Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Self-indulgence alert

Over the next couple of days, I'm going to post two essays that I wrote last year but which I never was able to get published. (Not that I made that much of an effort.) At this point, they are a bit dated, but I figured I would torture you with them anyway. What do you expect for free?

Trading Lives
by Jonathan Potts

For all the joy she has brought into my life, my wife has done something to me that I find almost unforgivable: She has gotten me hooked on the television reality show “Trading Spaces.”

Based on the British program “Changing Rooms,” the show, which airs on TLC, features two sets of neighbors who switch houses for two days and, under the tutelage of a professional designer, redecorate a room in the others’ home, each on a $1,000 budget. The owners have no say over the design, and they do not see the redecorated room until it is finished.

The show has attracted legions of fans, and home improvement, of course, has become quite a fad, something experts have attributed to Americans’ post-9/11 “nesting.” But I’d submit that “Trading Spaces” unwittingly says a lot about the way Americans now live, and much about how our society has changed over the course of the last century.

First, there’s the show premise—two pairs of neighbors redecorate a room in each other’s houses. Usually, both sets of neighbors are a husband and wife. The couples appear to be equal partners in redecorating. Men do not merely hammer nails or drill holes—they sew slip covers and frame pictures as well. And the role reversals go both ways. The wives regularly assist the show’s carpenters—one of whom is a woman.

Lest you think me naïve, I’m aware that much of what happens on “Trading Spaces” as with other reality shows, is staged. Sometimes, the sewing machines aren’t even threaded when the cameras roll, as noted in one published account. And who knows how these men act in their everyday lives, when they’re not featured on a television show on a network where other programs include shows about weddings and giving birth.

Nonetheless, how many of our fathers—let alone our grandfathers—would have allowed themselves to be seen on a national television show operating a sewing machine, thread or no thread?

Nor is it easy to imagine men of earlier generations greeting with such enthusiasm the décor of their newly redecorated rooms. On one episode, a man reacted with giddy glee when he opened his eyes to discover the Polynesian-themed bedroom, complete with a seashell-shaped headboard, that his neighbors had helped design. When he was reunited with his neighbors, he hugged the other husband in gratitude—a manly one-armed hug, but a hug just the same. The older men in my family didn’t even hug each other, let alone the guy who lived across the street.

What’s interesting about this is that the show, with some exceptions, rarely acknowledges its own gender-bending. If you think these gender stereotypes were put to rest long ago, consider the ways in which they continue to be reinforced elsewhere in popular culture. Take, for example, the J.C. Penney commercial in which a father, comically annoyed that he actually has to pay attention to his rambunctious kids, asks “Where’s your mother?” Why, she’s shopping, of course! And let’s not forget the pot-bellied masculinity of sitcom husbands on shows such as “King of Queens” and “Life with Jim.”

But even more significant than what “Trading Spaces” reveals about changing gender roles is what it says, for better or worse, about the places in which many Americans make their homes.

Every episode of “Trading Spaces” is shot in a different community in a different state, but you’d never know it from the brief glimpses we get of each neighborhood. The houses, the streets, the perfectly manicured lawns, all look the same. (In fact, on some episodes, the two featured houses are identical.) Just about every episode takes place in suburbia, in the heart of what author James Howard Kunstler describes as the geography of nowhere. You’re sure as you watch each show that there’s an SUV parked in the driveway that’s going to ferry the whole family to the nearest Applebee’s to celebrate after the show.

Even the interiors of the homes resemble one another. They all have the same white walls and beige carpets. None of them looks like they were built more than 15 years ago, and their very blandness is what lends them so well to a makeover.

Of course, it is the unspoken clash of cultures between the homeowners and designers that makes the show great. In addition to the carpenters and the show’s terminally perky host, Paige Davis, the decorators represent the show’s regular cast of characters, and each is either beloved or reviled by the audience. You know, for example, that if the conscientious Vern Yip is designing a room, it’s going to turn out lovely no matter what he does, but if the effete Hildi Santo-Tomas is in charge, smart money says the homeowners are likely to recoil in horror at the finished product.

It’s also a safe bet that these decorators would rather drink instant than actually live in the homes that they redesign every week. And the beauty of the show lies in the conflict, sometimes unspoken, between the avante garde tastes of the decorators and the strip-mall sensibilities of the homeowners.

As often as not, you find yourself rooting for the homeowners. I might not care for a couple’s house, but it is their house, and it’s painful to watch someone’s living room, ruined, for instance, because Hildi thought it would be cute to glue straw to the walls. And what’s wrong with a ceiling fan here and there?

Still, no one is forcing these people at gunpoint to cover their neighbors’ perfectly good fireplace. They volunteered to be on this show, usually because they are devoted fans. One wonders if their willingness to place the fate of their bedrooms, living rooms and kitchens in the hands of strangers isn’t really a cry for help, that perhaps what these soccer moms and soccer dads really desire is an escape from the monotonous and unyielding landscapes they’ve chosen to inhabit.



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