Grimm tales of a city obsessed with turning all into gold

First published by the Sydney Morning Herald, 13 August 2003

It has almost become a cliche for TV reviewers to criticise the reality gap in popular dramas. The Secret Life of Us, for example, was criticised by Geoff Munro, director of the Centre for Youth Drug Studies, for failing to include any characters who don’t drink.

And political types roll their eyes when one of the show’s characters, Gabby – a former political staffer, union boss and now Labor Party candidate – comes across as uncomfortably naive, with her inability to understand game playing in local politics.

Perhaps the real naivety is in expecting shows based on escapism or fantasy to mirror real life. If we wanted this, we’d all be stalking doctors, lawyers and police officers to catch every excruciatingly dull second. Or we’d hire an Andy Warhol film.

But while we are so quick to criticise the lack of realism in these fantasy worlds, we seem very willing to buy into the fantasy of home renovating reality TV.

We seem quick to forget that reality TV producers – just like drama screenwriters – are naturally going to edit out the boring bits, simplify the complicated bits, and fast forward the time-consuming bits. No one was ever going to tune in to two years of The Block: Getting the Development Application Through Council.

And after the recent debate about real estate prices, perhaps it’s time to ask just how much these are caused by our willingness to believe fairytale stories of magic makeovers.

In real life, our desire to emulate these shows creates a market where the ante is constantly being upped: better homes, more expensive furnishings and builders who raise their prices as demand goes through the roof.

In these fairytales, Jamie Durie is little Rumpelstiltskin. He helps contestants locked in small rooms by King Packer to spin termite-infested floors and decorative straw artworks into real estate and ratings gold. Johanna Griggs is the fairy godmother whose magic wand can turn a horrendous pumpkin patch into an urban paradise.

Catherine Orenstein, the author of Little Red Riding Hood Uncloaked: Sex, Morality and the Evolution of a Fairy Tale, says the obsession in fairytales with the perfect home has its origins in the early 20th century, “when Americans began to glorify marriage and domesticity”. It started in Disney’s first full-length animated feature, the 1937 film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which has the cartoon heroine “whistling and singing with rabbits and deer while she cooks and scrubs the dwarfs’ pad”.

While Jamie and Johanna are righting wrongs, some of us are getting a little carried away with the fortune part of the tale. If the great Australian dream was once to buy your own home, it now seems to be to sell it for $100,000 above the reserve.

Now even children who haven’t yet learnt to read Little Red Riding Hood are getting caught up in the renovating frenzy. One real estate writer recounted being phoned by a four-year-old who demanded to know which was the “best apartment in The Block and how much it will sell for”. It wasn’t so long ago when 24-year-olds who showed even a passing interest in real estate were considered prematurely aged freaks.

With house prices the way they are, perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that, for kids, owning your own home has become a fairytale story.

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