Dream Homemaker: A Review of Netflix’s Dream Home Makeover

Natalie Brown is a former blogger at By Common Consent and a PhD candidate in English and comparative literature. Her dissertation focuses on nineteenth-century writers who obsessively sought places to call home. Follow her on Twitter at @nataliebrownist.

In a year when many of us are confined to our homes, Netflix offers up its latest distraction in the form of Utah-based design show Dream Home Makeover—or, as I keep slipping and calling it for reasons my LDS friends will understand, “Dream Homemaker.” In many ways, it’s the latest installment of the cultural fantasy that remodeling a home can remodel a life—a fantasy of intervention through design that has feminist predecessors in the likes of Virginia Woolf and Charlotte Perkins Gilman. To Utah or LDS audiences, the career of the show’s star, Shea McGee, an influencer who converted the skills she learned improving her California home into a design studio business located in Utah, potentially offers an additional fantasy: a path toward monetizing skills learned at home in order to achieve recognition and financial success within a religious-cultural environment in which the imperative to stay home with children is also increasingly expensive and in which employment conditions are often unfriendly to families—a reality that has only become more apparent during the pandemic.

I’ll confess: I find myself dreaming about how I might emulate Shea McGee. For all the potential empowerment Dream Home Makeover dangles for women in an economic-cultural nexus that often leaves them placeless, however, it also inadvertently showcases the emotional and economic distortions arising from the tensions they face. Particularly in the early episodes, admirable attempts to find personal success through monetizing homemaking seem to risk inadvertently preying on the insecurities and pocketbooks of other women trapped within the same systems and who often constitute the target market.

“Like the beauty industry, the home-improvement industry plays on (usually gendered) insecurity—the fear that we are unattractive or inadequate,” explains McMansion Hell’s Kate Wagner in an essay for Curbed. Of course, the urge to make a space more beautiful and functional is often a good one. I understand from personal experience how living in a poorly-designed or cramped space can add rather than reduce work or make accomplishing daily tasks much harder. I know the pleasure of acquiring an object that makes me happy after years of saving because it reflects my taste and asserts that I matter as much as the kids I care for. I know that families grow and need change. What’s more troubling, however, are the moments in the show when the kind of learned dissatisfaction Wagner so well articulates intersects with McGee’s understated but visible profit motive.

Episode 1, “Forever Home,” for example, highlights a family hoping to solve by design the problem that they dislike their dated and spatially unoptimized living room so much that they do not want to invite people over to it—a phobia I have felt myself while dwelling in my current 1960s house. We might well ask, however, how so many of us have become embarrassed of our houses to begin with. How the urge to improve has become a source of dissatisfaction and social shame. Watching the show, it’s hard to avoid the feeling that the desire for a certain aesthetics is at times eclipsing rather than aiding function in ways that likely help the design industry more than anyone else. McGee herself, for example, is at one point focused on installing a beautiful tub in her own house that she rarely intends to use. For me, I am convinced that my own occasional obsessions with remodeling spring as much from the feelings that I am undervalued, lonely, and in need of personal goals while raising children as they do from the flaws of my space. Improving my house, I hope, might improve my relationships and provide a focus needed in the absence of a clear career.

To her credit, McGee is quite aware that legions of women long for but cannot afford the products she popularizes. In episode 2, “Manor House Designs,” McGee hosts a warehouse sale catered to those who cannot routinely afford high-end home goods and her design services. Yet the threat that the design industry produces more unhappy homes than happy ones lurks behind the comment of one shopper who confesses she missed half a wedding to attend the warehouse sale. Even clients who can afford the best, however, are not immune from the insecurities and competition sparked by a culture in which having the right home is sometimes construed as a precondition of social life and meaningful interpersonal interactions.

In episode 2, a couple who earned their money developing tract homes hires McGee to design a custom home for their own family. This stunning mansion features not only the dream white kitchen and master suite but also such entertainment features as a basketball court and bunkroom for cousin parties. The gracious family is upfront about their gratitude and desire to share their home with the community. Like the couple unhappy with their living room, they are also focused on the worthy goal of wanting a space that facilitates social life for them and others. Who doesn’t want to consume and invest in the name of family and friends? And, yet, does such space really facilitate the sociality and meaningful interactions for which we all seem to be grasping? Their generous fantasy of building a home in which friends and family can hang out sets the unsustainable expectation that one needs such a home in order to attract visitors, perhaps because it is often hard to arrange visits in our over-scheduled moment. I bought a swing set, for example, hoping in part that neighborhood children would want to play at our house, only to discover that there simply were not that many children with time to play. Moreover, as writer Meg Conley observes, this fantasy overlooks the fact that such visitors might also want to host parties in their own now too-modest homes. While being a hostess is a culturally endorsed way of giving back, it also keeps structures of wealth and reliance on private charity intact. As the Dream Home Makeover clients’ use of the word “my” reminds us, the house belongs to them however much they may be inclined to share.

Less visible in the show are the team of primarily female designers who work for Studio McGee and appear to assist McGee with her projects. What precisely do they do? How much are they paid? Where do they live? How do they balance their jobs with their own family lives? How many women are trying to follow in the footsteps of stars like McGee without realizing her results? The show is more silent on these questions than I would like.

I do not make these observations to condemn anyone on the show—they hold mirrors to many of my own dreams and attitudes. Rather, I want to observe how Dream Home Makeover inadvertently highlights the messiness of what it means to try to earn money and/or be a homemaker in a culture that sometimes pressures one to maintain a certain kind of home or stay-at-home lifestyle while not providing the financial resources to do it. I’ve watched with admiration and envy as women—particularly Mormon women—around me have established home businesses, hosted book parties, launched clothing boutiques, opened cookie shops, or built baby product empires in attempts to navigate these waters and create opportunities that work with their values. There is a strong argument that women should be paid for the homemaking labor they are encouraged to perform, but I worry that such compensation cannot sustainably or broadly come primarily from other underpaid, and often LDS, women who are also longing for validation and security. We are too often stuck selling services and products to each other that are targeted to the specific challenges or expectations of being an LDS woman in ways that sometimes seem to amount to merely shifting money or reinforcing our mutual insecurities.

The dream houses we build will not miraculously liberate us from the structural economic, gender, and racial distortions that mark all aspects of our lives, including home design. The houses we build will not resolve our loneliness or desire for recognition when the real culprit is often the economic systems that have scattered us from friends, family, and community. We need, I believe, to understand the unhappiness, economic precarity, and caregiving challenges that feed into our fantasies of home, hosting, and better living. We need, I think, to create vibrant communities less through individual design solutions than through changes to collectively address how we work, compensate caregiving, and provide a safety net so that everyone has a place to call home.

Yet whatever I might think of the structural forces driving Dream Home Makeover and our pervasive fantasies of home, McGee’s designs are stunning. Without a doubt, McGee is as talented, driven, and competent as she is camera-ready. Her designs blend modern and traditional, light and dark in ways that make it obvious why she is a social media star who sparks my admiration. Perhaps there is something whitewashed about these ready-to-photograph designs, but, this, I admit, is part of the appeal of them to me. With their airiness, white couches, and feel of solidity without the baggage of history, they offer me the fantasy of living for a moment without the complexity of a home life characterized by messes, children, and the injustices of our moment.


Cover photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Comments

  1. richellejolene says:

    This is fantastic, thanks for writing it! I’m curious how all of this intersects with the pandemic, when people are spending much more time in their home spaces but much less time hosting guests. It seems like DIY projects and home improvement were big pastimes in the early pandemic, probably related to some of the anxieties you mention here about trying to “design” our way out of overwhelming problems. Lots of food for thought!

  2. Meg Conley says:

    NATALIEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE.

    yes.

  3. This resonates with me so. very. much. Thanks for writing and for putting your finger on it.

  4. Fascinating essay. Thought provoking!
    As the stages of our life change, I wonder if our needs in a home change as well. Does my home facilitate a productive and happy life? Perhaps when home feels safe and fitting is when we discover that we ourselves are of love able and of worth even in our messy incompleteness.

  5. I concur with Meg and will add WOW! Well said.

  6. Porn for a different kind of lust.

  7. Natalie Brown says:

    Thank you for the kind responses! With respect to how this intersects with the pandemic, I look forward to seeing if the show address that in Season 2. In my circle, I have anecdotally seen people engage in a wide range of responses, including pulling the trigger on remodeling, finding new satisfaction in their houses and/or deciding to move. I personally have experienced far more gratitude for simply having a house that meets my needs, but I’ve also pined to live closer to family as the pandemic has revealed the fragility of the support networks I have in my current location.

  8. I watched a couple of episodes. I was struck by what I considered over the top materialism. 2- kid families living in 6k sqft homes. Huge 6 to 10k mortgages. That was my take away from it. I was cringing at the financial exposure that was on display.

  9. nobody, really says:

    Bbell – When I was younger, the “rule of thumb” for home purchases was that you could afford 2.5 times your gross income. Anything more than that, you were setting yourself up for some serious trouble.

    Just prior to the 2008 mortgage meltdown, I heard a mortgage loan officer tell a woman “If you’ve got $40,000 disability payments, there’s no reason we can’t get you into a $400,000 property.” This was a situation where she didn’t even have 2% for the down payment, so they were going to get the seller to jack up the purchase price, then make a donation to a shell company non-profit that could turn around and make the down payment for her.

    I’ve taught “5th Sunday” financial literacy lessons at church – topics like this, MLMs and other financial scams, affinity fraud, “rent to own”, “six months same as cash!” and so on. Sadly, the people who need the wisdom don’t attend. I wish these basics were better taught on every front – school, church, Netflix, parents, food pantries….

  10. I loved everything about this post. It’s interesting how these emotions escalate, too. Once you’ve had something nicer, you can’t downgrade. You start to compare your current situation to your last one. It just never ends. There’s always more you can renovate to keep up with your idea of what you “need,” and we do justify in our minds the idea that we are going to magnanimously share our largesse with others.

    There was an episode of Hoarders in which the show host asked the woman what she was going to do with all these things she kept buying. She had boxes of special holiday dishes and goblets, and had even bought two of the same set of fancy holiday goblets that were just sitting on her floor in the piles of stuff, collecting dust, never having been used or even unboxed. She said she bought them so her family would come and enjoy holiday meals together. Her daughter said “Mom, nobody is ever going to come here for a holiday dinner. Look at this place!” While obviously that’s taken to an extreme (hoarding can be tied to mental illness, and probably was in her case), the thought patterns are similar. We think we are buying experiences, not things.

    It also reminds me of the scripture about seeking after riches that says you will obtain them if you use them for righteous purposes or something like that. Well, that’s prosperity gospel in a nutshell, and it’s also this mindset. We can be the “righteous hosts” of others, but we also know it’s on our terms, in our control, at our convenience. We get to benefit from it. We were once having a discussion about an upcoming RS activity, and a woman wanted to host it at her place. Our ward had about 60-70% really wealthy people in huge custom homes, and about 30-40% in “normal” houses. The volunteer lived in a “normal” house. In the planning discussion, a woman who lived in one of the upscale homes said “She can’t really host it, though. She doesn’t have the right kind of house.” The other 3 of us in the meeting all lived in “normal” homes and objected to the idea that you had to live in a mansion to host an activity. But at the end of the day, that’s what ended up happening. It was hosted at *yet again* one of the fancy houses. I often wondered what percentage of this trend was really about the convenience and control of those in the big houses. I’ve been in plenty of wards where my “normal” house would have been deemed the awesome party house, just not in that ward. It’s all relative.

  11. The funny thing is that when you’re a young parent, with little children, you want the bigger house with lots of space and all the fun amenities. When the kids grow up and leave home, you want to downsize to a smaller home with a smaller yard with no amenities. It’s too much work. You’ve grown old and tired. Haha. I attend Utah County Parade of Homes and can’t help but think about all the time, effort and money that will go into up keeping these 15,000-square-foot homes. It just doesn’t interest me. Maybe 20 years ago, but certainly not today.

  12. I have watched with deep regret here in California how the current valuation of each person’s home is now the number one topic of conversation. The gospel, never! How to be a better person, never! Just the comparison. I even heard one young man mock a family member who “wasn’t worth $50,000.” Oh, Zion. Will God need to destroy all these homes prior to His Second Coming in order to prepare our hearts to be knit together? I do not know. I just know I no longer wish to associate with most of my fellow Latter Day Saints.

  13. Angela C, I agree with your observations. I too have seen an increasing tendency for people of wealth in the wards to begin to control the social functions, in some cases using their power to manipulate the interactions between ward members and specifically cutting out of those parties those who displeased them.. And, in my ward, always demanding recognition and control. And unfortunately, making those of lesser means feel inadequate. I know wards are not particularly comfortable places for baby or wedding showers. I still believe ward parties need to be at the church no matter how uncomfortable they are.
    As for this show, I personally do not like her designs. Her talent shows through but her taste is not mine. And she obviously has influence far beyond LDS women selling products to each other. Her wealth is estimated at $5 million, not a number you get to from a small limited group.
    I personally feel the issue is greater than this. Why are we so caught up in visual fantasies of perfect lives? How do we create satisfying work for mothers that offers enough financial remuneration to make it worth their time? Why have we decided that wealth equals happiness? Once this dynamic takes hold in a ward, heaven help them.

  14. I have to agree with the comments about how thoroughly we have come to worship wealth and appearance within the church. I know a wealthy man who flies out to his daughter’s ward to help her prepare her Sunday lesson whenever an apostle might be in attendance so the apostle will be impressed with the questions she uses to guide the discussions. The problem is that we do not desire Zion. We desire admiration from the masses or recognition from those in power, perhaps even more than non-members do. And the way this plays out in the church frightens me.

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