Renovating the American Woman's Home: American Domesticity in Extreme Makeover: Home Edition

By Jacobson, Kristin J. | Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers, January 2008 | Go to article overview

Renovating the American Woman's Home: American Domesticity in Extreme Makeover: Home Edition


Jacobson, Kristin J., Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers


While the popular ABC reality television program Extreme Makeover: Home Edition may initially strike us as thoroughly modern in its execution and technology, its rhetoric and ideology actually hold much in common with nineteenth-century domestic texts. For example, Extreme Makeover is unabashedly sentimental, focusing on destitute but virtuous protagonists in search of stable, safe homes. The familiar scenes of a search for home and acts of Christian charity echo those found in novels such as The Wide, Wide World and Little Women. Throughout the program, tears flow freely among the family members, the design crew, the volunteers, and the show's viewers. One viewer admits, "I cry every week" (qtd. in Oldenburg E1). Extreme Makeover is reminiscent of not only nineteenth-century didactic sentimental fictions, but also the domestic manuals of the era. The revamped, twenty-first-century version of model domesticity enacted on Extreme Makeover shares many of the ideals and practices expressed in Catharine E. Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe's popular 1869 treatise, The American Woman's Home; or, Principles of Domestic Science, arguably the domestic manual of the nineteenth century. (1)

In this essay, I read The American Woman's Home and Extreme Makeover as manuals of ideal American domesticity. Both texts function as "technologies" of the American Dream, or as material, moral, and political guides. Technology, as defined in the glossary of terms in The American Woman's Home, is "[a] description of the arts, considered generally in their theory and practice as connected with moral, political, and physical science" (488). The Oxford English Dictionary reminds us that "technology" denotes the "[practical arts collectively" (def. lb) and "[a] discourse or treatise on an art or arts; the scientific study of the practical or industrial arts" (def.1a). The American Woman's Home is itself an explicit technology, or a treatise on the domestic arts. I place Extreme Makeover in the same category, although Extreme Makeover is more covertly didactic. Various scholars, including Henry A. Giroux and Lawrence Grossberg, recognize that pedagogy occurs across a variety of terrains, popular culture being one of them. (2) The public pedagogical features of television include conveying information and constructing individual and national identities. As a hybrid television show that combines aspects of do-it-yourself and reality programming, Extreme Makeover teaches its audience what the American Dream and dream home should look like.

Both The American Woman's Home and Extreme Makeover rely on material technology--appliances, design features--to achieve their ideal homes. When selected, the deserving family of Extreme Makeover goes on vacation for a week while a team of designers and volunteers works against the clock to give the family a newly landscaped, remodeled, and fully furnished home. In most episodes, the team demolishes the residents' old house and builds a completely new one. At the heart of the show's popularity lies its presentation of the American Dream. The same could be said for The American Woman's Home. Beecher and Stowe offer advice on everything: building the home itself; providing proper ventilation; choosing from among the different kinds of stoves, furnaces, and chimneys; even properly maintaining earth-closets. Their book's comprehensive and state-of-the-art domestic science offered nineteenth-century readers, most of whom could not afford the home the book described, a domestic guide and wish list. However, where Beecher and Stowe emphasize thrift, Extreme Makeover promotes technology--in excess--as the means of realizing the American Dream. This difference highlights the twentieth century's increasing commercialization.

In this essay, I build on Joseph S. Van Why's suggestion that The American Woman's Home "provides an invaluable source for analysis of and comparison with modern ideas and theories on domestic economy and the role of women in our society.

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