Flipping houses — buying, refurbishing, and selling homes — is not a uniquely American phenomenon, but creating and consuming reality television about flipping houses definitely is. Programs like Bravo’s Flipping Out, TLC’s Flip That House, A&E’s Flip This House, and HGTV’s Flip or Flop have made house flipping as dominant of a mid-day television format as failed family reunification was in the nineties. And the undisputed heavyweight champions of the genre are Chip and Joanna Gaines, a couple based in Waco, Texas, who host Fixer Upper on HGTV. On their show, they unleash the beauty of dilapidated houses through chipper construction and upbeat design. Though they do not do the actual flipping, the gesture is the same. They make a dingy home into a saleable commodity. They do this while also making themselves increasingly appealing to the mass market, something they’ve done with such success that their aesthetic has gone viral.
Recently, the Gaines have been in the news because they’ve added to their brood a fifth child, Crew. He joins Emmie Kay, 8, Duke, 9, Ella, 11, and Drake, 13. Not only did they welcome the boy, but so too did their 11.9 million combined Instagram followers, a million plus Twitter followers, and 4 million or so Facebook fans. That’s literally more people than who welcomed Jesus when that dude was born (yes, I did the math). And they had the perfect room ready for the little guy, an off-white chamber free of secrets and heavy on knits. This room became, as soon as it hit Instagram, the standard against which new parents will be judged.
Having no television nor house nor free time, thus far, the Gaines’ omnipresence had passed me by. But somehow the birth of Crew got them on to my radar — thanks, actually, to a controversial article in USA Today about the Gaines’ balance between fame and family. There was a Twitter scuffle about it that doesn’t warrant diving into (parents are always accused of putting kids second, it’s just how it goes) and then there was the image of the nursery. I started paging through Gaines-related materials and realized the degree to which the physical world in which my kids were being raised had been affected by the tastes of these charming Texan milquetoasts. I decided I had better understand these galaxy creators.
Thus began a deep steeping into the Gainesian weltanschauung. What emerges is an ahistorical but superficially pleasing aesthetic expressed not only on the show itself — the final season just ended, the finale coinciding with the birth of a new storyline in the form of Crew — but at the retail complex in Waco, Magnolia, and in a slew of books, most recently, Magnolia: A Collection of Recipes for Gathering. The Gaines occupy a world in which everything kind of looks like everything else and everything else looks … nice. The past is endlessly upcycled into a cheery present. Context and significance are forgotten.
Joanna Gaines, who is the head designer on the show and in the Gaines’ business Magnolia Home, was born in Kansas, raised in Texas and studied in New York before moving back home. Her sensibility, as she describes it, is called “farmhouse chic.” (Chip, who runs the construction side of things describes his own design aesthetic as “whatever Joanna likes.”) Farmhouse chic is best described as a bunch of white-washed wood shiplap with a few pillows with inspirational words written on them paired with some vintage-seeming accouterments like old lettering and supermarket signs. It’s charming and can be replicated or sold at scale, but it’s also a little troubling.
Farmhouse chic relies in large part on denuding individual elements of their original significance. An old supermarket sign, for instance, is turned into a kitchen accent with little care for what it was, which is a sort of war trophy from the pre-Amazon days of shopping for food. Ditto the antique books used as props (books judged solely by their cover), the bits of old rusty windmills (the death of the American farm), and the old windows Gaines uses as an accent empty walls (a haunting metaphor). Together, these elements create a rustic vibe so tantalizing that Magnolia Seed & Supply hats, which sell for $26, are the top Google result for “seed and supply” — above places that sell stuff to farmers and gardeners. In short, the Gaines traffic in allusions to work and to history that ultimately create a disconnect between those things and the concept of home.
The whole damn thing has now curved in on itself to such a degree that the Gaines sell a sign that just simply says “vintage.” The product description might as well go on the Gaines family crest: “faux distressing adds dimension and character.”
Frankly, I have no truck with accents, but there’s something off-putting and a little bit hubristic about thinking of the entirety of the past merely as an accent to the present. This is an especially risible endeavor when the very past the Gaines are mythologizing is currently endangered. They hawk a sort of nostalgic mid-century Americana, harking back to when the country had a solid working- and middle-class, and before our family farms were gutted by rapacious corporate interest.
But, of course, the Gaines didn’t gallop onto the ice floe of celebrity on the strength of old signs alone. What they hawk is a soup-to-nuts family ideal. Scrolling through Joanna’s Instagram feed and watching a few episodes of the show, I couldn’t help but shake the feeling that the Gaines’s ideal owes more to Pleasantville and Potemkin than it does to any American heritage I’m familiar with. If the Gaines were simply viewed as mawkish totems, freakish examples of prodigal success, that would be fine. They are, in a sense, the Jimmy Buffett of the exurbs. And that’s cool. Jimmy Buffet rocks. But they aren’t viewed that way and they don’t present themselves that way either. The Gaineses are packaged and sold as an ideal family. Their aesthetic (hers, really) is therefore understood to be an aesthetic of virtue — something to strive for.
But it’s impossible. Farmhouse chic looks great unless someone, god forbid, gets some dirt on the floor. The evangelical promise of Fixer Upper, that the innocuous and the satisfying are one and the same, turns out to be false. The past isn’t just the material in which we dress up the present. It’s the source of the mess and the reason it’s worth cleaning up. Some chic families live in farmhouses, but most families are focussed far more on the genuinely distressing than on the faux distressed. That’s how it’s supposed to be. Family can be, with all the chaos it entails, a powerful aesthetic of its own.
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