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Rubbing Americans’ Noses in HGTV’s “House Hunters International”

“Property Voyeurism” is a phrase that network executives have used for HGTV’s mainstay-cum-cash-cow series “House Hunters”. The show has been compared to “Wheel of Fortune”, not only for its longevity (it’s been running since 1999), but because of its strictly-formulated structure. There’s (almost) always three residences, there’s always a Realtor or a guide to help move things along, the customer(s) always eliminate one of the three residences before choosing between the remaining two, and in the ending segment, the customer(s) always, always, always say something along the saccharine lines of “We absolutely made the right choice, we are so happy, things couldn’t be better”…after which viewers often feel the dire need to check their A1C levels. Somehow, HGTV came up with a formula that’s the broadcast version of comfort food: the viewer knows exactly what will happen from beginning to end, and enjoys it anyway.

The appeal of the series lies not just in the “property voyeurism” but (since most episodes involve a romantically-entwined couple) at least as much in the interaction (and sometimes conflict) between the couple. One wants a modern condo in the city, the other wants a fixer-upper with character in the suburbs…you get the picture. The majority of the couples are hetero, but there’s a surprisingly significant percentage who are LGBTQ. It’s gratifying to see that there’s no discernible prejudice against either LGBTQ or people of color - the show’s producers obviously go to great lengths to prevent any such perception.

What’s more, those of us who’ve been around the hetero relationship block a few times might even agree that it would be a good idea to require high-school students to watch House Hunters for a full semester, not just to learn what to look for with houses and apartments, but even more to watch the interactions between the couples, and to learn that “happy wife, happy life” isn’t just an infuriatingly-trite expression after all.

“House Hunters International”, a spin-off that’s been running since ‘only’ 2006, brings something else to the formula: the customers’ unfamiliarity with the local culture. Some of the customers are well-familiar with the destination they’ve chosen, but most have never lived there before; the culture shock is plain for all to see. But if there’s one common thread that winds through the hundreds and hundreds of episodes of HHI over the past twelve years, it’s that we Americans don’t know just how ignorant we are of the rest of the world…and how spoiled we ourselves are. When the customers are from other nations, they rarely blink an eye at what they see…

…but when it comes to Americans on HHI, I can’t count the number of times I’ve wanted to pull what remains of my hair out while watching them make fools of themselves (and us) for all the world to see.

They see bars on the window and think that it means the neighborhood must not be safe…whereas in many nations, even in the safest areas they’re seen as simple common sense. Why make it easy for people to break in?

They see a washing machine in the kitchen and say, “That’s weird!” Many don’t realize that it’s actually rather sensible for that appliance to be where all the other appliances are.

They see a master bedroom that’s not big enough for a “California King-sized” mattress and complain about how terrible it is to have to sleep there. In my travels, the only nation I’ve seen where living spaces compare to what we Americans consider ‘normal’ is Australia. Most of the rest of the planet gets along quite nicely with bedrooms that don’t span multiple zip codes.

They are shocked to see a toilet in a completely different enclosed space from the shower and the sink. I mean, would they really rather be taking a shower in the same place the wife or husband did a #2 a few minutes before? Ew!

The Americans see a bidet and ask, “What’s that?”. Most Americans have never seen one, much less know what it’s for. I didn’t like using them at first, but after finding out that water’s much cleaner than multiple bundles of toilet paper, I hate not having a bidet. My youngest son and I once told my older brother in the Mississippi Delta that a bidet’s a great thing, and he immediately went to the default response of “if it’s French, it must be bad/terrible/horrible/socialist!” I wanted so badly to ask him if wanting to have a clean butt with no residual feces was really a socialist thing, but I let it pass.

Most frustrating of all is to see the sense of entitlement that many American couples on HHI seem to feel. “This kitchen is so small!” “This bathroom is so cramped!” “There’s no view, all I see is another building!” “What do you mean, there’s no oven?” “How can I feed my kids when the refrigerator’s so small?” “There’s no hot water?” “Where’s the dishwasher?” “There’s no counter space to prepare the food!” “There’s only two burners on the stove!” And so on and so forth, et cetera, ad nauseum.

Thing is, when Americans make themselves seem so ignorant on HHI, they don’t seem to realize that others around this world see them, too…and so are given the understandable impression that most Americans are spoiled brats who think that what works just fine for other nations just isn’t good enough for Americans.

That, then, is what HHI does for Americans: it rubs our noses in our own unwitting arrogance. It reminds us that our way of life is not the only suitable way of life, and (if our minds are open) there are lessons to learn and better ways to live out there. Of course what we see on the television or computer screen is no substitute at all for the actual experience of being there, but for those Americans who do want to travel overseas but can’t (whether because of money or personal situation), HHI at least gives a window onto what much of the rest of the world is really like…and that it really ain’t so bad after all, that people really are the same, all over the world.

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