The time has come to leave the man cave — to bulldoze the bro bunker, to kick the kegerator to the curb. The safe house for the Y chromosome is no longer safe; the perimeter has been breached. The man cave is no longer a tenable refuge from the real world.
The handwriting appeared on the beer-postered wall last year when the phrase “mom cave” began to spread and “man cave” joined the list of phrases from our lexicon that are misused, overused and targeted for their general uselessness, much like “baby bump” and “the new normal.” But the real blow had to be the news earlier this month that a man cave would be among the amenities at the 2012 Philadelphia International Flower Show. Yes, the man cave has gone from sacred space to flower-show bait.
The spirit of the man cave has been co-opted by so many marketers hawking grill tools, barware and even neon lights in the shape of the words “man cave” (in case it needs to be spelled out for the fairer sex, one presumes) that if we don’t roll a boulder to block the mouth of the cave now, the strip-mining will continue unabated until Hallmark rolls out a line of man cave cards (“Greetings from the grotto!”) and guy-asylums across the country will groan under the weight of scented candles.
Maybe that’s an overreaction, but it’s easy to see how the cave-craving crowd might feel as if its natural habitat is under siege. After all, the man cave is nothing new. Its roots go back to our slope-headed forebears. Boys have long had their forts, grown men their hunting camps, Thoreau his Walden Pond, Superman his Fortress of Solitude.
But perhaps the cast-away couch has become so overcrowded that the only way to save the cave is to bid it a wistful farewell, especially with its place in our pop culture about to mark an important milestone: its 20th anniversary. An article March 21, 1992, in the Toronto Star had the first known use of the term “man cave,” said Mike Yost, a retired U.S. Army intelligence officer, founder of mancavesite.org and coauthor with Jeff Wilser of the 2011 guide “The Man Cave Book.”
The next month, a little book called “Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus” hit shelves across the U.S. It would go on to sell about 50 million copies worldwide. In one chapter, author John Gray explains the male need to retreat — as if into a cave — as a way of dealing with stress.
Gray explains that the concept can be traced back to the differences in the way men’s and women’s brains are wired: “For most men, taking time for themselves is a coping mechanism for lowering stress — and a very effective one,” he writes, later adding that “women’s brains are not linked that way. When a woman is stressed, there is eight times more blood flow to the emotional part of the brain, which is connected to the talking parts of the brain. So women lower their stress by talking about what’s going on.”
In a recent phone interview, Gray said people still thank him.
“Women come up to me and say: ‘Thank you for explaining his cave. I always used to take it personally, and now I understand he just needs time in the cave and then he comes out.’”
Yost, 49, launched mancavesite.org in 2008 as a clearinghouse for man cave photos, ideas and resources for like-minded cave-dwellers. “I kind of did it as an ‘I’ll build it and see if they’ll come’ kind of thing,” said Yost, who lives in Sierra Vista, Ariz. And come they have, about 1,200 unique visitors a day.
Interior designer Courtney Cachet noted that, back in 2005, the man cave would just have been called the media room. Whether guys are looking at a two-bedroom apartment or a huge house in the suburbs, she said, the man cave remains part of the vision.
“I promise you, as soon as the economy takes even a little bit of an uptick, there will be a resurgence that will put to shame what we’ve seen so far,” she said. “People will be pulling out all the stops. We’ll see man caves with bowling alleys.”
If marketers are invading the man cave, however, maybe it’s time for men everywhere to get moving. Gray pointed out that the man cave manifests itself in different ways.
“In Australia, for example, men have their sheds — little rooms apart from the house,” he said. “And in India men escape to the cave by meditating.”
In other words, men don’t really need a physical place to reap the benefits — just a man cave state of mind. So we bid adieu and kick our collective cave to the curb. It won’t be forever. The desire to retreat to the cave is too strong. The spirit of the man cave will manifest itself anew, someday.
Just one bit of advice: Don’t jump the gun and start installing that big-screen TV in your office cubicle. Not until the man cube catches on.
KEY DATES IN MAN CAVE HISTORY
July 16, 1943: The Batcave, perhaps the most famous man cave in comic book history, premieres in a Batman movie serial episode titled “The Bat’s Cave.” Hidden beneath Wayne Manor and accessible by secret entrance, it’s an actual cave filled with millionaire playboy Bruce Wayne’s high-tech gadgets and tricked-out vehicles.
March 21, 1992: Toronto home consultant Joanne Lovering pens a humorous guest column for the Toronto Star suggesting alternative names for rooms on a standard Canadian floor plan. “Let’s call the basement, man cave,” she writes, the first known time the phrase is published in this context.
Dec. 13, 2003: A bearded, disheveled Saddam Hussein is pulled from a “spider hole” near his hometown of Tikrit, proving that decamping to the man cave is never a permanent solution to running from your problems.
June 16, 2007: DIY Network launches “Man Caves,” a half-hour series in which general contractor Jason Cameron and former NFL player Tony Siragusa transform drab basements and ignored garages into covet-worthy rooms filled with flat screens and cigar smoke. Cameron said he probably has hammered more than 100 man caves for the show.
March 1, 2011: The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office grants retailer HomeGoods service mark protection for the phrase “mom cave.”
Nov. 7, 2011: Canadian paint company CIL launches its Ultimate Man Caves collection, giving more manly sounding names to 20 colors. The color formerly called Butterscotch Tempest is rebranded as Beer Time. Venetian Turquoise morphs into Bro Code.
March 4, 2012: The 2012 Philadelphia International Flower Show commits the unpardonable sin of using a man cave to lure flower-averse men to its garden bosom. Room 204B of the convention center is transformed with big-screen sports games, gambling tables, a virtual golf game and a full bar.
— Adam Tschorn
Image: Peter and Maria Hoey / For The Times
Photos: An inside look at a man cave. Credit: Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times
Photo: Christian Bale as Batman. Credit: David James / Warner Bros.