When Chip and Joanna Gaines, the hosts of HGTV’s Fixer Upper, came into the national spotlight a few weeks ago for attending a church whose pastor had made some remarks critical of gay marriage, an interesting thing happened. In previous years, something like this would have ended the Gaines’ public career. The fact that this didn’t happen to the Chip and Joanna indicates a cultural shift for sure, but part of what protected them from the punishment previously meted out upon those who question our cultural orthodoxy is their enormous popularity.
Watch the show a few times, and it’s obvious why they’re popular. Naturally, watching the transformation of a run down, bland house into something spectacular is fun. Of course, the hosts’ personalities are engaging, their interactions charming. But, this is true for all kinds of cable reality shows. Something more is happening on Fixer Upper.
Millions tune into this program, not just to watch a construction project, but to witness the Gaines’ life, their relationship to one another and to bask in the warmth of the values they represent. What makes Fixer Upper popular isn’t just construction and decor. It isn’t even the Gaines’ personalities. It is that the show portrays traditional, life-giving values in a culture set on eradicating them. People don’t tune into Fixer Upper to see a house remodeled, they tune in to catch a glimpse of something that tells them that in spite of all the voices that say otherwise maturity, family and faith are possible. They tune in for a little hope.
Much of what draws them is the way Chip and Joanna relate. They love one another. What we see on the screen could, of course, be fake. TV people are in the illusion business, after all. For all we know when the cameras are off, the Gaineses could be small, miserable, angry people.
That’s possible, but the evidence suggests that what we see of the Gaineses on their television show is something very close to what they are in daily life. They appear to have figured out how to relate to one another in a way that grants each of them peace and security. Their affection for one another seems genuine. Their relationship seems devoid of the undercurrents of resentment and bitterness that mar so many families.
People are drawn to such images. See, the world is very dark and growing darker. Most of us recognize this fact in the abstract. We know that people live unhappy lives. We know that to some degree or another our own lives are unhappy.
This unhappiness is now so pervasive we accept it as normal. The darkness tends to blind us even to itself. We take all manner of unhappiness so much for granted that we fail to note exactly how dark that darkness is. Without a clear experience of brilliant sunlight, for example, we tend to think the gloom of our personal cave is as good as it gets.
Such is the situation for millions of Fixer upper viewers out there. They sit in front of their televisions escaping a little while their own dark lives. For 43 minutes, they find solace in whatever bit of light Chip and Joanna shine in yet another predictable narrative of a home made new.
That light, of course, doesn’t come from Chip and Joanna personally. Rather it comes from the values they live out onscreen. It is the truth of what they are committed to: family, virtue, faith, that, in the guise of just one more reality show, speaks to people, encourages them, helps them press on despite it all.
Not that the format of the show doesn’t matter. It does. People love to watch the Gainses, because the Gainses transform things. People in the grip of their painful pasts and unwieldy habits long to see something, anything made new.
What the Gainses represent to many, many people is the hope of renewal. When audiences watch Fixer Upper, they don’t identify so much with the Gainses. They don’t even mostly identify with the couple buying the home. They identify with the house.
The show speaks to the longing in millions of hearts to have the values the Gainses represent sweep in and make new the dilapidated structure of their lives. Watching the Gainses make new something falling apart and to do so with charm and skill and good humor eases many people’s desperation. And for this meager solace they will keep on tuning in. They will tune in again and again to see people who stand out because they can fix things up in a world falling apart.
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