Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Extreme Makeover Home Edition: Miracle or Manipulation?

[Warning: Long and rambling post ahead. Proceed with Caution!]

Last night I had dinner with some friends, who invited over visiting scholars from China (one of whom made an enormous and delicious 8 course meal for us). I am always a bit anxious around Chinese nationals, especially visiting scholars, because I know that I'm an object of wonder and scrutiny for them. The usual round of questions begin with whether or not I am, indeed, of Chinese heritage, where my parents are from (which, when I get to my mother's Jamaican background, leaves them baffled, and I often wonder if they think something has been lost in translation). Anyway, after we go through the fact that I speak neither Mandarin nor Cantonese and that I've only traveled to Hong Kong for a week (with a day trip to Guanzhou), I'm usually treated the way you treat a stray mutt--with a mix of curiosity, wariness, and pity. When I asked one of the scholars whether she'd ever met anyone like me before, she shook her head and smiled, saying, "You are the first Chinese American I have ever encountered," with a tone of reverence you'd use for discovering a rare and exotic bird species.

I know for these two visiting scholars, I am an anomaly. On the one hand, during dinner they often turned to me to act as a cultural translator between themselves and their white American hosts--this was especially true over issues of food and cooking and hospitality--where the rules for a Chinese dinner are very different than American norms often are. And yet, I couldn't help feeling like my cultural translations were far from perfect. In fact, I think my anxiety in being around Chinese nationals is always feeling like a fraud--and it's never clear wear the fraudulence lies--in my not being Chinese enough or not being American enough or a combination of the two.

Don't get me wrong--I'm not trying to say that I'm an anxiety riddled mess. I've worked out a lot of cultural and ethnic identity issues over the years. And yet, I share all of this with you to suggest that even as a woman in her late 30s who works in issues of race, these things are never easy or straightforward.

Which brings me to today's topic: Extreme Makeover Home Edition.

What is the connection between my feelings of fraudulence and ambivalence over my ethnic and national identity and this show? The airing of one particular episode that I caught after the Masters aired in mid-April--the one featuring the Kadzis family of Tallahassee, FL.

Now, I'd never seen an episode of Extreme Makeover. So I didn't understand that there was a formula or that families are picked because of their extreme need or that community members help out to raise money for the family and, most importantly, supply the labor and materials to build the home in a week.

However, even knowing all of this now, it seems to me that the episode (which is, to date, the only episode I've ever seen of this show) seemed to be the most EXTREME of Extreme Home Makeover cases.

Let me try to sketch out the background of the Kadzis family for you:

*Father, George, is a dentist who works for the Florida prison system
*Mother, Barbara, is a public school teacher, who had 3 adult sons from a previous marriage
*Bio-Son, Chris, a teenager, who is really into music
*Adopted-Son, Martin, around ten-years old, missing bones in his right arm, really into trains.
*Adopted Daughter, Aileen, teenager, abandoned by mother when she was eleven when father died of cancer, likes the ocean (or stars, I can't remember which)
*Adopted Daughter, Julia, teenager, deaf, likes the stars (or ocean--see above)
*Adopted Daughter Melody, teenager, blind, likes to read the Bible in braille
*Adopted Daughter Phoenix, nine-years old, first adopted child, has had numerous operations for cleft palate, wants to be a teacher.
*Adopted Daughter Celeste, six-years old, second adopted child, has had numerous operations for cleft palate, wants to be a teacher.

I should also mention three things at this point. All of the adopted children are from China; George, Barbara, and Chris are all white, so this is a mixed-race family. And most significantly for the pathos of this show: George was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. In fact, the day before EMHE arrived in their big bus to blow up the house and start to build their new dream home, George collapsed and had to be taken to the hospital. He had lost his vision, and the doctors said it would be a matter of weeks maybe even days (or hours) before he would go.

That was my introduction to this show. Actually, it was a home video of George and Barbara and their kids, with a very tearful George explaining that he knew he was going to die, and his last dying wish was to have his family feel secure in a good home. The current state of the house that the Kadzis were living in was deplorable--the home was literally falling apart, and nine people were sharing one bathroom (that alone blew my mind, let alone thinking about how Melody had to navigate through the minefield of the house as a blind person or the fact that Martin had to sleep in the living room and didn't have a proper bedroom).

The entire show lasted two hours. It was Easter weekend, and my best guess is that the producers of EMHE picked the most heart-wrenching, gut-twisting, tear-jerker of an episode to coincide with Easter Sunday. I had tears coming down my face in the first 5 minutes and kept having to dab at my eyes throughout the two hours (and I'm not overly sentimental). And the whole time I was riveted to my television set I just felt hugely ambivalent and conflicted over what I was watching. Because...

*I felt like I was being manipulated by ABC. I mean, yes, you'd have to be a monster not to feel for this family. Any diagnosis of cancer is heartbreaking for a family, but the fact that they were a family in SO MUCH NEED just tugged at your heartstrings. AND the fact that they seemed to be GOOD PEOPLE who really loved one another--but I'll get to that in a minute.

*I felt like a voyeur. I mean here is the suffering and grief of one family displayed on national mainstream television for everyone to see.

*I felt relieved and glad that this family had been selected and would gain assistance from ABC, their corporate, consumer sponsors, and the local community.

*I felt heartened by the overwhelming community support and the support of the EMHE team--many of whom were shown dabbing away at their eyes and/or openly crying.

*I felt absolutely cynical that ABC was doing this all for ratings and that, like in the first bullet point, I was being manipulated into FEELING for this family, and that my feelings would therefore translate into higher Nielsen ratings for ABC and potentially more consumer dollars being spent at Sears, Bed, Bath and Beyond, and the host of other corporate sponsors who helped to furnish the Kadzis's new home.

*I felt enormous empathy for what this family was going through--the impending loss of their father and the struggle to live their lives without him (and for Barbara to be a single Mom raising so many children).

*I felt angry at the language of "rescue" continually being evoked by the EMHE crew and volunteers about the adopted children.

It's this last point that I've especially been mulling over. Because I felt like SO MUCH EMPHASIS was put on the children's racial/ethnic difference from the rest of their community (which from the looks of the volunteers appeared to be a largely white and black community). There were also several white parents with adopted Chinese children who were friends with the Kadzis who were also featured quite prominently. And SO MUCH WAS MADE of the fact that Barbara and George adopted children who were older, who were "special needs," and who had been living in Chinese institutions/orphanages without the benefit of education or, in the case of the blind and deaf daughters, language/communication.

And THAT element--the racial element, the ethnic/cultural element (as you can imagine there was some bamboo flute playing and some Chinese/Asian aestheticiziation going on in the remade home that made me cringe) is one of the things I feel has gone unremarked upon as I've searched for commentary about the Kadzis family and EMHE.

Let me be clear and say, I'm not criticizing the Kadzis family. Certainly not Barbara nor George (who, dramatically, passed away 3 days after the house was completed. He never got to see nor set foot in his new home, but at least he died knowing his family had a safe and lovely home to live in), who appeared to genuinely love their children and especially Barbara, when one of her children thanked her for saving her from the life she had in China, told her "No, we didn't rescue you. You rescued us. We thank YOU for being part of our family" (I'm paraphrasing here). But I do think that the producers and the host and team of EMHE milked the ethnic/adopted/transnational/disabled angle for all it was worth.

In other words, I felt distinctly like what I was supposed to feel was PITY for these children, ADMIRATION for George and Barbara for saving them from a life in China of misery and neglect, and THANKFULNESS for ABC/EMHE/Tallahassee community for, in turn, rescuing the Kadzis family from the neglect that was about to befall them upon George's certain death.

And yet...I WAS glad. I mean, I DID feel enormous relief in knowing that this family would be getting a new home--that it was outfitted to support Melody and Julia in terms of their distinct accomodation/needs given their sight and sound challenges. That they were given money by ABC for the mortgage and that the children, as they went into their mourning over the loss of their father, were outfitted, literally, with new clothes from Sears and with computers and musical instruments--and most astounding of all, a surprise visit from Stevie Wonder--WHOM I LOVE AND ADORE. Yes, I love and adore Stevie Wonder, although musically speaking, I prefer the Wonder of "Sir Duke" rather than "I Just Called to Say I Love You"--one of the most treacly songs in the world.

[Aside: It is also my parents' favorite song--it's "their song" so to speak, so I have to respect it and give the man his props even for a song whose banality makes me want to weep]

I am rambling, I know. But I have been pondering what to say about Extreme Makeover Home Edition and how I feel about how I was manipulated by ABC and about the disturbing language and subtext about transnational/transracial adoption from China. AND YET how effective that manipulation was--how real the pain of this family is--how real their grief--how real their love.

So. For any of you in the blogosphere who has seen either this particular episode or who are (ir)regular viewers of Extreme Makeover, what do YOU think? Was it a miracle or manipulation on ABC's part (or, as I very well know, something much more complex than the false binary I am constructing).

10 comments:

Julia said...

Hi there,
Thanks for this post. I didn't see this particular episode, but everything you noticed jives with episodes I've seen in the past. The stuff around adoption sounds pretty gross, but I think they're generally willing to milk anything for all that it's worth.

I don't watch the show anymore, but I went through a period of semi-fascination with it. And then I became too sickened to continue.

I have So many problems with the show, but I'll stick to my biggest beefs here:
1)The materialism--they can't just build a nice, modest house; no, they have to go completely totally over the top. And the excess is so clear in the kids' rooms. Of course you want these people to get a big break, but should it really be about big screen televisions and brand new top-of-the-line pick-up truck, just thrown in as a bonus? The message underlying the show seems to be that a house with all this stuff in it is the solution to a family's problems. That bit makes me queasy.
2)The premise of doing something with the family's needs in mind while making totally impractical choices:
-At the most benign level, this is stuff like designing a special bedroom for a mother to relax in but making the room almost completely white--carpets, bedclothes, etc. Meanwhile, this mother has twin TODDLERS. No way that room will still be white after a week.
-Or, it might be something like personalizing a child's room to the extent that the room can't age with the child. Yeah, that treehouse is great now, when the kid is eight, but what are they going to do when he's 15 and sick of it? These aren't families that have money to remodel. And if little Joey breaks one of the expensive pool cues? I'm guessing that there won't be money to replace it.
-But in its yuckier incarnation, this impracticality completely ignores the economic status of the family. They build them HUGE houses, which much cost beaucoup bucks to heat and air condition, to say nothing of higher electricity costs.

Furthermore, they build HUGE fancy houses in neighborhoods with far more modest houses. If the family ever wants to sell their McMansion, I predict they're going to have a heck of alot of trouble. And does a house like that become an obvious target for thieves? Moreover, I worry that the family gets placed in a very weird social situation vis-a-vis their neighbors. I mean, how would it feel to have a house outfitted with every brand new household appliance imaginable, while your neighbors continue to trek to the laundromat? I don't know... I can't put my finger on it, but the whole thing seems awfully irresponsible somehow, and very self-serving. (Like, is the goal to help a family? Or just to LOOK LIKe you're helping a family?)

Y'know?

Jennifer said...

Julia,
I have you on these issues--esp. the one about the home being SO LARGE and the emphasis on consumption being SO PERVASIVE.

Also, when I did some google searching about this show, it apparently has garnered criticism for the reasons you mentioned--that these families can't afford the upkeep on these homes--or the taxes are increased or they borrow against the mortgage and a few of these homes are now in foreclosure.

I esp. think that the issue you raise about the disparity of the neighbors' homes and this new FABULOUS dream house is really apt.

In the particular episode I saw, I did think that given the special needs of the children, many of the "extras" were actually useful for someone who is blind (they textured the walls differently in the different rooms so she could tell, by touch, which room she was in, which was pretty cool) or deaf (like those lights that they put throughout the home or special telephones and computers).

But yes, the rooms themselves seemed to be too "cutsie" and the younger kids esp. will quickly grow out of sleeping in a train caboose or a schoolhouse.

Anyway, I don't know if you can answer this question since you aren't a regular viewer anymore, but I was wondering how the show treated families of color--the orientalizing wasn't over-the-top, but it was DEFINITELY there (like they had a dragon and Chinese people setting off fire crackers when they were about to blow the house up--which honestly I wondered where they came from, like did ABC fly them in from Atlanta or DC?)

Anyway if anyone knows about how Extreme Makeover treats people of color on the show, I'd love to know!

Julia said...

Hey Jennifer,
I'm so frustrated--blogger has eaten my comment TWICE. But I will try again...

So I only remember two episodes with families of color, and both were black. I don't remember anything feeling particularly off, but now you have me wondering... I do remember that in one episode--this was actually the one with the all-white bedroom and the toddlers--that the host designed a quilt for the bedroom that was loosely based on a Gee's Bend design. I can't remember why he did this--maybe the mother really liked quilts, or maybe he just came up with it all on his own. So it's hard to say whether it was an appropriate gesture toward honoring heritage or something else... Oh, but you might just get me watching it again, because now I'm curious. What have you done?!

thanks for the info on the google stuff. interesting, but also sad. I was hoping I was overreacting and that someone behind the show HAD actually had some forethought. Guess not.

Thanks for an interesting conversation. Cheers.

Anonymous said...

I just watched this show for the first time this weekend. I also felt manipulated by the network. The episode I watched showed an african american family of five or six who had lost their dream home in a fire. They kept showing the family in hysterics, over losing their first home, finding out they would be on dancing with the stars and gaining their second home, the show was making them look foolish with all the carrying on. Why would the show want to make them look silly? Passive aggressive behavior on the part of the network, racism, etc. "We'll give you a free home but we'll make you look like fools". The next episode was about a family living in chicken coop but I didn't tune in. This show is sickening and it's sad that our country has come to this.

Anonymous said...

Jennifer, I'm commenting again because I just saw your question about "how does the show treat people of color", in my other comment I said I felt this show was extremely racist. When I was watching this show I kept thinking about Lorraine Cary's book, Black Ice. In the book she goes with her black family to a prestigious white prep school in the Northeast for an admissions interview. While she and her family are walking around the campus she says she feels like the white students are just waiting for them to slip and fall off the icy banks, asses straight up in the air to be laughed at. Of course they didn't fall or make fools of themselves but I feel like this show took Ms. Cary's worst nightmare scenario and made it come true.

morningbird said...

You don't understand the culture that you walk into when you have a disabled child. At least it doesn't seem like you do. I have three disabled children and because of a tragic accident I have a disabled husband. (www.extremehome4jade.webs.com)
I would do almost anything to get EMHE to come and knock down my house and build us a home where my daughter can be independent and my husband doesn't have to worry about not being ok enough to fix things that break, or just improve the home to begin with.
I can understand how you may feel manipulated but in the end everyone really does end up getting something out of it, and I believe that the family is the one that benefits the most, but then again I am on the other side of the coin.

Jennifer said...

morningbird,

Did you read this post? it's very long and from your comment I don't think you read my entire post because if you did, I don't think you would have posted such a defensive comment because your comment did not engage with any of the salient points of this post. Please feel free and leave another comment after you have read the entire post and can digest all that I'm saying--I'd be happy to engage with you then.

Endora said...

Stumbled upon your blog after watching the same episode you watched, the Kadzis family.
While I agree with most of your thoughts and opinions and I have personally felt manipulated on a number of ocasions by the show aswell, I don't necessarely see it as a bad thing and here's why:
- The show portrays situations, diseases and stories, the average, cinical Joe is not familiar with and/or chooses to overlook. The tone of the show, with it's grandiosity and often times feel-good atmosphere, lures the average Joe's attention towards this particular reality and, in some cases, raises some previously non existent awareness. Sure, for someone like you or me who are in fact familiar with what being a minority feels like or for people who actually have a social concience, it feels over the top and makes you cringe, but the average un-involved, non caring american needs, in my opinion, to watch such an over the top display in order to feel some emapthy or at least simpathy.
- As far as the race issue, I do believe that it has to do with a phenomenon we encounter on a daily basis, regarding the overcompensation of the politically correct attitude. If the person is Asian, let's throw some dragons, if the person is Latin, let's throw some colour in, if the person is Russian, it's Matrushkapalooza. I feel as if the white, PC people thinks (wrongly) that if they DON'T do things like those, they will be critizised for building "white" houses without respecting the cultural heritage of the families, so they go through over the top, often times inadequate lengths to avoid that. I personally detest that political correctness.



PS: I think the previous poster who you felt was defensive was refering to the further comments-discusion, more than your column itself, IMO.

Jova said...

An ancient proverb cautions against criticizing a man before walking two weeks in his moccasins. Another adage exalts silence as preferable to negative remarks on any subject. In general, both statements are sound advice, but on this issue, they constitute uniquely sensible reminders of the basics of decent human behavior.

Isabella and the Forest of Dreams said...

Wow am I ever late to the party with this blog thread! Nevertheless, I thought I'd weigh in because not only do I know the Kadzis family, but I participated in that particular episode of EMHE. AND - I'm half of one of those Caucasian couples with Chinese kids featured on the show. I'd be happy to elaborate on all of this if anyone is interested. The topic is pretty old news by now, but I'll rehash the experience if called upon. Steve -- foleyvideo@comcast.net