This and dozens of other essays are compiled in the book Between: Living Live in Neither Extreme. Check it out!
I have spent some of my free time in the last two months watching two shows regularly: “Married at First Sight” and “Love it or List it.” The first, an FYI-channel program based on a Danish TV show (“Gift ved Første Blik” — yes, “gift” is Danish for “married”), has as its premise three couples who are matched using social scientific compatibility measures, then married, and then asked after a few weeks whether they “want to stay married, or get divorced.” The second, one of the many HGTV shows I like to refer to as residential real estate porn, has as its premise couples (usually) who disagree about whether they should sell their less-than-adequate house even after a designer remodels it but never to their full expectations because of predictable mishaps, code violations, and varmints hiding in the attic that require a $6,000 extermination fee. The alternative is to move to a different house that meets their needs better. Designer v. real estate agent. Spouse v. spouse. Old house v. new house. The couples are asked, with all of the musical tension and awkward staring of a Bachelorette rose ceremony, “Do you want to love it (long pause) or list it (longer and more annoying pause)?”
Full disclosure: I love both of these shows. They’re like crack for people like me who are fascinated with the intersections of spaces, relationships, and expert advice. Heck, I write about how spaces and relationships intersect, and try to tell anyone who’ll listen how awesome my research is. [Note to self: get my own cable access show…]
Despite being reality shows, these shows are escapes of fantasy into romance and real estate that I do not occupy, that I do not want to occupy, but that contain moments and deliberations that come just close enough to my own life that I stay hooked. Also, I’m a sucker for good design and relationship advice (as I give advice on both quite regularly), and I’m a full audience participant when advice in either realm is just plain stupid. For example:
“Why the hell would you put that kind of faucet in a traditional kitchen!?”
“What do you mean, she should write down all of the things that she is doing wrong in their relationship!?”
Or, just to confound Neal so he doesn’t know which show I’m watching, I yell, “That is NOT the way to talk to somebody who has to share your newly decorated bedroom!”
Does the marriage show objectify the spouses, as if they are things to be done away with like houses, or does the HGTV show anthropomorphize the houses, as if they are entities with which we can break up or to which we can stay attached like lovers? Do you want to stick with your old house (spouse) or move to a new house (spouse)? Do you want to stay married to your old spouse (house) or get divorced in the hopes of finding a new spouse (house)? Fun with word substitution!
Is this just a fun game of metaphors, or is there something sociologically interesting going on here?
My high school speech coach said it’s good to present things in threes. So, I will now articulate three interesting things these two shows have in common:
1. Both shows rely on experts for authority on family decisions. This blurs the boundaries between private family life and public entities. Of course, the intersection of family decisions with institutions outside of the family is nothing new (neighbors weighing in on how high to build the barn, my grandma hiding her pregnancy as long as possible so she wouldn’t get fired from a school where she taught). And of course families have relied for a long time on help from therapists, clergy members, real estate agents, and designers (I get all my marriage advice from decorators). But the televised representation of it means now it is an even more commercialized blurred boundary, and a doubly commercialized definition of “expert.” And, as I alluded to when I first talked about my intrigue with MAFS on this blog, there’s a difference between a trusted and invested neighbor or boss and an expert who only develops a bond with you as you work on your trust issues/bathroom remodel trials and tribulations together.
2. Both shows frame couple decisions as autonomous and agentic, despite being scripted to highlight drama, and despite obvious structural influences and constraints imposed by the experts. I think the expert voices are probably among the most sincere and legitimate voices in both marriage and real estate, and on both shows. But there’s something interesting about the finished product that is careful to show the couples saying things like “You (tile pattern/wife) were meant for me” or “I chose you (husband/stainless steel appliances).” We love choice and freedom and claiming we are in charge of our own decisions. We love this so much that we will continue to say we have decided something in front of those who have led us toward the decisions in a careful dance of compassion and expertise.
3. Both shows presume the preference of both marriage and home ownership, two goals that are impacted by factors such as social class, family influence, geographic location, and the role of men and women in decision-making processes. What does it mean to be married? It means to live together and aspire to own a home. What does it mean to decide whether to stay or move to a different house? It means you have agreed to some sort of long term commitment that you’ll share space because you are defined by your relationship with this other person. Despite the fact that family and housing patterns are not monolithic across time or geography, we see strikingly similar versions of both when we flip the channels.
I have actually submitted an application to a reality show that was a competition to be a host and designer. Quite obviously, I did not get that gig. I suppose I’ll need to be satisfied with being an intrigued and smart viewer. As they say, I have a face for research.
Or maybe I will track down that cable access channel…