Home RunHow Neoliberalism Took Over Home-Makeover Shows

a group of white people holding a bullhorn yelling a family

Ty Pennington and the Extreme Makeover: Home Edition crew (Photo credit: ABC)

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Felicia Jackson made a promise to her dying sister that she would raise her sister’s 10 children in addition to her own four children. I stopped counting how many times that promise was mentioned to me when, in 2008, I spent time on the set of the now-canceled network TV production Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. Very few people on set had met Felicia, but everyone knew about her pledge, and everyone knew it was the reason why the show’s makeover team had, for the first time in the show’s history, given a home makeover to someone who didn’t actually own a home.

In most on-set retellings of Jackson’s story, the ability to relate to her as someone going through a hard time while having the ability to keep her family together is paramount. “The lady here, Mrs. Jackson, is very inspiring for what she did,” explained a member of the production staff. “She made a promise to her sister, and I can totally relate to that. I’ve done things in the past like that.” A volunteer on the set commented, “She is taking care of 14 kids on her own on minimal salary, which is beyond me, but it sure does show a lot of character…. Most people would say, ‘I can’t do it, I can’t handle it.’” But there is also something mythical about Felicia’s story, and the myth is upheld because what is missing from the story is Jackson’s own voice. On the episode that aired, we never hear the story directly from her, because she and her family have been whisked away for an all-expenses paid trip to Disney World.

Instead, show EMHE host Ty Pennington narrates the hard-luck tale of how Felicia lost her house after losing her job as a corrections officer; her husband left after she adopted her sister’s kids, saying that 14 children are “too much;” and though Jackson had applied for housing, an unspecified “they” were unable to find adequate space for such a large family, leaving Jackson to take whatever temporary housing she could find. The meat of the story lies in the dramatic pauses between retold hardship. Now, everything stands to change: Extreme Makeover: Home Edition is here to alter the pattern of structural violence that has affected the Jackson family. 

Of course, the producers do not use phrases like “structural violence” to explain how racism, lack of class privilege, and the shortcomings of the American social welfare system have contributed to the Jacksons’ current predicament. Instead, Pennington’s focus—the show’s focus—is on that kept promise and the resilience in the face of despair that make Jackson so deserving of her new home. In no way do I mean to diminish the multitude of ways that these individuals’ good deeds merit nice things to happen to their families. But what really makes these reality TV subjects deserving is that they are model citizens of a neoliberal society. And reality TV, in turn, has become one of the key delivery systems for neoliberal ideology.

The phrase “neoliberalism” refers to the economic and political ideology that supports open markets, free trade, the privatization of state-owned industries and goods, and the shrinking of the social welfare state (social services)—policies that are nonpartisan but have become associated with the Republican Party. Examples of neoliberalism in practice include outsourcing military operations to private companies (for instance, the Blackwater security contractor in Iraq), and the early-2000s “water wars” in Bolivia, in which there was international pressure to privatize the country’s water supply, despite the fact that it would have made water an unaffordable commodity for most of the country’s citizens.

Scholars like Yale’s Inderpal Grewal also argue that outsourcing surveillance to the general public is a component of neoliberalism that has only been amplified in the past decade; in a 2006 piece for Women’s Studies Quarterly, Grewal writes of “security moms,” a newer upgrade of soccer moms who scan the soccer fields for potential terrorists in order to protect their children and the nation simultaneously. What makes reality TV such an ideal venue for disseminating the agenda of neoliberalism is that it revolves around everyday citizens who are both willing to be reshaped under the guise of self-improvement, and equally willing to have every second of the lives surveyed, taped, and broadcast to millions of viewers.

Even better, the citizens highlighted on these shows are almost always apolitical; rather than questioning the policies and priorities of their government that affect their lives, they seek private solutions to issues—finding homes for those without, covering medical bills for the uninsured, and providing books to schools without enough resources for students—that once were considered to be in the public realm.

Extreme Makeover Home Edition S06E01 Jackson Family

On Home & Garden Television’s Holmes on Homes, for instance, host Mike Holmes, an imposing professional contractor and star of multiple HGTV shows, “rescues homeowners from repair and renovation disasters” caused by unreliable contractors and builders. In each episode he cites various reasons that rehabs go wrong: They’re usually due to homeowners cheaping out on materials and labor and building inspectors who allow shoddy work to pass inspection. What’s significant is that after Holmes doles out blame, he almost always says something like, “We can’t fault the inspectors, they’re busy and they aren’t expected to catch everything.” Hold the phone: Aren’t they? The viewer is expected to recognize that being reliant on a reality TV show program to fix your problem is not only normal, but is more efficient than going through “the bureaucracy,” as one homeowner calls it.

But even the homeowners who aren’t as prone to forgiveness as Holmes—like a season-seven couple living without a working heating system due to a contractor’s mistake—only go so far in questioning the bureaucracy. The couple tells the camera, “Every government, every system that is in place to help a homeowner has failed us…. Why can’t the system get fixed to help the homeowner? Why is it only Mike Holmes who fixes this stuff?” That Holmes doesn’t actually teach homeowners skills that could mitigate their house disasters furthers the disconnect. What Holmes on Homes does best is educate homeowners how to better outsource work to others—neoliberalism at its best.

The HGTV network began broadcasting 24 hours of programming in 1994, but hardcore home makeover–TV fans cite TLC’s Trading Spaces, which ran from 2000 to 2008, as the show that first introduced viewers to the wonders of the reality TV home-makeover genre. The show was undeniably addictive—I watched 15 episodes in a row during 2001’s Memorial Day marathon—and brought TV fame to its kooky crew of DIY-chic designers. (EMHE’s Pennington began as a carpenter on the show.) Coincidentally, the mid-2000s also ushered in a U.S. housing boom, an intensification of neoliberal policies throughout the world, and, soon enough, a new type of home-makeover TV show that wasn’t just about do-it-yourself experiments with paint and fiberboard, but about the idea of home makeovers as a reward for the deserving.

a Black family with a white man standing in a cornfield

The James family and Ty Pennington on Extreme Makeover: Home Edition (Photo credit: Fred Watkins/ABC)

EMHE first premiered in December 2003 and aired its last episode in January 2012. While diminishing viewership surely led to the show’s cancellation, as early as 2008 when I was on the EMHE set, the show had already been affected by the changing economy. Earlier in the series, homeowners (and the viewer) would wait for the last two minutes of the episode when some bank would hand over a check to the deserving family to cover their mortgage (if you weren’t already crying, this gesture always did it). But with the subprime mortgage crisis that began in 2007, the mortgage-payment spectacle that closed each episode disappeared; in that year alone, multiple news stories emerged detailing foreclosures on EMHE homes throughout the country.

One would think that in the context of a recession, shows like HGTV’s House Hunters (and its three spinoffs) would become less popular, if not completely unnecessary. But that’s not the case. Recession be damned, the home-makeover genre continues to flourish. HGTV’s website offers full episodes of nearly 60 shows, including HGTV Design Star, HGTV’d, and Paint Over. The Style network’s hit Clean House has become a mainstay of the network. And Bravo offers more edge and angst with its glitzier offerings like Interior Therapy with Jeff Lewis. In Laurie Ouellette’s and James Hay’s 2008 book Better Living Through Reality TV: Television and Post-Welfare Citizenship, the authors assert, “Reality TV has become the quintessential technology of advanced or ‘neo’ liberal citizenship,” going on to say that the medium acts as “an instrument for educating, improving, and shaping subjects.” 

Although reality TV is a modern phenomenon, using media as a technology to educate citizens is an old technique. Miriam Hansen’s 1994 book Babel and Babylon: Spectatorship in American Silent Film recalls that early silent films were utilized as a tool “to integrate ethnically, socially, and sexually differentiated audiences into a modern culture of consumption.” New immigrants to the United States could watch silent films for examples of how the average American lived, noting that, for heterosexual couples, eating dinner at a restaurant and tap dancing afterward was as a standard American practice to be mimicked. In many home-makeover shows, such directions involve depicting a family that is just getting by, with residential overhaul as proxy for upward mobility.

The formula is to take a stressed working- or middle-class family, give them hardwood floors, a neutral paint color with an accent border, and a flat-screen TV. The result: To the outside world, the family appears to be more successful, though nothing about their situation has changed.

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The formula is to take a stressed working- or middle-class family, give them hardwood floors, a neutral paint color with an accent border, and a flat-screen TV. The result: To the outside world, the family appears to be more successful, though nothing about their situation has changed. The smoke and mirrors are literal, and they’re meant to distract both homeowners and viewers from the policies that really do keep American families in financial straits. Which is not to say there’s an engineered Republican home-design conspiracy afoot. But these shows are premised on an idea central to the field of environmental psychology: There is a strong relationship between individuals’ behavior and their built environments; modifications to these built environments influence those who live in them, and vice versa.

The networks and the shows’ producers understand this relationship and build their programming around it with cheeky double usage of words like “foundation.” In the case of EMHE, the show uses broken homes as a metonym for families, neighborhoods, and communities in trouble. It is through the physical fixing of the home—its destruction and subsequent reconstruction—that the viewer is encouraged to see the larger, related issues of families in need as duly resolved. (One EMHE producer explained to me that, “During the first season of the show the homes were only renovated without being destroyed” but they found that the viewer needed the story arc to include total home destruction in order to make the makeover receipts’ catharsis more credible.)

HGTV’s Home Rules performs the same kind of work as EMHE by utilizing a life coach–turned–host, Fran Harris, to identify homeowners’ interpersonal issues and link them to flaws in the homes’ design. Each show begins with the declaration: “A messed-up house almost always means a messed-up life, but if they follow my rules, all that can change. If they work hard to change their lives, we will work hard to change their house.” Viewers then watch in delight as both the rooms and the people who live in them become transformed almost simultaneously by following Harris’s “rules.” “In each episode of Home Rules, we’ll take a look at why so many families are struggling to find calm in the chaos of their daily lives,” states the show’s website.

In the episode “Hidden Resentment Uncovered” (a typical title), Harris intervenes with a biracial family that’s not spending enough time together. This couple represents a fairly standard American family in that both husband and wife work full-time jobs, the wife’s parents live in their home to provide daycare for the couple’s two children, and the husband likes to pass his evenings playing video games. Harris assesses that this family is struggling to have quality time together because the husband’s gaming area is in a nook separate from the main areas of the house where family members interact. If the husband can commit to gaming less and the wife can commit to nagging him less and not harboring “hidden resentment,” then all will be fixed.

After a weeklong renovation that includes creating a few extra bedrooms and bathrooms, adding the inevitable big flat-screen TV to the living room, and moving the computer into the children’s playroom so Dad will feel guilty that he’s not playing with his children while on the computer, Harris declares at the requisite follow-up visit, one month later, that the family dynamic has changed for the better. It’s easy to be skeptical about this neat TV closure. On finishing my set visits to EMHE, for example, nearly everyone I knew asked me, “Do these makeovers really stick, or is all for show?” The short answer? Of course lives get altered through these makeovers. For Harris’s “hidden resentment” family, I’m sure that in the short term the family is spending more time together in front of their new flat-screen TV. As a social worker, I see the video-gaming father as having an addiction issue that a home makeover just can’t fix.

But despite my own misgivings about the show’s methodology, I still cried at the end of the episode because of how happy and relieved the family seemed. And that’s exactly what the producers hope for—they know that becoming emotionally invested in the families is what keeps viewers coming back for more. The more nuanced response to the inquiry into whether these shows create real, lasting change, though, is no. And viewers never find out either way, because these shows don’t include long-term follow-ups. What EMHE and Home Rules share is that the daily struggles of families on which they focus, the very struggles that make those families worthy of home makeovers, are almost always due to deeper structural issues related to gender, race, and class that cannot be remedied in carefully edited half-hour or hourlong shows where tile is caulked and furniture moved around.

black family, black woman, and white man standing in front of a gray and red house

Ty Pennington, Michelle Obama, and the Marshall family on Extreme Makeover: Home Edition (Photo credit: Samantha Appleton)

The “Hidden Resentment” family lacks quality time not because of the computer room setup, but because its struggling middle-class parents work long hours to pay the mortgage on a house that is too small for them. Felicia Jackson needs a home makeover—well, a home—not simply because she fulfilled a dying wish and adopted 10 children, but because the welfare system has completely failed her and her family. In a 2006 article “Extreme Makeover Homeland Security Edition” (from The Great American Makeover: Television, History, Nation), Jennifer Gillan argues that unlike shows like Jerry Springer’s, which serve to humiliate ordinary people who appear as guests, reality shows like EMHE “actually reinforce notions of social normalcy and national civility.”

Indeed, the producers and crew fully recognize that what draws in viewers is not the design tips or the heart-squeezing final reveal; rather, viewers watch the show in order to compare their lives to the showcased family. A high-level production staffer on the EMHE set noted that what makes for a great episode is: The backstory: The story with the family is the most critical part in my opinion, something that makes people step back and think, “I’m pretty damn lucky, I’ve got it good.” You know, everyone in the world has problems or issues or something, but some people are much worse off than you are, and that’s a good part of a great episode.

HGTV’s website calls the network’s show Deserving Design both “uplifting and empathetic.” (It may as well be called Neoliberal Design.) In a voiceover at the beginning of the show, former Trading Spaces designer Vern Yip announces: “All around us there are normal people doing extraordinary things…. People like these deserve great design.” Yip goes on to explain to viewers the deserving qualities possessed by the normal family pictured in a montage of photos. What are some of these extraordinary things that said family is accomplishing? In general, they are serving the goal of neoliberalism: providing obesity-reduction programs for teens in schools where funding was cut, feeding the homeless in a town with no shelter.

These makeoverees, in short, deserve a home makeover because they have successfully privatized social services. Indeed, what defines “deserving” was famously outlined in an email from an ABC executive to network affiliates in 2006. The wish list for Extreme Makeover: Home Edition candidates, according to the show’s casting agent, included families containing a child with a serious, preferably rare, illness or families whose safety was compromised by home invasion or robbery. The home-makeover format thrives on “there-but-for-the-grace-of-God” situations, a fact noted by Gretchen Sisson in a 2011 Bitch Media blog post about the show: “They aren’t looking for families that have struggled with poverty for years and just can’t save up enough money for a down payment. They aren’t looking for families that live in downtrodden apartment complex with an absentee landlord. They’re looking for middle-class families who, because of extraordinary circumstances, are facing setbacks with a TV-ready optimism.”

Reality TV facilitates the process of education much more powerfully than other technologies because it uses visual cues to recalibrate what it is to be a “normal” American. And one thing home-makeover shows have decidedly done is recalibrate what poverty looks like, shifting the scale so that what used to be considered poor is now the new middle class, left to fend for itself without governmental assistance like welfare. Reality TV doesn’t erase the marks of classism (families that work long hours, live in homes too small for them), sexism (the nagging wife, the girl’s bedroom made over in pink paint with princesses), or racism (the Mexican worker retiling the kitchen floor as the celebrity designer explains the process); these television programs just redefine what these “isms” mean and look like by glossing over inequality as a cause of hardship and replacing it with a bright bun-ting of middle-class comfort. Instead of building solidarity around their common troubles, homeowners and viewers are socialized to see endemic economic issues as individual roadblocks, surmountable so long as a TV crew and a product-placement deal are in the picture.

What would be normal—at least, what I would like to see—is a show where a professional swoops in to help someone at a Medicaid or housing office fill out her paperwork, or “remodels” the form itself so that it is more user-friendly. Or a show that follows lower-income women being trained as electricians and plumbers, so that they and their families aren’t at the mercy of sloppy or unscrupulous contractors. Or even a show that didn’t require a savior, whether in the form of Ty Pennington or Vern Yip or a set of brushed-steel appliances. Whether Extreme Makeover: Form Edition comes to pass seems unlikely. But as you’re watching neoliberalism take root on one of HGTV’s offerings, keep in mind that the makeover you’re not seeing is the one in our viewing culture, and it stands to last a long, long time.


by Bree Kessler
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