Gendered McMansions, Part 4: figuring out the role of gender

Thus far, I have discussed how the size and architecture of McMansions, the large kitchen and living spaces, and the emphasis on raising children in the suburbs interacts with gender. How might researchers examine the gender dynamics of McMansions? A few ideas:

  1. How many McMansion owners are women and how many are men? (This could require a master list of McMansions in a location or across a broader geography.)
  2. When choosing a home and where to live, are men or women more likely to select a McMansion? Related: when asked to compare McMansions and their features to other kinds of homes, how do men and women compare in what traits they prefer? (A series of experiments with sets of choices could reveal differences.)
  3. Which gender spends more time in different parts of the McMansion? Studies have looked at use patterns in homes; why not break it down further by gender within McMansions? Are family rooms, basements, and garages used more by men and kitchens and nearby living spaces used more by women? Does a “man cave” truly exist or is it more of a luxury item? (Use observation or some kind of recording device to track movement in the home.)
  4. When people see McMansions (either driving/walking/biking by or on screen), who do they imagine lives there (men or women, in addition to a whole other sets of questions about race/ethnicity, social class, age, education, personal tastes, etc.)? Looking at the exterior (and maybe parts of the interior), what gender do they associate with the different aspects (and how does this compare to other homes)? (More experiments.)
  5. Do McMansions simply carry on the gender stereotypes of other single-family homes and suburban locations or they challenge some aspect of this developed and experienced knowledge about gender and homes? (Need comparative work between different styles of single-family homes.)

Perhaps all of this might be of best use to builders, developers, real estate agents, and marketers who could profit off this information. On the other hand, there are many Americans who live in McMansions (and who will do so in the future or have done so in the past). Have these homes, the hours spent in them, the ways the design, size, and connotations shaped social interactions had an impact on individuals, families, and communities as well as our understandings of gender?

 

Gendered McMansions, Part 3: suburban sprawl and raising children

Many, though not all, McMansions are located in suburban communities. From the beginning of suburbs in United States, one emphasis has been on the raising of successful children. This could include wanting to stay away from the big city and its problems (historian Robert Fishman argues this was behind the efforts of Englishman William Wilberforce in moving his family out of London) as well as developing a pervasive ideology that suburban life with its single-family homes, safety, schools, and proximity to nature as the best place to raise children (attested to in numerous studies including The Levittowners).

As part of the suburban landscape, the McMansion is then part of the goal of raising children. Young children may be less interested in the home’s status and ability to broadcast a message to neighbors but the homeowners hope they use and benefit from the safe, private space that can both host time with others (family, friends) and provide space to be alone. In addition to the benefits of the school districts and communities in which the suburban McMansions are located, those with the means to purchase and maintain a McMansion also likely have the resources to put their children in extra activities or visit places or provide lots of stuff at home.

In this suburban world, women have traditionally been responsible for child care and ensuring the success of children. Think of the typical image of the 1950s suburban family: father goes off in the morning to a corporate job and returns in the evening to be served or doted on by his family. The wife takes care of the children and all the household duties with little help from the father. And even in today’s world with more attention from fathers to caring for children and household duties, children are often still the responsibility of mothers.

So if McMansions, single-family homes devoted to nuclear family life, are often nested within suburbs, also devoted to nuclear families and children, and caring for children and family often falls to women, then one of the primary social roles of the McMansion is gendered. The large home might be a status symbol as well as an attempt to get the most house for the money but it is certainly a space intended to grow successful children.

 

Gendered McMansions, Part 2: large kitchens and attached living areas

The size of McMansions provides a lot of interior space. How is it used and how does this relate to gender?

If the exterior of the McMansion is imposing and garish, the interior provides room for family activity. The ubiquitous open concept kitchen and living area with updated appliances, surfaces, and island provide space for social gatherings, storing stuff, family interaction, and solitary time for residents. This is private space par excellence in the United States.

The interior emphasis on kitchens and living space can be connected to norms and expectations regarding women, home, and family life. If the large and flashy exterior of the McMansion leans toward notions of masculinity in the United States, the roomy interior leans toward the work of women serving as supporters, wives, and mothers. The men may seek escape in a “man cave” (which suggests the rest of the interior space is not for men) and children may seek solace in their large bedrooms but the center of the home in terms of time and activity still generally involves the kitchen and attached living spaces. Even with a shift away from cooking food at home, there is still much sentiment and many expectations attached to women working in the kitchen.

Going back to the McMansion of The Sopranos, the big suburban home may represent something different for Tony’s wife Carmela. While Tony wants to come home and relax and bask in his success (including running his nuclear family), the McMansion offers Carmela space to entertain and show others that she is taking care of her family. Through gatherings and food as well as the size and location of the home, Carmela can show she is ensuring the success of her husband and children. See the two cookbooks published with Carmela’s imprint on them. Her kitchen is open to an eating area as well as a family room where the family can watch TV (though there are other spaces to escape to or that are used for more formal gatherings). Toward the end of the show, she pursues work outside of the home – though that work is still connected to houses – and encounters difficulty convincing her own family that this work outside the home is worthwhile.

Similarly, many an HGTV episode features a reveal of an open concept kitchen and living area that is often said to be for a female resident. This can be the case even if the people on the show admit that they do not cook often; the kitchen is seen as the primary gathering space. Thus, if McMansions strive to provide sizable and gleaming kitchens and living spaces and such spheres are often associated with women, the primary family and social areas in the McMansion are gendered.

Gendered McMansions, Part 1: big and flashy homes

A review of a new TV show involving the lives of competitive high school cheerleaders includes a brief discussion of the problems of McMansions:

Colette drills her squad into greatness and rewards them with parties at her home where the alcohol flows freely.  But to Addy, the girl so unlike anyone else in that dinky little town, she lets slip that the suburban fantasy about the baby and the big McMansion is there to lure unsuspecting young girls into a compromised existence.

Relatively little scholarly work examines the gendered nature of McMansions. Do these large homes represent something different to women and men or provide different living experiences for men and women?

Start with the base trait of a McMansion: it is a large home, roughly between 3,000 and 10,000 square feet and above average in size compared to the average new American home. Americans often connect size to males who can have a commandeering or larger physical presence. Purchasing and living in a bigger home is an extension of this: the larger home asserts the domain of the owner in square feet. Perhaps like the cathedrals of the Middle Ages where the size of the structure was intended to produce awe, the McMansion helps others recognize the size of the owner.

Additionally, the physical size of the home also broadcasts success. A single-family home is a key means by which the owners can show others who they are. Like other consumer goods, we assume what we purchase and own says something about us. Bigger often means more resources or money were necessary.

Take as an example the McMansion on The Sopranos. The large home in an upscale New Jersey neighborhood shows off both the space Tony Soprano takes up as well as his position and status. He is not a small guy; he is a leader and this comes out in his physical presence, particularly in anger and violence. His large home sits on top of a small hill, putting those who come to the house having to drive up to Soprano family. (The FBI agents after Tony have to come up to him. This also has interesting implications for McMansions that sit downhill or below the plain of other McMansions; are they less imposing and impressive?) Furthermore, the size of the home suggests he has a successful career and he can provide for his family. Even though Tony is not particularly happy with the life he leads, he never considers selling this home: it is a marker of what he has accomplished and it provides advantages for his family.

The architecture of McMansions can add to this garish or imposing presence. With numerous architectural features, possibly including turrets and other symbols of castles, the McMansions aims to overwhelm. The stereotypical McMansion does not meekly sit on its land or complement the landscape; it asserts itself through its busy facade and large features.

In contrast to males and Tony Soprano, females are often asked to project a different presence in social life: quieter, more in the background, not so assertive. In The Sopranos, Carmela goes about her home differently than Tony with more attention to the care of her family and guests (more on this tomorrow). Does this suggest women prefer smaller homes and men larger homes? Are more men driving the purchases of McMansions? Perhaps someone has data on this (I would guess Toll Brothers has an idea).

The suburban McMansion is masculine in size and presentation. Tomorrow, I’ll consider the interior spaces of McMansions and gender.

A short history of the kitchen island

The open concept kitchen and living space is ubiquitous these days and it often includes a sizable island that stands between the food preparation space and the living. How did that island develop?

The earliest islands were humble worktables in the center of the kitchen (think downstairs at Downton Abbey). The open kitchen and built-in island didn’t arrive until the 20th century.

“The iconic suburban image of the command-post kitchen where the woman of the house could do her work and observe the kids really resonated in 1950s America,” says Sarah Leavitt, curator at the National Building Museum in Washington. “The idea was to build this concept of family and togetherness right into the actual architecture and design of the house.”

While the island was an aspirational symbol of modern housekeeping, it was mostly a product of postwar construction of suburban single-family homes. It gained momentum through the 1960s and ’70s but didn’t become a mainstream design element until the 1980s and ’90s, when open-plan kitchens became the rage, buoyed by the popularity of the Food Network and HGTV.

Suddenly, the island wasn’t just a prep space but also a stage to perform for your guests, though visibility has its drawbacks. “It looks nice when it’s clean,” Leavitt says, “but given the potential for mess, it’s surprising that it continues to have widespread appeal.”

An interesting shift over the span of roughly one hundred years: from a surface for getting things done in the kitchen to a gendered command center to more of a performance space and status symbol. A few thoughts:

1. Would knowing the past history of the island – workspace, more out of sight in upper-class households, and place for wives/mothers to observe their household – change how current homeowners think about the island? Is the island now past all of these connotations and simply about appearances or modern conceptions of open family space? Do homeowners and visitors feel like islands are freeing or are they confining in new ways?

2. Could the pendulum swing back to using the island for essential duties? Imagine a continuing decrease in social interaction and less justification in buying entertaining spaces when entertaining in large numbers rarely happens. Or, a backlash against all the eating out leads to more people prepping food at home.

3. The full article suggests some have already reacted against islands by going back to tables which have some nice features in comparison. Is the perfect world then having space both for a sizable island and an intriguing table?

 

Alcohol and the gendered suburbs: suburban bros with beer versus suburban moms with wine

One writer argues alcohol makers and distributors have very gendered visions of the suburban life:

For decades, our televisions told us that men drank beer, women drank wine, and that’s just the way the world was. Beer commercials, even when they’re not overtly objectifying women, often still truck in mundane male fantasy: dudes sharing brews with their bros on game day, hanging out over the grill or golfing.

Wine, meanwhile, is often sold as Mommy Juice to stressed-out ladies who escape the suburban carpool grind with slugs from labels such as Little Black Dress and Skinnygirl.

And White Claw has a different approach:

There’s football — not on a bar TV but rather a co-ed game being played outdoors. Women might be shown in tightfitting clothes, but it’s athletic gear or just regular beachwear, and the models look strong and fit instead of seductive.

That’s entirely intentional, says Sanjiv Gajiwala, vice president of marketing for White Claw. When the brand launched in 2016, the idea behind it was that the traditional worlds depicted in beverage marketing had pretty much gone extinct. White Claw would be the drink of the new gender norms, of the kinds of “group hangs” that define young people’s social lives. “It wasn’t a world where guys got together in a basement and drank beer and women were off doing something else, drinking with their girlfriends,” Gajiwala said. “Whatever we put out creatively and how we positioned the brand really reflects that everyone hangs out together all the time.”

This gets at two issues:

  1. How products market themselves. On one hand, they can target particular segments of the consuming public. This can help drive sales. On the other hand, that specific approach could alienate other consumers who would not consider the product. This reminds me of a possibly apocryphal quote from Michael Jordan that “Republicans buy sneakers, too.” Pitch one product to men and a similar product to women for decades and there may not be much overlap in consumers.
  2. The gendered nature of suburban life. The stereotypes suggested above date back decades where men would participate in leisure activities, like grilling and golfing, with other men and women would stay inside, care for the children and home, and drink. The female dissatisfaction with suburbia helped kick off the women’s movement and even Marge Simpson ran into similar trouble.

If White Claw is appealing to a new generation and new norms, does this mean gendered life in the suburbs has changed? More men are drinking wine and women are grilling more? Or, are suburban gatherings all together different as suggested above: “group hangs” where friends and family mingle? (Or, are these “group hangs” more for single folk or kidless folk in urban or surban environments?)

American men have 30 minutes of more leisure time a day and use half of it to watch TV

Sociologist Liana Sayer tracks the leisure time of Americans by gender, finds a half hour gap between men and women (5 hours and 30 minutes versus 4 hours and 59 minutes), and looks at how men spend that extra time:

What are men doing with that extra half hour? Some of it is spent socializing, exercising, and simply relaxing, among other things. But “about half of the gap is from TV,” says Liana Sayer, a sociologist at the University of Maryland and the director of the school’s Time Use Laboratory…

Sayer, in a 2016 paper, called American time use “stubbornly gendered”: On average, women continue to devote more time each day to chores and looking after children than men do. Further, the average American woman spends 28 more minutes a day than the average American man on “personal care”—a time-use category that encompasses activities such as showering, getting dressed, and applying makeup…

Sayer laid out two possible theories. The first: “The idea is that men are able to watch more television, perhaps because they enjoy it, and the reason men are able to exercise greater preference in their time use choices is because they have [more] power than women,” she has written

The second theory has to do with the ranks of men who have become more socially isolated, whether because they’re out of work, less involved in family life, or both. Women, in addition to working more than they used to, tend to have stronger networks of friends and are more likely to raise children as single parents—which together could make women more socially connected than men. Thus, as Sayer has written, “men may devote a greater share and more time to television because this type of leisure does not require social integration.”

Television continues to have an outsized pull on the leisure time of Americans. This could change over time and the options for leisure seem to have exploded in recent decades, but even younger Americans seem drawn to television, just in through different means such as watching on phones or computers. I wonder for how many Americans television is the default leisure activity when they have no other other or limited leisure options.

I’m sure others have explored this but these time use findings would be interesting to connect to what it means to be a man in the United States: you watch a certain amount of television. Does it matter more what men watch (sports, action shows, etc.) or how much they watch? What cultural expectations do they pick up regarding how much television to watch and how exactly is this passed down?

 

 

Census income figures misreported based on gender norms

The Census measures numerous important features of American life. Yet, accurate measurement is difficult. A new report suggests reported income can not be the most truthful when women make more money than their husbands:

Researchers found that when wives are the bigger breadwinners, husbands report making an average of 2.9 percent more than what’s in their tax filings. Meanwhile, women who make more than their husbands report earning 1.5 percent less than their actual income…

So why does this phenomenon happen? Researchers say they suspect societal expectations about the roles each person plays in a marriage could be a main factor.

“When married couples . . . violate the norm that husbands outearn their wives, the survey respondents reporting the couples’ earnings appear to minimize the violation by inflating the earnings of the lower-earning husbands and deflating the earnings of the higher-earning wives,” researchers wrote in their findings.

If the misreporting is due to gender norms, might we expect this to go away as more women earn more money? Already, “In about one out of four couples surveyed, wives made more money than their husbands.” Give this a few decades and this misreporting might disappear.

On the other hand, social norms can be last a long time even after society has changed quite a bit from when the social norm arose. If the misreporting continues or even increases, it would be interesting to see how the Census and other surveyors adjust their figures.

Survey suggests women prefer suburbs more than men

A 2016 survey from mortgage company Lendinghome shows gender differences in which kind of places men and women would like to live:

According to Lendinghome, 54 percent of women want to live in the suburbs, while only 42 percent of men share that goal. Among women, 46 percent prefer established neighborhoods, while only 21 percent want an urban-like environment; for men those two options are nearly equally favored: 40 percent want an urban-like environment and 39 percent want an established neighborhood. One good thing about living in Chicago is that you can find neighborhoods that fit both criteria, said Julie Kim, realty agent with Century 21 in Lincolnwood. “One neighborhood I love showing to couples with this dilemma is Sauganash, which is still part of Chicago but gives that nice suburban pleasantville type of feel,” she said.

Lendinghome summarized the findings this way in May 2017:

Some couples may also struggle with different housing preferences based on gender and location. The data shows that women prefer traditional, cozy homes (48 percent) in the suburbs (54 percent), while men are more open to modern homes (48 percent) in urban-like settings (40 percent). Additionally, survey respondents from the West opted for city living (31 percent) more than those from the Midwest (8 percent).

Here is some speculation on why these differences might exist. The suburbs are often touted as the place that is better for kids because there is more space, the schools are better, and neighborhoods are safer. Since women are still often more responsible for the care of children, perhaps they prefer the suburbs because of their children. Additionally, many Americans see cities as less safe and women may feel this even more as they do not desire having to look out for their safety on a daily basis in the city.

In contrast, men have less responsibility for childcare or don’t think about this as much as being in their future and cities then offer more excitement. If they do think of the suburban life, some may see it as a trap: going to work for long periods bookended by significant commutes, having to keep up a yard, a lack of neighborhood activity, and a life revolving around the nuclear family with little chance for getting away.

I would guess that the preference for a suburban life goes up for both men and women with children but is lower both before couples have children and after those kids leave the house or become adults.

 

New data on (a lack of) diversity in Hollywood and on TV

A new report on diversity in Hollywood and television was released yesterday:

The study, titled the Comprehensive Annenberg Report on Diversity, examined the 109 films released by major studios (including art-house divisions) in 2014 and 305 scripted, first-run TV and digital series across 31 networks and streaming services that aired from September 2014 to August 2015. More than 11,000 speaking characters were analyzed for gender, racial and ethnic representation and LGBT status. Some 10,000 directors, writers and show creators were examined, as was the gender of more than 1,500 executives.

The portrait is one of pervasive underrepresentation, no matter the media platform, from CEOs to minor characters. “Overall, the landscape of media content is still largely whitewashed,” the study concludes.

In the 414 studied films and series, only a third of speaking characters were female, and only 28.3 percent were from minority groups — about 10 percent less than the makeup of the U.S. population. Characters 40 years or older skew heavily male across film and TV: 74.3 percent male to 25.7 percent female.

Just 2 percent of speaking characters were LGBT-identified. Among the 11,306 speaking characters studied, only seven were transgendered (and four were from the same series).

These appear to be pretty consistent patterns. Given the racialized and gendered history of the United States, is it more surprising that white men still dominate in certain categories or that little has changed even with the discussions of recent decades?

One other thought: in No Logo, activist Naomi Klein recounts her own efforts to push for more diversity in advertisements. In a chapter titled “Patriarchy Gets Funky,” Klein says:

We thought we would find salvation in the reformation of MTV, CNN, and Calvin Klein. And why not? Since media seemed to be the source of so many of our problems, surely if we could only “subvert” them to better represent us, they could save us instead. With better collective mirrors, self-esteem would rise and prejudices would magically fall away, as society became suddenly inspired to live up to the beautiful and worthy reflection we had retouched in its image. (p.108-109)

And corporations bought into it:

That’s when we found out that our sworn enemies in the “mainstream” – to us a giant monolithic blob outside of our known university-affiliated enclaves – didn’t fear and loathe us but actually thought we were sort of interesting. Once we’d embarked on a search for new wells of cutting-edge imagery, our insistence on extreme sexual and racial identities made for great brand-content and niche-marketing strategies. If diversity is what we wanted, the brands seemed to be saying, then diversity was exactly what we would get. And with that, the marketers and media makers swooped down, airbrushes in hand, to touch up the colors and images in our culture. (p.111)

The real issue lay elsewhere:

But our criticism was focused on the representation of women and minorities within the structures of power, not on the economics behind those power structures…

The prospect of having to change a few pronouns and getting a handful of women and minorities on the board and on television posed no real threat to the guiding profit-making principles of Wall Street.

Maybe the issue is less one of representation on the screen and more about who controls the industry and resources.