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are the decorating generalizations that appear over and over even in a Google Image search of “man cave” and reflect an outdated image of masculinity.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.