small body of work on the sociology of smell that deals with gender.  Scents, their cultural meaning, and our experiences of them are culturally mediated processes (here, here, and here).  What women and men ought to smell like is, in some ways, just another of the various ways in which we are all held accountable to recognizable performances of gender.  Controlling one’s own scent is a small part of this process.  And controlling the scent of your home–perhaps in different ways for different spaces within the home–is a piece of gendering our social environments as well.

Yankee Candle stores are always fun.  I generally find myself in one some time in winter or fall when I want my house to smell like I just baked something with apples in it or like a fir tree had an accident in my living room.  Like a great deal of stores dedicated to selling niche home décor, Yankee primarily caters to women.  Desiring your home to smell like “Fluffy Towels,” “Autumn Leaves,” a “Bahama Breeze,” or “Home Sweet Home” is something that many people likely classify as a “feminine” desire (regardless of the gender of the desirer in question).

Like a number of products catering primarily to women, Yankee has developed a “men’s line.”  I’ve always thought that gendering scents has been somewhat ridiculous–that the line between perfume and cologne was less clear than it’s often depicted.  Smells don’t have a gender, do they?

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Smoking Rooms – Unintentionally Providing Space for Gender Inequality

In Victorian houses, there are simply too many rooms by modern standards.  The idea was to have a separate room for separate activities, replacing the old idea of simply moving furniture around the room to suit various purposes throughout the day.*  One of the rooms I find fascinating is the “smoking room” in Victorian homes.  Tobacco was sort of a fad in England in the 1800’s, but not everyone was a fan.  Smoking rooms emerged for a few reasons.  Initially, the smell of tobacco was thought odious and people smoked outside.  But gradually, people became accustomed and the practice moved indoors.  Inside the house, smoking rooms became assigned, so I’ve read, because women did not want men smoking throughout the house.  It was a room designed to segregate a very specific activity to one room in the home–a room that was not accidentally situated far away from bedrooms, the kitchen, and dining areas.

Smoking rooms were also outfitted with their own specific interior design.  Perhaps most characteristic of the room was the rampant and excessive use of velvet.  Home owners had velvet curtains made, some of the furniture was upholstered with velvet and smoking jackets were routinely made of velvet as well.  The velvet was thought to absorb smoke to rid its odor from the rest of the house.  It’s also true that smoking really ruined rooms, drapes, upholstery, and more.  So, having it relegated to a single room was probably a good idea practically as well.  Dining rooms were actually initially used for similar reasons (we began to use dining rooms right around the same time that we began upholstering furniture en masse).

Smoking rooms were intended to be used after dinner.  The women might gather in the drawing room** and the men would retreat to the smoking room.  As such, it was common practice to decorate the room in a “masculine” style.  Many men displayed gun collections there, decorated the room with Turkish themes (as Turkish tobacco was what they were likely smoking, popularized after the Crimean War), “worldly” books and objects, and more.

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The Bachelor Pad: Myths and Reality

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). Continue reading

Gender Segregation By Victorian Design

Homes have always illustrated a great deal about those who inhabit them.  And changes in architectural design reflect much more than simply new techniques and styles.  They also reflect changing relationships between groups of people.  Victorian architecture is famous for a number of things, but one of my favorites is the notion that rooms really ought to only have one purpose.*  One of my favorite ways that this is illustrated is by highlighting the lack of a bedside table in most bedrooms in the 1800s in England.  Reading (or anything else for that matter) was an activity that was best undertaken in a separate (and more appropriate) room of its own.

To accomplish this, larger houses had an extraordinary number of rooms.  Smaller houses were forced to shift furniture around depending on what was going on that particular day.  While one of the premises of modern architectural design involves breaking down walls and opening up space, the Victorians were much more concerned with erecting walls and closing spaces off.  There are all sorts of remnants of this time still present in homes today – though they are often put to separate use.  For instance, parlors are still present in many homes.  They’re typically small rooms near the front of the house where household guests would have congregated, and within which Victorian forms of courtship took place (see Bailey on courtship here).  But few of us use these spaces as they were originally intended.  They feel impractical by today’s standards.

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