We Are All Fixer Uppers

by: John Hearn

“Our fragmented, rapidly changing society, unable to provide a structural basis for sufficiently intimate and lasting bonds, has generated a culture industry happy to meet that need, even if the relationships offered are fictional.”An examination of the popularity of HGTV’s hit TV show Fixer Upper as it relates to society’s ever changing norms…

Every episode of the wildly popular HGTV series Fixer Upper is pretty much the same. A married couple named Chip and Joanna (JoJo) is chatting at home on the farm, with their four young children liberating new puppies from a cardboard box, or sitting at a crayon-strewn table drawing love notes to their parents. The parents soon leave to accompany another couple to three houses for sale, all of them dated and in need of renovation. A decision is made, a house is bought, and Chip and Jojo get to work. The man is in charge of the construction, and the woman the design. At the end of the hour, the buyers are stunned by and delighted with the transformation.

Formulaic or not, according to HGTV, the series’ third season attracted twenty five million viewers. It is the number-one-ranked cable program among twenty-five to fifty-four year olds, as well as among those in that age cohort categorized as “upscale,” and seventy three percent of its viewers are women. The show’s stars, Chip and Joanna Gaines, share a total of four and a half million Instagram followers. Waco, Texas, where the series is shot, attracts thirty-five thousand visitors weekly, fans anxious to experience the Gaines’ world.

Fixer Uppers likely benefits from both the resurgence of the housing market and the winning personalities of its stars, but neither the economics of the housing industry nor the psychology of its cast fully explains the extent of Fixer Upper’s popularity or the depth of its fans’ devotion. The sociology of the changing family provides a useful level of added understanding, beginning with years of research documenting humankind’s movement away from the traditional family structure. Not only has the married-father-mother-biological-children model been replaced by a myriad of increasingly acceptable alternatives, but the transience of families, the continual cycle of formation and dissolution and replacement, has greatly accelerated. This churning has been labeled the “marriage-go-round” effect, and, like the carousel ride after which it was named, it can be dizzying and disorienting.

Even as marriages and families have become less permanent and increasingly fragile, the quest for love and intimacy, once associated with those institutions, goes on. Popular culture’s assurances that this pursuit will eventually be successful seem insincere to many; after all, studies of, as well as personal experience with, hooking up, friends-with-benefits, polyamory, and single-hood, often reveal them to be inadequate substitutes for a more committed union.

Our fragmented, rapidly changing society, unable to provide a structural basis for sufficiently intimate and lasting bonds, has generated a culture industry happy to meet that need, even if the relationships offered are fictional, and providing it can prove itself profitably. An example of how values protect economics can be found in the profusion of family-based 1950’s situation comedies. As a working class child watching Leave It To Beaver and fantasizing of a life on Pine Street in Mayfield, I had no idea I was longing for what our industrial economy wanted from me: a full-time job, a thirty-year mortgage, two kids and a stay-at-home wife who yearned for that elusive second bathroom. Similarly, today’s fans of Fixer Upper may not see that our wage-stagnant, consumer economy needs parents who are both income earners, which requires compassionate husbands willing to take on a greater share of household and child-rearing responsibilities. While the traditional gender roles baked into Ward and June Cleaver’s union would not meet the needs of today’s economy, Chip and Joanna Gaines’ marital roles do.

The Gaines’s marriage, as seen on Fixer Uppers, is egalitarian. Both partners work outside the home to provide for the family, both share in decision making, and both spend time interacting with and teaching their four children. Chip and Joanna’s affection for each appears heartfelt. In the series their love is palpable, in moments where they chit chat as they sit in the cab of their pick-up truck or when they describe how they met and reminisce about their first date. What they have is what so many Americans have wanted for decades, yet it is slightly different: a deep and presumably lasting intimacy. However in Chip and Jojo’s situation the relationship is based on equality and mutual respect. By the end of each episode, viewers are rooting for the Gaines family, and are comforted in knowing they’ll be revisiting them again, week after week.

Our new economy, however, and the society built upon it, continue to change, and in ways that have already stamped an expiration date on the egalitarian marriage model. We live in a postmodern world in which stability has been replaced with fluidity, predictability with risk, loyalty with gain, and family with individuals. Many couples no longer make a “til death do us part” commitment because they realize that even marriage is no longer that kind of relationship, and because an uncertain future necessitates keeping our options open. It is commonplace to come upon a jointly-issued statement announcing the separation of any couple, celebrity unions included. Fans of Fixer Uppers intuitively know, even when pretending not to, that they may not see the Gaines’ family in a week, or ever again, except in reruns. When that day comes, what will those of us who long for the love of the Gaines’ do?

The older among us internalized a culture protective of a now extinct economy, and have since adapted to the more egalitarian values. Younger generations, isolated and disenchanted, are drawn to the Gaines’ relationship model as well. For both groups, their relationship to the series is reciprocal: Viewers drive the program’s ratings and it in turn powers their hope, convincing them that the past life they once dreamed of — idealized in our favorite television programs, modified to fit the present — survives, and is less a reminder of a dying past than it is a vision of a past retrofitted for a vibrant future. After all, each week Chip and JoJo do not just rebuild a house, they also resurrect a revised version of a still longed-for social form, and in the process they restore us, their observers. as well. They leave us with a promise — or maybe a prayer — that a soulful aching for intimacy will one day be fulfilled, finally and forever. They renew confidence in the possibility of a lasting love. Like the Waco area residences they rebuild, American institutions and its constituents, all of us, are also their “fixer uppers,” broken and in need of shoring up.

Given modernity’s relentless surge toward individualism, the popularity of the Gaines’ relationship will eventually succumb to the fate of television families of past generations.  It has been fashionable for decades to criticize the Cleaver family for being oppressively patriarchal and blatantly misogynistic.Our ascending ideology will soon enough similarly condemn the Gaines’ family for being too exclusive — given its biological basis, its traditional gender roles, its entrenched patriarchy, its wanton inattentiveness to gender-neutral child-rearing practices, and its strong Christian faith.

Fear of being labeled “oppressively nostalgic,” has left many of us reluctant to admit we were fans of Leave It To Beaver. Soon enough, we’ll be embarrassed to divulge that we once rooted for the Gaines family. When that day comes, we, or our children or grandchildren, will look to the then reigning model of lasting love with envy and hope, and with the realization that we have no clue where that elusive goal can be found.

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