Joanna Gaines and Chip Gaines, hosts of home-improvement show, Fixer Upper.
(Photo by Brian Ach/Invision/AP)
It’s fitting that my experience of HGTV programs like Fixer Upper is limited to visits to my dentist (I don’t own a TV). There, lying horizontally on the dental chair, I watch drywall being torn down and linoleum floors uprooted just as restorative violence is performed on my teeth. In her recent Vulture piece on the strange, persistent allure of HGTV, Caitlin Flanagan exposes several truths. One is the deep connection between these shows and real-estate speculation — a link so powerful that not even the 2008 financial meltdown could break it. Another is that we might think we’re watching HGTV for the dramatic, post-makeover reveals, but the real source of pleasure lies in the (highly gendered) celebration of destruction. Fixer Upper might be ending after its upcoming fifth season — HGTV announced it this week — but the spectacle of temporary annihilation is bound to go on.
On Fixer Upper, Chip and Joanna help home buyers on limited budgets get the most out of their investments by choosing “the worst house in the best neighborhood.” That’s an old real-estate canard that has long been dismissed, but no matter — when Joanna starts describing all the wonderful things she can do to it, thoughts about resale value melt away into dreams of sliding barn doors, over-tufted sofas, and newly built “mud rooms” where the kids can stash their backpacks and soccer gear. Once the buyers have chosen their new house, they’re whisked away and the work begins.
It is as though Chip has spent all of Act One in a quivering agony of self-control, but at last he is free. He grabs a sledgehammer and, with Joanna’s permission, starts bashing away at the first wall she has marked for destruction. SLAM! CRASH! BANG! Chip is finally in concert with his true nature. This banging away at walls is the centerpiece of every HGTV show that involves renovation — as do all of its most popular programs — and there is something profoundly satisfying about it, even though it’s a preposterous way to go about the task. Taking out a single wall when you want to leave the rest of a room intact involves carefully cutting the drywall, teasing it off, and then taking down the framing behind it. But the reckless bashing makes for good television, and it dramatizes the signal design imperative of HGTV: Whether you live in Burbank or Barcelona, you absolutely must have an open kitchen.
The idea that we have an authentic self — a set of innate personality traits, desires, emotional and intellectual dispositions unique to us — emerged in the 18th century. Enlightenment thinkers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau tried to move away from religion as a means of making sense of the world. Instead, they claimed that the purpose of life was to be true to an essential nature that defined who we are.
In the 21st century, the notion of the authentic self has solidified into common sense, with the routine demands to “be yourself” or to “be real.” This is partly a response to the perceived breakdown of collective structures that traditionally gave life meaning: religion, local community, extended family ties. The late philosopher Zygmunt Bauman has called this state of affairs “liquid modernity” — a description of how reliable anchors of group identity have given way to fluidity, insecurity, and individualism. The makeover offers an apparent solution to these social and cultural transformations. It encourages us to look inwards, to the very fabric of the self for meaning, purpose, and fulfilment.
Paradoxically, the logic of the makeover positions the external body as the site upon which inner authenticity is to be displayed — right before the market steps in to help us achieve this self-realization. Of course, there’s nothing magnanimous about the self-confidence sold to us in the form of a bottle of shampoo, a new dress, or a subscription to a gym.
Last January, the massively talented Taffy Brodesser-Akner profiled Chris Harrison, the longtime host of The Bachelor, for GQ. The brilliance of a Brodesser-Akner profile is in the way she treats her subjects: with steadfast humanity, even (and especially) in situations where a lesser writer might mock or ever so slightly sneer. Which is not to say that she sacrifices an ounce of humor in her refusal to condescend; the piece is often hilarious, but honestly so. To borrow a phrase from Bachelor parlance, she’s there for the right reasons. Anyway, as The Bachelor enters its 20th season, the time seems right to revisit her profile. A brief taste:
Later, when Chris and I meet up with Gwen for salad—amicable, amicable—she tells me that he was born knowing exactly what to say and how to say it. I can’t attest to how far back this skill of his stretches, but I can confirm that he’s still got it. Chris Harrison is one of the smoothest motherfuckers I’ve ever met. On-screen he is able to do something that I believe men are generally not wired for: He can sit there and listen to a woman, allow her to emote and cry, and never interrupt, never try to shut her down or clean her up. Sure, it’s good television to let the tears flow, but still, it’s rare to find a man who can allow himself to allow it. When it’s time to ask a contestant to leave, his face is the face you want: lips mashed mournfully together, eyebrows up, big sigh.
Even off-camera, he speaks in crisp sentences. He doesn’t stumble. He doesn’t stammer. You should see my interview transcript; it came back from the transcriber as if it had already been edited. Gwen says Harrison is just as he appears on TV, “but funnier. People don’t realize how funny he is.”
Nagging questions and doubts remain. Have we somehow prostituted ourselves for the vicarious entertainment of television viewers? Has the private language, the intimate currency of our happy household, been debased by making it public? I had thought it would be ‘fun.’ I was wrong. But somehow it has felt like an education of sorts — perhaps in self-knowledge — however involuntarily acquired, however unwelcome the conclusions.
My husband and I, for example, have been forced to confront difficulties in our marriage. Under the pressure of Y-san’s gentle but probing, seemingly innocuous questions, a fine tracery of cracks mars the pleasant facade: how often do my husband and I actually talk? When was the last time we went out on a date, just the two of us? Do we gladly contemplate living together for the rest of our lives?
Kris and her children didn’t do much press for Season 10, unheard-of for this family or anyone promoting a TV show, really. Call it an educated guess to say that perhaps they didn’t want to be asked about Bruce’s transition. But not because they were shielding Bruce, whom they love. It was not because he needed his privacy during this sensitive time, which was the reason so often cited in articles about the rumors that preceded the ABC special. Bruce picked up some lessons from Kris over the years: He has signed on to do a “docuseries” with the same production company that produces their show (though Kris is not involved in it). Bruce has no privacy; none of them do. That’s the deal they made with one another. When they’re silent on Bruce, they aren’t protecting him from the judgments of a cruel world; they are protecting Bruce’s exclusive. “I learned a lot from her,” Bruce said about his marriage to Kris, during the ABC interview. And so he did: He didn’t reveal how he looks dressed in women’s clothing in the interview or what his new name is. You’ll have to tune in to his show to see that. In the Kris Jenner playbook, you don’t give anything away.
And that right there is the hustle. What matters is not the revelation of secrets; who can keep secrets in this modern tabloid culture anyway? It’s the reaction to recently surfaced information — a father’s transition, a sex tape, a new husband’s crack addition, a boyfriend’s drinking problem — that are most valuable in this world. Kris Jenner doesn’t care that you know everything. What secrets can you “discover” from a woman who airs her daughters’ discussion of the size of their labia? Kris only cares that you heard them when and where she decided you should.