By Katherine Sansom
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An Americanism gaining popularity across the Atlantic, the ‘man cave’ is a garage, basement, or spare room in the family home, a space for men to spend time with computer games, movies, and lads mags, away from wives and children. The man cave is what Fox News described as ‘that wonderful refuge [that] has long provided a space for boys to be boys while offering a momentary escape from the trials of family life’. Brad Pitt, Johnny Depp, George Clooney, and Nicholas Cage have all spoken publicly about their own man caves, filled with expensive toys, and kept off-limits to women and children. As a space for fantasy and playing, and ‘the last refuge of guydom’, the Playboy Mansion has been named as the epitome of man caves.
The pathos of invoking the power of the primal masculine (in the concept of a cave) and applying it to this simulacrum of a teenage boy’s bedroom provides a sharp insight into the cultural shift that has given rise to a new type of mainstream film. The films focus on men physically in their 20s and 30s, but emotionally and psychologically frozen in adolescence. Generally lightweight, gross-out comedies, relying on nob gags and emotional retardation, the films are widely (and justifiably) condemned as anti-male, misogynist, and puerile by commentators outside of the intended audience. But these movies provide a grotesquely caricatured snapshot of real-world young men’s retreat from a decimated public world into the domestic sphere, and their subsequent struggles to navigate this new female-dominated realm.
These conflicts can be loosely grouped into three categories: managing relationships with women out of their league; striving to become fathers; and the necessity of brotherhood in the forming of a masculine identity. Typically, at the start of the movie, the protagonist is either out of work or unhappily employed in a menial job. The man’s father is brutal, weak, absent, or all three. And the only model of successful manhood that exists in the man’s life is a mere performance of masculinity: the hyper-masculine celebrity, an image of the ‘alpha male’.
This barren landscape provides the ability to exist, and nothing more. The only light in these men’s lives is from the brotherhood forged by a shared eternal adolescence: drinking, partying, computer gaming, and treating casual sex as an oppositional game in which they hunt for ‘hood rats’ and ‘drunk bitches’. This life is then disrupted by an opportunity for domesticity: a world in which roles, structure, and community exist. The adult world.
Making a life with a woman
Where the central conflict of the story pits a woman as the antagonist, the plot will follow from the man’s resentment at his discovery that the world of the domestic is female-dominated. The rules and standards are set by women, and they either make no sense to him or are entirely unattainable.
The woman is capable, successful, and self-sufficient; she works hard and pays her own way; and she manages complex and fulfilling relationships with her family and friends. The man, on the other hand, is a boy. His masculinity is entirely unfitting and inappropriate to domestic life. Her sexuality is serious, pronounced, and evidenced by her appearance; his is childish, repulsive, and composed of distasteful feelings. She is pristine and modelesque; he is a walking collection of bodily fluids.
Initially, the story will see the man attempting to incorporate his ‘boy nature’ into the relationship—arguing for weed smoking as a full-time hobby, and hard rock gigs as date venues. When the woman stands firmly in opposition to this, his pride will propel him away from her. But that taste of the adult (female) world will have left him permanently changed. The man finally comes of age when he recognises the freedom in surrendering his pride. He accepts his subservient status in the home, makes his family life his public role, and creates a private sphere from a (literal or figurative) man cave. He now has a public existence, with roles and meaning, and a precious private world—and he is happy.
This ‘enlightened’ man walks behind his wife, carrying their child while she strides ahead in high heels, pristine hair, on her way to some serious, unspecified office job. His work is something undemanding in a subsidiary of the music industry that allows him to lounge about in 1980s band t-shirts. His uselessness is a virtue that allows him to act as this superior, demanding, emotionally volatile woman’s sidekick.
In the early stages of the film, ‘enlightened’ men will play supporting roles as brothers or friends; their presence justified by the comic relief of their contented acceptance of their beautiful wife’s irrational and domineering behaviour. By the end of the film, the male lead will have joined this brother in acceptance of a role as another happy doofus. Men are absurd, but adorable when they behave themselves. And happiness, for a man, is recognising this.
The role of the father
With the domestic world constituting the only meaningful space, the pinnacle of achievement for a man is fatherhood; so it is here that the man’s most painful struggles are seen. The woman becomes a parent by virtue of her biology, while the man’s biological link is tenuous—entirely dependent on the woman’s word that she has been ‘faithful’. The man must learn how to be a parent. But his own father is absent, and his only experience of authority is as the victim of brutal and arbitrary governmental force, so he finds himself paralysed by fear.
Due Date (2010) tells the story of a man heading home to attend his wife’s scheduled caesarean section via a ludicrous road trip. The protagonist, Peter, was abandoned by his father as a child, and grew up to be a sharp-suited, confident, successful man with a beautiful, pregnant wife: a performance of alpha masculinity. And yet he is wracked with nightmares of his wife giving birth in the woods, a bear approaching and he, the father, too far away to protect her. Terrified of failure as a primal, ‘authentic’ male, Peter is then—in his real life—shot and stranded by arbitrary, trigger-happy airport security, and later battered by a wheelchair-bound war veteran.
The sham of his masculinity stripped away, he is able to learn the authentic role of ‘father’ through his obligation to protect the unfeasibly idiotic Ethan, with whom he finds himself on a 2,000-mile car journey home. It is notable that Peter’s transition to fatherhood is earned by way of car chases, punch ups, and all manner of other action film fare—the trials of an über masculine hero; yet his reward is a final scene in which he lies in bed, at home, with his wife and their new baby.
In Knocked Up (2007), in contrast, Ben does not possess even a sham of manhood. He is an unemployed stoner boy, who devotes his time to working on his porn site. Failing to alter his outlook or lifestyle in response to the pregnancy that results from a one-night-stand, and frustrated by the mother-to-be’s demands, he heads off to Vegas for a weekend of lapdances and magic mushrooms.
In a subplot, the marriage of the pregnant woman’s sister and her husband (parents of two small children) temporarily breaks down when the man retreats too far into his figurative man cave, pretending to be at work when he is actually playing fantasy football. He joins Ben on the trip to Vegas, and the pair end the night curled up, foetal, berating themselves and each other for not giving their women the gratitude they deserve for tolerating them. It is probably not a coincidence that almost all the children in the Man Cave films are female—sassy girls with affection for their fathers but little respect for their authority; this touch signifying the ‘female-dominated’ future that lays ahead for the men.
The necessity of brotherhood
In the new world of the domestic, there is no space for male friendship. Female conversation takes place in the kitchen, after long days at work, while the women cook meals for their families and oversee their children’s homework. Male conversation—chats about music and masturbation—can only be had in the man cave. Where the ladies of past eras took their frivolous conversation about husbands and babies away from the dinner table to allow the men space for serious conversation, these men take their ‘boy conversation’ out to the garage, leaving women in the kitchen to discuss marriage and children.
Some of the men, however, focus themselves so completely on achieving success in their family roles that they fail to nurture male friendships at all. Without this brotherhood, the man is compelled to live his life entirely in the public world of the domestic. He internalises the distaste of ‘maleness’ that is implied by the female-oriented landscape, and becomes asexual as a result of his quest to be acceptable to powerful, untouchable women. (A combination of this asexuality and a desire for male companionship opens the gates for a glut of frat-boy ‘gay jokes’.)
I Love You, Man (2009) tells the story of a man who makes this tragic misstep, and finds himself with an impending marriage (to a beautiful, successful woman) and not a single male friend to be his best man. Peter’s relationships with women (his partner, her friends, and his female colleagues) are respectful, affectionate, and open, and he is close to his family. He has a job in real estate—struggling to sell the house of the actor who plays The Hulk—while his male colleagues are idiotic, unlikable, misogynistic, and professionally successful.
And then he meets Sydney—a confident, laddish man-child, with a stream of one-night-stands but no girlfriend, no female friends, and no family. And Sydney instructs Peter to ‘remove his tampon and let it out’: ‘I’m a man, Peter. I’ve got an ocean of testosterone flowing through my veins. Society tells us to act civilised, but the truth is we’re animals and sometimes you’ve just got to let it out.’ Sydney teaches Peter to re-embrace his adolescence—to regain his love of music and spend time in Sydney’s man cave, a garage that contains his guitars and widescreen TV and ‘jerk off station’. We see a woman leaving Sydney’s house after a one-night stand, but women are not permitted into the man cave and Peter is never invited into his home.
The necessity of women’s exclusion from this space is underlined by Sydney’s horror and revulsion at learning how open Peter is with his fiancée—questioning his masculinity and urging him to keep more to himself. (Peter ignores the advice, shares his fears about marriage with his wife-to-be, and learns the hard way that Sydney was right when she temporarily leaves him.) The film ends with the wedding scene, the new wife just out of shot, and the two men standing at the altar and expressing their love for each other.
Andy, The 40 Year Old Virgin (2005), fails on both counts—having no male friends or female family, and neither any casual sex nor a meaningful relationship with a woman. To compound his humiliation, he also has a menial job, a huge toy collection, and rides a bicycle to work. The premise of The 40 Year Old Virgin is Andy’s colleagues’ discovery that he has never had sex, and their setting off on a project to source a ‘drunk bitch’ or prostitute for him to lose his virginity to. Their plans go awry, of course, but Andy is ultimately able to forge friendships with those men, form a meaningful relationship with a woman, and learn how to parent her angry 16-year-old daughter.
The plot is entirely driven by obstacles placed by Andy’s pride: acting upon his pride in his dealings with the woman (and thereby driving her away), and failing to exert his pride in interactions with the men (thus allowing them to treat him badly). Andy’s enlightenment comes when he manages to reverse these: lying bruised on the road, thrown off his bicycle and, shame-faced, dropping his pretences and telling the woman that he is a virgin; and—angry, measured, authoritative—forbidding his friends from any further tampering in his affairs. The film comes to a climax with a wedding scene, and—as in I Love You, Man—the new wife is off to one side and the friends’ presence at the ceremony foregrounded.
In the real world
The characters and settings of the Man Cave films are grotesque caricatures, and the dudebro is, in reality, a tendency rather than an actual person. But the driving force behind the stories—the retreat from public life, the elevation of the domestic, and the use of a stunted emotional development for the forging of brotherhood—are all genuine features of contemporary society.
Men’s Rights Activism (MRA) is a vacuous fringe ‘movement’ that models itself on feminism in its style of rhetoric. MRA theory includes the notion that women’s oppression was a myth, and that in fact men have historically been oppressed by their exclusion from the domestic sphere. Men have been compelled to work and forced to engage in politics and fight wars, with the valuable elements of human society reserved for women.
In addition, Fathers Rights Activists rail against the assumption of women as the primary caregivers of children—not because this assumption bars women from the public sphere, but because it diminishes the importance of fatherhood and constitutes anti-male oppression. Parenthood is the most valuable of roles, they argue, and any manifestation of the woman-as-primary-parent idea (eg, the Family Court gender bias) is deemed to be an example of misandry.
While some Fathers Rights Activists even argue that women should not be allowed to abort pregnancies without the consent of the man who impregnated her—arguing that to do so is to ‘legally deprive a man of the right to become a parent’. In this new world, in which the domestic takes the place of society and politics do not exist, parenthood is a ‘right’ in the same way as political representation was in the old world.
Susan Faludi notes in Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man that the world of work and politics, in which male identity has always been forged, is disintegrating; and at the same time, the gains of 20th century women’s liberation are taking hold. As a consequence, men are retreating into the home, defeated and disillusioned, and developing a ‘performance model’ of masculinity, while women are making gains in the public world and decrying the dehumanising nature of performative sexuality.
As Judd Apatow, king of Man Cave film writers, said of his film, Knocked Up: ‘I don’t think there’s that much of a difference between Katherine Heigl picking Seth Rogen up at a bar and Seth Rogen saving his bong before he saves his pregnant girlfriend.’ (5) A man saving his bong at the cost of his pregnant girlfriend’s life is only equivalent to a woman getting drunk and having sex with a stranger if the terms of the comparison are the collapse of traditional gender roles. The collapse, and a haphazard attempt to assemble a new order, forms the heart of the Man Cave film genre.
This is a substantial cultural shift, and lacking the politicised perspective with which to interpret it, fear and disillusionment are inevitable. And the obligation to respond in entirely individuated ways leads to male resentment at a subservient status in the home, an inability to see women’s ‘domination’ of family life as an often unwelcome social obligation, and the potentially divorce-inciting view that men require a ‘man cave’ because women own the kitchen.
Terrifying pronouncements about ‘the end of men’ are almost entirely based on the assumption that men are predominantly physical creatures, suited exclusively to manual labour and unable to manage the psychological and emotional demands of contemporary life. (A rebranding of this idea is the Men’s Rights Activists’ view that our society offers only the menial and repetitive labour to which women are biologically predisposed.) In reality, pride seems to be the deciding factor.
Men refuse work that requires the subjugation of their dignity; women find pride in the experience of being self-sufficient, regardless of the work they have to tolerate to achieve this. With adolescence rebranded as ‘male’, a man can retreat from adulthood and maintain his pride; for a woman to fail to grow up is morally reprehensible. A ‘man cave’ is a space for a man to be his true self; the equivalent space for a woman in an American home is a ‘mom cave’—a place for sewing and paying bills: not playing, but working. Given that men’s retreat from public life was not the result of a problem with men themselves but a response to the disintegration of the public sphere, it is reasonable to wonder how long women will remain committed to corporate life.
Exemplifying a recurring theme in female-oriented rom-coms, Cameron Diaz has a drunken, bewildered realisation in What Happens in Vegas (2008) that she ‘works 80 hours a week and doesn’t even know why’. And she earns her happy ending by allowing her boyish, unemployed male partner to teach her the value of fun, family, and not being a ‘worker drone’. So perhaps, without major shifts in society, the future does not threaten ‘the end of men’, but instead women downing tools, embracing girlhood, and joining the boys in the basement.
Written under a Creative Commons License, with edits: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/1.0/
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