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Is Fixer Upper a stealth feminist fantasy?

Joanna Gaines is renovating the traditional role of wife/mother

I am, very seriously, considering whether to buy Joanna Gaines’s favorite crossbody bag. I know it’s her favorite because it was labeled as such in the photo that arrived in my inbox last week, courtesy of Magnolia Market’s near-daily email marketing. "Its modern design reflects Joanna’s impeccable taste," reads the website description of the bag—all buttery, distressed leather, dangling against a wall of shiplap. "And it is handmade by women who would otherwise be vulnerable to labor trafficking." All for $160! I pinned it. I put it in my shopping cart. I daydreamed about how good it would look with my Frye ankle boots and skinny jeans when I’m dropping my three-year-old off at daycare, but also if I were to stand, tan and goddess-haired, on the porch of a shabby chic farmhouse and squint into a Texan sunset. The bag sold out in a week; I breathlessly await an email notification about restocking.

I do not normally buy products endorsed by celebrities. I live in New York, pronounce "Houston" accordingly, and don’t romanticize Texas. But such is the power of HGTV’s Fixer Upper, the home renovation juggernaut starring Chip and Joanna Gaines. They are now shooting the fourth season of the show, but they’ve quickly become so much more than television hosts.

There’s also a book, written with a cowriter and so hotly anticipated that I had to sign a non-disclosure agreement to score one of 100 embargoed advance copies prior to today’s release date. There’s an online boutique stocked with rustic wall clocks and a wood box described as a "mason jar tote" and priced at $68.

Their Magnolia brand is now housed in a brick and mortar emporium sprawling over the 2.5-acre site of an old cottonseed oil mill in Waco, Texas, where thousands of tourists flock every week to buy $84 metal signs stamped with the inspirational sayings that Joanna is fond of putting on clients’ walls, like "today is a good day for a good day." And in addition to retail, it includes a real estate company, a bed and breakfast, a paint collection, a furniture line, and, as of this month, a magazine.

Some of these products, like the dilapidated wrecks renovated on the show and my crossbody bag, offer the vague promise of salvation. Think of Waco, slowly being redeemed from its Branch Davidians rep, as Taffy Brodesser-Akner explores in a recent Texas Monthly story. Think of those women, wherever they are, bravely stitching that leather to ward off labor traffickers. The rest just coordinates with that aesthetic. Fixer Upper has become a full-service lifestyle brand, and for many of the five million people who watched the season three finale, something akin to a religion.

So what is it about the Gaines family that has made Fixer Upper the number one cable show in its time slot among viewers aged 25 to 54—and, in particular, that has captured the hearts of my demographic ("upscale women" aged 25 to 54)? In part, it is the Pinterest-worthy design: white marble countertops, farmhouse tables, and, of course, the iconic use of shiplap. And it’s also the insane likability of Chip and Joanna themselves.

"I am in love with them," says Sherry Petersik, herself one half of a well-known married design duo and cofounder of the blog Young House Love, which featured the Gaineses’ farmhouse kitchen renovation back before they were HGTV stars. "I’ve watched probably one million hours of HGTV, and I remember as soon as I saw their first episode, thinking they are just ‘It.’ They are who you want to be and also who you could go out to dinner with and have a great time."

Petersik notes that Chip, in particular, fills a void on HGTV, since he’s far more rumpled and cartoonish than the channel’s usual slick-designer hosts. The Gaines’ relationship is also unique; they display a warm and authentic chemistry that is yet to be replicated on any other design show (apologies to the stilted dynamic of Flip or Flop’s Tarek and Christina El Moussa). But really, it’s all about Joanna.

"I’ve watched probably one million hours of HGTV, and I remember as soon as I saw their first episode, thinking they are just ‘It.’ They are who you want to be and also who you could go out to dinner with and have a great time."—Sherry Petersik

There’s a moment in season three when Joanna puts on a silly voice and Chip shakes his head and deadpans, "Stay marketable, baby." At first, I winced. Why does he get to be the goofball who eats a cockroach on camera while she plays the politely smiling-while-eye-rolling wife? Has he not seen her do a cartwheel?

But that particular word choice—"Stay marketable, baby"—is actually about something else. It’s Chip saying what we all know: There could be a Fixer Upper without him. But there would be no Fixer Upper, no Magnolia Market, no empire without Joanna.

He brings some real estate savvy, though the Fixer Upper casting call indicates that most homeowners come to the show having already purchased their house. And he’s great on demo day, though it was Joanna who pulled a barn porch down with a pickup truck in episode seven of season three. But Chip is nevertheless the show’s Uncle Joey or Phil of Modern Family; the lovable, shenanigan-prone sidekick who coins a popular catch phrase (see: "Silobration" and "Barndominium," not to mention his frequent use of what may be the Gaines family mantra: "Get after it!"). He’s not the star.

"Long term, this is gonna be about her," Chip told The Wacoan in 2014. "We’re gonna build her up." Joanna is the architect of their lifestyle and, therefore, she is the brand. Fixer Upper is a stealth feminist fantasy, albeit a complicated one.

To be clear, I’m talking here mostly about the character of Joanna Gaines as she is portrayed on Fixer Upper, on her blog, and in all Magnolia branded products, as both of the real, live, human Gaineses declined to be interviewed for this piece, per their rep, "due to time constraints." But to understand the subversive power of the Joanna that we can all see and stream anytime, it helps to know more about the cultural context that produced her.

Although it is referenced only obliquely on the show, Chip and Joanna are longtime members of the Antioch Community Church, an evangelical megachurch in Waco led by Senior Pastor Jimmy Seibert. It’s a church that condemns same-sex marriage and supports a local pro-life pregnancy center, and while it states on its official Beliefs page that "the husband and wife are of equal worth before God," it quickly clarifies that "a wife is to submit herself graciously to the servant leadership of her husband … [and] has the God-given responsibility to respect her husband and to serve as his companion in managing the household and nurturing the next generation."

Joanna graduated from a private Christian high school in Waco; her father owned a local tire repair shop that stocked Bible pamphlets by the cash register. In a testimonial video now viewed over five million times on YouTube, she talks about opening the original Magnolia retail shop—and then closing it in 2005, because God told her to do so.

"I was also pregnant with my second child, and I really felt like God was saying ‘Hey, I want you home, I want you raising those babies at home, at this age’," she says. The apparent purpose of the video is to illustrate how listening to God paid off for the Gaineses; Joanna says God told her, "Just trust me" as she closed the store, and then segues to getting the call from Fixer Upper’s production company as if it was dialed directly from heaven. "Now I look back and go, ‘God, your promise that you spoke years ago, I’m now seeing. I trusted you with my dream and you’ve taken it far beyond what I could have ever dreamed or imagined’," she says.

But she also admits to crying as they closed the first Magnolia store, "because again, I feel like it’s the end of a dream." In a 2012, pre-Fixer Upper interview with the blog Design Mom, she elaborated on how she "still longed to do design," so she joined Chip in launching their home renovation business and hosted sales of all her incredible vintage finds out of her house three times a year. She was also writing her own lifestyle blog, the now-defunct Magnolia Mom.

It was the perfect time to be tapping into the online design world; before Instagram had turned every one of us into a lifestyle brand, but just as a seeming tidal wave of religious stay-at-home-moms had realized that a Blogspot account could keep them connected to their creativity and a world beyond nap schedules and potty training.

"There are a lot of talented, educated Mormon women who grew up assuming motherhood would be the end all, be all of their existence. Then they found, once they became mothers, that they had capacity for projects and ideas in addition to and beyond motherhood," wrote Design Mom’s Gabrielle Blair, herself a Mormon mother of six, in a 2011 post.

For all the manufactured imperfections we see on the show (mostly Chip’s), the Gaineses have been transparent about their plan to market Joanna as a younger, sexier Martha Stewart.

There are vast and important differences between the Mormon faith and the Gaineses’ Antioch Community Church. But they have overlapping beliefs about the role of mothers in the home, and like Blair and the women she mentions, Joanna set about carving out a career for herself that would enable her to live according to that philosophy, while also gently pushing beyond it.

Many in the evangelical community are thrilled about the way their religion is showcased by Joanna: "I think we’re just really thankful that there’s a neat family out there, representing us so well," says Kate Henderson, a Christian speaker and author who lives in Rockwall, Texas, with her family. "They genuinely love each other and champion each other, and I don’t mind that their faith is more of a backdrop. It shows America that we’re not all crazy Pentecostals who only wear long skirts. We’re normal people, doing our jobs, doing good, and loving the Lord."

Henderson does wonder what would happen if a gay couple applied to have a home renovated by the Gaineses (so far, all of the couples featured on the show have been heterosexual). "My hope would be, if they are given that situation, they will just love on [the gay couple], but I would imagine that very conservative Christians in their audience might have a problem with that."

Some of those conservative Christians are already sharply critical of how Joanna challenges certain boundaries. "If there is a babysitter on scene because mommy is working late a lot, and fast food, and daddy taking on roles he is not biblically mandated to, then that is not putting Christ first," fumed Christian blogger Elizabeth Prata in a recent post.

She was referring to the penultimate scene of every Fixer Upper episode, where Chip brings the kids to visit Joanna at the project house to cheer her on and then quickly clears them out so she can slog on through a marathon of late-night flower arranging and table styling (or at least styling a few things on camera while her design crew moves in the rest of the house).

Designing homes takes Joanna out of her home now. This work enables her children to see her as a person with talents, passions, and ambitions beyond them. In her testimonial and in other interviews, she says this has always been God’s plan for her.

"I really felt like God said, ‘You’re gonna have a platform one day with women’," she told The Wacoan at the start of Fixer Upper’s success. And as platforms go, it’s not an overtly religious one; her blog focuses more on empowering women to own their domestic space and their right to exist outside of it: "It was important I kept myself creatively fed [when I was staying home], so I never let myself be filled with feelings of discontent," she wrote in this year’s Mother’s Day post. "I hope if you’re in this season now you’ll take the time to allow yourself a few minutes a day to do what you love, too."

On Fixer Upper, the Gaineses’ religious beliefs are almost entirely reduced to a design element. Eagle-eyed viewers will spot a Psalm stenciled on a kitchen wall over here, an establishing shot of the Gaines children in plaid parochial school uniforms there; the Gaineses occasionally bless people and property.

Episode one of season two featured a young couple who own a popular Christian coffee shop near Baylor University; later in the season, another pair of homeowners refer to establishing their church in Waco. Episode nine of season three featured a cameo by Max Lucado, a renowned evangelical preacher (and outspoken Trump critic).

But Chip rather cryptically introduces Lucado to the HGTV audience as someone who "made a huge impact on my life, he’s written almost a hundred books, which—how can you compete with that, right?" In the episode, the Gaineses are renovating a fixer-upper for Lucado’s daughter and her new husband, so Lucado asks Joanna to incorporate a passage from his wedding sermon into the home’s décor, but it’s spotlighted only briefly in the big reveal.

Meanwhile, the season’s Christmas episode centers entirely on the renovation of "Magnolia House," the Gaineses’ new vacation rental. Striped stockings bedeck mantels and a Dickensian Christmas village takes over one bedroom, but there is nary a reference to the birth of Christ until the final moments, when a group of carolers serenades the family with "Silent Night."

Really, it’s all about Joanna.

Conservative Christian bloggers love to speculate that HGTV producers have banned the Gaineses from talking about God on the show. They may be right: HGTV executives reportedly canceled plans for a show in 2014 because the stars (a pair of house-flipping brothers from North Carolina) were outspoken opponents of gay marriage, abortion rights, and Islam.

But this also means that the Gaineses have—happily, knowingly—aligned themselves with a more liberal brand. Maybe it was just business. Or perhaps playing a more secular version of herself on TV offers Joanna another chance to push beyond some of the more confining tenets of her faith.

The big catch to the "Joanna as Revolutionary Christian Housewife" theory is that the dream she’s realized for herself still involves selling plenty of other women a load of expectations about having an Instagram-ready home, church-approved marriage, and generally perfect life—now while also achieving a record-breaking level of professional success.

When I polled my Facebook friends for their thoughts on this, the Fixer Upper fans among them were pretty evenly divided. Some were willing to accept it as an obvious fiction of television. "They must have help and I guess it would be nice if they said something about the nanny, but it’s not a big deal to me," one friend wrote. "I like that you see JoJo working and telling her partner what she needs (‘I need some time to decorate right now’) and then Chip takes the kids."

But many were more skeptical. "I find it fairly problematic that they don’t talk more about their support system," noted another. "Without more focus on the practicalities of their home lives, the show perpetuates that ‘you can have it all’ myth in our culture."

When HGTV Magazine documented an obviously simplified "day in the life" of the Gaines family, it revealed that Joanna functions on less than six hours of sleep a night, drinks 125 ounces of water each day, and saves time by washing her hair before bed, "so in the morning I only have to curl it." This frees her up to cook biscuits and gravy for the family’s breakfast. None of which offers much in the way of an empowering blueprint for living the modern work/life balance dream.

This domestic goddess myth is strangely at odds with the low-key likability that draws so many fans to the show. If we’re charmed by Chip modeling his dad bod, why do we need Joanna in size zero skinny jeans? If Clint Harp, the talented carpenter who builds Joanna’s farmhouse tables, can be a recurring character, why can’t we also meet the childcare providers, cleaning ladies, and farmhands that they surely employ? Think that sounds impossibly alienating?

Consider Emily Henderson, a former HGTV star (who was, incidentally, raised Mormon) turned designer and blogger, who not only copped to employing a full-time nanny for her two children, but also gave the woman and her family a whole-house makeover on her blog. "What Sylvia does for my family, what all nannies do for any families, is so important, intimate, emotional and personal, on top of being such exhaustingly hard work," Henderson wrote. She didn’t apologize for not being able to be a full-time mom with a full-time career; she acknowledged her privilege and celebrated the person she had found to help make it all possible.

And for all the manufactured imperfections we see on the show (mostly Chip’s), the Gaineses have been transparent about their plan to market Joanna as a younger, sexier Martha Stewart.

Chip told Baylor University’s alumni magazine how that mission crystallized during a pivotal meeting with friends in August 2007 (just two years after Joanna heeded God’s call to be a stay-at-home mom, and almost six years before the Fixer Upper pilot aired in May 2013): "It was a gathering of friends that God had provided for us. I remember some of the specific bullet-point outcomes—what an asset we had in Joanna and her design style, and her as a human being, her looks and her character. Basically, we established that Joanna has the ‘it’ factor." In other words: Stay marketable, baby.

On Fixer Upper, the Gaineses’ religious beliefs are reduced to a design element.

Do we need Joanna to excel in every area of domestic life, or would we love her even more if she admitted that she can’t cook and just opens a box of Cocoa Pebbles for breakfast?

I can’t decide if it would be bad for their stylishly homespun image to acknowledge such a mundane reality, or if working parents across America would welcome that transparency as we collapse on the couch at 8 p.m. to stream Joanna’s latest shiplap-laden makeover.

In the end, the answer may depend on which audience Chip and Joanna care more about cultivating. Their Christian base needs Joanna to continue to revel in the glory of baking chicken pot pie and pretend that her design career is just something she fits in around her kids’ after-school commitments. Their broader HGTV audience might like her even better if she—and Chip—acknowledged the logistical trade-offs they make as a family with two full-time working parents who love their kids, but are also getting after ambitious career goals.

When I went back through the early archives of Joanna’s Magnolia Mom blog, I found a few clues to what this dance really looks like. "I had to get over the idea of dinner on the table every night at six," she admitted in a post titled "The Whole Picture," which ran just a few weeks before HGTV aired the Fixer Upper pilot in 2013. It’s a disjointed collection of musings, where she simultaneously confesses to many domestic sins—"Honestly [laundry] is where I fail miserably."—and preaches on why these should be overcome: "Home is always more enjoyable when it’s clean."

She is the asset, she has the "It" factor. God has told Joanna that she’s destined for this. Chip has hitched his rusty red wagon to her glossy star. Millions of women want her hair, her house, and her crossbody bag. In redefining some of our expectations for Christian stay-at-home moms, Joanna has demolished one wall in her house. But the rest are still standing. This renovation is not yet complete.

Editor: Sara Polsky


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