A man’s quest for his soul starts with a walk downstairs.
Yet man caves full of framed sports jerseys aren’t illicit escapes. They’re the male equivalent of slipping into a bubble bath. (Cal Ripken, take me away!) Many man caves are stripped of sex altogether. “It couldn’t be anything cheesecake,” one man told the Tennessean of his décor. “No Maxim magazine.” Likewise, when a man constructs an elaborate bar in his basement, what he is really constructing is a pretend bar: one without pool table brawls, chance encounters, and drunken flirting. A Pittsburgh Steelers fan and man caver told the Sacramento Bee, “It’s my space. … My wife knows where to find me.” In the yawning void between those two sentences, you see the fantasy a man caver is creating for himself.
So man-cave masculinity is about tip-toeing 10 feet and hiding in plain sight. It’s also regaining control of a life’s narrative. See, for example, the DIY Network TV show Man Caves. Jason Cameron, a contractor, and Tony Siragusa, a former NFL nose tackle, grant the wishes of sad, cave-less men who write into the show’s website. (It’s the reverse of the 1950s, when a strung-out housewife would go on TV to weep for new appliances.) Cameron and Siragusa build these men dream worlds. “There are certain things we always put in a man cave,” Cameron tells me by phone. “One is the bar. We haven’t done a man cave without a bar and a kegerator. And a comfortable chair. And a big-screen TV.”
About the walls: “Earth tones, steel, and wood,” Cameron says. Manly materials, the kind that would have made Tim Taylor grunt in ecstasy. (Man Caves bans throw pillows, scented candles, and fuchsia.) As Cameron explains it, presiding over a man cave is a trade off. The men on Man Caves have no say (or interest) in decorating the rest of the house. But they throw themselves into decorating the man cave within an inch of its life. It is a plank of man-cave masculinity that you will give away the world—drapery, patio furniture, kids’ names—for a small zone of autonomy. “It’s just that I’m comfortable down here,” one man told the Muskegon Chronicle, “and it’s kinda mine.”
Let’s enter the man cave. Here are some typical decorations, culled from news stories: seats from the old Boston Garden. Game-worn cleats from Tommie Frazier. A Lance Parrish Tigers jersey. The board game Axis & Allies. “Ironic movie and video game posters.” A saddle. An Egyptian tomb. The man cave isn’t just the new sports bar—it’s the new parents’ basement, the college dorm room. It is the place where a permanent childhood is left uninterrupted.
Man caves become ego caves. They are shrines to their owners. “Most people are amazed when they walk into my room,” a man caver named Ken remarked to the Sacramento Bee. “They are just shocked that one guy could have as much as I do.” (Ken has a signed photo of Derek Jeter.) In the suburban hinterlands, the man cave—along with the garage workshop, the in-home theater, and the humidor—is a muscle-flex of wealth, of having a McMansion with more square footage than your neighbor’s.
Bryan Curtis, Slate's "Middlebrow" columnist, writes for Grantland, Texas Monthly, and Newsweek. Follow him on Twitter.