March 15, 2012

Gendered Reading and Discomfort in the “Man Cave”

Here is a generic man cave, maybe in somebody's basement. This is not a picture of the cave in the school library.

Last weekend I learned that my relatively progressive, moderately diverse and reasonably funded, suburban, hometown school district was going to allow a self-described “man cave” reading area in a school library. Before I was able to comprehend the dangerous consequences of what gender-assigned reading would mean for literature and education and what kind of political norm my suburb was representing for the rest of the nation, I had to get past “man cave.”

I hate the term when it is used on HGTV, TLC, E!, any sitcom, by a friend’s mom or in an elementary school library. The purpose of the cave, besides reiterating the tired stereotype that men are comparable to cavemen, is to provide the man of the house a separate leisure space. Man caves have pool tables and the kind of leather couches that always look menacing or sad or obese. Sports memorabilia, animals innocently lumped in with that previous categorization and stuff from a garage floor (i.e. license plates and street signs) are nailed to the walls. These are the decorating generalizations that appear over and over even in a Google Image search of “man cave” and reflect an outdated image of masculinity. The decor does not (always) offend me; if a stop sign would look best above the fireplace, level it out and nail it up. I take issue with two components of “man cave,” the “man” part and the “cave” part, especially when implemented by a school library.

For the reading space itself to be likened to a cave is symbolic of the confining, backwards nature of the concept. The reading spaces I remember in elementary school were designed to be areas of comfort and it was a privilege to read in a corner of pillows our teachers probably brought from home. In Kindergarten our classroom designated this space to a loft, lifting us higher as we read. A girl named Annie and a boy I forget supposedly French kissed up there, but that kind of gender interaction wasn’t the fault of the loft.

I remember getting some flack when I read The Pleasure of My Company in seventh grade. My oversexed peers wanted to know what a girl like me was doing with that “racy” cover and maybe what a girl like me was doing later. I carried the book around cover-up and read it wherever I felt because no librarian had ever told me that I wasn’t adult enough, funny enough or man enough to read this book or any other. By the time a child has entered the education system, they have been bombarded with society’s gender expectations. Boys are supposed to like blood and bugs and baseball while girls remain equally confined to categories where what little sexuality is present in Steve Martin’s book cover image is taboo. To condone such arbitrary divisiveness in a library misses the point of literature and education. Students will be turned off of reading before they learn that the best books are about human experience. It has been hard enough to begin to undo the notion that writing is a boys club or that teaching is a woman’s job. That we wonder what it means when a girl relates to a science fiction book and question the validity of feminized book covers speaks to the hazy categorizations of genre versus gender that remain engrained even in book lovers. I hope that the term “chick lit” disappears with “man cave,” but it certainly won’t happen if we’re keeping our next generation confined to the same deer-decorated walls we’ve built for ourselves.

About Molly Pozel

Molly Pozel is a former intern and office assistant at The Missouri Review. She completed a bachelor's degree at the University of Missouri in English with an emphasis in creative nonfiction and currently teaches Freshman English in Nashville, TN. She is exhausted.

10 Responses to Gendered Reading and Discomfort in the “Man Cave”

  1. Todd says:

    Sometimes boys want to be men. Let us read in caves, I say, not atop pillows.

    • Alex says:

      I do believe you’ve missed the point, Todd. Caves, atop pillows, alone or in groups, the point of this isn’t to say where one should want to read; rather, Ms. Pozel is giving a critique of two things: both the public library’s “boys only” reading room that unnecessarily creates a sexual divide in something that, as Ms. Pozel points out, should be “a human experience” and the social pressures that create an sexual-dichotomy out of something (reading) that should be inherently gender neutral.

  2. Carolyn says:

    Todd, what man needs a game table to just read a book?

  3. Zach Attack says:

    I originally agreed with Todd. If it actually helped them to read, then the harm is minimal. An elementary school doing this is just a marginal pressure in are already gender specific world. Why not make the libraries as stream lined as the fast-food happy meal choices?- wouldn’t want Billy playing with hello kiddy.

    Then, again. I’m not over enthused with corporate cultures tendency to grind down our differences until they’re two nice, neat, categories. I mean, i’m sure it is a hell a lot easier to sell to and manage. It kind of scary that the gender specific mantra has found a new home in an elementary school library. I doubt Liberty had any other intentions than just getting kids to read. Lack of thinking really doesn’t constitute keeping it. I don’t think this point can be stressed enough: These are little kids.

  4. Agnes Smith says:

    The problem with “man cave” is that it is basically misogynistic. There’s an implicit hostility toward women in the whole idea. Are the boys going to spit while they are reading in the man cave? Drink beer? Will they be provided with “men’s” reading material to further encourage their literacy? Great blog, Molly.

  5. The Misanthrope says:

    I agree that this gender bias is unacceptable. The library should devote equal square footage to reading space that resembles a kitchen and/or laundry room.

  6. Jason Burge says:

    First off, who has a better idea to get boys to read than this shtick? Second–who said jack about a game table?–the photo is representative of what “man cave” conjures, not the actual place–and as far as “gendered reading” I expect an essay next month on how Universities having Women’s Studies programs is sexist, being there aren’t any Mens studies. Quit being so sensitive here unless you have a better way to get boys to read. They are trying to fix a problem–think of this as title 9 for reading–they are investing where there is a vacuum, and we see that happen in a lot of places.

    • Alex says:

      You’ve managed to create a response laden with some of the most stereotypical sexist remarks–there’s no men’s studies? quit being so sensitive? Title IX for reading? Do you even know what Title IX is, seriously? To quote briefly, “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in…” What do you think a “boys only” reading room designates other than exclusion on the basis of sex?

      The point here is that while they certainly were trying to solve a problem, people often go about solving problems in disastrous ways. We shouldn’t save thoughtful critique simply because they were trying. Clearly, their efforts were wholly misguided.

      Try reading the article and giving it some thought before jumping to the most base forms of misogynistic thinking.

    • Evan Wood says:

      I’m amazed at how exhausting this comment is for only being a paragraph long. A “better way to get boys to read” might be, I don’t know, finding out what they’re interested in and suggesting a book that somehow relates.

      I do think there is something to be said for being in a comfortable or aesthetic environment while reading (my personal tastes include ‘outside’ or ‘anywhere that serves beer’) however 1. if the material you’re reading is engaging enough it shouldn’t matter that much what kind of posters are hanging on the walls around you and 2. as someone who has been a young lad I can certifiably say that “man caves” are more appealing to what I like to call the mid-life crisis demographic. I really don’t think too many young boys would include 24 hour sports analysis TV in their dream room descriptions.

      The problem is that by making such a space and telling them they should be interested in these things we’re setting limits on their ideas of not only what they should like but more importantly what they can be. This leads to all sorts of problems, low self-esteem and bullying not least among them. And this is just one problem! On top of the myriad of others mentioned in the actual blog post (which is above in case you didn’t get a chance to read it).

      Lastly let me just say that calling these glorified living rooms “caves” is an affront to our ancestors who actually lived in caves.

  7. Molly Pozel says:

    Thank you for all the responses and interest in this issue.

    I hope that I am clear in representing my stance that educators should be innovative in encouraging students to read–all students. Placing a “No Girls Allowed” sign above the door of the library is undoubtedly a step in the wrong direction. If boys and girls who had never considered opening a book are willing to do so because they can be sprawled out across the length of the pool table then I say, put a pillow over the right corner pocket and let them read.

    Arguments concerning test scores and gender gaps are moot. Reading is more than a categorization on a standardized test. It is a skill that inspires confidence, creativity, empathy and self-worth in individuals. Libraries and literature are supposed to be leveling areas where kids can participate without being reminded that the rest of the world is trying to decide who they can be based on socioeconomic status or social constructions like gender and race. The comfort of reading should be afforded to all.