Open House

In the realm of home improvement porn, HGTV is the softcore king. Designer dominatrices who flagrantly ignore client safe-words (“Please, no purple walls!”) have no place on this channel. Nor do professional organizers who march around like Dr. Phil with obsessive compulsive disorder, tough-sorting messy homeowners into a state of tidy bliss. In an effort to enliven a genre that is literally based on the notion that watching paint dry is entertaining, HGTV competitors like TLC and The Style Network dish up cheesy theatrics—but HGTV goes a different route. Modestly upscale, stylishly mild, it serves televisual polenta.

The male and female hosts of HGTV shows are uniformly upbeat, gracious, and well-assembled, like Stepford wives but with an even greater interest in the home arts. Shows like House Hunters and Designer’s Challenge, despite their semi-verité sequences, have less dramatic tension than a marketing brochure: Self-conscious homeowners “spontaneously” interact with realtors and designers until, after two or three time-killing missteps, they manage to find the two-bedroom townhouse or solid-oak entertainment center that truly speaks to their souls. If Martha Stewart has earned a reputation as the whitest woman in America, then HGTV would surely seem to be America’s whitest TV network.

Peer deeper into this blizzard of blandness, however, and you will discover a vision of swatchbook inclusiveness. Both the pros (hosts, designers, organizers, etc.) and the amateurs (homeowners and aspiring homeowners) come in a variety of hues. Gays and lesbians are present too, as are biracial couples, single-parent families, and even that oft-marginalized group in the home-improvement universe, renters. (TLC and The Style Network feature the same commitment to diversity, but because their shows aren’t so painstakingly vanilla in temperament, the sense of disjunction isn’t nearly as pronounced.)

Perhaps it’s bad manners even to bring up this observation; the shows themselves are quite demure on matters of ethnicity or sexual orientation. Instead, they concentrate on life’s more pressing concerns, like how to turn a dark, crowded bedroom into a soothing retreat with plenty of storage space. Beyond race, beyond sexual desire, HGTV suggests, a common yearning for vaulted ceilings and chic but functional window treatments binds us all.

On occasion, Hollywood shows similar insight. 2002, the last year for which statistics are available, was a record year for minority representation in TV and movie productions, with 24.2 percent of all roles going to African-Americans, Latinos, Asian/Pacific Islanders, or Native Americans. The current TV sitcoms My Wife and Kids, The George Lopez Show, and The Bernie Mac Show all feature minority families, and in general, race is as incidental a factor on these shows as it is on those like Everybody Loves Raymond or Malcolm in the Middle.

But despite such progress, Hollywood still has a penchant for portraying ethnic characters exclusively in terms of their ethnicity (and gay and lesbian characters in terms of their carnal preferences). And it still has fairly narrow notions about how ethnicity and sexual orientation map to potential roles. Last year’s Exhibit A was Banzai, Fox’s Japanese game-show spoof that tossed out Asian stereotypes like a peanut vendor at a baseball game. This year’s Exhibit A is the new sitcom Method and Red, yet another exercise in racial harmony in which funky black people serve as the antidote to white suburban sterility, and white suburban sterility serves as the varnish of propriety that funky black people need to pass in the land of leaf-blowers and McMansions.

In Method and Red, two rappers (aka Method Man and Redman) move to Nottingham Estates, a snooty gated community where African-Americans are apparently as rare as unicorns. By demonstrating their essential decency, however, Method and Red gradually earn some cul-de-sac cred with their Caucasian neighbors, and they don’t even have to change the way they dress or talk to do it. Like Queen Latifah in the hit movie Bringing Down the House, they prove that they can succeed in the suburbs on their own terms. But self-affirmation and empowerment aren’t the only messages at play here: Such storylines tacitly endorse the idea that the suburbs aren’t a natural place for blacks to live, and they present African-American authenticity as a narrow, fixed phenomenon. Unless you look like you’re rolling with the Wu-Tang Clan or G-Unit, they suggest, you’re not truly black.

HGTV is much less doctrinaire. As long as you’re dedicated to home improvement, you’re in. And, thus, the network ends up featuring people with a variety of income levels and personal styles. This is true of everyone on the network, regardless of their ethnicity or gender preference. Sometimes you see an affluent black attorney dreaming of a backyard putting green; sometimes you see a black family of more modest means renovating their kitchen. On HGTV, there’s no single way to be black or white or gay.

Still, in some instances, the network does seems too willing to keep its progressive perspective in a (brightly lit, neatly organized) closet. When the double sinks in the master bathroom suite are his and his or hers and hers, HGTV’s indifference to gender preference seems at least as timid as it is enlightened. On a recent episode of Curb Appeal, for example, the featured gay couple was never actually referred to as a couple, or even as partners. Instead they were simply, neutrally, the “homeowners.” And while one of the pair gave their designer a hug at the end of the episode, they were never shown hugging (or even touching) each other.

Given that gays and minorities still contend with discriminatory mortgage lending practices and other related issues, HGTV’s reluctance to address such realities is disappointing—and yet even this has an upside. By completely ignoring race and gender preference, HGTV helps normalize the idea that American families come in many varieties. If HGTV was your only source of information about the state of American culture, you’d have no idea that millions of “family-values” zealots hate gays, that biracial marriages still raise eyebrows, or that media depictions of middle-class black and Latino families are relatively rare. Indeed, it’s either a testament to HGTV’s bland artistry or, perhaps, to its modest Nielsen ratings that conservative finger-waggers aren’t fulminating against the network on a regular basis.

Despite what the producers of Method and Red might think, there’s nothing particularly novel about black people owning their own homes. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, African-American homeownership has risen six percent in the last fourteen years, to approximately forty-eight percent today. With numbers like that, you’d think that Hollywood could easily pump out rainbow-tinted visions of multi-culti domesticity that conformed both with reality and the perennial daydreams of Californian bleeding hearts. After all, as talk-radio squirt-guns like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity love to remind us, Hollywood is a giant liberal propaganda machine, right?

As it turns out, though, the network that does the most to flesh out such statistics isn’t really part of the Hollywood establishment. HGTV is owned by Scripps Networks, the cable arm of the E.W. Scripps Company. This is a newspaper conglomerate that owns approximately two dozen daily papers in cities like Abilene, Kansas; Birmingham, Alabama; and Knoxville, Tennessee. With its corporate headquarters in Cincinnati, Ohio, Scripps is a heartland enterprise whose corporate bullpen of political commentators, may of whom are syndicated and distributed through the Scripps Howard News Service, features more than a few hard-throwing righties. A few recent column titles: “Ronald Reagan, Intellectual,” “Gun Control Loses Firepower,” and “Kerry’s Plan to Wreck The Economy.”

Perhaps it’s Scripps’ red-state bona fides that keep the Limbaughs and Hannitys of the world at bay; Hollywood elitists trying to engineer a more politically correct society from their Malibu mansions make much juicier targets. Or perhaps HGTV draws so little criticism for its progressive vision because scapegoats are so much easier to demonize when they’re kept abstract, or caricatured in movies, TV shows, and hip-hop videos.

On HGTV, gay couples go about the everyday mundanities of domestic life, and guess what? They seem every bit as boring and innocuous as straight people! Even the most tremulous defenders of the sanctity of heterosexual marriage must take comfort in such essential truths, because, really, how can the nation’s homosexuals undermine Western Civilization when they’ve got basement clutter to battle and new kitchen fixtures to contemplate? And, ultimately, HGTV has this humanizing effect on everyone that it invites into its placid utopia. White, black, Asian, Hispanic, gay, straight, whatever—everyone is welcome at HGTV, everyone shares similar aspirations and desires, and everyone looks completely at home.

Greg Beato has written for Spin, the Washington Post, LA Weekly, and many other publications.