It was in my bedroom, among the plush computer chair, the faintly glowing PlayStation 4, the unwashed-for-weeks sheets, the hamper stuffed under the bed, the rubble of dozens of tapped Diet Coke cans and the completely overmatched tube of Clorox Wipes, that my girlfriend said she was surprised I didn’t own blackout curtains. The comment slid into my subconscious like a keystone. She had absorbed the intrinsic, overwhelmingly male energy of the space and offered a finishing touch too perfect for me to think of myself.
One Amazon order later, and my room’s aesthetic was finally complete. A grim darkness now radiates from the middle dormitory of the three-bedroom apartment I share with two women, ensuring that all who venture through our doorway knows exactly where the boy lives. (The two massive sable shawls that dangle from my ceiling promised to “block out 99 percent” of intrusive sun rays, which is the sort of ad copy that would send the vast majority of reasonable interior designers running in fear.)
The media, naturally, has learned to code masculine interior-design incompetence most efficiently through a dark, sad bedroom. Always Sunny’s Charlie Kelly — the alpha and omega of single, millennial male sleaziness — hit one of his many rock bottoms alone, on his couch, shrouded by a network of leery blackout curtains: “I’m living in a world of darkness.”
A quick search on Twitter also reveals a legion of women like my girlfriend, who are entirely mystified by the men they’re dating and their vampirish lives.
Everything I’ve ever learned from HGTV has emphasized lightness, openness and a liberal exchange of oxygen as a crucial ingredient of any happy, healthy living space. But that will never explain the profound sense of zen I found by insulating my room from even the slightest whiff of the outside world. I have no regrets, even as my girlfriend arrived back to my apartment the following weekend, dismayed to see that I’d taken her blackout curtains suggestion far more literally than she anticipated.
To be clear: There are plenty of holistic and therapeutic uses for blackout curtains. Nor would anyone argue that they’re a purely male appendage. For those with anxiety or seasonal affective disorder, it can be a relief to stymie daylight at the window in order to better submerge yourself in as few sensory triggers as possible. I both relate and empathize with that. Personally, there’s no greater burden than the cultural expectations of a bright sunny day.
That said, I do know a Boy Room when I see one, and there is perhaps no greater signifier than a maniacal, Dracula-like commitment to abject darkness. (A fear and mistrust of natural light is a quality many men and newborn infants share.) My theory is that men are more functionally driven, and less aesthetically driven, than women — simply because I’ve met a lot of men who wear cargo shorts — a fashion choice that represents the polar nadir of the functional/aesthetic bell curve.
Maybe that’s an unfair example, but I’ve seen that same blinders-on dedication to utilitarianism carried into male apartment theory, too. In college, I remember some dudes who would tape cut-up black garbage bags over their windows as a MacGyverian solution when the curtains their mothers packed weren’t holding up against the sun, which I will admit is something I considered deeper into my 20s than anyone probably should.
A horrific impulse like that has to come from somewhere, so I hit the internet to see if anyone has committed psychoanalytical muscle to untangling the special relationship between men and blackout curtains. Unfortunately, no such study exists, as I suppose there are other more pressing questions about the male mind. However, I did remember r/battlestations, a subreddit that stands as an enduring tribute to the feng shui of gaming rooms. Every day, users post photos that capture the altars to their monolithic PCs — more often than not, bathed in the sort of cyberpunk eternal night that only a robust blackout curtain can create. The community gathers together to ogle the rigs and imagine a world where we ourselves are blessed to call such a miraculously dark arena our own. It’s no different than someone lusting over conventional HGTV porn, but restricted to young men who don’t care about kitchen islands.
According to Steven Inouye, a 28-year-old who moderates the subreddit, that’s the magic — to convert the aesthetic bounty of granite countertops to the aesthetic bounty of a bedroom with very little glare on your TCL 50-inch 4K screen. “A lot of the people on Battlestations wouldn’t even call themselves good at interior design, or being able to understand what’s aesthetically pleasing. But I feel like they naturally gravitate that way after seeing so many amazing stations,” he says. “It draws people in. Someone who’s never even thought about having a battlestation will think, Oh, I have these things. I can put them together in this way, and I can also feel this comfort.”
Inouye is in my shoes. He has a lot of blackout drapes, and they appease his sensibilities in an innate way that he can’t verbalize, until, invariably, a woman walks into his bedroom and wonders aloud why she’s suddenly found herself in total darkness. He says he likes the ability to control his own light, instead of leaving that authority up to nature. “Immediately when I wake up in the morning, I turn on my living room lights,” he adds. “No guy has ever commented on that, but women comment on it. They’re like, ‘You could just open your window.’ I’m like, ‘Well, I can’t see my computer monitor, so I can’t.’”
In a certain reading, wrestling with the literal sun for jurisdiction over the day/night cycle is the most masculine instinct possible. But Inouye, like me, prioritizes comfort first, and that makes his struggle far more humble. All the rewards of interior design — impressing your friends, filling your neighbors with envy — fall by the wayside. You’re trying to create a space that will most effectively help you lose hundreds of hours in World of Warcraft. The ugliness of the blackout curtains are rendered entirely irrelevant if the only person you’re trying to please is yourself.
Men have learned to find this bliss where they can. One of the few people who’s done legitimate academic research into male living spaces is Tristan Bridges, a professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara who has emerged as the foremost scholar on man caves. He makes it clear that man caves come in all shapes and sizes, from brightly lit decks to converted basements, but the one thing they all have in common is opportunity. As such, they tend to propagate in the most unimportant corners of a house, i.e., dark, out-of-the-way rooms that aren’t being used for anything else.
“Spaces that tend to have more natural light in lots of American homes are living rooms, bedrooms, and kitchens,” says Bridges. “So I think the reason that spaces you think of as likely candidates for man caves as having less light is less because a lack of light makes these spaces particularly ‘masculine’ and more because man caves aren’t the first rooms established in homes. Rather, they’re typically rooms people attempt out of what spaces are left over. And spaces without a lot of natural light are probably more likely to receive less use, making them likely candidates for these types of gendering of domestic space projects.”
It’s a point that reminds me of my father, who, at most of our house parties, could be found in the garage, standing around his Triumph motorbike, drinking beers with the other dads. It was a dominion all his own, because it was the dominion most easily conquered. I suppose I’m the same way. I’m a non-cohabiting renter with two roommates and an empty fridge — the millennial garage. The blackout curtains insulate me from the sun, and I insulate myself from as many situations as possible where I’m asked how I could possibly live this way.
I don’t have a good answer, but boy, my TV sure looks good.