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My Tortured Relationship With the HGTV Show Fixer Upper

Because one’s mother so often, ultimately, gets the last laugh, I have turned into somebody who spends her weekends binge-watching whatever’s on HGTV, which means I’ve recently spent quite a few hours watching Chip and Joanna Gaines renovate homes in Waco, Texas on their show Fixer Upper.

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It’s compelling stuff, as home design shows often are. Their jokey back-and-forth clearly plays to the camera, but it’s more natural than that depicted on the Property Brothers, which gives off strong “ask me about my single, dropping this week on iTunes!” vibes. (Let’s not even get into about Love It or List It.) The homes they work with are more to my taste than those featured on Flip or Flop, plus watching too much reality TV filmed in Southern California at a stretch makes me feel like I’m getting a headache. (I think it’s the light?)

And it’s just downright satisfying to watch professionals take buildings with generally good bones and rescue them from being at best outdated, at worst absolutely hideous midcentury redecorations. Seeing beige wall-to-wall carpet replaced with restored hardwood floors satisfies the same part of my personality that, as a child, loved books where girls got to decorate cottages and play houses. You know—like Mandy. It’s embarrassingly easy to lose an entire glorious summer afternoon watching this show, despite my sneaking suspicion that if I got stuck in an elevator with them they might start giving me the hard sell on letting Jesus into my heart as my personal lord and savior.

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Nor I am the only person getting sucked in. Meredith Corporation, which owns the magazines Better Homes and Gardens, Every Day with Rachael Ray, and Family Circle, recently announced it’s launching a “quarterly lifestyle-focused title that covers entertaining, holidays and seasonal celebrations” with the Gaineses. They also have a book coming out in October. The couple’s rise has been fast—their show’s pilot first aired in 2013, followed by a full season in 2014. Over the last year, they seemed to hit an inflection point, with segments on shows like CBS Sunday Morning and sudden Internet ubiquity. A recent piece by Cosmo said it’s HGTV’s most successful show ever. Fixer Upper hit at the perfect moment, with the reclaimed wood craze having crept into every corner of America.

It’s just, you know, there are some sticking points. For starters: What’s with the fucking shiplap?

Shiplap is a type of wide wood panelling you’ll see in rustic/shabby chic homes that, when whitewashed, is supposed to evoke a sort of Cape Cod vibe. Cool. But the Gaines seem to be using it in pursuance of a nefarious conspiracy to turn every home in the Waco, Texas, area into a damn barn.

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Shiplap first appeared (by name) in the second-ever episode of the show. In this particular case, it made sense, because when this episode’s couple bought their historic home, it was so thoroughly wrecked that there was no panelling left. Just the underlying shiplap. So they kept it exposed in one room, as a gesture to the history of the house. Not my style, necessarily, but it made sense. However, in the episodes since, shiplap has appeared with increasing frequency, escalating from a touch over the fireplaces to entire rooms, with explanations like, “I think it brings that farmhouse feel that we were really looking for.” Again, not my style, but whatever floats your boat.

However, as of Season 3, the shiplap has gotten completely out of control. Cruise by HGTV one weekend and the odds are great you’ll hear “shiplap” within fifteen minutes. Chip and Joanna are drunk on shiplap. And they are putting it places that it makes no stylistic sense. For instance, in the first episode of the season, they put shiplap over the mantle of a tiled fireplace. Shiplap says rural or seaside; tiled fireplaces do not. They went on to put shiplap in the bathroom of the same home.

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Nothing has ever hurt my soul has much as hearing from Joanna Gaines’s mouth regarding the 1880s home they renovated into a bed and breakfast, “It has that Victorian feel, a little bit. And I think I want to take it a little more farm house.” Followed, of course, by a list of improvements that concluded with “add some shiplap.” And by “some” she really meant “an absolute shitload.” Granted they weren’t ripping out ornate period detail, but by the time they were done, what had clearly once been a gracious in-town home had been barnified. The house is located downtown—you don’t build farmhouses downtown.

Sure, some of the guest rooms were spared the shiplap treatment—but that almost makes it worse. One room, in particular, has a beautiful marble fireplace that eloquently testifies to the intended style of the house. The room is jarring in the middle of all the shiplap—but not as jarring as the fireplace they kept in the dining room but surrounded with the stuff. It’s visually incoherent! What are you doing, Chip and Joanna?

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Perhaps the most egregious example, however, is this 1919 bungalow from the Season 3 finale. Now, to be fair, some of the first words out of the client’s mouth were, “I love—love, love—shiplap.” But does this look like a home that demands shiplap to you?

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Look at what they did to that house. Just look at it. Nothing about this home suggests it wanted shiplap. This is not the childhood mountain home of any member of the Carter Family—it’s a bungalow from 1919! And yet they shamelessly paneled the entire living room in shiplap!

Photo by Rachel Whyte, via HGTV.com.
Photo by Rachel Whyte, via HGTV.com.
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It looks like my grandparents’ barn! I wasn’t supposed to go in that barn because it was full of mice and therefore a rattlesnake risk! Barns aren’t that great! They took this bungalow and turned into a rattlesnake house!

Sorry to digress but shiplap—like many manifestations of the reclaimed wood trend—is going to look howlingly dated in 10 years. Think “avocado” appliances and wood paneling from the ‘70s. Fake art deco from the 80s. Blue shimmer eyeshadow from the ‘90s. It might pass into and out of fashion, but it’s never going to be a staple.

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It’s not just the shiplap—the Gaines are wedded to other design quirks, as well. For every perfect porch and skillful addition of crown molding, there’s something like the clocks. Has anyone ever loved clocks as much as Joanna Gaines? The woman loves clocks more than a 19th-century train station architect. Big clocks.

Image via HGTV
Image via HGTV
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Image via HGTV
Image via HGTV
Image via HGTV
Image via HGTV
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Image via HGTV
Image via HGTV
Image via HGTV
Image via HGTV
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Image via HGTV
Image via HGTV

Sometimes one big clock just isn’t enough big clocks for a single house!

Image via HGTV
Image via HGTV
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But she also likes small clocks.

Image via HGTV
Image via HGTV
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Image via HGTV
Image via HGTV

And the occasional batch of medium-sized clocks.

Image via HGTV
Image via HGTV
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Please note: These clocks are just from the first two seasons, and I wasn’t even being that diligent in collecting them. (Of course, lots of these people don’t keep the furniture, and it goes right back into Joanna Gaines’ big-ass warehouse, according to a Q&A on the Magnolia Farms website.)

What’s so maddening about the Gaineses entire aesthetic is the combination of painstaking restoration and bewilderingly trendy faux farmhouse touches. Like, what would possess you to pair distressed wood with these black-and-white tiles? It’s shabby chic crossed with Ernest Hemingway’s house in Key West. Two great tastes that taste very bad together.

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It made me so mad I took a smartphone photo.
It made me so mad I took a smartphone photo.

I could continue complaining for hours, but the fact is, this tension is why I keep tuning in. The home renovation entertainment industry doesn’t run on love alone—it runs on love/hate. Part of the pleasure of Fixer Upper specifically (and HGTV generally) is occasionally watching somebody who’s in the position to purchase and renovate a home make decisions you find appalling and consider all the superior choices you’d opt for.

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Without any fucking shiplap.

Senior Editor, Attic Haunter, Jezebel

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DISCUSSION

doughnaught
doughnaught

KELLY. Shiplap, overplayed, okay, whatever. I love home renovation shows so much, I can overlook it as a charming quirk. BUT YOU’RE MISSING THE BEST PART. As I recently discovered, Chip and Joanna are apparently super serious Christians, which explains all the kids and the farm sort of and the vague gender-roles-y prosperity gospel vibe that they sort of have going on if you’re watching closely.

BUT APPARENTLY they are not Christian enough, because the good folks at the blog “The End Time” think Joanna is a terrible and neglectful mother (because she has a career), andi the Gaineses are just big phonies who are not REAL Christians. This stuff is amazing to read—this is like church lady gossip on meth:

In Ms Gaines’ case, her testimony was not biblical. That’s what we saw in yesterday’s essay. Today we examine the Gaines’s lifestyle.

Some object to looking at how a famous Christian lives. They say, “Let them be! Their lives are private! We have no business looking at their home lives.” Five years ago I received much flak for looking at how Beth Moore lives. More recently I looked at the IF:Gathering ladies to see if their lifestyles are as solidly biblical as they claim. (Answer: no). I learned early on that what a Christian says and what they do are just as important as their theology. (Acts 18:3, 2 Corinthians 5).

If there is a gap between what they say and what they do, this is hypocrisy. Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for their hypocrisy (Matthew 23:1-12) and warning the people not to become like them. “They do their deeds to be seen by others,” He said. (Matthew 23:5)

...

It is well known that

Every “Fixer Upper” episode is filmed in or within miles of Waco, mostly so the parents can be close to their 4 small kids,...”

And yet in every episode, Joanna is working late staging the house and someone, either an extended family member, the dad, or a babysitter, brings the kids in and they get a piece of pizza or a burrito shoved in them, the kids re-arrange a few flowers for their mom, and then they get shuttled off the set with promises from mommy to see them real soon. It doesn’t matter to a 6 year old if the mommy is 20 miles away or 200 miles or 2000, 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. Christ maintains that the woman’s primary role is oriented to the home. Mrs Gaines is not putting the children first, as even admitted by her husband. He has said many times she is the main part of the show, she’s the draw. The show would not go on without her. So when they had a chance, they signed on for four more years. That means they sacrificed the kids. Period.

Secondly, I have to say that there’s nothing in this world that gets me exercised than a hypocritical mother. Bible twisting saddens me, spiritual extortion and snake oil duplicity makes me shake my head in disgust. But let me see a mother who is trading on her motherhood in the name of Jesus to make money, and you have another whole level of righteous anger from me. I’ve written about the hypocrisy of these women previously, examples are Beth Moore,Diana Stone, Raechel Myers.

...

I am not happy to write this kind of essay. Not at all. I do not like to do it. It’s even worse than when I looked at Mrs Gaines’ testimony video and compared it to the Bible. These kind of discernment essays are the worst of all. They’re unsavory, distasteful, distressing, and sickening.

It is important because Jesus hated hypocrites. He excoriated them, the men who lengthened their tassels so as to look more religious. Joanna marketing her kids on tv to show what a good mother she is and merchandising them within Christianity as trophies of wifelihood is the same as making her tassels long. I hate it. I absolutely hate it and become very angry over it. Beth Moore did it. Rachael Myers did it. Diana Stone did it. I hate it. Using your children to hypocritically say one thing while doing another IS worthy of a woe.

This shit is amazing.