I Would Never do That in my Own Home


Michelle Janning and Lindsey Menard
Whitman College

Please direct correspondence to Michelle Janning, Department of Sociology, Whitman College, Walla Walla, WA 99362, USA. E-mail [email protected]; Phone (509) 527-4952; Fax (509) 527-5026.


Television programming devoted to rapid before-and-after transformation of homes is increasingly popular in the U.S. Analysis of audience reception of messages contained in this television genre is important if we are to understand the efficacy of the growing do-it-yourself phenomenon, especially among women. Semi-structured interview data from thirty-four female decorating television viewers reveal that, with regard to adherence to traditional femininity, both agency and constraint are present in these women’s viewing practices. Many of the shows contain messages of “You can do this,” and are thus seen as empowering and give agency to female viewers. However, women’s interpretation of the shows, as well as the manner in which they watch the shows, reveal that the traditionally female charge of domestic aesthetic beauty remains a strong force in women’s everyday lives, thus constraining women into a subordinate position to men.

From Western appropriation of Feng Shui to fascination with the legal ups and downs of lifestyle gurus such as Martha Stewart, American culture is continually shifting its definitions of “the good life” within the interior of the home. Television programming devoted to residential decorating and design has flourished in the last few years, with both cable and network stations introducing increasing numbers of home makeover shows (Fornoff 2004; Peterson 2004), largely targeted at female audiences. While non-fiction television programming is not new, the current mass dissemination of images of “reality” is noteworthy. And within the genre of reality television, the increase in the number of shows (and indeed, entire stations) devoted to before-and-after residential redecoration and remodeling is worthy of examination. It is important to analyze this growing phenomenon of “lifestyle” television from the point of view of female audience members because they represent the consumers in a growing market devoted to rapid before-and-after transformations of the American interior homescape. They are also the ones who participate in everyday culture either by filtering aesthetic ideas from television programming into their own homes, or by protesting the “perfect lifestyle” (Chochswender 2005: D1) by avoiding consumption of extravagant lifestyle goods and services that are represented on television and in other forms of media. It is by examining audience reactions to decorating television that we can see social psychological dimensions of cultural action – how women absorb, ignore, re-communicate, and incorporate messages they may receive from texts such as television shows. In turn, by understanding audience member consumption practices, we can understand the efficacy of television messages about aesthetics as cultural symbols at a societal level (Schudson 2002).

This paper, based on interviews with female decorating television audience members, seeks to examine the form and degree to which these women integrate home decorating television into their homes and television viewing routines. More specifically, we ask what activities happen while these women watch the shows. Further, we analyze whether and how activities performed while viewing shed light on the aesthetic design decisions that these women make in their everyday domestic lives. These questions get at the form that audience reflexivity takes for decorating television viewers. We hope to understand how women interact with the messages in these increasingly popular shows – how both agency and constraint are present in women’s use of television messages that simultaneously transmit messages of empowerment (e.g., “You can do this”) and traditional femininity (e.g., “Stay in the home”).

The Cultural Context of the Decorating Television Genre

Focus of this article

The television shows we are most interested in are ones that tend to be broadcast on channels that feature home improvement such as Home and Garden Television (HGTV), the Do-It-Yourself Network (DIY), The Learning Channel (TLC), The Discovery Channel, BBC America, and the Style Network. However, shows on network television, such as ABC’s “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition,” which won the 2005 People’s Choice Award for Home Makeover shows, are also included. Shows of interest are devoted to interior decoration and/or design (as opposed to gardening or industrial/commercial design), have a clear before-and-after component to the story, and include the expertise of at least one design or decoration professional at some point in the program. Examples include “Trading Spaces,” “Clean Sweep,” “Designer’s Challenge,” “Decorating Cents,” “The Christopher Lowell Show,” “Divine Design,” and “Design on a Dime.” It is important to note that both network and cable television shows are included in this genre, but most of the shows are on cable. Finally, we recognize that there is variation within the genre, especially in terms of the celebrity status of the shows’ hosts and designers. Some programs (and corresponding websites) devote much attention to “getting to know” the people on the program, while others focus only on design ideas (with individual host and designer personae peripheral to the show’s focus).

Decorating television programming is increasingly popular and the ratings for the genre continue to increase (Fornoff 2004; Peterson 2004), and can be seen at nearly any point in the day or evening. Of the 106 million U.S. households with televisions (96.7% of all homes in the U.S.), over 70 million have basic cable (where many of the shows are broadcast). That’s almost 70% cable penetration of American TV households. The show “Trading Spaces” increased its viewership from 2.82 million regular viewers in the first half of 2002 to 4.17 million regular viewers in January 2003 alone. The number of viewers watching HGTV in January of 2004 was up 13% from the previous year (Dietsch 2004). With products and how-to guides based on the shows, websites devoted to step-by-step instructions for projects introduced on television, and increasing celebrity status of the programs’ hosts and designers, it is clear that the decorating television phenomenon is not going away anytime soon.

Where do these shows fit in the American cultural landscape? Arguably they fall under the category of reality television, but they do not involve people jumping out of airplanes, having cosmetic surgery, or competing for immunity on a remote island. They do, however, profess to be non-fiction and unscripted, even if they are formulaic and are edited to contain certain scripted messages. Even the cast of characters has been typologized:

Now the airwaves are filled with sexually ambiguous young male designers, bubbly female colorists in tight T-shirts, and sensitive but studly carpenters, who descend upon bland suburban rec rooms, closets and garages while the owner is away or in a coma (Brooks 2004, NYTimes.com, retrieved 6/3/04).

Home decorating shows are unique in many ways, and not just because they are devoted to aesthetic transformation of American homes. Makeover shows are particularly American, and home makeover shows, like much of American culture, are “built upon the dream of transformation – the idea that through some drastic change in your material surroundings, you can take a giant leap toward happiness” (Brooks 2004, NYTimes.com, retrieved 6/3/04).

Gender, Television, & the Efficacy of Symbolic Objects in Everyday Lives

Gender and Domestic Objects

Interior decoration is traditionally defined as women’s work, and is worthy of analysis from a social scientific point of view. Much social research argues that women’s subordination to men is manifest in their association with the domestic and reproductive spheres (e.g, Kimmel 2000; Low and Lawrence-Zúñiga 2003). Part of the traditional responsibility of women is their charge to create and maintain comfort via aesthetic beauty of domestic objects (and of themselves). The home is a gendered space, which means that it is a site “in which sex-differentiated practices occur, [a] setting that [is] used strategically to inform identity and produce and reproduce asymmetrical gender relations of power and authority” (Low and Lawrence-Zúñiga 2003: 7).

Interior residential design and decoration as it is portrayed on television and received by female audiences is a cultural sociological phenomenon. Swidler (2001) defines culture as “publicly available symbolic forms through which people experience and express meaning…the set of symbolic vehicles through which…sharing and learning take place” (12). It is through rituals, stories, sayings, and indeed a system of “inherited conceptions expressed in symbolic forms” (12) that people participate in meaning-making, and enact asymmetrical gender roles.

Interior decoration, both in and of itself and as it is represented on television, is important to examine from a cultural sociological point of view for several reasons. First, aesthetic endeavors are socially constructed. They are comprised not just of artistic effort, but also social networks of artistic producers, as well as socially-situated conventions that dictate the form and content of art (Becker 1982). Second, taste is socially constructed, because it varies by race, class, gender, and age (e.g., Halle 1992; Gullestad 1993; Löfgren 2003; Pink 2004). Third, arrangement and location of housing has been examined in areas of urban and environmental sociology, anthropology, and social geography (Hanson and Pratt 1995; Garber 2000), but little has been done regarding the insides of these spaces in sociology. Looking at symbolic objects and use of space can indicate how people negotiate complicated parts of their lives and how they use their physical surroundings to create and shift identities (Csikszentmihalyi & Rochberg-Halton 1981; Nippert-Eng 1996; Zerubavel 2002; Pink 2004). Fourth, dwellings reflect cultural values in terms of privacy, gender, social class, individualism, and distinctions between sacred and profane ( Spain 1992). And finally, the “makeover” element of home decorating television can be situated in a larger cultural context whereby seeking status, change, or a “better life” through material transformation is a mechanism of social control of female audience members, thus perpetuating asymmetrical gender power dynamics in society at large.

While messages about gender-specific roles in the domestic sphere are present in the genre of home decorating television, it is important to analyze how female audience members receive the messages in different ways. In other words, both agency and constraint are present in women’s participation in this cultural phenomenon. As Michael Schudson (2002) says, “To understand the efficacy of culture, it is essential to recognize simultaneously that (1) human beings make their own history and (2) they do not make it according to circumstances of their own choosing” (142). He continues:

Culture is not a set of ideas imposed but a set of ideas and symbols available for use. Individuals select the meanings they need for particular purposes and occasions from the limited but nonetheless varied cultural menu a given society provides. In this view, culture is a resource for social action more than a structure to limit social action (142).

Researchers more specifically devoted to gender and domestic objects in European countries (Pink 2004; Gullestad 1993) have explored the interconnectivity of agency and constraint in home decoration. While self-identities can emerge via visual and material display of objects in the home (and the performativity surrounding those objects), the objects themselves can “impose on the way individual creativity is realized in a particular material space” (Pink 2005: 10). Doing gender in Butler’s performative sense is active, in that women can pick and choose which ways to adhere to or stray from traditional femininity in the use of decorative domestic objects; but at the same time, the domestic objects themselves (and the larger societal discourse surrounding the “proper” use of those objects) constrain women’s choices and perpetuate existing traditional gender roles.

Although female viewers of home decorating television are focused on the traditionally feminine topic of domestic aesthetics, the do-it-yourself aspect of completing projects can be empowering. They may be more confident when they have a series of tools in mind and at hand. When Ann Swidler (1986; 2001) described culture as a tool kit of materials that can be used in order to negotiate meaningful situations, she was speaking figuratively, but home decorating television adds a whole new meaning to the concept of “tool kit.” Home decorating shows often provide viewers with a mental array of techniques, products, project ideas, fix-it solutions, and words that are meant to instill confidence in a female viewer’s ability to “do it herself.” But many women who apply what they have learned also develop a physical tool kit, full of hammers, electric drills, and glue guns, that assists them with projects in their homes. The existence of both a literal (hammers and nails) and figurative (gendered norms and aesthetic messages) tool kit simultaneously challenges and supports traditional gender role expectations, because women are taking on roles formerly reserved for men, and yet are still performing these roles in the domestic sphere.

The “Sociality” of Television Viewing

Ron Lembo (2000), in his recent study on television viewing culture (a culture of use, as it were – not a culture of political hegemony and ideology absorbed by passive viewers), suggests that previous theory and research on television have been limited by a top-down approach. He selects a cultural sociological approach to his analysis of television viewing culture because “[t]he overriding concern of cultural studies has been to document the interconnectedness between the social locations of people, their identities and interpretive strategies, and modes of cultural resistance and political empowerment” (55). Critical of both functionalists Merton and Lazarsfeld, as well as critical theorist Gitlin and the Frankfurt School’s Adorno, Lembo suggests that past cultural analyses of television have been intellectualist and have ignored the reflexive role that viewers play in ignoring, absorbing, and using as background noise the ideological messages that make television so useful for maintaining capitalist hegemony by elites. The sociological study of audience reception to television messages has been researched numerous times (see Cooper 2004 for a recent example), but by investigating American television viewing habits as a distinct cultural form, Lembo is better able to explain how audience members both disengage with corporately produced cultural messages on TV at the same time they appropriate the images into their everyday lives. Certainly, television produces and reproduces powerful messages, but not all the power lies in the corporate entity. Viewers make choices about which messages to appropriate. When Lembo talks about “inner mindfulness” (120), he attempts to address what other scholars have ignored: viewers’ thought processes related to television. The connection between an inner thought process of accepting and rejecting television messages and the sociologically meaningful physical world is particularly important for this study because the how-to processes presented on home decorating shows can translate into physical objects and spaces which then project their own messages about the social world. Any study on how TV messages affect viewers’ attitudes and everyday behaviors needs Lembo’s bottom-up approach to avoid over-intellectualizing the power of media and underestimating the power of viewers. In this way, we seek to get at the heart of female audience agency and dispel the notion of a homogeneous audience who passively accepts messages uniformly. At the same time, we acknowledge the power of gendered messages in these programs.

This research aims to add to existing literature in cultural sociology by utilizing Lembo’s work as a theoretical lens through which to examine a unique genre of television that is growing in popularity, especially among women. We further Lembo’s (2000) ideas about audience reception as a key component in a sociological analysis of television messages and viewing habits, in order to answer our research questions about the presence or absence of agency and constraint in the everyday lives and television viewing practices of female decorating television viewers.


In order to explore how women respond to home decorating television, we conducted semi-structured interviews in the spring and summer of 2004. The study’s thirty-four participants responded to a local newspaper article soliciting interviewees who had an interest in home decorating television. The article encouraged women who were interested in participating in a study on home decorating television shows to contact us via phone or e-mail, and the majority of women chose to be interviewed in their own homes.

The interviewees were asked thirty-five questions, many of them open-ended. At the end of each tape-recorded interview, the participants were given a demographic survey to fill out. In most cases, participants gave a tour of their homes and pointed out projects that they had completed with inspiration and techniques from home decorating television shows.


We targeted women who were married, were mothers, and who owned their own homes. Many of the women who responded to the article did not fit this description, but we opened up our sample to include them and their experiences. The sample consisted of thirty-four women who live in a medium sized town (about 50,000 in the metropolitan statistical area) in the Pacific Northwest, and who watch home decorating television. The women range in age from thirty to seventy-two, with a median age of 49. Thirty of the thirty-four women (88.2%) are married and seventeen of the women (50%) have children living at home. Eleven participants (32.4%) have at least one child under the age of 13 living at home. Five participants (14.7%) have a teenage or young adult child living at home and one participant (2.9%) has two young adult children living at home.

Total annual family incomes range from $15,000 to $140,000. The median annual family income is $50,000. Six of the 31 participants (19.4%) who answered the income question say that they contribute 0% of the annual family income and six (19.4%) say they contribute 100% of the annual family income. Just less than half the sample said they contribute at least 40% of the annual family income. When asked about their employment, 19 of the participants (55.9%) said that they work outside the home for pay, 4 participants (11.8%) said that they work at/from home for pay, and 11 participants (32.4%) said that they do not work for pay. The number of hours per week participants worked ranged from 6 to 60, with a mean of 34.6 hours. Of the women who do not work outside the home, five (33.3%) are staying home with children, four (26.7%) are working at home, and two (13.3%) are retired.


The first section of the interview focused on demographic information and gender roles. The part of the interview that is the focus of this paper was comprised of questions based upon Lembo’s (2000) insights into television viewing habits. We developed questions that revealed the degree to which the participants had integrated home decoration television into their homes and into their television viewing routines. Questions intended to extrapolate information about home decorating television viewing habits asked with whom the participants usually watch the shows (the sociality of viewing), how often and when the television is on (continuous use), what activities the participants typically do while watching television (simultaneous viewing), and components of viewing that included how mindful the audience members are while watching, as well as the amount and type of criticism they offer towards the shows. These questions are meant to explore the unique social dimensions of viewing a particularly “hands-on” genre of television.

Results and Discussion

Below, we report some basic findings about our respondents’ viewing habits. The subsequent sections are devoted to answering the research questions mentioned earlier.

Television Viewing Habits

Shows Watched

The participants were asked which three to five home decorating shows they watch most frequently. The most common responses were “Trading Spaces” (55.9%), “Design on a Dime” (44.1%), and “Divine Design” (44.1%). The top three were followed by “Designer’s Challenge” (29.4%), “Decorating Cents” (26.5%), “While You Were Out,” and “Clean Sweep” (each with 23.5%). “Designing for the Sexes,” “Room by Room,” “Mission: Organization,” “Martha Stewart Living,” “The Christopher Lowell Show,” “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition,” “Designed to Sell,” “This Old House,” “Lynette Jennings Design,” and “Sensible Chic” were all mentioned by five or fewer participants.

Amount of Television Watched & Frequency of Viewing

One participant reflected on the amount of decorating television that she watches: “That’s all I watch. My husband says that it’s burned into our TV.” The number of years participants have been watching home improvement shows range from less than a year to twenty years. The majority of participants (54.5%, 21 participants) have been watching the shows for at least four years and six of the participants (17.6%) have watched home improvement shows for more than ten years. The average number of years participants have watched the shows is 6.05 years, so these viewers are fairly familiar with the formulas of home decorating television. The number of hours participants spend watching any kind of television every week ranges from three to fifty-six, with an average of 24.5 hours. The number of hours participants spend watching home decorating television in a given week ranges from less than one full hour to thirty-two hours, with a mean of 12.72 hours. Home decorating shows account for more than half of the television programming for 55.9% of the sample and for 75% or more of the television watched by 14.7% of the sample.

Channel Surfing

Of the thirty-three people who answered the question “Do you channel surf while watching these shows,” nearly 70% said that they do and ten (30.3%) said that they do not. Of the channel surfers, just over half switch between decorating shows, and a third of the channel surfers switch between home decorating shows and cooking shows. Four (16.7%) switch between home decorating shows and the news, two (8.3%) switch between home decorating shows and The Travel Channel, another two (8.3%) switch between home decorating shows and reality television, and one (4.2%) switches between home decorating shows and general prime time programming.

The Sociality of Home Decorating Television

Lembo (2000) argues that television brings and keeps people together. However, the sociality of home decorating television viewing is quite lonely. Thirty-two of the participants (94.1%) said that they usually watch home decorating television by themselves. Many participants said that other people watch with them occasionally. Seven of the participants (20.6%) said that their spouses watch with them occasionally, particularly if they are working on a related project. Four participants (11.8%) said that they occasionally watch with teenage or adult daughters (no sons), and four women (11.8%) said that occasionally their young children watch with them. One participant occasionally watches home decorating shows with a female friend, another occasionally watches with a group of female co-workers. For the most part, however, participants watch these shows alone.

Four of the women are single and living alone, so they have no one else in the household with whom to watch, but of the thirty participants who are married, only one said she usually watches home decorating shows with her husband. Many participants told us that their husbands are disinterested in the shows or even that they “hate them.” Some husbands seem to watch the shows out of pure desperation when “nothing else is on.” The following are some of their responses to the question “ Do you watch those shows by yourself or with other people? If with other people, who (what relationship do they have to you)?”

[My four-year-old son] will come in and say “You’re watching another icky home show!” My husband will watch every once in a while. Like on a Friday night when there’s nothing else on. Oh, if I’m laughing particularly hard and there’s no good movies on on his television set out there, he may well come up and watch with me. But I usually watch them alone.

A few of the participants indicated that their spouses watch with them occasionally. For example,

Mostly by myself. Occasionally [my husband] will watch but he’s an eye roller. He knows the designers and … if I describe some technique to him, he’ll know what I’m talking about.

In several other households, the struggle for television control has been solved by multiple television sets:

Because I watch them so often, we have two TVs. One in the office, where my husband can go. He will only watch “Designing for the Sexes” and “Divine Design.” He thinks the designs are absolutely marvelous. Other than that,…I start going through my shows, he’s out of here. But you know what? It’s a trade off, because he records all the shows on automobiles, and Car and Driver, and all that kind of stuff and the minute he puts them on I’m out of here. It’s just different.

This solution permits both partners to watch the programs that interest them and it occasionally allows for jovial teasing, but it means that husbands, according to wives, are rarely watching and discussing the shows with their wives.

For those women who don’t have other adults at home to talk to about the shows, there is the potential to discuss the shows elsewhere. A handful of the participants suggested that watching and talking about home decorating shows fosters dialogue and communication among women. One of them, who occasionally watches with co-workers, said:

I find that no matter who you talk to, women anyway, I don’t know about men, but if there’s nothing else to talk about that seems to be one thing you can mention.

On the other hand, a couple of the participants also indicated that home decorating television is not something they talk about with their friends:

It’s not something that I’ve discussed a lot with my friends, you know. Like, the ladies at church, or whatever, somehow the subject has never come up. They come to my house and they say “oh this is nice.” Or whatever. But we don’t , I never say “I saw this on such and such.”

Although pop culture has certainly not ignored the genre, particular episodes of home decorating shows are not often discussed in public the way prime time shows are discussed. Since most of the participants rarely have anyone else to talk to while watching the shows, and they often do not talk about the shows elsewhere, their analyses and interpretations of the shows are not heard. It seems that despite the educational aspects of home decorating television, the shows are often seen by outsiders (such as husbands), as meaningless women’s television. Like other daytime television which is often regarded as less meaningful than prime time programming, it is often assumed that the programs do not require (or even permit) meaningful interpretation or reflection. Our participants have demonstrated, however, that they are not simply absorbing the messages of home decorating television but reinterpreting, critiquing, and often rejecting them, as they are meaningfully engaged in the process of watching, which is discussed in the subsequent sections.

Continuous Use and Simultaneous Viewing

Lembo (2000) describes a group of viewers which he calls continuous users. These are people who have the television on most of the time when they are home and tune in and out as the shows draw their attention. Several of our participants whom Lembo would call continuous users of decorating television describe their television use this way:

Oh gosh, it’s on all the time… Well, it goes on at 8 in the morning and if I’m home all day it goes off at 11 at night…Yeah, we have it on most of the time. Not that we’re watching it the whole time… If I’m working, I do, I have it on constantly.

Lembo suggests that since continuous users are exposed to so much television, they can become familiar with television patterns without necessarily spending much focused time watching it. Although a certain amount of focus on home decorating shows is necessary in order to pick out the smaller details of the shows, many participants provided general claims about the shows and the genre that were not dependent upon close viewing of particular shows, but simply upon familiarity with the genre itself – a familiarity gained by seeing at least bits and pieces of many shows or by hearing about them via other pop culture sources such as news articles or advertisements. Several of our participants referred to the genre rather than particular shows; in fact, three of our participants could not remember the names of particular hosts or shows that they watch. A couple of participants indicated that there is a knowledge base of information and vocabulary shared by frequent viewers of the genre of home decorating television. Much of this knowledge base, according to these participants, comes from casual yet continuous viewing of the shows that ultimately end up being “background noise” for everyday life.

Although there are lots of other activities that can and do occupy the time of people who are home most of the day, which is discussed in the next section, television is often incorporated into the daily routines of people who work at home, or who spend any significant portion of their day at home. This continuous use of decorating television allows female viewers to become familiar with the genre as they tune in and out during the day.

When asked about how she watches decorating television shows, one of our participants said, “I seldom sit down and watch all the way through any one.” Lembo discovered that many people watch television and do other activities at the same time, a phenomenon he calls simultaneous viewing. None of our participants said that they work on actual home decorating projects while watching home decorating shows, but several indicated that while they are doing habitual domestic activities like folding laundry, cleaning, and preparing meals, they turn the television on to entertain themselves since the tasks at hand are not particularly interesting. Watching home decorating television is an escape from household tasks, but it is also seen by our participants as more “productive” than other forms of daytime television because it provides information about further improving the home. The escape is thus contradictory: the shows allow women to leave their own domestic surroundings and enter a fantasy world, but the fantasy world is merely someone else’s domestic surroundings.

Simultaneous viewing seems to be a gendered phenomenon since women feel so much pressure to multi-task that they find it difficult to devote their full attention to television. Lembo did acknowledge that a gendered division of labor existed in his study, saying “many, if not most, of the women I interviewed felt a greater sense of responsibility, if not of need, for attending to the day-to-day work that kept the household functioning smoothly… In contrast, the men spoke of doing yard work, or working on projects of various sorts around the house, things… that were a step removed from what had to be done everyday” (146). Of course, many of these “manly” projects are also not possible to do while watching television, while traditional “women’s work” can often be done within hearing range of a television.

Home decorating shows were not mentioned by Lembo, but they share the “segmented formats of news and game shows [which are] quite compatible with the demands of simultaneous viewing” (147). This format, incidentally, is common to many daytime television programs, allowing viewers to tune in to interesting segments of the show and permitting them to attend to other activities. Home decorating shows often have a storyline, but they are predictable enough so that viewers can get up to do something else and return without worrying that they will miss part of the story. Since many of our participants have watched home decorating shows for a number of years they are likely able to recognize a formula which involves the presentation of a problem, a period of deliberation, a period of work, and a final reveal. The majority of viewers of home decorating television shows in our sample are simultaneous viewers; the genre allows it and the responsibilities and lifestyles of the viewers demand it.

In his elaboration of simultaneous viewing habits, Lembo did not distinguish between doing other activities while watching television and watching television while doing other activities. This is a difficult distinction to make, but our study suggests that these are different experiences that reflect domestic efficiency and productivity while watching shows with domestic themes. The distinction between the two sets of actions is a chronological one: Watching television while doing household tasks means that an individual starts a task and then turns on the television to have an escape while performing that task. This action allows women to let their minds wander to a more interesting subject and a more creative mental space. For example, three respondents reflect,

More often than not, I will have it on but will be doing other stuff and my attention will go to it every once in a while so I’m not actually sitting down in front of it watching it… [I] clean up in the mornings, I could be ironing, I pay the bills.

A lot of times it’s on and I’m just in the kitchen doing dishes and if I hear that they’re doing a window treatment or something I run out here and check it out. Cleaning the house a lot of times…I’ll be cleaning and watching.

Usually I’m picking up the house or reading a magazine. Trying to multi-task as much as possible. I get all my free time in little hour snippets here and there with these kids so I just do whatever I can.

Thirty of our participants (88.2%) watch television while doing other tasks at the same time. Two of the participants (6.7%) said that they watch home decorating television while they are getting ready for the day. Although they are not usually watching television and their focus is on showering, dressing, or making coffee, they are able to hear the TV and tune in when something catches their attention. Eight of the participants (26.7%) said that they cook while watching home decorating shows. Of course, cooking is a task that usually requires quite a bit of attention, but some cooking steps can be delayed if a part of the show is particularly interesting. Nine of the participants (30%) said that they clean or tidy up the house while watching the shows. Watching television makes it more interesting and many cleaning projects can be paused for interesting segments of shows. Four of the participants (13.3%) said that they do laundry while watching home decorating shows and another four (13.3%) said that they iron while watching the shows. Two participants said that they do domestic paperwork (budgeting, billpaying, making to-do lists) while watching. Four participants (13.3%) said that they perform paid work while watching the shows.

Conversely, there were several activities the women mentioned doing when the television was the main focus of their attention. Doing other tasks while watching television means that an individual finds a more “productive” task to perform after the television has already been turned on. This action is an attempt to remain productive and efficient even during leisure time. Sixteen women, or nearly half of the sample, commented on performing this type of action. Some participants do leisure activities while watching home decorating television. Six women (20%) said that they snack or drink while watching home decorating shows. Nine (30%) said that they read books or flip through magazines while watching the shows. Two (6.7%) said they work on craft projects while watching the shows and three (10%) said they knit, crochet, or sew. Four (13.3%) use the internet or computer while watching home decorating shows. Many women cannot approach television viewing without other tasks at hand:

Because I have a lot of subscriptions to magazines, a lot of design magazines, and I have so many that that’s one thing that I do when I’m watching TV is go through them and rip out all the inserts and the ads and anything I don’t want or need. I do that when I’m watching those shows.

Many women seem to feel pressure to multi-task even when they are “relaxing” by watching decorating television. They seem to get antsy sitting still and they pick up something else to do so that their hands stay busy; one respondent offered, “I’m not one to just sit here and do nothing.”

Several women mentioned that even when the television is the focus of their attention, they do housework during commercial breaks. They said:

Dishes, and laundry, and food preparation, and house cleaning…I don’t very often just sit and watch television… I use the commercials to go and do something that I feel needs to be done. I run down and get the clothes out of the dryer or something like that.

Well, sometimes I’m cooking or do you realize how much you can get done in a commercial? You can actually get things done in a commercial… I’m a multi-task person. I can have the TV on and do things.

As is evidenced by the preceding quotes, productively completing household tasks can happen as the initial focus of action, or can be added to already present television viewing. In both forms, our respondents view this kind of action as multi-tasking. Certainly there is some overlap between the categories. And there is a difference in the content of tasks – cooking and reading a magazine are clearly different kinds of tasks in terms of productivity, but both make women feel as if they are being more productive than they would be if they were just watching decorating television. Women who usually tune into the shows while cleaning the house sometimes sit down to watch the TV and enjoy a snack or a magazine. But there are more people in this sample who watch television while attending to household tasks than who do leisure activities while watching television.

The Continuum of Mindfulness

The previous section described the sequence and type of task performed while watching decorating television. How “tuned in” a woman is to a television program, or her mindfulness, also affects the degree to which she may absorb, critique, and use the messages and information provided to her by home decorating television shows. And, how mindful a viewer is can depend on whether she is performing household or leisure tasks simultaneously while watching television, or whether she is using the television as a tool for transition from work to home. This section elaborates on the effects of different kinds of engagement with the genre during different types of simultaneous viewing.

Lembo (2000) explains that people turn to television with varying degrees of focus or mindfulness. He describes these patterns along a continuum of mindfulness: from intermittent viewing to focused, interpretive, or reflective viewing. Intermittent, or habitual, viewers listen more than they watch, using the television as background noise for their daily tasks (similar to the aforementioned concept of continuous use). Occasionally, viewers turn their attention to the TV if something exciting is happening, thus becoming more interpretive and focused during these segments. At the other end of the mindfulness spectrum are those viewers whose primary task at hand is watching television and being reflective thereof, allowing other activities to creep in during commercials or other breaks.

There are several women in our sample who do not work outside the home and, as discussed earlier, many of them indicated that once they turn the television on in the morning it is on all day as they attend to other tasks as simultaneous viewers. One participant said: “The first thing I do when I go in my shop…is turn on the TV And then I get out my work and …yeah, it’s the first thing I turn on after the lights.” This type of viewer watches the television intermittently all day, often allowing other activities to become the focus of her attention. Participants who watch home decorating television this way do not necessarily watch in an effort to learn particular techniques, but they often catch glimpses of interesting projects and then devote more focused attention to these segments of programming before returning to other activities, picking up decorating tips that they can apply in their own homes. These habitual viewers enact agency by picking and choosing which segments to focus on, keeping their other daily tasks at the forefront.

Conversely, the women who described a ritual of turning the television on every day after work seem to watch more mindfully, devoting their full attention to decorating shows for a period of time. And they seem to be more likely to call into question the desire to be productive while watching (though the watching sessions are productive, in that they allow the respondents to transition from work to home without feeling too much stress). Lembo discusses how men who are engaged in mechanical work who always turn to television exclusively after work (as opposed to doing other activities) are “mindfully engaged with television” as they “play with the idea of what it might be like to enter into relationships that the people on television had with one another, to live out these people’s lives” (129). Interestingly, a handful of the participants in our study who indicated that they watch television habitually after work also have jobs that require more logic than creativity. When asked about reasons for watching home decorating shows, one participant said,

Probably number one, I work with numbers all day and it’s [decorating TV] creative, it’s not numbers, it’s not logic. It’s feelings, emotion, it’s the other side of my brain. I love the ideas. I mean, it’s very stimulating, too.

Another said,

I’ve always believed that we should continue to grow and this is a way that keeps me artistically sharp and it’s just a completely different area of interest for me that’s completely outside of my dealing with people all day and writing. And it’s relaxing and it’s entertaining and it’s stimulating.

A final respondent offered,

If I’m going to watch TV to relax, I’d rather watch that than get into some melodrama that I would have to think about. I can just look at those and enjoy. After working all day, you tend not to want to do things that take a lot of thought process.

Watching the shows provides a mental space for these women where they can use their creativity rather than perform mundane work tasks. So, even if the viewing seems to require less mental energy than shows that require “thinking,” the women are still being reflective of the messages contained therein.

Although these women sometimes occupy themselves with other activities such as snacking or flipping through magazines while watching, the home decorating shows are the focus of their attention. Certainly, this attention is part of the transition from work to home that Lembo says is often facilitated by television use. It is the women in the latter group – those who mindfully use decorating television to transition from their work selves to their home selves – who enact agency by using the shows as a work-to-home transition or relaxation mechanism. As Lembo stated about the respondents in his study,

These people certainly experienced television’s power effects. But, just as important, they turned the medium to their own advantage by creating a mindful and emotional space in which they were freed up, in a way, if only temporarily, from a felt sense of the various demands that were routinely placed upon them (153).

In our sample, respondents feel the same agency and constraint as is represented by Lembo’s analysis. Yet, even though the level of mindfulness is controlled by the viewers themselves, they still either feel the need to be productive by watching shows that, by definition, stress domestic productivity, or they choose to watch shows with a domestic theme to transition from their public work selves to their private home selves – often being mindful of how creative they feel while watching. Thus, as Lembo’s analysis suggests that television “in some sense frees people from these continued [domestic] responsibilities” (164), and that “people seem to be calling into question the need … to remain constantly productive by using their time efficiently, with clear goals or outcomes in mind” (164), the desire to remain domestically productive (for habitual viewers), or domestically involved via creative decorating ideas (for reflective viewers), remains a strong force for the women in our study.

In the continuum of mindfulness, between the intermittent or habitual viewers and the ones who are focused or reflective, lie two other kinds of viewers: escapist viewers and playful viewers. Lembo describes escapist viewing as “a slightly more mindful approach to things, where people typically have at least some awareness of a desire to be freed up, mentally, emotionally, physically, or socially, from their present situation” (122). Several of our participants indicated that watching home decorating television is an escape for them. It allows them to forget about their own location and situation, to “see someone else’s mess and not worry about mine anymore.”

People often watch television to see how other people live, even if it is fantasy. People also go to real estate open houses for the same reason (Garber 2000). One of our interviewees expressed this voyeuristic reason for watching, “[I like] to see what other people are doing. It’s kind of like going to open houses even though you’re not buying just to see what’s been done.” Nearly a quarter of our sample watches “Clean Sweep” – a show on The Learning Channel dedicated to instructing people how to remove clutter from their homes while redecorating the rooms to be more organized and trendy – and half of these participants said that watching the show makes them feel better about their own homes. One of them said: “[Our house] is a disaster. But…we watch that ‘Clean Sweep’ Show. Those houses are serious disasters, so from that standpoint…Our house is not as bad as the houses on ‘Clean Sweep’ but not as nice as the houses on ‘Designer’s Challenge’ [on HGTV]. I’d say our house is between… clean but boring.” This respondent uses the shows as reference points for comparison with other people’s lives and lifestyles. For other women, watching home decorating shows allows them to fantasize about what it would be like to live in a different home or to have professionals come redo their homes at the same time it allows them to be proud of how clean their houses are.

They probably give me ideas I would like to incorporate especially in the kitchen. Gee, I’d sure like to have granite countertops…and I go “I couldn’t spend $30,000 to redo a bedroom.” But it’s fascinating to me, how much that process is, and how much it costs. I just laugh, because I’d never spend that amount. Of course that’s kind of an escapism, a fantasy.

It’s an escape. I’d say “gee, if I could do that.” I would sure love it if they would come [to my house].

These viewers are not necessarily watching the shows with the intent of replicating the projects or applying any tips or techniques in their own environments. Instead, the shows provide an imaginative space to daydream, and not just the shows that portray seemingly unachievable upper class homes and expensive design ideas.

Our viewers seem to be quite aware of their desire to use decorating shows as an escape or a fantasy and they acknowledge their enjoyment of watching other people, and occasionally of watching other people’s misfortune. This type of viewing is entertaining to them rather than educational. Instead of watching shows that are how-to oriented, these viewers are more likely to watch shows that feature the homes of rich and famous people or have what one participant called “the gross-out factor.” One respondent elaborated, “You almost watch them to see what nightmare they are going to put into someone’s house.” Escapism is a goal for many participants. But the “escape” can be either to unrealistic wealth, to an outlandishly designed room, or to “someone else’s mess.” None of these forms of escape seems to make these women feel inferior regarding their homes, however.

Playful viewing, according to Lembo, is that in which people are “separating themselves from what they are doing, and, by virtue of this separation, turning to something else in a creative or imaginative frame of mind” (123). This is the kind of mindfulness in which audience members are turning to television in order to have something fun to do, perhaps even using ideas represented on the shows and applying them in useful ways to their own lives. Although our participants often talked about “playing” with ideas, and many of them mentioned creativity as a major reason they watch home decorating shows, anyone who has carried out a home decorating project knows that making a project fit one’s own situation requires not only creativity, but often hard work. One participant said that she watched home decorating shows “because we have to do basement to third floor remodel in our house. And I’d look for ideas I could utilize and just find out what the trends are.” While an escapist viewer is a voyeur examining someone else’s mess, a playful viewer tries to figure out how to rearrange her own closet based on “ Mission: Organization”’s suggestions. One participant said, “I really like ‘Clean Sweep.’ It’s really got me motivated. I mean, I’ve done incredible stuff.” Another said: “I like to learn how to do things. It’s empowerment. I’m a mechanical kind of a person and I like to know, I like to learn how to do things. I tend to [do] fix-it rather than novels and fiction and stuff like that, I like to learn how to do things.” Others said they watch because, “to me there’s a different perspective, they use sometimes different materials and apply them in a way you had never thought of. So it gives you another feel for what’s possible.” Of course, not all participants who mentally transform a televised project to suit their home actually carry it out in the physical space, but this level of mindfulness is much more concrete than escapist viewing and it does seem to require more mindful viewing because the images are often translated into a practical application. The women who playfully view the programs use their figurative “tool kit” of cultural images and design aesthetic decisions to figure out whether and how to use the literal “tool kit” of design equipment.

Plausibility & Critical Viewing

How plausible the design ideas seem to audience members, as well as how critical audience members are concerning corporate messages contained in the shows, are important components in an analysis of audience reflexivity, because they both demonstrate how savvy the viewers are in filtering powerful (gendered) messages. Several respondents discussed how much they are willing to trust designers from decorating shows, and the point at which their own good judgment becomes more important than the designers’ opinions and ideas. Within our sample we found some participants who said that they watch the shows because “it’s just kind of mindless entertainment, to be honest” and “it’s so light-hearted and not serious…You can let it go in one ear and out the other and not worry about anything.” Fro these viewers, the plausibility of actual design ideas is secondary to the entertainment value of the shows.

On the other hand, there are viewers who are very mindful and critical of television’s potential influence and approach television in a conscious or even cautious way. One participant said:

For me it’s a constant awareness that the purpose of those shows is to sell products. That’s what they’re there for. And in order to do that, of course, then the more expensive products that they can sell, the more advertising dollars they can get. So they show a lot of that stuff. So when I’m watching I constantly have to be aware there’s an attempt to make you desire all of these things you see and want them for your own home.

Clearly, some viewers are more critical of the intention of shows than other viewers, but all of the participants expressed some degree of engaged and even critical viewing. Whether the viewers watch for “mindless entertainment” to wind down after work or analyze the market-driven advertising of the shows, they nevertheless demonstrate their knowledge of and interest in the programming.

Lembo describes critical viewing not as a way of watching television, but a viewer’s mental or oral response to what they see and hear. All of the participants in our study are somewhat critical of the shows. Common critiques included a belief that designers and the ideas presented on shows are impractical or “too far out.” “Trading Spaces” was the most commonly watched show, but over a third of our participants also critiqued the show. Over half of the participants (55.9%) said that some designers are “too far out” and several of the women have stopped watching the shows where these designers are present. Six of the participants (17.6%) said that the shows often feature ideas that are off the wall or impractical and could not/should not be considered good design. Of the participants who are critical, many said that they would never do the projects suggested on home decorating television shows because “it’s just not me.” Several of the participants said that watching the shows allows them to reflect upon their own taste by deciding whether or not they would like to incorporate certain design elements into their own homes.

However, many of them moved beyond critiques of particular shows or the opinions and ideas of particular designers and beyond reflecting upon what it would be like to integrate projects into their own homes. Five of the participants (14.7%) mentioned advertising as the backbone of the shows and discussed the shows’ attempts to sell products, while another participant said that she recognizes that the designers aren’t necessarily experts but sometimes just spunky actors and actresses. Another said that each network seems to show their commercials at the same time, demonstrating her recognition of the formulaic set up of the programming. This awareness of the genre’s potential power was a clear indication that the women we interviewed are not simply absorbing messages and replicating pretty projects. Instead they are mindfully engaged with the purpose of the shows and critical of what they see and hear.

If we are to be critical of Frankfurt School theorists, as Lembo was, we can emphasize that our viewers are enacting agency by being astutely aware of the attempt of hegemony by the shows’ producers – an awareness that refutes the hegemonic model of audience reception. Many times women do not want to do projects they see on the shows, indicating a frustration with the practicality of ideas and the plausibility of situations. Their inaction is a boycott of projects that seem impractical or undesirable. At times they described the financial impossibility of affording a home makeover like the ones shown on home decorating shows. Other times they expressed horror at “far out” ideas like attaching silk flowers or straw to a wall. The designers on the shows never mention the health hazards or cleaning difficulties of wall coverings like these, but viewers who are stay-at-home moms with young children recognize these impractical decorating “solutions” immediately.

Such “plausibility judgments” are indicative of these women’s “imaginative and emotional distancing,” (Lembo 2000: 179) from the ideas presented, and are indicative of agency. Our participants seem to be fascinated by innovative and interesting concepts and ideas, but anything that will create more housework or pose a safety concern is immediately dismissed. Similarly, ideas that are too old, too young, too bright, too dark, or too “far out” for a participant to imagine using in her own home are laughed at and ignored. Lembo says that it is unlikely for viewers to question plausibility when they watch television alone, but our participants prove that they are certainly capable of doing this on their own. Not only do these women make judgments about the shows independently, they often modify techniques and concepts from the shows to improve their own homes.

As suggested by Lembo, television viewers do not believe nor accept everything they see and hear on television. At times they are willing to suspend disbelief in order to become absorbed in the stories that are told, but they usually view television with an awareness of its (im)plausibility.


Audience reflexivity is an important concept to include in any study asking questions about media, creativity, and gender. Not all audience members watch TV in the same manner, nor do they receive messages in the same way. But there are powerful messages nonetheless. Decorating television is a unique genre for analysis of female audience reflexivity because it, by definition, is television about the domestic sphere. Indeed, the messages of the shows are contradictory: present are words of encouragement for women to find a creative space and abandon their fear of power tools. But the shows also portray traditional messages about women’s roles – that they are to maintain the domestic sphere, be in charge of the aesthetic presentation of the home for men, and they are not to take on more “serious” or powerful roles in non-domestic societal institutions. How women watch these programs, however, sheds light on the daily performativity of gender in their everyday lives. While media messages are powerful and important to understand, how women use those messages in their everyday lives gives us a clearer picture of how society is actually working.

Agency and constraint in female decorating television viewers’ habits are simultaneously present. Women in our study reflect both a feeling of empowerment to perform tasks once reserved for men (using power tools, for instance) at the same time they feel compelled to maintain the control (and thus be controlled by) the domestic sphere. This set of contradictory experiences is present in all of the components of our analysis: the sociality of viewing, the simultaneous activities performed during viewing, the level of mindfulness of the viewers, and the concern over plausibility of design ideas and critique of corporate control of design television itself.

In terms of the sociality of viewing, female decorating television viewers demonstrate agency in that they often watch alone and interpret the messages independently of other people. On the other hand, they are teased about the lack of seriousness of the shows, often by their husbands. Simultaneous viewing with other activities often involves performing domestic tasks, perpetuating traditional femininity and constraining the women in their gender roles. At the same time, however, women are active social agents who make choices about whether and when to use television in conjunction with other activities. The level of mindfulness while watching depends, to an extent, on whether a woman works outside the home for pay. Those at home during the day are less mindfully engaged in the shows’ messages than those more mindfully engaged women who use the shows as a work-to-home transition or relaxation mechanism. In both groups, though, women are constrained by messages that they need to multi-task to be productive, or that their creativity lies in the domestic sphere alone. Even women who choose to watch the shows to escape are perpetuating traditional femininity by turning inward on their own housekeeping abilities. Finally, in terms of plausibility judgments and criticism, while female decorating television viewers are aware of corporate hegemonic messages present in the genre and suspicious of impractical design, they are still influenced by these powerful messages. They see an idea presented on a show sponsored by Home Depot, and then feel compelled to use a product available at that store for one of their own projects. Thus, Home Depot’s slogan, “You can do it; We can help,” represents the contradiction of women’s simultaneous agency and constraint perfectly: women are told to be more active in initiating projects (and are indeed doing so), but they need to depend on a corporate (public/male) entity to complete the project that constrains them in the domestic sphere.


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