Stainless steel appliances. Granite counter tops. “Man-caves.” What’s not to love? In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath explains how fake or not, house hunting shows illustrate persistent class, race, and gender inequality in society.
Anyone who watches House Hunters for any length of time begins to notice clear patterns of desirable traits a home “should” have. Home buyers express strong desires for stainless steel appliances, granite countertops, “man-caves,” and a yard for the dog.
Like many other viewers, I held out hope that the show really was real and not like those other reality shows that are often scripted and heavily edited. Recent headlines suggest the show is at least partially faked. In hindsight, my inability to pick up on this fakery seems silly when considering the patterns of what home-buyers want emerge. Every home buyer can not be that narrowly-focused on stainless steel appliances and granite countertops.
While other observers have written about the conformity evident in house-hunting shows, inequality can also be observed in these shows. In particular, class, race, and gender inequality are quite evident in the content of house hunting shows.
Programs like House Hunters show people that are supposed to be just like you and me.These house buyers, however, are buying houses significantly outside of the budget most Americans can seriously consider or manage. With my husband we have bought and sold a house close to the maximum amount the bank would lend us (still quite a small budget compared to most of these televised house hunters’ budgets) and we currently own a house that is significantly less than what we could afford (we now live in an area with a low cost of living). The point is that the price points for most homes shown are significantly higher than what most Americans can afford.
The show also outright hides any parental help, which may include cash gifts, inheritances, or loans for down payments. Whites are much more likely to have access to this kind of intergenerational wealth than Blacks, who have had a long-history of facing significant hurdles to home-ownership (e.g., redlining, racial steering, and sundown restrictions) and subsequently less ability to help finance their children’s own homes. Blacks are still the least likely group to own their own home.
Home-buyers want and need private spaces for everyone, except women. If there are children, the children each get their own room and perhaps a shared playroom. If there is a man, he gets a “man-cave.” And the women? When women do get private space, it is in gender-typical ways. Women get walk-in closets and their own bathroom sinks. In fact a large closet is typically discussed as an advantage for the woman even if she doesn’t bring it up. If she does not talk about all the shoes she can fit in the large closet, her husband, boyfriend, or the real-estate agent does. I can not recall a single episode where a woman (buying a home as part of a heterosexual couple) ends up with private space that is just for her for either work or leisure beyond her own walk-in closet or her own bathroom sink. Research has long found that women tend to get their own private space after the needs of everyone else has been met (often when children move out of the home) (Stalp 2006[1. Stalp, Marybeth. 2006. “Negotiating Time and Space for Serious Leisure: Quilting in the Modern U.S. Home.” The Journal of Leisure Research 38(1):104-32.]).
Overall, house hunting shows can be viewed as entertainment, but also to gain a broader understanding of inequality. Home ownership is not available to everyone who wants it. Though social class obviously matters (you need some money or credit to buy a house), race and gender also matter in terms of how much choice one has in the home buying process.
- Can you give other examples of class, race, or gender inequality in house hunting shows?
- What other types of inequality can be observed in these shows?
- Flip through a home decorating magazine. Do you see these same types of inequality here? Explain.
- House Hunters has a couple of spin-offs: House Hunters International and House Hunters RV. Go to youtube.com or HGTV.com to view one of these spin-offs. Do you observe similar patterns of inequality? How do these patterns differ?