The social commentary in House Hunters on HGTV is usually subtle, baked into the choices made before filming begins for each episode. Once in a while the familiar voice-over offers some sly perspective on an episode’s participants (usually highlighting how silly it is to get upset over paint color), but the social text of the show is best seen on a broader scale.
The show’s popularity and scope are hard to overstate. Whether you love the show or hate it, House Hunters has become a fixture in American popular culture. The Washington Post reports that the “franchise, which aired 26 episodes in 1999, has since exploded, airing an average of 406 episodes a year since the start of 2012.”
This level of volume has helped create a state of cultural ubiquity for House Hunters, which justifies an effort to take a moment to look at the values being promoted by this HGTV phenomenon.
In its choice of participants, who are diverse in terms of ethnicity and sexual orientation as well as in marital status, House Hunters tends to promote a revised view of the American Dream of home ownership and American success. While some episodes feature the quintessential family of four with a dog, many episodes feature home buyers who are single, black or gay. This fact may seem unremarkable — and in a perfect world it would be — but these casting demographics suggest an intentional signaling of progressive values and a tweak to the stereotypical vision of the American Dream.
Casting a Message: Participant Demographics
Like so many reality television shows, the selection of contestants goes a long way to define the content that makes it on screen. HGTV is a Canadian production company, but the HGTV channel is popular in the United States and a majority of the people featured on its house hunting shows (House Hunters & House Hunters International) are American.
In its hosts and in its participants, House Hunters is notably diverse. In its American episodes, the show features Black Americans at a representative rate, which is rare on national television.
The trend toward diversity also applies in terms of sexual orientation. The series has included many gay house hunters in its long run of seasons, almost certainly over-representing this demographic in the United States and Canada. The message built into these casting choices has an impact.
As Adam Amel Rogers notes in “Just How Gay Is House Hunters,” “There is something exhilarating about seeing real queer families do something as basic as look for a place to live. In part, this exhilaration comes from knowing that lots of different people are watching the show and they are getting the message that families like mine are nothing to fear.”
The nature of the show, which uses some voice-over but refrains from directly commenting on the characters and their decisions, creates a scenario where every participant is able to speak for themselves. No one is cast as a villain or as a side-kick.
Although there have been reports that scenes are sometimes rehearsed and even re-shot, it remains true that on House Hunters, sexual orientation is never commented on. Race is never commented on. Single-parenthood is never commented on.
The consistency in this area means that House Hunters can be diverse without engaging in the kind of “tokenism” that so often characterizes popular television shows. In a similar vein, House Hunters is presenting every person on the show as someone both financially and intellectually capable of navigating the thorny process of closing a deal on a house.
These positive representation choices offer a value-message here and a statement on basic human equality that corrects for culture-wide implicit biases relating to race and sexual orientation.
The Negative — Absence Is Silence
The casting choices in some ways are intended to be progressive. And the specific progressive bent of the show may be understandable in regards to its target audience of educated, upper-middle class Americans and Canadians, but when we stop to consider the message of these “casting” trends, we can identify an implicit message about how the pursuit of the (North) American Dream of upward mobility does not necessarily apply to groups who aren’t clearly defined as American or Canadian.
Asians make up a significant portion of the Canadian population, yet they are rarely included on House Hunters. Latinx Americans make up roughly 18% of the population in the United States, but are not featured in 18% of HGTV House Hunters episodes. These groups may be more likely to be seen as immigrant groups than other ethnic minorities.
This is ironic in at least two ways. House Hunters has a sister show all about emigration — House Hunters International — which follows participants as they move abroad to live in new countries. And, secondly, those demographic groups that are left off the show (if they truly are immigrant groups) are the most likely people to maintain an honest investment in the notion of the American Dream.
The absence of these groups is notable in terms of any social commentary analysis because silence is sometimes a commentary of its own. While the show may not directly or actively speak about race, its choices for whom to include on the show must inevitably be connected to its themes and ideas.
For a show that is rooted in a very specific subtext (the American Dream as characterized by home ownership) and extends to a broader set of ideas about not just economic mobility but geographic mobility, we are naturally invited to consider who is engaged in this Dream and who is mobile within this society. What does achieving the American Dream really look like?
Decoupling Home Ownership from Stereotypical Family Life
The notion of the American Dream is somewhat complicated. It’s often associated primarily with financial success, and home ownership is a symbol of that financial success, but romantic fulfillment is also a component of the stereotypical vision of the fulfillment of the American Dream. To “make it” in America is to be married with children.
House Hunters effectively decouples home ownership from this familial element. Many participants on the show are single. Sometimes they are single parents. Sometimes they are bachelors who bring their mothers with them on the show as advisors. And, sure, sometimes they are married with children, but the diversity of the participants in this area helps to define a new norm and a new typical vision of home ownership.
Thus, House Hunters offers a re-definition of the American Dream that emphasizes financial success and self-determination as the cornerstones of achievement. If the American Dream is a target as much as a description of a state of being — if it exists as an aspiration more than as a reality — HGTV’s House Hunters is shifting the goals by diminishing the role that marriage plays as one goal on the path to ultimate success.
Considered alongside the diverse demographics of the show, House Hunters is doing potentially significant work toward re-shaping the image of American success and American norms.