“McMansions are the visual front line of right-wing American culture”

This is a view from afar but I wondered how long it would take to connect McMansions and resurgent conservatives in America.

This is the sort of problem one can run into when using the McMansion as a symbol: it is painting with very broad strokes. Some might see McMansions as a sign of the right-wing, presumably people who don’t have great taste and like to overconsume in the suburbs. But, is this true of most McMansion owners? Are there no liberals who own such homes? All those teardown buyers (plus the people who sold them the property) are right-wingers? There might be a grain of truth to it but I doubt the ending is constructive to building any relationship or convincing those same people not to purchase a McMansion.

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.

Hunger Games salute used by Thai protesters

Young adult fiction can lend itself to protest movements:

Fans of the popular book and film franchise The Hunger Games will recognize the hand signal instantly: the middle three fingers of the hand, raised to the sky. A gesture of resistance against the repressive government in the fictional world of Panem, it has now become a very real symbol of protest in Thailand at demonstrations against the junta that took power after the May 22 coup d’etat.

Crowds making the gesture have been pulled off the streets, according to reports, and a lone protestor was dragged into a taxi and arrested after making the hand signal…

Although the junta imposed a media blackout for television, satellite, and radio thanks to the immense popularity of social media in Thailand, discussion and criticism of the coup has continued on platforms like Twitter and Facebook—including tweets both documenting and encouraging the salute.

This is a fascinating example of protesters borrowing from the realm of literature and entertainment. The Hunger Games books contain some interesting commentary about modern society amidst their action and made-for-TV scenes. Just how different is the situation with the Capitol from the situation in Thailand? It may not even matter as it links their protests to a well-recognized symbol from mass-produced and consumed books and movies that can draw attention to their plight. Is there a similar symbol they could have used that would get them more attention or help their cause more?

McMansions are symbols of “the excess of greed”

An interesting way the term McMansion is sometimes used is to see such houses as symbols for some larger issue in our culture. This usage is illustrated in a documentary to be shown next week in Vancouver:

Vancouver’s treasury of modern architecture is the subject of Coast Modern, by Michael Bernard and Gavin Froome (May 8, 7 p.m., Vancity Theatre).

“Coast Modern is an exceptionally beautiful film,” says Woodend. “I have a bit of a yen for modernist architecture, just because it’s so exquisite, and it’s one of those films [that takes] house porn on a whole new level.

“Although, to give it credit, it looks at architecture as a manifestation of social values. [It has] Douglas Coupland weighing in on McMansions, and how they’re sort of this travesty, not just in architectural terms, but as an embodiment of cultural and social values, the excess of greed that has come out of the last 10 years and shown up in brick and mortar.

“In that regard it’s pretty thoughtful, it really uses architecture as a means to talk about culture.”

From this point of view, houses are not just things to be purchased by individual buyers. Rather, homes and their architecture represent broader trends in society. McMansions can then be viewed as symbols of excess, products of an era where people consumed more than they needed with impunity. Presumably smaller homes indicate (whether they are tiny or “not-so-big“) fighting back against this culture of excess.

Of course, labeling a home as a McMansion then does the job of pointing out the excess. If you live in such a home that acquires this label, do you try to respond that the home really isn’t that excessive? Or perhaps that it is green enough (perhaps a tactic of celebrities)?

Mean population center of US shifts west and south; Midwest may no longer be the heartland

Geographically, the Midwest is a broad US region between the two coasts and north of the South (as it was constituted in the Civil War). But symbolically, the Midwest is often referred to the as the “heartland” or as where “mainstream” America is, an idea illustrated by a journalist’s claim that a Nixon policy would “play in Peoria” in 1969.

A little-referenced geographic measure, the mean center of population in the United States, is moving west and south again, suggesting that the Midwest will no longer be the American center within several decades:

When the Census Bureau announces a new mean center of population next month, geographers believe it will be placed in or around Texas County, Mo., southwest of the present location in Phelps County, Mo. That would put it on a path to leave the region by midcentury.

“The geography is clearly shifting, with the West beginning to emerge as America’s new heartland,” said Robert Lang, a sociology professor at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas who regularly crunches data to determine the nation’s center. “It’s a pace-setting region that is dominant in population growth but also as a swing point in American politics.”

The last time the U.S. center fell outside the Midwest was 1850, in the eastern territory now known as West Virginia. Its later move to the Midwest bolstered the region as the nation’s cultural heartland in the 20th century, central to U.S. farming and Rust Belt manufacturing sites.

In my mind, the best use of this measure is to track its changing path over time: it has consistently moved West though hasn’t moved that far South. In terms of showing where the “center” is, it is less clear. I would see this type of measure as similar to National Geographic’s recent “most typical face“: it tells us something but is best useful for tracking changes over time.

As for whether this moving mean center of population really means that the Midwest will not be considered the mainstream, this remains to be seen. Could the West really be the new heartland in the eyes of the American people? This would involve a shift in symbols, particularly about what it means to be the “heartland.” Is it where most of the people are, where the swing states are, where there is the most history, where there is the most agriculture, where people are most traditional, or where the people are the most “normal”?

 

Quick Review: Exit Through the Gift Shop

In recent years, I’ve read about the exploits of Banksy, Britain’s most famous street artist. Therefore, I couldn’t pass up watching Exit Through the Gift Shop, a 2010 documentary about Banksy and street art. Here are a few thoughts about the film:

1. The main character of the film is not Banksy but a Frenchman living in Los Angeles named Thierry Guetta. Guetta ends up filming a lot of street artists, eventually meets Banksy, and then sets out himself to be an artist.

2. One of the most dramatic scenes of the film involves Disneyland where Banksy and Guetta stage an “art installation.” While the reaction of Disneyland is not a surprise, it is still interesting to hear how quickly and how seriously their security responded to the situation. The hidden world of happy Disneyworld and Disneyland is a fascinating subject.

3. The images and symbols of the street art world are interesting. Based on what is in this film, one could surmise that it is generally involves ironic or snarky takes on common images and ideas. Part of the allure is simply placing these pictures in prominent places – the artists have a fairly persistent threat of being caught. The other part of the allure is that the art is often “cheeky,” particularly Banksy’s work that challenges the status quo (see the paintings on the wall separating Palestine and Israel). Some of the images are new but many of them are repackaged or remixed.

4. The film also spends some time following how street art became lucrative art as collectors and the general public rushed to buy it. What began on the streets became institutionalized art that museums had to have in their galleries and wealthy people had to have on their walls. I would be curious to know if the value of these art pieces has risen in the last few years (particularly compared to more “traditional” art). The film doesn’t quite display an outright sneer toward this popularity, perhaps more of a wry and bemused grin.

5. I read something recently that suggested it is hard to know whether this is truly a documentary or not, particularly since it is a documentary that tracks the life of an amateur documentarian. Is this all smoke and mirrors or an authentic film about a burgeoning art movement? Have stories in the form of mock documentaries, such as The Office, ruined “truth” caught on camera forever? Ultimately, I’m not sure it matters – the real question about most films is whether they are entertaining or not. And this film is pretty entertaining.

I found this film, on the whole, to be fun. The art is interesting, particularly watching the street artists working hard to put slightly subversive images in interesting places, and the characters even more so, particularly Guetta and his created alter ego (and the questions regarding the truth of his alter).

(Critics loved this film: the film is 98% fresh, 96 fresh reviews out of 98 total, at RottenTomatoes.com.)

Baby names and growing entropy

In recent years, the percentage of people who give their babies popular names has dropped. In other words, the range of baby names has increased and more people are seeking unique names. One baby name expert explains why sociologists have taken an interest in this trend:

“The more diverse naming styles become, the more we are going to read into somebody’s name,” Wattenberg said. She analyzed baby name statistics from the U.S. Social Security Administration to calculate a measure called Shannon entropy from the field of information theory. This measure is used to describe the information contained in a message – in this case, how much is communicated by the choice of a name…

Wattenberg calculated a sharp rise in name entropy over time. She found that this measure of the information carried by names has risen as much in the past 25 years as it did in the full century before that. (The measure is independent of the number of babies born.)…

“Sociologists love names,” Wattenberg said. “They’re practically the only case of a choice with broad fashion patterns that there’s no commercial influence on. There’s no company out there spending millions to convince you Brayden is a perfect name for your son.” (Studies have shown that movies, celebrities and other cultural trends do have an impact on the popularity of certain names.)

To understand how the meaning communicated through names has evolved, Wattenberg suggests thinking about an office with a dress code requiring all employees to wear gray or blue suits to work every day. Seeing a man dressed in a blue suit in such an environment would tell you very little about that man’s taste or personality.

Compare that to an office with no dress code. Here employees’ sartorial choices vary widely, so the outfit worn by anyone in that office could tell you a fair bit about that person as an individual. In this case, the same blue suit might reveal significant clues about its wearer.

The same goes for names. In an era where there are a lot more choices available, each choice carries more weight.

This sounds like an interesting analysis. And it sounds like Wattenberg is on to something – sociologists in the last few decades are very interested in how people make decisions that involve symbols, values, and meanings. In a name, parents have a fairly unconstrained choice.

While this is interesting, I want to know more:

1. Even if parents have a lot of choice in choosing names, why have they, as a whole, shifted toward a wider range of names? The article suggests it is indicative of individualism – but why choose to be more individualistic with baby names? How has this happened?

2. Do these new names affect the children’s lives? If parents are giving kids more unique names, are there any consequences to this?

3. Have other countries experienced similar trends? Or is this individualistic trend an American phenomenon?