Defining a McMansion, Trait #4: A symbol

When I tell people that I have published about McMansions, the same question almost always arises: “What exactly is a McMansion?” My paper defining the McMansion answers this but in a series of posts here, I want to update the definition based on what I have seen in the last five years.

The fourth trait I see in the term McMansion is using the object as a symbol for a larger concept or concern. With this trait, the particular characteristics of the house – size (absolute or relative) and the architecture – matters less than what the McMansion is related to. I don’t think what the McMansion is linked to has changed all that much since I published my paper but I will highlight two areas in which I have seen the McMansion connected to in recent years.

The housing bubble that started in the United States in 2006 has had long-lasting consequences. The use of “McMansion” grew in the early 2000s as housing did well but the term was also used a lot as the housing market plunged. The McMansion became a symbol for the problems with the hot housing market: people bought bigger houses than they needed and it all fell apart. Certain locations were even more prone to McMansions with plenty of open space (exurbs) and questionable/adventurous architecture (Las Vegas). This even left half-completed McMansions and vacant neighborhoods, scary situations lending themselves to use in thrillers and horror films.

But, here is my question: just how much were McMansions responsible for the burst housing bubble? What about the construction of luxury housing in many major cities in the United States? What about the mortgage industry extending loans for all sorts of housing? McMansions are an easy target with this narrative: too many Americans bought ugly large homes that they couldn’t afford. The solution is to stop the construction and purchases of McMansions, for builders and buyers to make more rational decisions.

I’m not sure this fits the data. Housing construction is still down but as noted in the first McMansion traits post on size, more large homes are being constructed than ever. McMansions haven’t disappeared nor are they ruining the housing market now. My take is that it is that it is convenient to blame McMansions but there is a complex story of how the housing bubble built and burst that includes McMansions but not as a primary cause.

A second area in which the McMansion is used as a symbol has to do with referring to the sort of people who purchase or support McMansions. This is usually done in a negative manner. Who are these people who keep buying McMansions? They are people like Brock Turner. They are conservatives living away from cities. The culture wars may even include McMansions.

And yet, people keep building and purchasing such homes. The critique of McMansions, like that of suburbs, seems a bit elitist as the aim is not just at the houses but rather at the uneducated rubes that desire them. Some think that shaming McMansion proponents is the answer; make fun of their homes and priorities and they will change their ways. I would guess this is not a very effective strategy and other options might work better. Admittedly, some of these other options would take some time, such as educating Americans about architecture or working to enact local regulations that allows certain developments and home styles or promoting denser forms of urbanism that trade the private goods of McMansions for vibrant social contexts.

One danger of using an object as a symbol for other concepts is that the connection doesn’t always apply even if there is a grain of truth. McMansions were indeed part of the housing boom of recent decades but did they cause the economic crisis? Are all people who buy McMansions – homes that offer a lot of space as well as an eye-catching facade – conservatives with backward ideas and no interest in the common good?

Coming soon: a wrap-up to this four part series of McMansion traits.

2 thoughts on “Defining a McMansion, Trait #4: A symbol

  1. Pingback: “McMansions are the visual front line of right-wing American culture” | Legally Sociable

  2. Pingback: “Why we love to hate McMansions, but still buy them” | Legally Sociable

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