Envisioning a New Reality

Millions of Americans have watched the reality show franchises Extreme Makeover: Home Edition and Hoarders. The most recent issue of the journal Postmodern Culture features "Extreme Hoards:Race, Reality Television & Real Estate Value During the 2008 Financial Crisis" by Whittier College professor Michelle Chihara which examines these shows at the intersection of real estate, finance, and contemporary American literature and popular culture. Chihara, who also serves as Economics & Finance Section Editor at The Los Angeles Review of Books, joined us for a Q&A about the article and the importance of popular culture and reality television in today's society. 

How did the process of writing this article happen for you?

The usual way. I was living in Los Angeles as a graduate student and becoming more and more obsessed with what was happening with the economy. The housing bubble was inflating and housing prices were spiraling up and up. A friend flipped a house and made some money. A mortgage originator called me on the phone and offered me a truly stunningly gi-normous loan for a graduate student. I did not take that loan. I got depressed and watched a lot of HGTV. I took a leave of absence from grad school to make some money and worked in reality TV casting. And then I went back to grad school and wrote a dissertation about real estate, finance, and contemporary American literature and popular culture. This article is a polished piece of that dissertation.

Isn’t that what everyone does? 

I’ve always been interested in the intersection of contemporary culture and economics, or at least, how cultural products affect and process something we call economics. Before I went back to graduate school, I was a journalist for a number of years. I once busted up a mortgage scam in Massachusetts. This made me realize how vulnerable Americans are to promises of home ownership. The article evolved out of a chapter which also looked at “The Queen of Versailles,” the documentary film about the largest domestic residence in the States and real estate billionaires David and Jackie Siegel, as well as high art “foreclosure photography.” I have even more to say about hoarding and gender and race! Also, Lauren Greenfield, the director of that film, has a new one out called Generation Wealth

How dangerous is it to divorce these kinds of "reality" shows from the economic realities of their time?

I think that ultimately, the danger is in imagining that there is a bright line between economic reality and culture. There’s danger in the notion, which economics as a discipline has sometimes put forward, that there is something tangible out there called the real economy, which a neutral science can assess with technical tools. You can’t divorce the economy from culture and power. The study of the economy is the study of the social relations of power. Period. 

I come from a place of strong performativity, or strong constructivism, so I see it as culture and power all the way down. Culture isn’t a side show or a special sauce on top. There is no foundation upon which the economy rests, it’s a self-reflexive system. This doesn’t mean that the system doesn’t exist. Culture is imbricated in economic truth. Economics is not a lie, but it’s not the whole truth, either. The consequences of economic suffering are real—those are very real. But there is no “real economy” free of speculation. There is no rational, merit-based, full equilibrium state of affairs that we can find by meditating on the manly science of monetary policy. Feelings and power are part of the system. Therefore, understanding what Martijn Konings calls the “emotional logic of capitalism” is understanding capitalism. And reality television and popular culture are part of that logic. 

My current project is about behavioral economics and popular culture, and while I think it’ s impossible to excise political economy from the study of culture, I also think that economic realities are impossible to divorce from the study of society more broadly. Imagining that money, or the economy, are ever neutral is what’s dangerous. 

I often quote Joan Didion’s famous line, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” I think a lot of people interpret that line as, “We lie to ourselves to get by.” I see it more like, “We tell ourselves stories because we live through and inside stories, we are made up of stories.” 

Reality television has a strange relationship to realism, it refracts social realities through a funhouse mirror, and it involves big money. But big money is a funhouse mirror. In other words, reality TV carries economic realities with it. Generally speaking, it seems to me that the stakes for understanding contemporary American society and the currents coursing through its popular culture are very high.  

Often reality shows are criticized for not being diverse enough. What makes the diversity of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition problematic?

The diversity isn’t problematic, the show is problematic, right? 

I feel like I’m starting to sound like Yoda. 

It would be problematic in a different way if the show gave Extreme Homes only to white people. But there’s no such thing as a “neutral” racial casting choice in a show about the American Dream and the “deserving poor.” Extreme Makeover: Home Edition is a late capitalist extravaganza with not a socialist bone in its body. It makes a spectacle of giving 3,000 square foot pirate-ship-themed McMansions to supposedly “deserving” people. This can be both affectively intense — it’s emotional when hardworking and very nice people  feel profound relief  — and at the same time, this raises all sorts of thorny questions. Why are these “deserving” people so poor?  In this wealthy, technologically advanced, ostensibly democratic nation, people are struggling so profoundly that they literally can not fix the roof over their kids’ heads. This show relies on that fact to advertise granite counters in an entertaining hour of “feel-good” television. So, how does that work

Now, your question is really about the role race plays in the show. In the article, I argue that the show was part of the rhetoric that Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and other neoliberal politicians used when they spoke of the “ownership society.” The plight of minorities and the history of racial segregation in housing were used, relatively cynically, as part of the justification for mortgage deregulation (here I cite the book written by the head of Fannie Mae, among other sources). The idea was that giving minority people mortgages would redress the history of redlining. 

I read the show as part of the emotional logic of the “subprime” mortgage crisis. Extreme Makeover: Home Edition over-indexed minorities, to a certain extent, I argue, because it was part of the discourse that said: anchoring home owners in their neighborhoods will keep them in those neighborhoods, it will discipline them to remain “deserving” members of society. The financial industry targeted minority homeowners, particularly in gentrifying neighborhoods, and used high pressure tactics to sell them HELOCs and handed out NINJA (No Income No Job or Assets) loans. And then minority communities lost more than anyone else when we, as a society, saved the banks and let minorities and the poor be evicted (and PS everyone should read Evicted by Matthew Desmond and The Color of Money by Mehrsa Baradaran).  I compare the way that the audience for Extreme Makeover: Home Edition blamed homeowners who lost their houses to the way that many people blamed minorities after the financial crisis. I read the show within these racialized dynamics. 

None of this, of course, means that the show would have somehow been less problematic if it had been less diverse. If all people had a safe place to live, and then somebody wanted to make, like, a socialist reality TV show to celebrate the provision of universal housing? And that socialist reality TV show had a representatively diverse cast? Then that diversity would be unproblematic. 

How does the racial aspect of Hoarders play into overall perceptions about housing issues as well as mental illness?

Hoarders, unlike Extreme Home Makeover, over-indexed white women (and I’m grateful for the work other media studies scholars have done in nailing down these numbers). I describe Extreme Home Makeover as the fantasmagoric logic behind the financial dynamics that fueled the bubble. Extreme Homes normalized and fueled the expansion of housing credit, with an emphasis on minorities as part of its sentimental morality (see above). 

After the bubble burst, and coincident with the foreclosure crisis, the hoarding shows dramatized the emotional logic of foreclosures. The hoarding shows look like foreclosures. Uniformed authorities show up with trash-out crews. I argue that Hoarders re-imagined foreclosure as a kind of healthy purge. The market correction is dramatized as at return to sanity, to mental health. And that normative return to “real” market value over-indexed white women because “reality television” imagined that a return to the “real” value of the American single family home would be a return to sane, white, feminine domesticity. 

What does the legacy of turning the dreams of home ownership into so many kinds of reality shows do to the psyche of people trying to deal with the many obstacles to home ownership today?

There’s a really good book called Coming Up Short by Jennifer Silva about adulting under neoliberalism. Basically, all these young people feel like everything is their responsibility and their fault. And it’s not. 

Lauren Berlant’s articulation of cruel optimism is probably the best way to understand the enduring legacy of televised dreams of home ownership and renovation.  The prospect of owning a single family American home is deeply embedded in the promise of the good life in the States, it’s wrapped up with American notions of adulthood and agency. People are proud of owning homes, or hope that they will someday own a home, and then the big reveal on the HGTV feels like optimism. Like, hey, that could be me! But then there’s discipline in that American optimism. You only get to hope if you live up to these cruel and impossible standards.

I take reality television, and all pop cultural products, very seriously. We have a reality television star as President of the United States, right now, and while he lies all the time, his power and his appeal to many people are very real. So, maybe any ideas about popular culture not being an important part of our reality can now be laid to rest. 

The peak of reality television’s popularity has crested. Now we’re in the peak of the “golden age” of scripted TV, and digital and streaming formats are already pointing towards the next big changes. The stories we tell ourselves in order to live are always at work on our psyches. I think the important thing is to find a language to tell hopeful stories, whatever the genre and format, without cruel optimism. We have to imagine and envision a different reality for our TV to tell stories about.

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