What histories are pushed out of the carefully constructed frames of lifestyle television? What are the stories behind the open concept walls of their fixed-up houses? Activists and scholars have highlighted the violence of the type of housing speculation that lifestyle television is built upon (Hay 2010; Maharawal and McElroy 2017). My videographic essay 'shiplap' exposes the bare bones of this American nightmare.
The design term shiplap describes a type of reclaimed lumber used in interior design that was popularized over the past decade by the house-flipping team and couple Chip and Joanna Gaines, stars of the hit HGTV show Fixer Upper set in Waco, Texas. Using this term as a springboard, 'shiplap' explores the representation of race, place, and memory. The video uses manipulated footage of HGTV shows (mainly Fixer Upper and House Hunters) and their related advertising materials, alongside historic images and ethnographic footage that I collected of Waco, TX as a way to examine how race haunts the narratives of seemingly race neutral or multicultural reality television lifestyle shows (Hageman 2019). The video also looks at the complicated dynamics of viewing reality television as a racialized subject (read: Black woman) using an injection collage of some clips of other television such as from the History Channel, This Old House, and Frontline.
The piece highlights how the Fixer Upper narratives of transformation, hospitality, and normative family values are used to obscure stories of displacement and marginalization in the representation of Waco. In these affective visions of Fixed Up transformations, the histories and lives of Black and Brown people in the Waco area are pushed to the margins or swept out of the frame altogether. As Baby Suggs says in Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987) 'Not a house in the country ain’t packed to its rafters with some dead Negro’s grief'. My video 'shiplap' is an exploration into what it might mean to center that grieving in the narratives of lifestyle television.
'shiplap' traces the abstract implicit connections between this grieving and what some have called the 'Magnolia Effect' (Guthrie 2016). This term is used to refer to the impact of the Gaines’ growing real estate and media empire (which includes real estate development, merchandising deals, retail and dining destinations, and a new TV network) on the town of Waco and its broad implications for the distribution of resources there. A large tourism industry developed out of the desire of the Gaines’ fanbase to visit the homes featured on the show and perhaps catch a glimpse of the Gaines themselves. In conjunction with this influx of tourism, a vacation rental industry grew around the homes featured on the show; as a result, the estimated real estate value of the houses featured on the show became triple that of the surrounding market. The Magnolia company and its influence in the town expanded with the popularity of the show and related tourism. Waco is a town that is over 50% people of color (21% Black, 32% Latino) and a bit more than a quarter of the population lives below the poverty line (Peterson 2019). Thus the Magnolia Effect not only describes the rising property values and housing costs in Waco, but also hints at the histories 'shiplap' reveals and the communities and histories these programs try to board over.
Central to the genre of housing lifestyle shows is the act of 'house flipping'. My videographic essay attempts to offer a speculative history of the material culture of shiplap in response to this representation of economic speculation. The video grapples with what the term shiplap evokes in its imagery through what is said and unsaid. Using a combination of the soothing aesthetic pleasures of before and after transformation pictures from Fixer Upper with visual and sound injections of other television shows about racial violence (from the middle passage to lynching), 'shiplap' is part visual ethnography and part video collage. At moments 'shiplap' adopts a glib tone by showcasing cheesy visual effects and crude editing devices in order to play with the dissonant pleasures of disidentification by taking the viewer on a channel flip of explicit and implicit representations of racial violence (Muñoz 1999). Here, I hope to make a less obvious critique of taste cultures or take on reality television’s bad representations, both of which so often set up the genre as the harbinger of the end of the world. Instead, I strive to highlight what reality television reveals about the centrality of race and racialization to aesthetic entertainment.
'shiplap' is part of my broader research on the narrative functions of race and the concept of ‘relatability’ in reality television development, especially in lifestyle programming (such as the HGTV shows House Hunters, Fixer Upper, and Home Town). My research conjoins a close analysis of individual programs with ethnography among reality television production professionals, and a production practice in which I made a short documentary video on reality television casting (You, As Seen On TV (2011)). In 'shiplap', I attempt to bring these approaches together using the method of videographic criticism as a way to highlight how the racialized affects of lifestyle television are at once obscene and mundane.
Ultimately, 'shiplap' demonstrates how the use of before and after morphs, satisfying close-ups on power tools at work, as well as an array of other images and descriptive narration aestheticize certain debt and risk assessments. This idealized union of pleasure, profit, and design is manifested through the material known as shiplap in the Gaines’ franchise. My essay points to how these aesthetic choices might stand in for or mask certain histories of race, racialization, and the lived experiences of people of color.
The material history of shiplap I explore is itself not certain; this speculative strategy explores what it feels like to watch these shows as a racialized subject with some knowledge of US history. Thus the narrative is less focused on positive or negative representations and instead seeks out the affective resonances the postracial and privatized discourse of lifestyle stimulates. Lifestyle television circulates post-race ideologies that frame race as both irrelevant and of market value. Through images of middle passage ships that carried enslaved Africans, narratives of local lynching, and my (the video maker’s) own voice, the video seeks out race where it is not purported to be. In this way I hope to show how racialization emerges through seemingly benign aesthetic design choices within the narrative pleasures of lifestyle television.
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Guthrey, Molly. 2016. 'Daily Juggle: The Magnolia Effect (how Chip and Joanna Gaines are influencing us)'. Pioneer Press, November 3, https://www.twincities.com/2016/11/03/daily-juggle-the-magnolia-effect-how-chip-and-joanna-gaines-are-influencing-us/.
Morrison, Toni. 1988. Beloved. New York: Plume, p. 252.
Muñoz, José Esteban. 1999. Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Peterson, Anne Helen. 2019. '"Fixer Upper” Is Over, But Waco’s Transformation Is Just Beginning'. BuzzFeedNews, April 20, https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/annehelenpetersen/waco-texas-magnolia-fixer-upper-antioch-chip-joanna-gaines.
Eva Hageman is Assistant Professor in the Department of American Studies and the Harriet Tubman Department of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park. Her research and teaching interests are in race, gender, and media industries and production. Her book manuscript, '"Relatable Meets Remarkable": Crafting Race in the Reality Television Industry', examines reality television and the central role it plays in shaping articulations of race in the 21st century. Her video essay 'shiplap' screened at the Black Film Center Archive at Indiana University. Her writing appears on In Media Res and in the edited collection Racism Postrace (Duke 2019). She has directed two documentaries, Legendary (2010) and You, As Seen On TV (2011).