Review: Interior Design: Commodifying Self and Place in Extreme Makeover, Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, and The Swan

“For what makeover programming reflects is the extent to which the self is now regarded as a project and cultural construct, something that must be self reflexively worked on and continually performed.” (Deery, 161)

If there is one overarching agenda the Neoliberal machine wishes to push forward through these shows, it is that happiness is a resource.  It is a resource, distilled into varied, but easily recognizable forms, which someone else owns.  The individual seeking it must not only have the money to buy it, they must fulfill the prerequisites necessary to be worthy of owning and maintaining the Happiness property.  Only then will they be considered worthy of it, and, more importantly, worthy of the social privileges associated with its possession.

Underlying the structure of the makeover show format is the theme of self-improvement.  The extension of this theme is that the individuals upon whom the show focuses are flawed.  This is not “change for its own sake,” but change for the better, wherein the average (or, at least, the preexisting, in whatever form) is deemed unsuitable and subsequently improved via consumer methods which not only serve to change the aesthetic and grooming habits of the individuals in question, but to impress upon the viewer the notion that they are peer to the show subject – you, and your home, are flawed as well (Deery, 160).  In this way, the show performs a hypnosis act, convincing the viewer that the programming in question is educational.  Product placement is another part of the lesson plan, and the viewer forgets (or fails to realize) that this is advertising.  They are not being swayed to purchase things they might want.  Thanks to the invention of the TiVo and other such digital advertisement bypass devices, marketers have returned to passive and active in-show product placement, and through the narrative seamlessly interject these products as absolute necessities of the process of personal betterment into which the participant (and, ultimately, the viewer) has invested themselves.

The home improvement program serves to solidify this notion of commodification by highlighting the home as an extension of the self.  Ones home is flawed, therefore the individual (or family) is flawed as well.  Extreme Makeover: Home Edition glosses over this exercise in commercial hegemony by choosing contestants whose down-on-their-luck biographies make the improvement process seem like a charity intervention on their behalf.  From families with sick children to war veterans returning to their economically disadvantaged homes, EM:HE frames its narrative as a charitable enterprise brought about by a community which has come together to support one of its own.  The moral superiority of this outreach on the part of promotional donors (Home Depot, Lowes, and numerous other hardware and appliance manufacturers often claim to have “donated” resources to these projects), helps the viewer to ignore the blatant product placement and marketing quality of the narrative (163-65).

Indeed, the narrative may well be lost on the participants, who are just happy to have their lives improved.  A home with shiny new appliances and freshly painted living spaces designed by “experts” seems like a gift from God to the show’s subjects.  After images of contestants being shown their beautiful new homes are always full of tearful displays of gratitude (It sometimes seems that the holy grail of television is to get a large man to cry; these shows often deliver to their Sunday evening audiences with great glee and gusto), along with the smiles of those morally fulfilled project workers who share their pseudo-humility with the cameras.  These themes may be heartwarming on the surface, but the tropes of charity and community outreach, which solidify the overall “goodness” and morality of the improvement project narrative in the minds of the viewers, serve to elevate the capitalist interests responsible to a level of social and moral superiority.  To those who internalize these messages, not only must their own homes seem an inadequate reflection of themselves after the fact, but their sense of self seems inadequate; their personage becomes, to them, a project into which little has been invested, and much work must be done to create an image worthy of capitalist good will.

1.)    How does the commercial placement herein differ from the commercial placement utilized in more straightforward “how-to” shows, such as This Old House? Is the how-to model delivering the same sort of message as the makeover model?
2.)    Within the neoliberal framework suggested here, an audience spurs charity; giving only occurs when, and because, the cameras are rolling.  Does this suggest that human altruism is, in fact, an illusion, or does this concept extend solely to corporations rather than individual interests?

Deery, June. “Interior Design: Commodifying Self and Place in Extreme Makeover, Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, and The Swan.” The Great American Makeover: Television, History, Nation. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006. 159-74. Print.

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