In watching a recent episode of something or other on HGTV, I realized something: very few of the renovated homes featured on the channel have visible microwaves or other kitchen appliances on surfaces.
I suspect this is similar to the clean, open concept kitchen that has no mess: the aesthetic is modern and minimalist. Appliances beyond the stove, refrigerator, and dishwasher (which are often emphasized in discussions and visual shots because of their size and finishes) should be out of sight and avoid cluttering the beautiful surfaces. To some degree, this is common when showing houses that are for sale: the thinking is that people do not want to see the clutter of everyday life.
Yet, I would guess that most American kitchens have plenty of countertop appliances that they regularly use. How many home cooks can survive without a toaster or toaster oven, blender, food processor, mixer, coffee makers, crockpot, and so on? And that does not even include the microwave, an indispensable tool for decades.
I suspect that clearing the countertops for the final reveal of homes is akin to the sketchy before and after shots provided by weight loss products. The difference might look substantial but the image is misleading. Is a clear surface that few people can actually live with really desirable versus a kitchen that displays where people can keep some of the stuff they regularly use? The countertops should not be full of junk but a well-placed appliance can both recognize the realities of most American kitchens and hint to the viewer what is possible in the kitchen.
The short answer: closer than north of Oakland on the east side of San Francisco Bay.
The current edition of Brother vs. Brother on HGTV features two homes undergoing renovation in the Bay Area. However, they are located in the suburbs of El Sobrante and Pinole, respectively a 45 minute and one hour drive from San Francisco. This is similar to a post from years back when I wrote about Procure Proton Therapy claiming a “close to downtown Chicago” location with their Warrenville facility. Can the show truly claim to be about houses in San Francisco?
I would say no for three primary reasons:
- The location is just too far away from San Francisco to claim it is in the city. One could visit San Francisco from these locations but the show is not about San Francisco; it is about suburban housing. This is particularly noticeable in each episode with the size of the homes, the price of the homes, and the property each house sits on.
- This is not just about being relatively far our from the big city; the homes are also beyond Oakland. The Bay Area is a unique one in that there are three major cities within a relatively short distance from each other: San Francisco, Oakland, and San Jose. The largest in population is San Jose, the 11th largest city in the country, followed by San Francisco at 13th, and Oakland at 45th. Even though San Jose is closest to Silicon Valley, San Francisco is the most prestigious city with Oakland trailing both. If these suburban homes are to be connected to a big city, Oakland would technically be more accurate.
- Many suburbanites rarely make it into the big city if they do not work there or have business that regularly takes them there. They may still identify with the big city in the region, especially when talking with people from other parts of the country or world who have little knowledge of little communities but know certain big cities. Yet, their day-to-day experience is markedly different from that of a San Francisco resident.
I know the marketing is driving this. “Brother vs. Brother: San Francisco” is a lot more exciting than “Brother vs. Brother: Bay Area Suburbs.” Still, the consistent shots of San Francisco is a bit much when these are suburban homes that could fit in many regions across the United States.
One downside of an open floor plan is that it also exposes all the work that goes into daily life:
That is why one company, Schumacher Homes of Akron, Ohio, has a fresh new design on offer: a house with an open floor plan, with its kitchen, dining area, and living room all flowing into one another. But then, behind the first kitchen, lies another. A “messy” kitchen. There, the preparation for or remainders from a meal or party can be deposited for later cleanup, out-of-sight, out-of-mind.
That this is “necessary” at all is a consequence of the rise of the open floor plan in the first place. On the next block or on HGTV, remodels blow out walls, enlarge kitchens, and couple them to the surrounding space. In new construction, enormous great rooms combine hundreds of square feet of living space into singular, cavernous voids, punctuated only by the granite or marble outcropping of a kitchen island. This amorphous, multipurpose space has become the center of domestic life.
It hasn’t always been this way. These layouts first became popular in pre-war modernist architecture, but their origins stretch back earlier, to the turn of the 20th century at least. Then, as now, they promised to tear down obstruction and facilitate connection. But that promise was aspirational from the start: It assumed an equality in the home that has never come to pass. In practice, open-plan design has always been a stage to a quiet struggle between freedom and servitude. That struggle continues today, and messy kitchens won’t put an end to it. It’s just hard to notice when the experience has been sold, universally, as “great for entertaining.”…
In this respect, the open plan might represent the most distinctly American home design possible: to labor in vain against ever-rising demands, imposed mostly by our own choices, all the while insisting that, actually, we love it. It’s a prison, but at least it’s one without walls.
I wonder if another trend truly explains the move to all this open space with kitchens. Americans are eating less at home as they spend more money spent at restaurants than at home. Yet, homeowners, particularly those on HGTV, regularly suggest that the kitchen is the heart of the home. But, could this heart be more of a showpiece or an aspiration than a regularly messy kitchen? Perhaps the open, gleaming kitchen of today is more like the formal living room (now less common in newer houses) of the past: it is a showpiece, is not necessarily used often, and the typical homeowner should be skilled at using the items in the room (even if they do not use it often). The open floor plan is then a selling point, status symbol, and entertaining space but not always a messy space.
The discussion here of modernism is also interesting. I have argued before that American homeowners are not fans of modernist homes but they may be more inclined toward modernism in their kitchens and open spaces. Again, these are showpieces of the new home and as I see these spaces regularly on HGTV I wonder how families actually live in them.
A Washington Post review of the new Trading Spaces emphasizes the smaller spaces the show worked with:
Though it was technically impossible to indict the cable channels — especially HGTV — for their role in the quick-mortgage fantasia, the connections were plain to see: the schedule was (and still is) littered with shows that spur house envy, encouraging viewers to live in a constant state of renovation, makeover and upgrade. Homeownership became the highest expression of citizenship, while decor became the chief signifier of class. “Trading Spaces,” which premiered in 2000, helped ignite that craze, making it safe to waste entire Saturday afternoons watching home-improvement shows. Yet it hardly deserves all (or any) of the blame.
The show returns Saturday (with a long reunion special preceding it), essentially unchanged and contagiously giddy, full of its usual surprises and reveals. Looking at the first of eight new episodes, one is reminded of “Trading Space’s” conceptual purity: It never goaded anyone into ditching their old house for an open-floor-plan, granite-countertop McMansion beyond their means. Its core principles were to work with what you have, on a restrained budget. It preached a DIY ethic, asking couples to swap houses and redo a room, aided (some would say strong-armed) by a crafty professional designer and carpenter.
A few quick thoughts:
- The scale of renovation on Trading Spaces is much more doable for the average American homeowner compared to the whole house makeovers on many other shows. How many people have the budget to do multiple rooms, particularly creating all new kitchens or master bathrooms? Or, who has the time to hand over their house for weeks as opposed to doing renovations over a weekend?
- The rooms on Trading Spaces tend to be much more varied than the typical home shows that often emphasize an expansive kitchen and open concept first floor. The HGTV shows encourage a homogenous style, moving from stainless steel appliances and granite countertops to shiplap, white cabinets, and open shelving. American homes tend to be unique inside, particularly in certain rooms where people to have eclectic styles and uses.
- While the review above does not blame Trading Spaces for the larger shows to come, once you on television continue (1) glorifying the single-family home as the expression of individual tastes (a long-standing American tradition) plus (2) suggesting that people should be renovating their homes (part of the shift from living in homes to seeing homes as investments), is it a slippery slope to large-scale renovations in big houses?
On the whole, there is a lot that could be said from the move from Bob Villa to Trading Spaces to House Hunters and Property Brothers alongside shifts in American housing. Of course, it is hard to make causal arguments about how watching these shows directly changes behaviors.
I watch my fair share of shows on HGTV and I recently noticed something: many of blinds or shades are closed when the interior of the homes are shown. This could be for multiple reasons:
- Lighting issues. Windows can produce glare either from interior or exterior lighting.
- The shows may be filming at night. Looking out into blackness is not that appealing.
- Blocking off the windows means the show can emphasize the interior and perhaps particularly show new window treatments.
These are good reasons to cover the windows. Yet, it strikes me that taking this action means the private nature of the home is emphasized even more. HGTV homes tend to emphasize the actions of the nuclear family inside the new home. Sometimes, the yard is really important to the homebuyers or homeowners but even then, the exterior is far less important than the interior spaces where it is presumed the family will spend more time.
Additionally, blocking off what is outside the windows ignores one of the most important features of homes: location, location, location. HGTV shows spend little time showing the neighborhood. Again, even when the characters are really tied to a location or neighborhood, this is primarily conveyed verbally and then the rest of the show focuses on interiors. Thus, not only do we not see much of the neighborhood, we also do not always see what the homeowners would see out their own windows.
All of this makes more sense when it is placed into the larger context of the American ideal of a single-family home on its own plot of land inhabited by a nuclear family. This is a powerful ideal, particularly for HGTV’s target demographic.
The title of this post is part of a larger quote – “On Tiny House Hunters it is painfully transparent that people with tiny house budgets often have McMansion dreams” – as a writer reflects on HGTV’s portrayal of tiny houses:
They too yearn for an open floorplan. They want storage. They want privacy. They want sleek kitchen amenities. They want room to entertain. That desire, to entertain, is the most delusional. In a home built for one, that may, with some dieting and sucking in of the gut, accommodate two, there is no entertaining. When you buy a tiny home, you are also making a commitment to socialize with your friends elsewhere if you hope to keep those friends.
As the reality of tiny living sets in, the hunters often lament how tiny a tiny home actually is. Or they are in complete denial and exclaim that there is just so much space. In one episode of Tiny House Hunters a man sat in the “bathtub” in the tiny bathroom. He looked ridiculous, his knees practically in his mouth as he contorted himself into the improbable space. He, the realtor, and his friend, who were all viewing the property, were nonplussed, as if the goings on were perfectly normal. And there I was, shouting at the television, “What is wrong with you people?”…
Shows like House Hunters and Tiny House Hunters flourish, in part, because even now, after the mortgage crisis and financial collapse, home ownership and the American dream are synonymous. Home ownership represents success and the putting down of roots. Home ensures the stability of the American family. When you own a home, there is always a place where you belong, and where you are the master or mistress of your own domain…
A cheerful television show about homebuying isn’t going to sully itself with a frank examination of economic realities or the fallout from predatory lending practices that made so many people believe they could afford to live beyond their means. Instead, Tiny House Hunters allows people the trappings of a middle-class lifestyle, regardless of their actual economic circumstances. The homes the hunters look at are often stylish, modern reinterpretations of the cookie-cutter prefabricated homes that inspire so much cultural derision. They may not have much space but what space they have is well appointed and chic or quirky. Tiny house hunters can soothe their class anxiety and stay just within reach of what they so very much want but cannot afford to have.
This leads me to two thoughts:
- As the piece notes, there is an important connection here to social class. People on this show want to have a middle-class (or higher) lifestyle in a small package. They are often unwilling to give up on certain items just because they are pursuing a smaller house. Additionally, I would argue that this quest to downsize is a largely middle- to upper-class phenomenon. The people on the show are not ones driven to tiny houses solely because of economic necessity. The cost savings may be nice but they also talk about reinforcing familial bonds, being able to move a home around more easily, consuming less, and helping save the environment. As the writer notes, they are not seeking after mobile homes and the class implications associated with them. Instead, they often want customized tiny houses that continue to display their higher than lower-class lifestyle.
- Some might applaud these people for realizing they don’t need such a large house. Instead of purchasing a McMansion or even the average size new home (around 2,500 square feet), these people are consuming fewer resources and resisting the strong pull of consumerism. At the same time, they still find something valuable in owning their own home. Why does this interest in home ownership continue? if people truly wanted a more environmentally friendly option, shouldn’t they go move into a small apartment in a dense urban area where they don’t need to drive much? (Many of the tiny houses on HGTV are frequently in more rural settings and still require a lot of driving.) In other words, even having a tiny house still allows these homeowners to participate in the middle-class American Dream which largely revolves around owning your own detached home.
And just as a reminder, there is little evidence that many Americans desire a tiny house. As of now, they largely appeal to a small subset of the population that does not necessarily need them.
American viewers – at least those still paying for cable – like what HGTV is showing:
The escapist appeal of looking at other people’s beautiful homes turned Home & Garden Television into the third most-watched cable network in 2016, ahead of CNN and behind only Fox News and ESPN. Riding HGTV’s reality shows, parent company Scripps Networks Interactive Inc. has seen its shares rise more than 30 percent this year, outperforming bigger rivals like Walt Disney Co., 21st Century Fox Inc. and Viacom Inc.
HGTV’s formula is relentlessly consistent: a shabby house gets a makeover, and a happy couple moves in. A variation on the theme — house-flipping for fun and profit — works too. The network has aired 23 different flipping shows over the past few years. Today “Flip or Flop” and “Masters of Flip” run in prime time…
“If you watch a lot of our competitors, it’s about bling-y expensive real estate in New York or crazy flipping in L.A.,” said Scripps chief programming officer Kathleen Finch. “For the most part, our viewers live in suburban houses with yards. We embrace the real America.”…
The key, Scripps executives agree, is a refusal to upset HGTV’s audience. There’s no profanity, and on-air conflicts are confined to paint colors or tile choices. Instead of making the network feel trivial, its fans say, the relentlessly pleasant programming is a comfort, especially in hard times.
Americans like houses, both in terms of what they might aspire to themselves (the home may be their number one opportunity to define themselves) as well as knowing what their “neighbors” have (don’t those people on TV count as neighbors in today’s world of limited deep social ties?). The lack of open conflict could also tie in nicely with M. P. Baumgartner’s work The Moral Order of a Suburb which argued suburbanites create community by avoiding conflict.
I’m also intrigued by the idea that showing “the best side” of suburbanites could be a winning formula on television. I’ve been working on several projects in recent years about the depictions of suburbia on television. In the 1950s and early 1960s, there were numerous shows that presented everyday suburban life (obviously, a very sanitized white, upper middle class perspective) but since that period, many shows that do this are doing it with a wink and nod or to laugh at suburbanites. Do the fairly wealthy viewers of HGTV enjoy seeing themselves on screen when few other shows or TV networks offer such an opportunity?