Compromising PositionsGender by design on Merge and Mix It Up

Mass media, particularly so-called family television, from Bewitched to Everybody Loves Raymond, has long portrayed the home as women's domain, an ultra-feminized realm in which housewives bustle and cluck while their hapless husbands do little more than hand out spending money and retreat to the most masculine part of the house: the study, or their favorite chair. There's no denying the cult of the man's chair in TV history: Those who knew Archie Bunker knew never to sit in his chair. Martin Crane of Frasier and his tattered lounge chair are a running visual joke, contrasting sharply with the eponymous star's effete, stylish sensibilities. Friends' Chandler and Joey make their twin recliners into self-contained residences by adding a nearby refrigerator; it's no surprise when domestic goddess Monica forbids Chandler's chair from coming across the hall when he moves in with her. A common sitcom theme is that a man can work all day to provide for his family, yet come home and be made to feel unwelcome—aesthetically, if nothing else—in his own house.

But it isn't just in TV-land that women are granted the rule of the curtain rod. Until the latter part of the 20th century, women's decision-making power rested almost solely in the household sphere. As doyennes of the domestic, they called the shots when it came to decor, even if they weren't the ones paying for the new stove or wall-to-wall carpet. In the popular imagination, their victories in choosing wallpaper or dust ruffles were marked by their husbands' indifferent "Yes, dear." It wasn't much, but the home was something that women could claim unequivocably as their domain.

In the past few years, home-decorating shows, as they multiply like rabbits, have increasingly targeted not just women but men, too, finally acknowledging that the fellas might also be interested in style and decor. Still, most of TV's design-related offerings continue to perpetuate the idea that it's a woman's world—and guys are invited along mainly in the interest of being fair. On shows like Trading Spaces, for instance, men may be queried about their tastes in throw pillows, but generally they seem to be there in the spirit of collaboration with friends and spouses (and to help with the heavy lifting). After all, there's no Queer Eye for the Straight Girl—at least not yet. For the most part, it's still assumed that men, not women, are the ones who need help.

Design shows are intended to entertain by exposing people's bad taste and imposing a new aesthetic order on their lives. But the meat of any reality show is conflict, and a new crop of design shows is taking on a couples-counseling role in the lives of their makeover subjects. Their stated goal is to reconcile "masculine" and "feminine" aesthetics—an undertaking that easily gets mired in assumptions and stereotypes about men and women, emotion and taste.

HGTV's bluntly titled Designing for the Sexes has been navigating the he said/she said tributaries for several seasons now, helping couples resolves their renovation-project battles. But this fall, the idea of redecoration as couples therapy took a quantum leap with the premiere of two shows whose very premise is that differences in taste are symptomatic of larger disharmonies within intimate relationships.

"A lot of times...if you're having a problem with design, there is a problem with the relationship," Courtney Cox Arquette told the Christian Science Monitor. Cox Arquette and her husband, David Arquette, have added Mix It Up to the pool of gendered design shows—tellingly, on the Women's Entertainment Network—while beloved soap-opera vet and former Melrose Place vixen Lisa Rinna is hosting Merge on competing femme network Lifetime. The shows are less Trading Spaces than they are Queer Eye for the Straight Couple, pointedly transforming personalities and relationships along with window dressings and ottoman fabrics. We learn about the subjects via their taste—she's funky and alternative! he's traditional and likes big things!—and then make assumptions about their personalities based on the stuff they like.

Merge introduces us to a more or less interchangeable succession of heterosexual newlyweds who have to figure out how to reconcile contrasting styles under one roof. The conceit of the show is that most of the couples have not lived together before tying the knot—even for Lifetime, it seems awfully quaint. The couples spend the first part of the show touring each other's domiciles, Rinna and a designer in tow, pointing out what they hate about each other's style. Then the pair goes off to the altar, and shots of the wedding ceremony alternate with shots of Rinna and her designer deciding which aspects of each individual home to merge. When the honeymooners return, the ever-grinning Rinna walks them through their newly madeover house, pointing out how the designer combined, say, his steel coffee table with her shabby-chic overstuffed couches. Squeals and hugs ensue, and all the furnishings that don't make the cut are hauled off to be donated to charity. Throughout the undertaking, soft-focus lighting, dentist-chair music, and interviews with the couple emphasize the talk-show confessional therapy aspects of the exercise.

The far more lively and dramatic Mix It Up was sparked by the real-life taste conflict between Cox Arquette, a former architecture student and aspiring interior designer who's bought, renovated, and sold more than a few houses herself, and her hubby, an apparent slob with a fondness for kitsch. To illustrate this, the show's opening credits feature a cartoon rendition of the pair's residence. A living space is marked with a Potsie-Ralph dividing line. On one side, Cox Arquette perches, arms folded, in a retro chair, tasteful effects neatly in place, while her man sits nonplussed on the other in a La-Z-Boy, disarray swirling about him. The house gets shaken up and the couple tossed around, discarding items here and there before landing, Simpsons-like, smooching on the couch in a newly arranged, compatibly designed space.Though neither celeb actually appears on the show, the intro establishes them as the success story by which Mix It Up's makeover subjects are defined.

The show's rules are straightforward: A squabbling duo presents a specific problem area to a designer, who has three days and $2,500 to redecorate and broker peace. Meanwhile, the show's two hosts—Thea, a perky taskmaster in the Paige Davis (of Trading Spaces) mold, and Milos, a gentle giant with tattoos and piercings—play backyard psychologists to the couple. It's worth noting that, unlike Merge, Mix It Up doesn't confine itself to reconciling lovebirds—the show also features mothers and daughters, roommates, and more. But it does play couples' emotionally fraught design impasses for the most drama.

The premiere episode offers up Q and Mary, a California couple who represent an ideal telegenic dichotomy: She's small-town and emotionally expressive, he's urban cool; she's white, he's black; she wears soft, flowing clothes, while he's never without his shades and porkpie hat. You'd never peg them as friends, much less mates. Q says he wants the disputed room to be "cooler"—California modern, Palm Springs retro, something that reflects his image a little more. Meanwhile, Mary craves an homage to her home state of Texas, tearing up each time she speaks of it. For both of them, home decor is a matter of identity—his apparently superficial, hers tied to family, friends, and sense of self. "We need professional help," Mary says more than once. Indeed, as they talk to their designer, it looks for all the world like a couples-counseling session. Mary clutches a tissue and tries to talk through her tears, Q protests that he's "not coldhearted," and both converse chiefly through the therapist-designer.

There's boy-girl, sides-taking tension from the start. The beleaguered designer, David—who's nowhere near as bossy as you want a TV designer to be—listens to Q describe the Dean Martin look he's going for. Mary detects Rat Pack–style bonding and says, "Oh no! You've already got him on your side!" How can an earthy Texan chick compete with a glass-clinking Frank-and-Dino scheme? But David's job is to mediate, despite his own lukewarm feelings about Mary's beloved steer horns, cowhide rug, and Lone Star State detritus.

While the room is emptied and improved upon, Q hangs out with his boys, smoking cigars and playing dominoes. Mary goes to a Texas-style mechanical bull–type joint with Milos, the more social-workery of the two hosts. Both Thea and Milos question Mary and Q separately about how they've put up with such vast stylistic differences so long, why Q allowed Texas to follow them to Los Angeles, and why Mary is willing to let go of her stuff. Q answers, to the knowing chuckles of his boys, "It's called tranquility at home." Mary replies that Q is "someone I love dearly, and I want him to be part of that room." These answers fit neatly into the fully furnished gender boxes the episode has already provided: She doesn't want him to be unhappy, and he doesn't want her making his life a shrieking misery. In the course of their home—and to some extent, relationship—makeover, Mary and Q prove that there is, in fact, some accounting for taste. Mary's comes from a particularly sentimental nostalgia, and while Q seems to just want a happening house, what he's really asking for is an equal part in their partnership.

When Mary and Q reconvene, he's calmly eating pizza while Mary frets that she has been unable to breathe, eat, or sleep; she refers to the remaining time until the deadline as "the ultimate countdown of our life." The stakes are clearly far greater for her than for her boyfriend, reminding the show's presumed-female viewers that while the guys now want a hand in the home deal, there's an emotional element they don't quite appear to get. (The female half of the first couple featured on Merge was similarly emotional in her adamance about what could stay or go, and, like Mary, she based her decisions on nostalgia and feelings her tchotchkes inspired.)

MIU's second episode visits another heterosexual couple—who are less emotionally attached to their trappings but more at odds in their styles. Karen and Rex have toted some serious underlying compatibility issues into their marriage and living space, and, as designer Kay bluntly puts it, "Rex and Karen's relationship has suffered due to design conflict." The gender dynamics at work with these two are as traditional as Mary and Q's: Rex says that before they moved in together, he never knew Karen's opinion. Karen, in turn, says that since they've been married, she sees her friends less and feels that "it's his world." Rex admits Karen has given up a lot, but he doesn't hesitate to criticize her boring style while touting his design preferences, which tend toward Las Vegas casino.

Predictably, the show amps up the gender difference in trying to resolve it: Rex discusses his relationship issues while playing ball with Milos, while Karen and Theavisit a turbaned meditation guru who reminds Karen that women are "16 times stronger than men" by virtue of intuition and perspective, and says Karen needs to understand that she's doing this exercise for a "we," not two "mes." Both partners act happy about the resulting compromises that refashion their home, and Rex embraces the couples-therapy metaphor when he refers to it as an "interior design on our lives." If only it were so simple: Though Mix It Up's promotional voiceover boasts that the show "redesigns rooms and relationships," it's painfully clear that many of Karen and Rex's issues run deeper than can be camouflaged by recombining paint colors and favorite tacky lamps.

Mary, Q, Karen, and Rex stand in for every person who has ever embarked on cohabitation and worried that seemingly petty stylistic differences might be symptoms of deeper, intractable, and possibly innate rifts that could chip away at the relationship over time: How can I marry a man who has a New York Jets poster in his living room? If she's this tidy, does that mean I won't be able to leave a dirty dish in the sink for more than five minutes without hearing about it? But while Merge and Mix It Up's appeal lies in the promise of physical compromise and emotional resolution, both shows' reliance on gender as the organizing principle of taste seems to reinforce, rather than resolve, relationship issues—especially since it's really the designers, not the couples, making the decisions. While everyone seems appropriately wowed by and happy with the decorators' choices, it's far from clear what's been done about the underlying conflict.

What is clear is that the shows reinforce old prejudices regarding women's emotional ties to the home, rather than challenging assumptions about which gender likes what kind of living environment and why. Merge and Mix It Up's interpretations of battle-of-the-sexes design go beyond equating style with personality to equating style with gender—and who can really feel at home with that?

Kathleen Collins is a writer and researcher living in New York. She thinks those fancy bathrooms with two sinks are the answer to a host of relationship conflicts.
by Kathleen Collins
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