How Your House Makes You Miserable
The Rise of the Market-Reflected Gaze
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I regularly yearn for a landlord. A good, kind one, of course — the sort who takes charge when things break and is not only in charge of getting them fixed, but paying for it. Taking care of property is a part-time (if not full-time) job, and I already have several of those.
But this is the cost of owning a (theoretically) appreciating asset: you have to maintain it. And depending on the age and complexity of that asset, that can mean spending time and money and anxiety on things you never even realized existed. The other day my partner started a sentence with “When I was up in the middle of the night thinking about our drainage….” I have learned so much about septic tanks. Our bathroom was jankily and mysteriously plumbed by a hobbiest, probably at some point in the 1950s. The shower hasn’t worked for months.
If you think about it, houses are incredibly vulnerable: to the elements, to their age, to negligence, to animals and kids and pests and water and mold. They are complicated and secretive; the people who originally designed, built, and modified them are often not the people currently dealing with them. What I would give to talk to the person who plumbed that downstairs bathroom! I break my house just as often as the weather does.
Houses aren’t just money pits when it comes to everyday maintenance. Homeownership is always shadowed by the specter of resale value.
For every modification, necessary or cosmetic, the questions dance around you: Is this good for resale? Am I making it “too much” house for the neighborhood? What would a real estate agent say? How do I balance what I actually want with what ten thousand prospective buyers would actually want?
Even if you have no intention of selling in the near or even semi-near future, there’s persistent pressure to make your space amenable to a theoretical someone who isn’t you, the person who very much lives there right now.
Professors Annetta Grant and Jay Handelman dig into this phenomenon in “Dysplacement and the Professionalization of the Home,” recently published in the Journal of Consumer Research. I first saw the article summarized in a short piece in the Washington Post, and wanted to read a whole lot more of their research, which combines an analysis of current home “advice” content (HGTV, magazines, home shows, interviews with contractors) and ethnography of homeowners pursuing and reflecting on home renovations. I found it, I paid $14 to access it for 24 hours, and I’m here to tell you: it’s fascinating.
If you like to engage with academic articles and have $14 or academic library access, I highly suggest reading it in full. For others, here’s the argument: starting in the post-World War II era, the government and other cultural and industrial institutions began framing the home as the primary site of idealized American life, filled with beautiful, time-saving appliances and ample spaces for leisure and togetherness. To have (and spend) on a home was to align yourself with the American capitalist spirit — and the home itself was positioned as a site of personal and familial growth. You became a better person through the cultivation of your home, which was also a site to manifest your creativity, your commitment, your domesticity. Hence: “interior decorating” (and, to some extent, DIY renovation/carpentry/This Old House repairs) as middle-class obsession.
Grant and Handelman argue that this relationship to the home is one of “implacement” — a term used to describe the ways that a person comes to understand themselves (as citizens, as parents, as children, etc.) but also their place in the larger community. See: “my” coffee shop, “my” neighborhood, “my” bar….and, of course, “my house.”
The home is an extension and reflection of the self — a tapestry for your most innovative and creative self, but also a place to fit your specific needs and desires. Ownership liberates you to make the space utterly your own, and making the space your own is how you resist the conformity that otherwise structures mass-production capitalism.
This understanding of home ownership is pervasive despite constant challenges from what Grant and Handelman call “marketplace dynamics”: the pull to make your asset as valuable, in this and in future markets, as possible. As consumers, we knowingly or unknowingly absorb the maxims of the market, developing a “market-reflected gaze” to observe and critique our homes and others.
A market-reflected gaze is horrified, for example, by the listing for this gloriously goth/Raiders-themed home in Baltimore — clearly way too personalized to the owners’ tastes. But the gaze is also critical of anything that’s dated or out-of-sync with current trends. If you’ve ever looked at a listing and thought “look at those ‘90s cabinets” (I certainly have!) or “ugh white appliances” then you’ve adopted a market-reflected gaze. (Zillow Gone Wild is a disciplining site for “over-individualized” homes: if your house ends up there, you’ve refused to subject yourself to the market-reflected gaze; the comments section functions to reaffirm the disastrousness and/or abjection of that choice).
Grant and Handelman argue that the proliferation of home remodeling shows has intensified and normalized the market-reflected gaze, which is further strengthened by real estate agents (who advise potential homeowners on how they could modify a potential purchase), contractors (whose advice trends towards “standards”), and interior designers. The general advice is to make the home broadly palatable, of course, but in a way that also “professionalizes” the space. Hence: every bathroom should look like a spa bathroom (absolutely clutter-free, bland but vivid art, “hotel-grade” towels); every kitchen should look like the open kitchen at a swanky restaurant.
I found that last point super interesting — and also super helpful in explaining why the current ideal in kitchen remodeling is a hulking eight-burner “professional-grade” stove top with a steam oven. As Grant and Handelman observe “a bright, spacious, and professional kitchen that offers unencumbered counter space, abundant storage, and industrial appliances is the focus of marketing representation of what the home ought to be.” The kitchen is at once made for professionals (as in, a professional chef) but also evidence of the homeowner's “professional” (that is, expert) taste, in perfect alignment with current standards of a “tasteful kitchen.”
(Side note: I feel like you could write a whole book on the ideologies at work in a feminized domestic space that’s also boldly professional and built for optimization-culture TikTok organization methods and pandemic quarantine amounts of food — but for now, I’ll direct you to Tressie McMillan Cottom on the Covid Concept Home and Meg Conley on kitchen design).
To illustrate the “professionalism” impulse, Grant and Handelman point to an episode of an unnamed home renovation show in which potential buyers are filmed going through a potential home with dark brown cabinets, white appliances, coil burners, and laminate countertops and floors:
One potential buyer exclaims, “Oh it’s so bad!” Their partner agrees, “I’ve never seen anything like that!”. The first partner continues, describing how terrible “the colors, the floors, the cabinets” are, and finishes by saying, “I’d actually be a little embarrassed to have anyone over”. Although the kitchen is functional, its lack of professionalism renders it “embarrassing.” “The colors, the floors, the cabinets,” which are not up to the professional standards otherwise featured in the show, lead to the suggestion that the homeowners are unfit to host friends and family.
This is the attitude of these prospective buyers, but it’s also the attitude of the show in general — and the guiding ethos of the market-reflected gaze, which loves remodeling so much it would look at Fallingwater and suggest a full gut. Grant and Handelman point to several other poignant examples of the market-reflected gaze in action: a woman who’s told to paint her ten-year-old cherry cabinets white (even though the paint will almost immediately chip); another woman who did a full kitchen reno twenty years ago with stainless steel appliances and maple cupboards that she’s now been told were “all wrong”; yet another woman who falls in love with hand-painted tiles for her backsplash but is worried that they’ll negatively affect the resale of her house, or that someone will hate them so much they’ll just demo the entire house (because that’s what she saw happen on a remodeling show).
All of it is at once objectively ridiculous and incredibly familiar. How do you make your home entirely your own — a reflection of your good taste! — while also making it wholly acceptable to the market-reflected gaze? The only solution is to make the market-inflected taste your taste. And that experience can be incredibly alienating, particularly when you convince yourself that you’re doing a remodel that you’re going to love, spend a ton of time and energy on it, and then look around and think meh. Sure, your bathroom looks “nice.” But that’s because it looks like the bathroom at the Hilton, fulfilling a very specific, very bland, and very bourgeois understanding of what “nice” looks and feels like. As a result, many homeowners experience a feeling of what Grant and Handelman call “dysplacement” in their own homes. They’re unhappy when they haven’t remodeled, and they’re still unhappy after they do.
Grant and Handelman point out that the home renovation industry topped 400 billion in sales in 2020 — a whopping 48% increase from 2010. That number is projected to increase to $450 billion this year, marking a 12.5% increase just from 2020. Some of that’s the inflated cost of remodeling materials and labor, sure, but a whole lot of it is increased pressure on the home to be all things and yet also look like the same professionalized ideal. The pandemic made existing space feel insufficient: for the sheer amount of life that had to be lived there, but also insufficient in relation to whatever understanding of what the house should look like. There was a lot of time to contemplate everything that was wrong about your space, and very little encouragement to think about everything that was right.
Earlier this year, I wrote about optimization culture, including the impulse to continually optimize our living spaces. The most-liked reader comment: “Sometimes I feel like when I gave up diet culture, I just put all those feelings into my home.” It makes sense, doesn’t it? We’re so accustomed to the discipline of the male gaze, the white gaze, the hetero gaze, to just generally internalizing others’ expectations of how we should behave and look and be and making them our own. It’s super fucking annoying that you can do the work of distancing yourself from one gaze without realizing the ways in which another one is quietly setting up shop in its vacant home.
And just as the beauty and diet industry has been built on the insecurities incurred by those primary gazes, the remodeling industry thrives on the unspoken but totally spoken agreement that we should all feel bad about our homes. Hence: you stop feeling quite so bad, so less-than, so always-unsatisfied about your body….and start feeling really bad about your cabinets.
It’s in moments like this where I marvel at just how flimsy our own preferences have become, how deeply susceptible they are to market forces posturing as “good taste.” Some of that flimsiness is rooted in class aspiration, of course — it’s hard to understand what you really like when what you’d really like is to both be and act like you’re middle or upper class. But part of it, too, is a real flattening of possibility at the intersection of mass production and deep fear of social, societal, and ultimately financial rejection.
Why are people so concerned, after all, about their home’s resale value? Because in most cases, it’s their primary asset: their only hope of retirement, their only means of creating generational wealth. It doesn’t have to be this way, but this is the economic model we in the United States have inherited. The home becomes overdetermined as both an extension of the self and a site of financial security. No wonder it’s constantly breaking.
What would a housing market that values individualization look like? How does a more robust social safety net (and less emphasis or ability to accumulate wealth) affect norms of interior design? How might a de-emphasis on resale (and the premium on “luxury” spaces) create and bolster more demand for smaller homes, for more inventive co-housing, for more affordable and accessible homes?
What do you truly love in a house — not because it’s current, not because it’s on HGTV, but because it makes it feel like you, a person in the world, live there? And how different would it feel to look upon your space not with the harsh eye of the market, but with the warm, gracious lens of home? ●
P.S.: M.M.LaFleur asked me to answer some reader work questions for their newsletter and it was surprisingly fun doing this in print form. The first question is about how to handle really not wanting to become a manager (but feeling weird about telling people as much) and the second question is about how to figure out if you actually want to take the “really good” job offer you just got that would make your family’s life more complicated. Find my answers here.
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