HGTV has captured the attention of millions of devoted followers with its widely popular, “Fixer Upper,” a show about Chip and Joanna Gaines, a cowboy carpenter and his naturally beautiful designer wife in Waco, Texas. Chip and Joanna turn their client’s “fixer upper” into a stunning showcase home by the end of the carefully scripted television hour.
After a recent three-episode binge, I realized that, like many within my demographic group, I too was hooked and that the show was speaking to me in some way. Interestingly, the show’s concept isn’t particularly new; many may remember “Trading Spaces” (2000-2011), a show in which homeowners and designers had $1,000 and two days to transform a room in each other’s homes. No, the draw to “Fixer Upper” isn’t the format; it’s tapping into something far more significant within the inner lives of its viewers.
In his recently published book, “You Are What You Love,” James K. A. Smith writes about “cultural liturgies.” These are unspoken yet incredibly powerful narratives which offer us a view of what we’re ultimately looking for: the good life, if you will. He suggests that, as humans, we’re hardwired to love, but that our innate “loves” can easily and frequently get hooked to false narratives—ones that winsomely illustrate the good life, but lack the capacity to deliver what they promise.
To that end, “Fixer Upper” provides an incredibly compelling narrative of the good life—the dynamic of its success. The show speaks volumes about the innate human longing for intimacy. On display is an attractive and wholesome couple who treat each other with both respect and admiration. Particularly attractive to female viewers is Chip’s obvious adoration of his wife. While viewers seem obsessed to find out if the portrayal is authentic, they miss the point of the cultural narrative they’re being offered. The show tells a story about the deep human longing to be treated similarly, to be cherished by another. It may be safe to conclude that many viewers feel less than cherished in their close relationships or that they have no such relationships to speak of. The secondary experience of entering into the Gaines’ relationship provides a wanna-be narrative, a fantasy for the relationally discontented.
Beyond this, it’s commonplace for “Fixer Upper” clients to want to create open spaces in their new homes for “entertaining.” While a laudable goal, statistics clearly describe the ways that American families are typically socially isolated and devoid of meaningful community with others. We clearly long for community in our lives, yet rely upon superficial means of creating it.
The human heart longs for intimacy with others, yet creating the adoring spouse or the ideal physical space for such connections grossly misses the point. While we may long for a miraculous upheaval of our lives—for a “fixer upper” miracle, where the ugly in our lives is made beautiful—intimacy is never instantaneous nor easy. It’s the product of a thousand small decisions in the right direction, leaning toward love even when you feel unloved and uncherished. It means crafting a realistic narrative with treasured moments of intimacy with others, yet faithfully enduring equally through many contrasting moments of loneliness, disconnection, and miscommunication.
And hospitality is, of course, not qualitatively improved by the creation of a perfect entertaining space. In fact, true hospitality and intimacy with others may have little to do with the physical space. Indeed, the time I felt most welcomed by someone was within a home with a dirt floor and concrete block walls. It was all about the spirit of welcome and the sacrifice inherent in the meager meal, not the physical space.
“Fixer Upper” offers us a magical upgrade by transforming the ugly into something beautiful. I do not intend to discourage creating a physically beautiful home; this can be a source of great joy. But “Fixer Upper” fans like myself also should be aware that the show offers a compelling, even addictive, narrative that can ultimately disappoint and leave us more wanting and discontented. It can’t deliver on its promises to provide the deeper intimacy we crave.
What we long for in life is good and, I believe, attainable, but a quick fix won’t come close to delivering. No, the fixer-upper project of the heart entails a slow and tedious renovation effort, but properly directed, one that indeed reveals something lasting and beautiful.
Dr. Lisa L. Hosack is an assistant professor of sociology and social work at Grove City College. She is a contributor to The Center for Vision & Values.