Does Fixer Upper Need Fixing Up?
HGTV’s Fixer Upper is my guilty pleasure. I could watch the iconic married duo Chip and Joanna “Jo” Gaines renovate houses for hours. They take run-down homes in Waco, Texas, and turn them into something straight off of Pinterest or Etsy. But while the show is certainly entertaining, I take issue with some of the more subliminal messages the show portrays.
First, it presents a rather gendered view of the design industry. Chip takes care of any heavy lifting in a gruff, “manly-man” kind of way, often yelling his catch-phrase, “it’s demo day!” Meanwhile, Joanna takes care of all the artistic, creative aspects, designing the overall aesthetic of the home. It’s a model that, while effective, is essentially split between what is traditionally considered “men’s work” and “women’s work.”
In addition to the manual labor, Chip is also the “money-man.” The rundown of the home renovation project’s budget is always left to Chip, and is most often directed to the male client, while Joanna chats with the girlfriend or wife (the show has never featured a same-sex couple). Not only is the physical work of revitalizing the house delegated to the man, but the financial components are too, further exemplifying the traditional division of labor in a heterosexual couple.
What’s more, the Gaines children are also subjected to this narrow understanding of gender. While the kids are rarely shown on the show (the Gaines’s have expressed wishes to allow them to have a “normal” childhood without being affected by their parents’ fame), when they do make an appearance it’s always in very gendered ways. For example, only the male children are ever invited to join Chip in his work on demo day, and only the girls are asked to help Joanna with her design vision. A recent Country Living article on the Gaines family highlights this phenomenon; the Gaines boys apparently enjoy “football, cowboy[s], and baseball,” while the girls like to “bake, sew, and plant.”
That’s not to say the show has no feminist elements. Joanna is a successful female professional, and Chip is often seen taking on childcare duties. And, there’s nothing immediately wrong with Chip doing the manual labor and Joanna the design, or with the boys liking sports and cowboys and the girls cooking and gardening; however, it’s significant that their roles fall along such traditional gender lines. The part I take issue with is that this division of labor seems so “normal,” whereas the opposite would seem strange to a lot of people.
More importantly, whenever one host appears to “cross” the divide into the other’s area of expertise, it is immediately dramatized and stands out as being starkly different from the rest of the show. Is it possible that the subtle “baby”s and “sweetheart”s that suddenly enter Chip’s vocabulary when Joanna helps with demo day come from a set of (sub)conscious preconceptions about gender norms? I don’t know, but by highlighting that instances such as these are somehow abnormal, the show perpetuates the idea that the traditional division of labor is what’s normal, and perhaps, correct.
Would I consider Fixer Upper a feminist television program? Probably not. But nor would I consider it the opposite. I’m puzzled by Chip and Joanna’s reluctance to comment on the subject, too, even after numerous articles have been published speculating about their views on this matter.
I guess what concerns me the most, though, is the question of authenticity when it comes to Chip and Jo’s on-screen roles. Of course, as a pseudo-reality television show, Fixer Upper has little obligation to portray actual reality. If any one of these issues surrounding gender were portrayed in isolation, I might accept it as the authentic representation of the Gaines’ lives and leave it at that. It’s when I look at all of these issues together—from the distribution of labor, to the money, to the expected roles of their children—that I’m forced to question if this is an accurate representation of the Gaines family, or if HGTV is very masterfully and purposefully crafting this specific image.
Despite these concerns, I still watch Fixer Upper (bowl of coffee ice cream with peanut butter in-hand), and I still enjoy it; after all, I just can’t seem to get enough of those butcher-block countertops. And then there’s the shiplap. But after each episode, I’m left pondering an important question: can people embody stereotypical gender roles without it being sexist? Is Joanna Gaines conforming to the sexist notions of her existence, or is she just being herself? That’s a question that only she can answer, although it certainly won’t stop me from searching for clues in the next episode.
This piece was written as part of JWA’s Rising Voices Fellowship.