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Where Men Hide
By James B. Twitchell, photographs by Ken Ross
Columbia University Press
HC, 248 pp, $24.95
ISBN: 0-2311-3734-6

A room with a brew

By John W. Nelson
web posted October 16, 2006

Where Men HideSitting on my desk is a small alabaster statue of Diogenes of Sinope, a testament to my eclectic eBay purchases and my abiding admiration for the old Cynic.  Friends who know my conservative disposition have long puzzled over this attraction, for if there's a Platonic form of the dirty hippie, it has to be Diogenes.

What accounts for this unseemly attachment?  A shared sense of futility in the search for an honest man?  No, that's not it.  Having spent a good number of years in the working world now (contra Diogenes), I'll easily settle for a competent one.  Could it be his asceticism and despair over the human condition?  No, that's not it either.  If I'm looking for spiritual kinship on that front, I need only glance at my bust of Schopenhauer (yes, another eBay acquisition I've had to explain to my wife.)

Simply put, it's his "tub" – that empty wine barrel he retreated to at the end of every day.  If the professors of my youth are to be believed (and they're the same ones who told me how useful a degree in philosophy would be), it wasn't claustrophilia or the philosopher's penury that led him to take up residence in a barrel.  It was nothing less than unbridled contempt for the social conventions of human life.

Sorry, but I don't buy it for a minute.  Countercultural vagrant or not, Diogenes was a man, and like every man before him and after, he simply craved his space.  Granted, a barrel may be a bit extreme, but therein lies the attraction: any man who spent his boyhood like mine building makeshift forts in the woods and coveting his neighbor's treehouse can't help but admire the sheer simplicity, the durability, and the built-in privacy of Diogenes' chosen hiding place.

At least, that's how James B. Twitchell might describe it.  In Where Men Hide, Twitchell, a professor of English and advertising at the University of Florida, sets out with photographer Ken Ross to investigate the male sanctuary, those places where men go to "safely tinker and fool around, refectory spaces made inhospitable to women not because of any overt antagonism but just because the male seems to need do-nothing time." 

Amen, brother.  Still swaggering after having just read Harvey Mansfield's Manliness, I opened Twitchell's book expecting to find a like-minded celebration of the unneutered male (albeit one more jocular and journalistic than philosophical.)  This would be no apologetic for aloofness but a spirited and playful defense of our testosterone-fueled sloth and seclusion.

Well, Where Men Hide is certainly light-hearted enough if not downright frivolous in places.  (How else to describe Twitchell's characterization of Abu Ghraib as a "sprawling 280-acre gulag"?)  But confidence in my guide was shaken just three pages into this exploration of the "man cave" when Twitchell reveals that he teaches Romantic poetry and has his hair cut at a unisex styling boutique – not a unisex salon, mind you, but a styling boutique.  That's when I first had the feeling that I wasn't dealing with a fellow gorilla here but with Dian Fossey.

That feeling no doubt owes a lot to my own narrowly circumscribed construction of masculinity (to put it in the academese flung at me across the seminar table by more than one enraged feminist), but it's reinforced when Twitchell writes of his work as a "commercial ethnography" and of Ross' images as a "topography of space"; when he suggests that it might be tempting to see the male preference for dark, subterranean places as a "womb-like regression" (luckily for the reader, Twitchell leaves it at that since he's "not convinced that it's sexual"); or when he describes the contemporary version of the snuggery as a case of "ethnological ontogeny recapitulating phylogeny."  Hulk no understand.

To be fair, Twitchell seems far from the pretentious academic, and it's with a certain degree of mischief that he occasionally couches his explanations of male behavior in what he recognizes to be "academic cant."  As further evidence of Regular Guy status, he admits that he couldn't bring himself to attend a local men-only consciousness-raising group – even in the interests of research – out of the understandable fear that he'd have been forced to read works by French philosophers.  It's not full-fledged Francophobia, but it's a start.

And yet, whenever Twitchell begins to worry that he may be telling tales out of school, I begin to wonder if we share the same alma mater.  Take the included photographs.  Before I even began to read the book, I found myself eagerly flipping through the pages to examine every one of them like a boy with a National Geographic.  The images of the dens, the garages, the diners and every other hidey-hole that make Twitchell feel "a kind of dreariness, a sense of darkness and even foreboding" filled me with an immediate sense of ease.  In Twitchell's eyes, "male space is not a Happy Meal."  In mine, the photos are the visual equivalent of comfort food (except for the photo of the garage with the Hanson poster, that is.)                            

And then there are the other admissions.  Who can't hear the voice of Niles Crane when he describes the boxing ring as a "pen of terror" and a "touchstone of male anxiety"?  When he confesses that he often can't remember "which is the nut and which is the bolt"?  When he refers to a baby carriage as a "perambulator" and to athletic apparel as "spiritwear"?  Spiritwear!  I turned each page in trepidation that I would learn he buys his underwear in a tube or owns a cat.  (Full disclosure: It's my wife's cat, alright?)

We like Niles Crane though because he's always good for a laugh, and Twitchell has his moments.  In the introduction, for example, he presents an amusing and all too familiar account of the awkwardness surrounding his attempts to get together with a group of male friends.  (Although no one has captured our social ineptness better than Mel Brooks: "Usually, when a lot of men get together, it's called war.")  In contrast to the ease with which his wife and daughters can get together with other women at a moment's notice, Twitchell notes that men always need an excuse to meet.  And should our outings become even slightly habitual, we feel oddly compelled to give our merry band a name – even, as he relates from his own experience, when it's not so merry: "for years [our group] was the Melancholy Troubadours; I don't know why – we never sang – but the melancholy part was correct enough."

Still, every time I'd start to think Twitchell might know the secret handshake, there'd be a Dukakis moment.  Case in point: Twitchell's classification of certain things in today's America as "peculiar developments" resonates as widely as being a "card-carrying member of the ACLU" did in 1988.  Among these peculiar developments is – wait for it – the "red-state male and his behavior at the polling booth."  Translation: How could we gun-hugging rednecks have been so stupid as to have voted for Bush?  Twice?!  Other "peculiarities" include backyard barbecuing, the SUV, and "that supreme jerkmobile: the Hummer."  (I couldn't locate the actual reasons for Twitchell's objection to the Hummer.  I presume it's either the poor gas mileage or the fact that it's such an in-your-face badge of conspicuous consumption and not because it's the jerk's vehicle of choice.  Everyone knows that's the Mustang.)

If I'm having a little fun at Twitchell's expense because he doesn't conform to my rigid, red-state, Rambo-like standards for masculinity – and I'm not sure I do either given my weakness for Lifetime movies –, it's because Where Men Hide is itself a good-natured, tongue-in-cheek look at the modern male and his relations with other men.  That's not to say that Twitchell doesn't bring some thoughtful analysis and observations to the table, particularly when it comes to the male-targeted advertisements scattered throughout the book.  Most serious of all perhaps is his conclusion that the various male redoubts at the heart of his study – both private and communal – are steadily disappearing.           

This strikes me as no great loss when it comes to the fraternal orders.  Not being very clannish myself, I've always steered clear of these groups (particularly when silly hats and plastic swords are involved), so I admit to having no first-hand experience of The Lodge.  But if Twitchell is correct in claiming that its activities are maternal in nature (or as he puts it in a wince-inducing description: "week after week, the mother lodge is filled with men giving birth to each other"), I wish it a speedy demise.

The barbershop – one of the last bastions of unadulterated manliness – is another matter entirely, and Twitchell's brief overview of its evolution (or should I say devolution?) is tinged with the requisite maleancholia and yearning for the good old days when "the barbershop and the saloon were joined at the bottle."  Here in the heart of Texas, the traditional barbershop is still easy to find – minus the hooch, of course, but with the same camaraderie, girlie mags, and dusty sportfish mounted on the wall.  Nevertheless, it's hard to argue with the numbers: Twitchell cites the figure of 287,000 barbershops in 1950 compared with 55,000 today.                  

As it goes with the fraternal orders and barbershops, so it goes with the deer camps, the basement workshops, and the home garages where you do more than just park your car.  As Twitchell remarks in the conclusion, a more fitting title for his book might have been Where Men Hid since these heretofore male-only spaces have "shriveled up or are being reconfigured." Think of the emergence of the "family" pool hall, the presence of female sportscasters in the locker room, and women behind the wheel in NASCAR.  It is in fact no exaggeration to say that "we have experienced the most far-reaching redistribution of sexual territory of any time in modern history" – an observation echoed by Harvey Mansfield, who emphasizes the relative ease with which this handover occurred. [1]

One of the essential differences between Twitchell and Mansfield, however, can be found in their reactions to this event.  Twitchell acknowledges the major role played by the woman's movement, but he also attributes responsibility for this transition to "the sensitivity of American commercial culture."  "Men were tired of predictable manliness," he contends, and "many secretly wearied of being only where the boys are."  (Doubtful, but then he also thinks "many straight men adopt queer fashion as a mode of expression." Find me one of these so-called metrosexuals, and I'll find you a jackalope.)

To hear Twitchell tell it, male identity has been reduced to a commodity as substantive as this year's fashions.  In other words, you are truly what you wear: "Any man – whatever his ethnic or racial background – who can afford it can mix and match masculine identities according to whim and situation.  At work, he can dress the Yuppie; at the gym, the bodybuilder; at home, jeans and work shirt."  And thus, the age-old developmental conundrum must now be reformulated as: nature, nurture, or Old Navy?

Not a very weighty position to say the least, but an understandable one if you attach a great deal of importance to consumer culture (a mere blip on man's evolutionary radar) and hold gender to be a culturally imposed concept.  From there it's just a short hop to the conclusion that the blurring of male and female space necessarily results in the blurring of male and female behavior, something which doesn't seem to bother Twitchell at all.  Indeed, as American commercial culture becomes world culture, he wonders if we may not be witnessing "the beginning of the end of gender" altogether.  

One needn't wonder too long.  As Mansfield argues, the line dividing male and female tasks might have been blurred, but it hasn't been effaced. Nor is it likely to be.  Male-only space may be on the wane, but there will always be places "where men hide" to reclaim and reassert their manliness in the face of a gender-neutral society that has come to regard manly assertiveness itself as threatening and corrosive to the fragile harmony between the sexes.  As Mansfield himself asserts: "Manly men are given to passing adverse judgment, and not only on women but also on other males who do not meet their exacting standards."  I bet he doesn't go to a unisex styling boutique.   ESR

Footnotes:

[1] "From one angle, the attempt to create a gender-neutral society, never before recorded in human history, has been an amazing success.  It has aroused virtually no opposition.  There were segregationists to defend the Old South and its unjust ways, but the universal order of the patriarchy found no spokesman to set forth an ideology on its behalf, let alone defenders to mount a countermovement.  There was no George Wallace, no Bull Connor, no massive resistance to oppose the women's movement.  No men of our time had the nerve to make fun of the feminists as men did of the suffragettes a century ago."  Manliness (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006)  9.   

John W. Nelson writes from Houston, Texas. He can be reached at jwnelson2@hotmail.com.

Other related essays:

  • The last days of manliness by Bernard Chapin (April 10, 2006)
    If being a man needs defending in today's world, writes Bernard Chapin, then Harvey C. Mansfield's Manliness does a superb job

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