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The typical man cave.
Sarah Lawrence for Vox

The rise and fall of the man cave

The trendiest home renovation project of the aughts is now a shrine to the fantasy of male friendship.

My dad’s man cave was built in 2009 and hosted, I think, three poker nights before it hosted my 16th birthday party, necessitating the removal of all the alcohol, including the beer tap. It’s in the barn next to our house and quite stylish! Rough-cut wood paneling he put up himself and a poker table with glam dark-red felt. It is also covered with cobwebs and full of deflated soccer balls, as well as whatever else my sisters and I threw in there to avoid having to put it in a place that made sense.

A favorite comment among people who have nothing interesting to say to my dad is, “Four girls?! I’d say you’re outnumbered!” Then his mom moved in with us, and they were like, “Another girl?!” (She’s 91.) I guess maybe this is why he felt like he ought to build a man cave — to have something to say that would quell everyone’s utter panic about the hormonal terrorism he was experiencing every single day. But as it turned out, he loves us, so he doesn’t need it and doesn’t use it. We are all really cool and fun to hang out with, especially now that some of us are old enough to drink.

Anyway, my dad is not alone. Man caves boomed in mid- to late aughts, one of those strange suburban spaces that everyone has a glancing familiarity with even if they’ve never been inside one. They were in Super Bowl commercials and sitcoms and The Sopranos, and they were all pretty much the same idea: Rooms that were shrines to television, sports, guitars, semi-nude women, and microwavable finger foods. Rooms full of rude or depressing signs that say things like “Beer: because your friends just aren’t that interesting!” or “Beer: helping ugly people have sex since 1862!” Beer: it’s what’s for dinner! But is it still? And are man caves still the best and only place for a heterosexual man to get away from his many women?

Tristan Bridges, a sociologist at the University of California Santa Barbara, has been interviewing men with man caves for the past several years, preparing to write a book about the phenomenon. Bridges interviewed all kinds of couples, but he quickly noticed a trend among heterosexual men in their 30s: Their man caves were almost always unfinished, and had sat that way for years. If they used them at all, it was rarely — maybe for an annual Super Bowl party — and if they didn’t, it was because, they claimed, they weren’t ready to be seen yet.

“It was very common for them to tell me that when they are done they’ll be able to use them,” Bridges tells me. “But when I ask them, ‘Who will come? Who will use it on a regular basis?’ that’s when they don’t have anything to say.”

Bridges has interviewed man cave builders all across the country, and though he’s familiar with the football-dude stereotypes of man caves, he says it’s actually pretty hard to generalize what’s in them. To illustrate, he says that one of his favorite “man caves” was a room that a man in his 70s was using purely to do large puzzles without annoying his wife. Tinker rooms, which center boyhood hobbies like model trains and handicrafts, are common among men that age. To them, a man cave takes on its “masculinity” solely by holding items that don’t totally belong in the rest of the house. The framed-jersey and pinup-poster man cave is a later iteration of the concept.

Jason Cameron & Tony Siragusa Build The Ultimate Man Cave In Times Square
DIY Networks’ Man Caves built the “Ultimate Man Cave” in Times Square in 2011.
Neilson Barnard/Getty Images

There’s some disagreement about the exact moment the idea of the man cave entered the minds of American men. Steven Gelber, a historian at Santa Clara University, has argued that the practice of creating male-exclusive spaces in the middle-class home emerged after World War II, and that married men embraced DIY renovation projects in these spaces as “a reassertion of traditional direct male control of the physical environment.”

Bridges, on the other hand, calls the origin of the “man cave” too difficult to determine. He points out that the concept of the “bachelor pad” was invented by Playboy in the 1960s, essentially to train men to be consumers of superfluous homegoods in the way that women were, and that the man cave postdates the bachelor pad. He estimates that it emerged in the early 1970s as a reaction to the women’s movement.

The term appeared for the first time, officially, in a 1992 guest column in the Toronto Star. In it, writer Joanne Lovering comes up with joke names for the rooms in a standard Canadian floor plan, dubbing the basement the “man cave,” and adding that the garage can also serve as “a cave of solitude secured against wife intrusion by cold floors, musty smells, and a few strategic cobwebs.” It was plucked out for use in the 1993 best-seller Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus: The Classic Guide to Understanding the Opposite Sex — the ’90s were incredible! — in which self-proclaimed relationship expert John Gray wrote an entire chapter about a man’s need to “withdraw into the cave” as “one of the biggest differences between men and women.”

Then in 2006, Washington Post reporter Linda Hales credited the word and concept of the man cave to a different source: the NBA’s merchandising department, which had recently introduced a line of “upscale” club chairs, TVs, and vending machines in team colors. The “dad-dominated media room” already existed, she wrote, but the idea of tasteful sports decor and extreme spending in the space was new. Pamela Gray, senior director of retail licensing for the NBA at the time, was supposedly “the source of ‘Man Cave,’ her designation for the expanding share of the castle devoted to media, den, and office.”

The boom of the man cave as we commonly imagine it does seem to have started around this time, in the big-money, big-house years leading up to the recession. “More homes have a room just for him, and you’ll know it when you see it,” the Boston Globe’s Leigh Belanger wrote in 2005. “[Large]-screen TVs disrupt decorating schemes. So does taxidermy. And video games, musical equipment, trophies, fishing and camping gear — none of these items are valued in typical home decor.” Belanger’s piece argued for the man cave as a place for male “stuff,” equivalent to a woman’s closet full of “handbags and shoes.”

Men were “setting up rooms of their own,” like Virginia Woolf but with random garbage, and not to write iconic novels — to testify to their manliness.

In 2006, Sam Martin’s Manspace: A Primal Guide to Marking Your Territory hit the shelves, and he told the New York Times that “manspaces” were a result of the male “identity problem” caused by the women’s movement. Men, he mourned, were just trying to figure out who they were supposed to be in this strange new world. He included Jerry Seinfeld’s “bachelor pad” on a list of his favorite man caves in 2007, pointing out, “A wife or girlfriend would never have let Jerry line up all those cereal boxes like he did.”

The same year, DIY Network launched the man cave makeover show Man Caves, hosted by former NFL defensive tackle Tony Siragusa. Siragusa later built a man cave in the Lake Minnetonka home of former NBA player Kris Humphries to celebrate his divorce from Kim Kardashian, generating dozens of tabloid headlines and the New York Times observation, “Given their home-centered squabbles, one wonders if Mr. Humphries is sending his ex-wife a message.”

And in 2008, retired US Army intelligence officer Mike Yost founded “The Official Man Cave Site LLC,” which is still active as ManCaveSite.Org. Man cave enthusiasts can purchase a yearly membership for $14.95, which comes with a certificate, a hat, and access to the site’s forums, as well as special discounts on other man cave merch. The site doles out yearly awards for the best man caves in the country and sports the tagline, “Taking back the world, one Man Cave at a time!” (When I signed up for a membership, Yost mailed the certificate to me personally. The hat is gorgeous.)

But post-recession, the man cave took a turn for the worse. News coverage was no longer of average homes and average men, but weirdos with 7,600-square-foot houses and $150,000 worth of vintage car memorabilia, guns, and restored gas pumps.

In 2012, a year after HomeGoods trademarked the term “mom cave,” the LA Times’s Adam Tschorn declared the man cave dead, adding that the death blow was the presence of a man cave at the 2012 Philadelphia International Flower Show. “Yes, the man cave has gone from sacred space to flower-show bait,” he wrote, apparently devastated. By 2015, “she sheds” were on the rise, and the Wall Street Journal was busily documenting elegant man caves with aesthetics completely divorced from mainstream popular culture. These were “ultra-luxury manly spaces” for the elite, with $100,000 sound systems, imported Norwegian recliners, and octagonal libraries full of antique lanterns. DIY Network’s Man Caves went off the air in 2016.

Beautiful man cave sign sold by online retailer the Wild Robot.
Wild Robot

Today, the r/mancave subreddit, which has just 21,700 subscribers as of writing, is full of half-realized dreams. “I’m making my own man cave in my shed … I’m trying to do it as cheap as possible, only a $200 budget,” writes one user. “Do you guys have any suggestions [?] There’s no room for a pool table and I’ve made benches out of old pallets.” “Since my divorce, every room has become my man cave,” writes another. One man-cave-in-progress has a giant wall hanging set aside to display dozens of tools, but so far the poster only owns one hammer and a crescent wrench. Another is a dark corner with a single red leather chair, a framed photo of Charlie Chaplin, and a bottle of pink lemonade Svedka.

Brad McFeggan, a 38-year-old r/mancave participant from Illinois, has what he calls a man cave “nook” for retro gaming, which took him two years of thrifting on eBay, Craigslist, Facebook, and Etsy to build. He put up wood paneling himself one weekend last summer, and though he gladly invites his kids into the space to learn about his hobby, it’s mostly for him: “It’s my own personal happy space to unwind, sit back, and think about the good days of my childhood.” He says it was frustrating to have to wait long enough to be able to afford everything, but he ultimately got it done for $300.

Now, as Bridges travels the country looking for man caves, he’s finding more of the same. “I thought I was going to see a lot of rooms like you see in pizza commercial — a bunch of guys who get together for debauchery. I saw a lot less of that in the study than I was expecting to,” Bridges says. One man cave he went to was just a garage with two garbage cans flipped over and a piece of plywood on top of them. The owner told him that was going to be replaced by a real bar soon, but when Bridges interviewed his girlfriend, she told him he’d been saying that for years.

That became another theme of his research. “Some of it is economic. They have these really big dreams for their home or apartment and they can’t actually afford to make it happen,” Bridges says. “But — and I’m not a psychologist — it almost felt like sometimes they resisted the idea of the room being finished. I heard from partners a lot saying, ‘He’s never going to finish it.’ He doesn’t want to.”

Another research team, led by Mariam Beruchasvili at California State University in 2014, published findings in the Journal of Consumer Culture that tentatively showed younger men steering away from man caves and male-only space in general because they found it regressive. “For these informants, lack of desire to have a male space indicates rejections of stereotypical masculine ideals that may subvert family unity and marital harmony,” the researchers wrote, quoting one of their respondents who said, ‘‘There’s no like, ‘Oh, Earl’s in his private space where he wants to be left alone.’ I don’t think that’s very good for a family and it’s definitely not good for a relationship.’’

Many of the men the man caves subreddit expressed qualified versions of this feeling, including 26-year-old Sean, who lives in eastern Iowa with his girlfriend and says his man cave is actually a shared space. “I often have friends over to watch the games or big tournaments, just depends on the day,” he tells me via chat. “I mean, my girlfriend comes and hangs out with me whenever she wants to. It’s just a space where I can have all my things and not make our living space look tacky.”

But “such a stance may also represent an opportunistic ideological shift,” the researchers added. “It may simply reflect the intent to accommodate personal views within the limits imposed by family circumstances.” Basically: These men may be claiming an evolved stance when what they really mean to say is that they don’t have a lot of extra cash.

In any case, the man cave has slipped out of popular culture for the most part, or set aside for ridicule — in the oddly sharp Totino’s Pizza Roll sketches written by Saturday Night Live’s Chris Kelly and Sarah Schneider, or as the main character trait of You’re the Worst’s bumbling orthopedic surgeon Vernon, who spends all of his time talking about boobs and begging peripheral men to hang out with him in his basement.

Bridges is still collecting interviews, but from his early surveys, it seems as if the act of pretending to build a man cave, and pretending to have friends to fill it with, is the main draw of the man cave now. “Part of what the man cave is is a fantasy,” he says. “I think some of it is a fantasy that men have to have intimate relationships with other men.”

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