I will begin by saying I do not understand the draw of renovation shows. This may be because I lack some essential gene that makes me care about utilizing space and feature walls; I can’t tell a French window from an open-plan living space. I suspect however that my lacking of interest is also a result of the crazy places I lived during my ten years of undergrad and grad study, the most bizarre of which was the three-bedroom house which accommodated ten people. Oh and the kitchen was outside. And only had three walls. And once it rained and then grass sprouted inside the kitchen, which was kind of awesome but I’m pretty sure is not an official Design Feature. Anyway, after such experiences, I tend to approach “interior design” through such prisms as “how do I fit all of my books into one room whilst retaining room for a bed?” and “why is that wall held up by cardboard?”
So I’m not a natural viewer of renovating shows. Yet. I ended up watching one of them this Monday evening; I flicked onto it during an ad break in Futurama, and became a little transfixed by the challenge and my own reaction to it. I found this TV show confounded my expectations of the representations of gender roles.
Three rather traditionally Aussie manly men had to interior design a room. Now, I suspect that in such lines of work as renovating and interior design, it is impossible to separate these two skills of putting up walls, and making the walls look good. It makes sense that if one designs and builds a house, one does it with some sense of where the TV will go, what colour the walls will be, and how the occupants will want to use the house. Conversely, if you spend your life organising wallpaper and couches and bookshelves, you probably have pretty strong ideas about how a house should be constructed. Gender is irrelevant to these skills and jobs. These things I know to be true.
Yet my assumption was that a renovation show would reproduce traditional gender roles; the men get to play with the big dangerous tools, the women slap on the wall paper and tell the men where to put the furniture. The women get stressed and have to go and have a cry, while the men explain to the camera that everyone is under pressure and then go and weld a wall (that’s a thing, right?).
In this challenge, three blokes were given three hours to create an elegant dining space. (No rooms; only spaces, which sounds pretentious even to this postgrad Arts student.) My first impression of these three blokes was that they were archetypal Aussie men; there’s some dreadlocks, and one who looks like he was probably born with a surfboard attached to his feet. I can see each of them holding a power tool, downing pints at the pub; matching fabrics seemed less natural. Such talents are reserved for the gay men on renovating shows, who have taught us unreservedly that the single most defining feature of homosexual men is their ability to match the couches and drapes.
So the premise immediately drew me in as I figured I could get a decent rant out of it. Blokey blokes trying to decorate a room? I know how this will go! They will fail and Their Women will step in, someone’s going to make a comment about this being women’s work, and blammo, a new article for feminaust.
Except that’s not the way they played it. At. All. None of the judges made a single comment about men undertaking interior design, nor did any of the contestants. It was expect of these men that they could complete this task as well as any of the women there, and up to a very high standard. In fact, the show seems to be in equal parts about constructing and power tools AND designing and colour schemes, and both the male and female contestants are expected to be as equally as good at both. There is no discussion I saw about this, it is simply assumed.
And the three rooms these blokes put together were nice! I totally lack further vocabulary to describe these rooms beyond,this summation. The judges saw many sophisticated design thingies in the rooms; working with colours, the use of circles, the elegant simplicity of one palette…none of which made much sense to me beyond giving rise to thoughts such as “oh yeah, look, circles!” and “mmmmm, palette….I’m hungry”. But I kind of accidently found myself having a moment of awareness of the role of gender, and how ingrained those gender roles are in my head despite my conscious attempts to reject them. I’ve framed it here, of course, as “I expected the producers to play up traditional gender roles”; but really, what I expected was that the men on this show would be construction workers and the women would be interior designers.
Luckily, an ad for a rival renovating show (seriously, how can there possibly be a viewership for this many shows about building walls???) came on later as I was watching a different channel. Ah ha, this is more like it! The renovating teams are couples, and one woman is in tears talking about her mean partner. The camera shows her leaving the room, whilst he stares stonily ahead with arms crossed. Oh look, a man with a whooping great sawing machine thingy! And the woman with the paint samples complaining that this is the wrong shade of custard (mmmm, dessert time). Perhaps its not that I’m terribly caught up in gender roles, but that I’ve been conditioned to expect that such gender roles will fuel the drama in such shows (doesn’t that sound so much better? THE MEDIA MADE ME DO IT). That’s the easy article to write; look how women are represented, isn’t it bad?
This is why it was so confronting to find a show that didn’t just reject the traditional gender roles but didn’t even seem to acknowledge that it was an issue. My expectations are formed by media and what I’ve seen before of course, but I can, and must, also take responsibility for what I do with those expectations. How sad that those expectations are so deep in my brain that I was shocked that men were asked to interior design a room. It’s a reminder that feminism requires challenging both what we encounter in the world around us, and what we find within ourselves. And that those assumptions we carry ourselves are much harder to identify and change, maybe even more so for those of us who consider ourselves progressive feminists.
Nonetheless, I think I myself will continue to arrange my couch so as to catch the afternoon sun for when I’m reading, rather than to Enhance My Open Space Living Place with its French Chicness through the addition of a Feature Wall. I shall leave that to the men.