“Real Housewives” character lives in McMansion only by fraud

A “Real Housewives of New Jersey” character lived in a McMansion and its accompanying lifestyle – but it was all a fraud:

On TV they live large — in a 10,000-square-foot McMansion full of garish baubles and expensive toys in an ode to the bad taste and excessive spending that has made “The Real Housewives of New Jersey” a Bravo hit.

It’s the lifestyle Joe and Teresa Giudice — who grew up together as working-class Italian-American kids — always hungered for but could never truly afford, sources said, even when they convinced themselves and everyone around them they could.

The Giudices’ shaky facade of massive personal wealth — increasingly fragile since a 2009 Chapter 7 bankruptcy filing — finally imploded in a spectacular way last week when they were hit with a 39-count criminal fraud indictment.

The federal charges range from allegations that the two conspired to forge W-2 forms, tax returns, pay stubs and other documents to trick banks into lending them money, to accusations of perjury and false statements in their bankruptcy proceedings.

This won’t do the reputation of McMansions any good. See the picture of the Giudice’s home about halfway through the news story: it looks like everything McMansion critics would hate including a large wrought-iron fence and gate, an elaborate front door, a roof that looks like a castle, and plenty of rooms. Yet, critics would like the symbolism: the home may have been impressive on the outside or looked good on TV but ultimately, it literally all a fraud.

So if and when they lose the home, who is going to buy it?

McMansions pass away quickly like reality stars, unlike stone buildings

McMansions are often assumed to a passing phenomenon. See this quote from the TV show House of Cards:

“Money is the McMansion in Sarasota that starts fallin’ apart after 10 years,” Spacey’s character, Rep. Francis “Frank” Underwood (D-Antebellumville), tells us in an on-again off-again honeysuckle accent. “Power is the old stone building that stands for centuries.”

Or this description of a common path of reality stars: becoming famous and buying a McMansion.

Anyone remember what happened when that other TLC reality show about a big family got really, really popular? Jon and Kate Plus Eight quickly evolved: In later seasons, there was a new McMansion for the family, and a posh new look for Kate. By all accounts, Here Comes Honey Boo Boo could have followed the same trajectory. According to TMZ, the network has raised their salary from $5,000 and $7,000 an episode at the beginning of the series to “somewhere between $15,000 and $20,000 an episode.” But the extra cash hasn’t changed the family’s priorities.

For one thing, a bigger house was apparently in the offing, too. “We’re told TLC even offered to help the family find a somewhat larger, more secure home, but June refused,” said TMZ. “She said she wanted to stay in the house because she makes a big deal over Christmas — decorating the house for the community. June is heavily involved in her town.” Thus Season 2 takes place in and around their same little house with the beat-up furniture and the one bathroom.

Both quotes above discuss the notion that McMansions won’t last long. It pits modern spec houses against solid stone buildings. In reality, many homes in the US are not the stone variety. Plus, we don’t quite know how McMansions will stand up in the long run. Barring natural disasters, humans can be pretty resourceful with existing structures if they want to. The link to reality stars is quite clever; the implication is these are stars who will burn brightly, purchase their McMansions, and then burn out, never to be heard from again. McMansions have more staying power than these reality stars, if just by the number of such homes that have been built.

McMansions are new in the sense that the word didn’t really emerge in popular usage until the late 1990s. These houses simply haven’t been around that long so they are newer luxury items. On the other hand, McMansions seem to have become another part of the long-running battle between old and new money. McMansion can then be a derogatory term thrown at the nouveau riche who don’t have the proper social standing to compete with old money.

All together, there is a temporal dimension to the use of the term McMansion. Critics hope they are a passing fad. Others suggest they are making a comeback or larger homes are simply what Americans desire. Perhaps we need a new popular form of housing to replace the McMansion…

Sociologist says portrayal of Iranian-Americans on “Shahs of Sunset” isn’t so bad

The second season of Shahs of Sunset began last night on Bravo and a sociologist looks at how it portrays Iranian-Americans:

Iranian-Americans talk about white people in surprising ways. Reza Farahan, the show’s gay, mustachioed breakout star, is also its racial id. Whether hollering at “yummy white hos,” asserting “a white guy [can’t] make a Persian man jealous” or assessing a rack of gingham-checked bikinis as “the white section … Persians wouldn’t be caught dead in that,” Reza says things about race no Iranian has ever said before — on TV, that is. The paradox is that Iranians and other Middle Easterners have been (often happily) categorized as “white” in the U.S. since their earliest arrival in the 19th century. Recent efforts among these groups to gain federal recognition as “Middle Eastern” are reflective of internal and external cultural shifts. For example, in my survey of 500 freshmen in my Introduction to Sociology course at the University of California, Santa Barbara, over 75 percent of the students perceived “Middle Eastern” to be its own racial category.

Iranian-American kids and parents are more tightly knit than a carpet. The ubiquitous presence of elders on “Shahs” predates the Osbourne/Kardashian formula for compulsively watchable family drama. Multiple generations of Iranians have always lived on top of one another in apartment buildings, as neighbors in small villages and within the same compounds in posh suburban areas. Here in the U.S., a 2005 study found that second-generation Iranian-Americans cite “parental love and care” as the most important “Iranian” value to pass on to their own children. This contradicts the portrayals of abusive, authoritarian Iranian parents from films like “Not Without My Daughter.” Season two of “Shahs” explores the terrain of Iranian-American filial love even further as bohemian singer Asa Soltan Rahmati struggles to pull her refugee parents out of financial hardship.

Iranian-American interfaith relationships will make you question what you think you know about the Middle East. The show’s inclusion of Jewish and Muslim Iranian Angelinos sets it apart from nearly every other depiction of Middle Eastern life on TV. In fact, religious identity is at the forefront of season one: Mike Shouhed, an Iranian Jew, dates non-Jewish women against his mother’s wishes; the whole cast engages in candid conversation about interfaith marriage; and Reza’s anguish as the child of interfaith divorce (his Iranian-Muslim mother and Iranian-Jewish father “never had a shot” due to disapproving families) is the denouement of the first season. Iranian history is similarly rich with interfaith commerce, friendship, scholarship and even marriage, despite attempts to rewrite the record. Like Reza, I know about interfaith love first-hand: My Iranian-Muslim mom and Iranian-Jewish dad remain married in the rain-soaked Tehrangeles outpost of Portland, Oregon, which makes me at least a Princess of Precipitation.

There’s much to dislike about “Shahs”: Its celebration of consumerism, the cast’s delusions of ethnic superiority and their nostalgia for a mythic “Persia” contradict truths I know as a sociologist. But admitting any degree of depth in “Shahs of Sunset” is a minority position among Iranian-Americans and apparently among academics, too. Most dismiss the show as ethnic defamation, some even signing petitions against such dangerous fiction.

I suspect reality TV faces the same issues as novels do when trying to depict reality: just how much can you cover and with how much nuance?

This makes me wonder: perhaps the bar for declaring a reality TV show good is if it is not horribly contrived and unrealistic. Also, is there any chance sociologists could be consultants for reality TV shows that do want to be more realistic?

Reality TV is making us smarter and turning us all into “miniature anthropologists”

Here is a summary of a recent argument that reality TV makes us smarter as well as turns all of us into anthropologists:

Reality TV has long been the bastard child of the television industry. Ever since its highfaluting sociological roots with PBS’ The American Family, MTV’s groundbreaking The Real World, and even CBS’ watershed Survivor, the viewing public has treated reality television as if it is going to end civilization even as they tuned in to watch in droves. The general animus in the public spirit and the media (even the entertainment media) is that reality TV would somehow cause every museum to go bankrupt, every opera to close its curtains for good, and every breathing American to start desperately launching into fisticuffs like they were trying to be cast on some sort of exploitative documentary program. All these years later, we still have Survivor and, while there may be more useless step-and-repeats at insignificant events, thanks to all the Real Housewives and Mob Wives and Basketball Wives and the rest of the sundried wives that grace our tube, the world hasn’t ended.

What if reality TV is making us smarter? That’s the argument Grant McCracken makes in Wired magazine. In an excellent essay, he says that watching reality shows, no matter how massaged by producers and edited for effect, turns us all into miniature anthropologists. Not only do we learn things from different cultures other than our own (he uses learning about fashion via Project Runway), but it also makes us look beyond the surface of what we’re watching to find the true meaning. “Culture is a thing of surfaces and secrets. The anthropologist is obliged to record the first and penetrate the second,” McCracken says. “Once we’ve figured out what people believe to be true about themselves, we can begin to figure out what’s really going on in this culture. In this case, the surface says, ‘reality TV is a dumbing down.’ But the secret says ‘not always.’ Sometimes, reality TV contributes to a smartening up.”

From the original article, here is how McCracken thinks ethnography will help us figure out what is really happening when watching TV:

A key feature of anthropology is the long, observational, “ethnographic” interview. Anthropologists believe one of the advantages of this method is that no one can manage appearances, let alone lie, successfully for a long period of time.

So while the Kardashian sisters may wish to create an impression – and the producers edit to reinforce that impression – over many episodes and seasons, the truth will out. Whether they like it or not, eventually we will see into Kardashian souls. That these souls are never as beautiful as the sisters themselves is, well, one of the truths that reality TV makes available to us, and here it performs one of the functions normally dispatched by religious or moral leaders.

I don’t disagree that reality TV can be a decent place to see sociological and anthropological ideas and concepts. However, I think there are a few assumptions made in this argument that aren’t necessarily true:

1. That TV can show how complex the real world is. Editing cuts out a lot but even then, there is only so much that can be shown or taken in through one screen. The social world is incredibly complex and difficult to understand even when living in it, let alone in viewing it.

2. That viewers are watching in a critical way and not just for entertainment and spectacle. Lots of cultural products, such as television, can be viewed critically and viewers can learn something (even if it is about a small part of the world, as suggested in #1 above), but I’m not sure most are. People aren’t going to pick these things up by osmosis and they need to learn how to look for them.

3. That the goal of the producers of reality TV is to really tell a story versus to make money. From a more Marxist point of view, why shouldn’t we just assume reality TV, like the rest of TV (news, sports, scripted shows, etc.) is solely about making money?

4. That these shows are heavily scripted/edited/intentionally pushed in certain directions. If this is “reality,” it is a very skewed and not “natural” reality. And there are lots of stories about how producers and participants intentionally create scenes and images.

5. That ethnography is the same as sitting in a chair watching TV. Indeed, there is a name for this, armchair anthropology, and it is not the same as experiencing something personally. Imagine the difference between being in the crowd at a political rally and watching it on TV. There is a different level of understanding and interaction available in the embodied activity versus the more passive viewing from a distance. It is not that you can’t learn from this more distant viewing but it is not the same as being there ethnographically.

Reality TV is not a substitute for real sociological and anthropological research. If reality TV does become the last word for most people on social life, that is when we should be worried.

What television show will assume the role of “sociological experiment of our time”?

MTV’s Jersey Shore will run only one more season. This reminded me that I have seen several sites refer to the show’s sociological nature. Two examples:

1. From Gawker.  A number of their recaps have included this claim about the show (including this March 9, 2012 post): “the greatest sociological experiment of our time.” As it is probably meant to be, this is quite hyperbolic.

2. From the New York Post:

We are gathered here this evening to celebrate and memorialize the death of an era in MTV history: The Jersey Shore era. As both a former employee of Lord Viacom MTV Networks (full disclosure: from 2008 – 2011) and a viewer, it feels as though a chapter in its life has come to a close. The pages have turned and the sun is setting on our tanned up guido friends. And for a few years, this sociological experiment defined MTV and defined the audience it cultivated. We all watched in slackjawed horror/glee the day it all began, and now we must lay it to rest. And so with it goes the days of MTV’s most polarizing programming. Let us reflect.

I’m not quite sure why this show was repeatedly tied to sociology. Perhaps some simply couldn’t understand why the show had good ratings considering the content. Perhaps it is because a lot of people wanted to hold up the show as a mirror to make claims about the excesses and ills of our larger society.

But we could also ask which shows might take up this spot in the future. I hear that Honey Boo Boo character is getting a lot of attention but there is no shortage of reality TV shows that portray interesting characters in interesting situations. Was Jersey Shore really more emblematic of American life than other shows?

Argument: fake “House Hunters” does a disservice to the realities of American homeownership

Responding to the recent news that the HGTV show House Hunters may be fake, one writer suggests this does a disservice to the realities of American homeownership:

So what’s the problem? By now, the onus is on the viewer to consume all “reality television” with a chuckle and a grain of salt. The genre’s underlying appeal is often rooted in its escapist, aspirational qualities (or, at other end of the spectrum, its indulgence of our basest schadenfreude). But House Hunters was always much more about showing us an attainable reality than a fantasy. The show (and its many iterations), in which people just like us (juggling budgets, worried about school districts, pulled between city and suburb), go shopping for the best home their money can buy, not only glorifies the dream of home ownership, but makes it seem achievable. (If that IT guy and his elementary school teacher wife can successfully get out of their dingy apartment and into a new home with the requisite granite countertops, “marriage-saving” double vanities, and bedroom-sized walk-in closets, so can I!) This plays right into our inexplicably unwavering attachment to home ownership: Despite the collapse of the housing market, polling continues to demonstrate that we regard owning a home as the cornerstone of the American Dream—a perception that undoubtedly played a role in the home-buying craze prior to the bubble’s burst.

Showing houses that aren’t even for sale at prices divined by its producers, House Hunters is presenting dangerous misinformation about the home-buying process and deleting all of the accompanying complications and consequences. It’s turned what is actually a messy, frustrating, often dead-end process into a seamless (and perhaps necessary) path toward fulfillment. What’s more, it seems likely that viewers use the prices, locations, and home criteria discussed on the show as barometers for their own house hunts because the information is presented as fact. No, House Hunters does not explicitly condone selling one’s soul for a white picket fence, and other HGTV shows like My First Place and Property Virgins do delve into money and home-inspection woes from time to time. But doesn’t HGTV have some obligation to portray the housing market as it is, or, at the very least, offer a pronounced disclaimer about the producers’ creative and logistical liberties?

Maybe they could fix this whole mess and wipe the slate clean with a good old fashioned “where are they now” episode, showing us the truth after those mortgage payments start taking a toll.

So the main worry here is that House Hunters makes homeownership seem too easy and could lead too many people into more decisions? Perhaps we need an extra paragraph here extolling the virtues of renting

I’m not sure what to make of this argument. Homeownership is indeed an American value. One could argue that HGTV itself stands as a giant beacon for homeownership and a consumerist lifestyle. Is this necessarily bad? Does HGTV simply reflect the interests Americans have or does it insidiously push people toward too much homeownership and consumption? Are impressionable kids and adults watching this channel and then going out and spending beyond their means? I don’t think we have the public data to examine this (though some marketing company may have this information).

In the end, I suppose it comes down to this: do you think HGTV has a moral/ethical/social obligation to also show the downsides of homeownership?

“House Hunters” not so real

Several former participants in HGTV’s House Hunters say the story shown on TV isn’t exactly reality:

The premise of ‘House Hunters’ is that viewers follow a buyer as they anxiously decide between three different houses. Jensen says that, in fact, one house has already been purchased–the producers wouldn’t even finalize her as a subject until after the closing. “When I watch other episodes of the show now I can usually pick out the house they were getting based on hair-dos alone,” says Jensen. Houses are sometimes shot months apart. While the two rejected properties may be on the market, in Jensen’s case, “They were just our two friends’ houses who were nice enough to madly clean for days in preparation for the cameras!”

A former subject of the spin-off “House Hunters International” confirms that one house on the program has already been bought before filming begins. Ted Prosser, who did his real estate search in the Virgin Islands, said in an interview with a St. John blog: “The show is not really a reality show. You have to already own the house that gets picked at the end of the show. But the other houses in [my] show are actually the other houses we considered buying.”…

When confronted with Jensen’s allegations, a publicist for ‘House Hunters’ told Entertainment Weekly in a statement:

“We’ve learned that the pursuit of the perfect home involves big decisions that usually take place over a prolonged period of time – more time than we can capture in 30 minutes of television…. We’re making a television show, so we manage certain production and time constraints, while honoring the home buying process…. Showcasing three homes makes it easier for our audience to “play along” and guess which one the family will select. It’s part of the joy of the ‘House Hunters’ viewing experience. Through the lens of television, we can offer a uniquely satisfying and fun viewing experience that fulfills a universal need to occasionally step into someone else’s shoes.”

Is there any reality in reality TV? Seriously though, the “reality” shown on House Hunters would be cost prohibitive: how could a network afford (or justify) following a couple around as they see sometimes dozens of houses. I’m also a little surprised this information hasn’t come up before -participants must sign quite a contract.

I’ve noted before the popularity of HGTV shows. While the story of the couple on some of these shows is important, I wonder how much it really matters. Don’t people really want to see the different houses and options? You can’t have completely boring people on the show who like everything but at the same time, the real focus of these shows is the houses.

Quick Review: Hunger Games movie

Lots of action and some story and less commentary about oppressive regimes. As I noted in my review of the book series in September 2010, these books were ready-made to be movies. Here area  few thoughts about the movie itself and the experience of seeing it in a full theater.

1. I thought the movie was engaging. At the same time, the movie takes a book that is relatively sparse in terms of character development and explicit commentary and is even thinner in these areas. But there is a lot of action and some of the key relationships, Katniss and Prim, Katniss and Rue, and Katniss and Peeta, are given more time.

2. I thought the best actor in the movie was Stanley Tucci who was perfect as Caessr Flickerman.

3. With not as much time to work with in the movie, the opening parts of the first book are really compressed. What we miss in the movie then is a more complete understanding of the despair and desolation in District 12. I felt like the movie wanted us to think that the Capitol and President Snow were bad people but we didn’t have enough of the backstory to really feel it.

4. I wonder how many of the people in the theater tonight recognized any of the social commentary that is lurking in the books. The books could be taken in a couple of different directions. First, we could think about reality TV – how far away are we from a situation where people are killing each other for prizes on television? Second, the Capitol is supposed to represent tyranny and oppression and trying to stave off rebellion with a futuristic “bread and circuses.” But the movie seems to be more about the action itself and the audience members responded to this. I wonder how much the next two movies take up the social commentary and how they represent the growing rebellion against the Capitol.

4a. There were a couple of points during the Hunger Games themselves when a character was killed and people watching the movie laughed. This is an interesting reaction that sounded like it came from some teenagers or younger kids. While the action was violent (though a number of reviews said it was understated), I wonder how different it really was from what these kids have seen before. How many murders have they already seen in movies, on TV, and in video games? Plus, the kissing got a lot of reactions. Do both murders and kissing make teenagers nervous, thus the laughter?

5. I’m often amused by what “the future” looks like in movies. I was not impressed by the Capitol. Parts of the CGI were impressive (the people modeled in the large crowd scenes, for example) but it was clearly fake. The residents are shown in lively colors and interesting hair and makeup. The buildings are a little different but if you have seen a futuristic movie before, they look familiar. The special computer setup to control the Hunger Games is interesting but we’ve seen things like this before. They have 200 mph trains…which other parts of the world have now. So we’re supposed to be believe that the future includes some more avant garde style, a little better technology, and people are still glued to television screens? Not terribly futuristic.

6. The music during the closing credits was good. I’ve read some positive comments about the soundtrack and it may be worth checking out further.

7. I haven’t been in a full movie theater in quite a while. On one hand, there is a kind of buzz in the air and if the movie is good (and it apparently was tonight), people clap at the hand. On the other hand, you have lots of people going in and out and talking (and revealing key points of the plot to people next to them).

8. I was thinking earlier today that I have hopped on certain cultural bandwagons and not others. Why read all of the Hunger Games books and see the first movie or be an early adopter of Adele’s bestselling album from last year while waiting years to read Harry Potter and see all the movies? I don’t know. But if I do want to join the crowd, I can always say that I am engaging in cultural research…

Quick Review: The Hunger Games series

The Hunger Games trilogy by author Suzanne Collins is popular. Hollywood is currently searching for a starlet to play the main character, Katniss Everdeen. And I too have recently read these books and have some thoughts:

1. I like the premise of the Hunger Games. The story is set in a dystopian world where the Capitol controls all 13 surrounding districts. As part of the control, each year the districts submit two teenagers, one male and one female, to compete in a reality TV contest where the winner must be the last one alive. Katniss is selected to compete in the Hunger Games and that is where the fun begins.

2. If I had to sum up the tone of the books in one phrase: this is like the young adult fiction version of a Jerry Bruckheimer film. Lots of action, little else. The characters have little emotional depth and don’t spend much time dwelling on what is happening. The real story is the action which includes two sets of Hunger Games and a war. Reading scenes where Katniss is in pain or disoriented is like watching jittery hand-held movie scenes.

3. I did not find the main character, Katniss, to be likable. Granted, she has had a difficult life but she is often caustic and unpleasant. She has good reason to be irritated – she ends up being a pawn for more powerful people throughout much of the three books – but I would think it is difficult for readers to make a connection with her. If there any connection to be made, it would be with her action-hero side as she shows determination and courage.

4. While it isn’t really explored in the books, this could be a devastating critique of reality television. Throughout the three books, Katniss is on display, first for entertainment and then later for propaganda. She chafes at this role but in this future version of society, people seem to be easily manipulated by what they see on their television screens. The power struggle in the books is often about who gets to control the overall narrative in the land.

5. Who is on the side of good or evil is muddied in the final book. While much of the action is taken against the oppressive Capitol, Katniss struggles with the idea that the rebels may be just as bad. This is not a typical good vs. evil outcome – the main outcome centers on the consequences of Katniss’ final actions.

Overall, I rated this series 2.5 out of 5 stars. The premise was interesting but I wasn’t fond of the execution or the outcome. This trilogy fits in with the dystopian turn in young adult fiction and will likely be a movie hit in the near future.