Race & HGTV

Race & HGTV

One television network that has gained a great deal of popularity within the past few years is the Home and Garden Network, more commonly known as HGTV. This network features shows centered on buying, selling, and renovating homes in locations across the globe. Some of the most notable shows include House Hunters (and its spin-offs like House Hunters: International), Property BrothersFlip or FlopLove It or List It, and Fixer Upper. I would argue that House Hunters is the most recognizable program that HGTV offers, and this is most likely due to its simplicity. The show centers on a person, couple, or family who is seeking out a new place to live. They are guided through 3 homes by a real estate agent, weigh out the pros and cons of each property, and then come to a conclusion on which home they’d like to purchase. While House Hunters may seem innocent on the surface, this show is a perfect example of how media socializes the general public on issues of race, gender, class, and sexuality.

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Dominant Culture

It’s pretty much impossible to argue that in our current society, those individuals who identify as white, heterosexual, upper/middle-class, and male have the most advantages or “privilege” in their lives. While this privilege is not so obvious to those who possess it, it does in fact heavily influence their ability to succeed, and how they view success itself. These dominant identities have more options and opportunities afforded to them, and are thus more capable of being successful. However, since they are so used to being favored by the system, they attribute success to their own hard work; those who fail do so because of their lack of effort. This neoliberal perspective places emphasis on individual actions instead of systematic advantages/disadvantages.

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House Hunters

While I think that the messages on House Hunters do more to socialize people on the basis of gender and sexuality, there is also a race aspect as well. For starters, most of the people seen on this show are white, and while HGTV actually has a pretty good reputation for racial inclusivity, there is still a lot to be desired. Namely, shows like House Hunters seem to completely erase the culture behind those on their show. All participants, regardless of race, seem to desire similar features of their homes, and their personal cultures fall to the back burner. There is a “whitening” of the families on the show that erases the cultural aspects of their race. Why? Well, it makes them easier to market for the network’s primarily white audience. For viewers though, this masking of culture only continues the socialization process. The public sees these people speaking and behaving in a certain way, and it makes them internalize these actions as “normal” or “correct.” Then, if they are exposed to different cultures in real life, they are automatically predisposed to thinking of them as “less than” or “wrong”.

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An Example

While I cannot say for sure that this has never happened on House Hunters, I would venture a guess that there has never been, or that is is rare to see, an African American person or family that speaks with an Ebonics dialect. This form of speech has its origins in the African American community, and is a completely valid form of language. However, because of socialization through media and other outlets, Ebonics is often considered “ghetto” or “uneducated”. Thus, those Black families that do speak with Ebonics are rarely shown on TV unless it is as a character that fits the stereotype. If they were to be shown on a program like House Hunters, it would help normalize this speech as part of Black culture. Instead, because it is not associated with dominant White culture, Ebonics is kept off the network.

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Final Thoughts

Representation matters. If media only exposes viewers to dominant identities (white, male, middle-class, heterosexual), then these become the baseline for “normal”; anything that differs is now seen as wrong. Showing people of differing identities only helps though if they are allowed to express aspects of their culture beyond the normalized “whiteness”. If not, it’s only putting a flimsy band-aid on a much more serious issue. A temporary fix that gives the illusion of progress without actually addressing the real problem.

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Brainstorm

Brainstorm

I’ve been struggling with choosing a paper topic for quite a while. My initial thought was that I wanted to do something related to gender, since that’s the topic I’m most passionate about. I also considered something related to sexuality as well, because I think gay culture is often misrepresented in media. There was nothing really screaming out to me though that I would be interested in researching.

 

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After going back to the drawing board a few times, I had a miniature “Eureka!” moment while doing some homework with my best friend Ben. We put HGTV on in the background and it made me remember a thought I had a long time ago about how obnoxious the blatant heteronormativity/gender norms are in shows like House Hunters. Comments from women like “oh, well this closet should be big enough for *my* clothes, sorry husband!” or “maybe this could become a *nursery* someday, right honey?” as the husband rolls his eyes. Such comments are only the beginning; HGTV is littered with people who embody the stereotypes perpetuated by society. The men seem to be the only ones concerned with finances, while the wife is willing to spend frivolously in order to have the “prettier” home. The men also are often very persistent about having a “man cave” they can escape their families from. Plus, whenever women get the chance to use power tools, like in the show Property Brothers, it is portrayed as some sort of miracle, while men using power tools is portrayed as natural.

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Another thing I’ve noticed from watching HGTV for any extended period of time is that the people on the shows are usually the exact same. I don’t know the exact figures at this point, but I’d venture that at least 70% of the homebuyers/owners on the network are white and heterosexual. If they do happen to feature an LGBTQ+ couple, they are almost always gay men who play the heterosexual roles: one is more masculine and the other is more flamboyant. And of course, white. Even on shows like House Hunters International, there are more white homebuyers featured than there are homebuyers from the respective country.

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I could go on and on about the problems of HGTV, because there are obviously quite lot of them, but I wouldn’t have enough pages to explain it all. Therefore, I need to condense! I’m thinking that I should focus on one or two shows, probably House Hunters and Property Brothers because I’ve seen them the most and they are on frequently. From each show I’ll keep track of the homebuyers demographics and how they behave/speak. Then, I’ll compile the data to see if any trends emerge. Based on what I’ve seen when watching these shows on my own time, I’m predicting that I will see many gender norms come to life, and that there will be a huge lack of diversity.

Grey’s Anatomy and Class

Grey’s Anatomy and Class

Like many others before me, I recently decided to start watching Grey’s Anatomy from the beginning for a second time. Now in its 13th season, Grey’s centers on a group of doctors in Seattle, WA and all the antics (medical, or otherwise) that happen in their lives. Because I spend so much time watching this show, I thought it would be interesting to look at it from an analytical perspective to understand how class plays a role in character development and the overall themes presented.

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The Basics

Obviously because the characters on Grey’s are medical professionals, it’s fair to assume that they are financially stable. Honestly, I’d probably go so far as to say that these characters are disgustingly rich. Especially considering that each character somehow has the reputation of being “the best in the country” for their respective specialties (shocker). But reputation aside, their salaries are never really mentioned in the show directly. The main indicator of financial success is via their living situations and spending habits. While the show is often set in the hospital, sometimes the characters are found at the bar across the street. Here they never seem to worry about spending money on drinks or food. Plus, anytime we get to see the characters’ homes, they are finely decorated and usually large. The images below show the interior of Meredith’s family home, and the exterior of her second home with Derek, respectively.

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Digging Deeper

Aside from the obvious fact that these people are doctors and therefore financially stable, some of the back stories tell us that this was not always the case. In fact, two characters in particular, Alex Karev and Jo Wilson, perfectly embody the concept of “the American Dream.” This idea claims that anyone in America has the opportunity to succeed and reach the top if they just work hard. It fails to take race, class, gender, sexuality, etc. into account and treats all Americans as if they are starting from a level playing field (as if!). While the American Dream doesn’t quite match up with reality, it is often commonly used in mainstream media, such as Grey’s Anatomy.

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In the case of Alex Karev, we learn that he was born from a mentally ill mother and a violent, drug-addicted, often absent father. He and his two siblings were passed around the foster care system a lot (Alex in particular was in 17 separate homes over the course of 5 years), and yet somehow Alex still managed to make his way to the University of Iowa and then to Seattle Grace Hospital’s residency program. How he paid for school or even managed to survive his home life is not mentioned. All we understand about Alex is that he “beat the odds” to become a successful surgical intern.

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Jo Wilson doesn’t come onto the scene until season 9, but her backstory is somewhat similar to Alex’s. She was left at a fire station by her mom as a baby, and was then passed around the foster care system until age 16. Then she began to live out of her car and support herself independently. Despite these struggles, Jo managed to be valedictorian of her high school, go on to graduate cum laude from Princeton University, be top of her class at Harvard Medical School, and then make her way to Seattle Grace’s residency program. We again see themes of the individual rising to the top of their own accord, using their hard-working, can-do, never-give-up attitude. Yet, this perspective ignores many of the external factors that played a role in Jo’s success.

Final Thoughts

It cannot be denied that Grey’s is a popular show, considering it has been on-air for 13 seasons and is still one of ABC’s top-rated shows with over 8 million viewers as of 2015-16. This isn’t surprising considering the formula for successful television since the early days has been to focus on a group of upper-class individuals in their day-to-day lives. Plus, any show that reinforces the American Dream ideal is usually very popular with those who see it as the “traditional” American way of life. While this analysis has not made me any less fond of the show, it has definitely shed some light on the fact that a character’s class is a very intentional decision that can be used to perpetuate typical American values.

Fake News

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What Is It?

Today I would like to discuss one of the top three most obnoxious trends* currently plaguing the world: fake news. This phrase has been and continues to be splayed across the internet all too frequently, and it begs the question, what even is “fake news”? For the majority of my life, I have interpreted it as basically anything published by National Enquirer. Stories about aliens, random celebrity deaths, and the occasional Sasquatch sighting, etc. Basically, any report that is published without a few reputable sources to me is fake. However, this past election cycle has ignited heavy dialogue about what fake news really is, and has helped me refine my definition.

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It seems to me that the key issue here is that the label is being tossed around in situations where it doesn’t belong. By this I mean that just because you do not agree with a certain article does not mean that it is fake. This problem of mislabeling appears to be more prominent in conservative media, as Princeton history professor David A. Bell explains in his article for The Nation entitled “Fake News Is Not the Real Media Threat We’re Facing.” Bell discusses how conservative media personnel have been using their power to delegitimize mainstream media like The New York Times or The Washington Post. This causes a vicious cycle where accusations of fallacy are made, those accused try to defend themselves with evidence, but then that defense is used as yet another example of fallacy. The implications of this issue are extreme, and Bell suggests that the media needs to take a more aggressive stance against those “commentators” and call them out for their false accusations.

Bell’s commentary on the delegitimization of real news is essential, but it is also important to understand that not all news is credible and fake news sources do actually exist. As NPR’s Wynne Davis reports in the article “Fake Or Real? How to Self-Check The News And Get The Facts,” many stories being published today involve the use of catchy headlines and out-of-context quotes to entice readers and then fill the rest of the piece with inaccurate or even completely false claims. I have to agree with Davis when she states that it is not only the platforms who should be held accountable for this outbreak, but the individuals consuming the media as well. People tend towards laziness when it comes to their media, and it is much easier to take something at face-value instead of digging deeper to see if what they’re reading/listening to/viewing is actually credible. Either that, or they just don’t know how to tell the difference. Davis offers some tips from communications professor Melissa Zimdars that can help audiences with their literacy, and I’ve selected a few of my favorites to share with you here.

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Tips, Tricks, and Hints

  1. CHECK THE SOURCE. If you see a link on Facebook or  Twitter or wherever you’re getting your news from, actually go to the site. Most of the time it is glaringly obvious which sites are reliable and which are not. For instance, sites like beforeitsnews.com or freedomdaily.com use strange fonts, clip art, and trigger words in their headlines. Whereas sites like npr.org or ap.org are less flashy and more put-together. Plus the .org domain is usually more reliable than a .com (although some .com’s are quality).
  2. LOOK AT THE AUTHOR. If there is no author listed, that’s a bad sign. If the author is listed, their description should be brief. Any intense, dramatic descriptions should be taken with a grain of salt. Plus, you can try looking them up to see if they have any other pieces out there and what the reputation of the company in general is.
  3. CITATIONS. Plain and simple, if a piece of work is to be trusted they should reference at least a few external, credible sources. If quotes are used, make sure they are in-context. Plus, make sure that anyone who is being referenced is someone with expertise in their respected field.
  4. BIAS. While it would be ideal for journalism to be free of bias, it is not practical. That being said, it’s important to be aware of the inherent biases of certain sources. For instance, it’s been pretty well-established that Fox News leans conservative, and MSNBC leans liberal. These outlets are usually credible, but understanding bias can ensure a healthy amount of skepticism when taking in the information presented.

Closing Thoughts

As frustrating as it may be to see and hear the phrase “fake news” plastered all over the media today, it does bring to light some important ideas. For one, it brings the ever-growing problem of discrediting mainstream news to light, and two, it should prompt individuals to brush up on their media literacy skills in order to avoid being duped. Hopefully with time the media will evolve from a chaotic space laden with conspiracies and hate speech to a forum for healthy skepticism and discourse.

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* the other obnoxious trends are children dabbing on camera during sporting events, and the bottle-flipping game

Women in Media

Women in Media

With the return of Shonda Rhimes‘ monopoly of ABC Thursday night television, I thought it could be interesting to see how the leading ladies in her shows are portrayed in relation to typical “American Beauty Standards”. It’s pretty well-established at this point that the female stars in most American TV shows and films are slender, cis-gendered, heterosexual, wealthy, white women. Evidence? A quick google search can show you IMDb’s current top 25 Hollywood actresses. Notice any striking similarities? The first, and pretty much only break in the norm comes with Viola Davis at #18. All but Davis are white. All but Melissa McCarthy (#22) are slender. And all but Jodie Foster (#25) and Ellen Page (#24) are heterosexual. Interesting.

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This brings me to the three ABC shows currently dominating the Thursday night market: Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, and How to Get Away with Murder (HTGAWM). Let’s take a look at the female leads on these shows one at a time, starting with a personal favorite of mine, Grey’s.

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For those who have never seen an episode of one of Grey’s Anatomy‘s 13 seasons before, let me give you a quick summary: the show focuses on a large group of doctors employed at a Seattle hospital and all the crazy, sometimes-medicine-related chaos in their lives. The woman who ties everything together is one Meredith Grey. A quick glance at the image above can tell you that Meredith is white, blonde, and slender. A brief viewing of the show can tell you that she is also cis-gendered, heterosexual, and wealthy/powerful. She essentially embodies the main qualities that American media portray as “attractive”. Of course there is more to her than meets the eye, but for the purposes of this post I just want to focus on external attractiveness.

(Disclaimer: While Meredith falls right into place with American beauty standards, Grey’s also has a plethora of other important characters who do not embody these features and are still portrayed as beautiful and successful.)

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The middle Rhimes child, Scandal, is drama set in the world of politics. It centers on leading lady Olivia Pope, a lawyer who, with her team, helps clients “cover up” any dirty secrets that could ruin their public image. She also has romantic ties to the President of the United States. On the surface, Olivia is slender, powerful, and, notably, black! A quick viewing of Scandal tells us that Olivia is also cis and straight. While the variation from whiteness is a highly welcomed change, Ms. Pope still has every other characteristic that American media deems “ideal”–skinny, rich, and straight. Plus, every other major character on this show is white, which could play a role in “muting” Olivia’s blackness, and making the show more marketable to the American masses.

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Finally, the most recent show in the #TGIT lineup, How to Get Away with Murder. Now in it’s second season, HTGAWM focuses on Annalise Keating, an esteemed law professor, and a select few of her students who work together to defend various clients. There’s also a murder-mystery tone to the story, with this group of characters getting into some trouble of their own as well. Outwardly, Keating appears as a powerful black woman, who is still slim, but a bit curvier than the other characters we’ve discussed thus far. Where Keating really varies though is through her sexuality. Throughout the show, she is seen in romantic situations with both men and women, implying that Keating is probably bisexual. Additionally, unlike with Scandal, many of the other characters are POC, and/or LGBT+, which is refreshing to say the least.

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When all is said and done, it seems to me that Shonda Rhimes (pictured above in red with her leading ladies) has done a pretty good job of representing women beyond the typical American beauty standards. Sure, Meredith Grey fits within those standards like a puzzle piece, but it’s important to remember that this show came out in 2005 aka the prime of whiteness in the media (i.e. MediumHow I Met Your MotherIt’s Always Sunny in PhiladelphiaBones, etc.). With time Rhimes’ shows have become more and more diverse, and I feel pretty confident in my belief that the American “ideal” of attractiveness will only continue to be chipped away from our media.