Audiophiles, Women, and Domestic Space

Over the last couple weeks there has been an interesting gaggle of columns and blog posts on the lack of women in the audiophile hobby. For those of you more comfortable with terms like “post-depositional processes,” audiophiles are folks who are really into their stereo gear and producing good sound. Generally, this has been a male dominated hobby, and as the traditional customers for this gear gets older, the industry and industry media has become concerned about the hobby’s future.

The industry and audiophile media have been quiet self congratulatory when it comes to attracting young people to the hobby through “head-fi” (that is audiophile quality headphones and related gear). With the youth market more or less covered, audiophiles have turned their attention toward the lack of women in the hobby. So far, the reasons put forward range tend to focus on the broadly cultural (women are raised differently).

A number of posts have focused on the rather unfortunate phrase “wife acceptance factor.” When I read this post by Kirsten Brodbeck-Kenny, I was up to my chest in reading about masculinity and suburbia (starting with John Higham’s classic article) as I work to revise an article on domestic space in the Bakken oil patch. So I posted a rather lengthy response exploring the relationship between audiophile gear, gender roles, and domesticity from a historical perspective. My blog today is an expanded version of that comment. 

According to The Wikipedias, the term “wife acceptance factor” first appeared in Stereophile magazine in 1983 but its origins appear to date to the 1950s. This makes the idea of the “wife acceptance factor” is so old school to almost be vintage. This notion has clear roots in the idea that women are in charge of the house and play a key role in establishing domesticity in the American home.

Domesticity represents the opposite of male encoded space of work, and this division first developed in the context of the industrial revolution when the workplace shifted from the home to the factory. With the rise of the middle class, people constructed homes that did not serve as workplaces and, more importantly for us here, conformed to different standards of presentation and decor than factories or offices. In fact, guys like Henry Ford went to great pains to distinguish the life of work from domestic life and created model towns to house their workers and families. These “Fordvilles” provided a space for the playing out middle class values and “civilizing” men who carried out the “brutish” work of industrial labor. For Ford and other early 20th century industrialists, the domestic represented the civilizing the domain of women, and stood as a civilizing counter point to the industrial.

So “wife acceptance factor” evokes the traditional domain of women: the home. The home, and the traditional middle and upper class house in particular was the place where the civilizing influence of women and family overwrite the dirty and competitive world of work (and perversely, make that work more efficient by maintaining the moral order and health of the men responsible). Most middle class homes went to great lengths to disguise the working parts of domestic life. The walls hid electrical cables, heating and cooling ducts, and water and sewage pipes, as well as the structural components to the house. More than that, the organization of the  house hid the places where the real work of domestic life took place. In traditional homes from the first part of the 20th century, garages, carriage houses, boiler rooms, storage, butlers’ pantries, and above all the kitchen were located out of sight from the main living spaces. Upper class homes developed parallel service areas that allowed maids, butlers, and other domestic personnel to move unseen between living spaces. By hiding the working parts of a home, the serene and effortless nature of domestic life was insulated from “working,” industrial life. This had the additional effect of occluding the role of women and their role in maintaining domesticity from the public view, and this allowed men to claim control over the economic productivity and public life. The home was not a place for wires, cables, ugly black boxes, protruding tubes, knobs, industrially inspired speakers and the like.

IMG 2485

Today, of course, we can roll our eyes at these traditional ways of organizing house and home. My wife and I have generally lived in 19th century or turn-of-the-century homes variously modified in various way to accommodate “modern life.” For example, our first house had the wall between the kitchen and what had been the formal dining room removed and the wall between the dining room and the front parlor removed to create a more open plan. We added to this by removing an unsightly fake wall to expose a forced-air heating duct. We joked about adding some industrial chic to our home. Industrial lofts in major cities now fetch top dollar. Kitchens have become areas for display and socializing. Many new homes have even adopted the “two car garage with attached home” appearance that is the bane of so many suburban subdivisions. Many homes now have “home offices” designed to allow the laboring classes to bring work back to their previously serene domestic bliss.

What’s interesting to me is that while our ideas of domesticity are changing (as our notions of work and life are changing) why have views founded in traditional notions of domesticity continued to persist in audiophile circles?  Well, some of it must have to do with demographics; audiophiles tend to be older and (let’s say) more thoroughly invested and steeped (nostalgic for)?in traditional gender roles. Audiophiles also tend to me upper middle and upper class which tend to be more conservative groups within Western society.

IMG 2484

I wonder, though, whether there’s more than that playing out here. First, I’d argue that notions like the “wife acceptance factor” are cut of the same cloth as the “man cave.” Audiophile gear is part of the changing discourse of domesticity: the notion that stereo cables, crudely functionalist industrial design (like my Audio Research VSi60 integrated amp), are the violation of certain norms of proportion and effortless propriety have located the audiophile home stereo to the realm of the industrial and, by extension, the masculine. Women, in our historical and stereotypical treatment, become the guardians of an effortless domesticity that carefully guards the working interior of the home from outside eyes. Men, with their industrial, non-domesticated tendencies (born, I’m sure, by their longs hours in the factory), are relegated to specific places: the garage, the “den”, or the “man cave” where they watch sports, behave in uncivilized ways, and ignore aesthetic traditions of the home.

The curious irony is this: we know that the idea that “man stuff” is relegated to the “man cave” is bunk in a modern domestic context. Since the 1960s, modern homes have celebrated industrial design elements, kitchens are no longer hidden, but prominent social spaces, and traditional differentiation of spaces has given way to a proudly functional aesthetic. In other words, the tradition of relegating men to (or the need for men to claim) some kind of designated space is rhetorically and architecturally outmoded as hiding the kitchen behind a swinging door. Stereo equipment has likewise enjoyed this shift toward the functional in their design with elegantly constructed, furniture grade cabinets giving way to exposed tubes, grill-less speakers, and cables too bulky (and expensive) to hide from view. So rather than stereo equipment lagging behind modern domestic expectations and requiring an adjustment to gain “wife acceptance factor,” most high end gear (and big box gear as well) has long adopted the industrial design standards appropriate for the modern, functionalist home. 

We continue to use this language, however, because entire structure of work and life among the American middle class has become unsettled. This nostalgia for a long ago abandoned architectural and design vocabulary represents a persistent unease with changing gender norms, dual incomes, domestic partnerships, and increasingly blurred lines between work life and home life. As the life of the American middle class is eroded by shrinking incomes, volatile labor markets, new expectations, and work cultures, we stick to these traditional stereotypes (see my pun there) and revel in our man caves, wife acceptance factors, as we beat back the work life from the tempting expanse of the formal dining room table.

Our concern with women in the audiophile hobby is not just the late arrival of the audiophile media and industry to modern conceptions of domestic space, but the flailing of a culture that finds its basic structures and expectations increasingly out of sync with economic and social realities. That we’re having this debate at all reveals its ultimate irrelevance. Women and men will enter the hobby and industry (or not) based on their resources, aesthetics, and interest rather than some kind of gendered notion of the home or overdetermined nostalgia. All this is to say, that we should invest more time in being inclusive rather than attempting to justify the exclusivity of our hobby. Treat women who are interested in sound and music just as you’d treat men interested in sound and music. 

More on this conversation here.

6 Comments

  1. Dear Bill:
    Sometimes it is hard to know if you’re not being a bit tongue in cheek. But let me make a couple of observations which while they do not negate your points may take a bit off the edge.
    I first got interested in hi-fi c.1960. Previously most of us just had a Philco or at most a console containing not the best audio equipment but manufactured by a “name brand.” It was also the time when decorating ideas were changing. (The “50s had initiated this with modernistic steel and beanbag chairs along with sunken living rooms and wall-to-wall carpeting.) The sixties brought the Danish modern look where lines were far more important than decorative elements. This was when hi-fi also took off. The console that had hid the (single manufacturer) radio / phonograph but more importantly the ugly TV was gone, but there were not wires everywhere. The look was Danish modern not industrial. I owned a walnut hi-fi tree which hid the wires between the components from different manufacturers all of which were housed in individual teak or walnut cases. (Though my separate Dynakit 60 Amp amplifiers were shamelessly visible on the floor in their masculine/industrial splendor, that was because I was poor not because I liked showing them off.)
    You state that audiophiles tend to be upper middle and upper class. I first became involved in audio in the “60 by friendships with two intelligent but hardly over educated guys one of whom was an absolute fanatic who upgraded his system every few months. Their taste in music while excellent was not mine. The one was a jazz lover, the other was eclectic but seemed more interested in his equipment than what was playing on it. However as hi-fi became mainstream everyone seemed to suddenly need a “system” even though most thought hi-fi and stereo were opposite terms. The major companies tried to market their stuff as high fidelity (One I knew of made their phonograph speakers produce stereo sound by splitting the stereo signal through the original push-pull amplifier. (All of which I don’t understand.) Until that time FM radio, in New York at least, had been the purview of classical music lovers. Now that everyone had an FM tuner it was quickly taken over by popular music which it largely remains to this day.
    For those who remained true to real component audio though, this was, indeed, a nearly exclusive male interest. Most of us didn’t have a man cave unless we had a garage/workshop. I suspect it was a rare opportunity for the husband both to show some independence (spend a lot of money) and dominance (choosing and setting it up) while contributing to the home feel in an acceptably husbandly and fatherly way. Meanwhile his wife went quietly about the business of actually making a home.

    Vince O’Reilly

    Reply

  2. Kirsten Brodbeck-Kenney December 10, 2014 at 1:45 pm

    I’m so glad you expanded on your thoughts on this. This was a great read.

    Reply

    1. Thanks, Kirsten! This has been a really interesting conversation across. Your contributions were a great catalyst to me getting some ideas down on “paper.”

      Bill

      Reply

  3. Is your article directed solely to men, Bill? Do you presume that only men read your blog? From the wording of your ending – “All this is to say, that we should invest more time in being inclusive rather than attempting to justify the exclusivity of our hobby. Treat women who are interested in sound and music just as you’d treat men interested in sound and music.” -that certainly seems to be the case.

    You also seem to presume that all men are heterosexual. Certainly the thought that some of us are not does not seem to have crossed your mind. I find that extremely offensive.

    Finally, you write: “Audiophiles also tend to me upper middle and upper class which tend to be more conservative groups within Western society.” You need to define what you mean by “conservative” here. Certainly it is the white working class that tends to vote Republican.

    Reply

    1. Jason,

      Yes. This is a men only blog. In fact, it would appear on girlie browsers like Opera.

      I’m kidding. I was a pretty careless on some of these points, and I probably overstepped when I suggested that “we” (as in men) should act in certain ways. You’re right in implying that men and women should strive to be inclusive rather than to justify exclusive behaviors. At least I was ironic there…

      I am not as clear on where I assumed heteronormativity. I’m not sure how homosexuality – or sexual orientation in general – influenced the historical development of domestic norms, but I’d be interested to understand that better. In referring to “wife acceptance factor” and the like, I was merely following the terms of the debate and attempting to unpack how that phrase came to exist. Can you expand on this?

      And, yeah, that conservative comment was pretty loose. I agree. I probably meant culturally conservative, but even that requires some generalization. Socially conservative? Maybe I should have just said: upper middle and upper class Americans tend to value traditional domestic practices as a rule. But in saying that, I probably leave open to criticisms of my understanding of traditional domesticity (and perhaps even validate it). What I really meant is that these groups tend to be nostalgic for certain practices (whether they’re authentic historically or not).

      I think that comment really highlights my most significant oversight, which was not factoring class into how we understand the audiophile hobby. That was careless.

      Thanks for the critique and I want to hear more!

      Bill

      Reply

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