Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Main image: Courtesy of Roxanne Gay. Background images clockwise from top left: Flip Or Flop, Fixer Upper, Windy City Rehab (HGTV).

Roxane Gay on HGTV, small town racism, and “who deserves to own a home”

Main image: Courtesy of Roxanne Gay. Background images clockwise from top left: Flip Or Flop, Fixer Upper, Windy City Rehab (HGTV).
Graphic: Natalie Peeples

Roxane Gay is an icon in part because she is many things. She’s an author, podcaster, and professor. She’s a public figure, a commentator, and an outspoken advocate for radical honesty and examined nuance. She’s a fan of all manner of media, from open, personal, and autobiographical books about growing up outside cultural norms to TLC’s juggernaut of a franchise, 90 Day Fiancé. (She has said the latter is “accessible and terrible and absolutely the show of the decade.”) She also possesses a laser-like ability to explore difficult issues, from fatphobia’s racist history to what our love of horrible protagonists on television says about us as a viewing public. 

Like millions of American viewers, Gay has a love-hate relationship with HGTV and home renovation television. She’s become fixated on the comforting warmth of one-hour home makeovers, like many of us who are happily sit home and judge the marriages and relationship dynamics of couples looking to buy a bland forever space on House Hunters. (When the show featured its first throuple last February, Gay was all over it.)

But Gay has also pushed beyond just blankly absorbing what’s being presented on HGTV. She’s synthesized theses about how economic forces, racist undertones, and questionable relationship dynamics are all at play on the network. She’s written essays about what Tiny House Hunters says about Americans’ increasing inability to purchase a home, and frequently speaks publicly about her ongoing fascination with the flimsy commercialism of a lot of what’s on the network.

With all that in mind and with an eye to our recent Why We Love about home renovation television, The A.V. Club talked to Roxanne Gay about what she loves—and loves to hate—on HGTV.

The A.V. Club: How did you get into HGTV, and into home renovation television?

Roxane Gay: I think I got into the genre accidentally. My mom watches a lot of HGTV and a few years ago I broke my ankle and she came to take care of me for the first couple of weeks. HGTV was on all the time, and I was immobile. I was held hostage, and there is a very specific narrative arc to these shows. They are designed to keep you watching. I just always found myself really interested in seeing how they would take a disaster of a home or a room and make it into something really… well, most of the time, really beautiful. I’ve been watching HGTV ever since.

AVC: What shows do you find yourself watching the most?

RG: I watch a lot of House Hunters just because it’s absurd. You always have these people with strange jobs who somehow have $800, $900,000… $3 million dollar budgets. Actually, to be fair, House Hunters does show houses from $100,000 to $5,000,000. So they do generally offer a broad range.

You know, I’ll watch whatever is on. I watch a lot of Home Town because I think that they’re the Chip and Joanna Gaines replacement. I watched a lot of Fixer Upper.

Sometimes I watch Property Brothers, but they’re just exhausting with all of their schtick. Sometimes I just think, “Okay guys, we get it. You’re fucking brothers and you have this routine. Thank you very much.”

It’s hard to say what’s my favorite, but I watch a lot of Beach Front Bargain Hunt, Caribbean Life, Mexican Living… or something like that. All of these little shows where people go to buy property in exotic locations or on the water.

AVC: The houses are always so bad, though. Tile floors and bad plaster treatments on the walls. 

RG: It’s very cathartic to judge people in their bad taste… The thing is, the shows are all a facade. Having seen what good construction is and having bought a house that was flipped, that was done well, it takes a long time to do something well and it takes money. The idea that you can renovate a house beautifully under ridiculous time constraints for a really minuscule budget and then end up with a good product is just ludicrous. Like Flip Or Flop, who would buy those homes? Every time I see them, I just think, “Oh my god. Don’t buy that piece of shit.” It’s totally a terrible house, even though it looks cute.

AVC: Flip Or Flop houses, you also know they might look good for maybe two years and then they’re going to look dated. It’s like when you see a house from the Trading Spaces era of television, you instantly know that design was from the early 2000s.

RG: Yeah, a lot of the designs simply don’t hold up. One of the big problems with Flip Or Flop is that they don’t have good taste, but they act like they do. And then they just go to an emporium where they can get the cheapest goods and they slap it up and they’re like, “oh, design.”

I have no design skills, but I also don’t pretend that I have any design skills. I know my lane and they don’t know their lane. They really genuinely think that they’re these amazing real estate and design experts. And HGTV allows them this delusion for some reason.

AVC: One thing you rarely see on Flip Or Flop that you do see on other shows is them saying, “We have to rewire this whole house because it’s dangerous.” You do see that on shows like Property Brothers, which is why I now know the phrase “knob-and-tube.” It feels like everything they do on Flip Or Flop is cosmetic. 

RG: They do sometimes on Flip Or Flop say, “We have to redo the foundation. We have to put in a new electric panel.” They seem to at least be aware. But you never see that with Chip and Joanna and the Home Town kids.

When you buy a 70, 80, 90-year-old house for $20,000, perhaps there will be some issues there. Just a guess. So it would be really useful if they would talk about that.

The thing about those shows is that they make you think, “I just need to go to Home Depot and get a couple of tools and some wood and I can renovate my home,” and, you know, I get that. It’s like Jeopardy! It makes you think you’re smarter than you are. These shows make you think you’re more capable than you are. That home renovation is within reach, but not really. Contractors exist for a reason.

AVC: There’s some argument that the foreclosure crisis was fueled in part because of people watching networks like HGTV and thinking “I could flip a house and have rental income” without realizing the amount of money that would take. Then, when the bills ultimately came due, because it wasn’t their actual house, they just walked away and left abandoned flips. What do you think about that idea?

RG: I think that it’s unfair to put all of that responsibility on HGTV. A lot of it was more on American culture and American greed and the idea that home ownership and real estate investment is the golden key. There’s a lot about this culture that encourages people to own homes, and I don’t think there’s enough conversation around how difficult homeownership is yet. The buck stops with you. You’re responsible for everything. I bought my first house two years ago, and I had never been in a position where I could buy a house before that. And I would never understand how people bought a house because it’s just so hard in L.A.

The first day I lived [in my new house] the toilets exploded and I just thought, “Wow, I really, really made a mistake.” Because I had to figure out how to call a plumber, and then I had to clean it all up because there’s no landlord that’s coming to save you. And so I think there’s just not enough attention paid to the realities of owning a home. It’s just more of the excitement of flipping it and decorating it and getting it.

The shows certainly do gloss over the pain in the ass that is homeownership, as well as the cost. You don’t hear about maintenance costs and taxes, which are never talked about. I had no idea. And part of that is my own ignorance, but nobody really talks about these things. When you hear, “property taxes,” I don’t think it really registers like, oh, you might be paying $30,000 a year just to own a home, in addition to your mortgage every month.

So, there are a lot of people who can be held responsible for that. It can’t only be HGTV.

AVC: I have a friend who bought a house in a market that ultimately exploded, and now his taxes have more than doubled on his house to the point where he might not be able to afford them. It’s like, “Cool, I made money on this house, but I might have to move out of this area—the town I meant to lay down roots in—because I can’t afford my space anymore.”

RG: It can be really overwhelming, and I don’t think enough people sit down and really plan out what the house is actually going to cost them over time. And then, of course, contingency.

I put the responsibility on banks because they give people money. I think if there’s one entity that should be blamed other than banks, it’s Airbnb because they really made it seem like, “Hey, just go buy that house over there and flip it and earn all of this income.” But nobody ever imagined what would happen if Airbnb were to collapse. What would happen if there was, for example, a pandemic where people stopped traveling? Now we’re seeing a lot of people who are about to be foreclosed on because they bought one or three or five properties that they used as Airbnb income properties and they’re over leveraged. I have some real empathy for those people, but I also just think, “Why did you think you could own five homes and and carry it like that?” What’s the contingency plan here? I don’t know.

AVC: What are your thoughts on towns like Waco, Texas and Laurel, Mississippi that have become the focal points of shows like Fixer Upper and Home Town? In some ways, it’s great, because it’s giving these towns a new zap of life, but in others they’re basically making these towns into these weird sort of model home communities.

RG: Again, I think people don’t inform themselves. I’m from the middle of nowhere and I’ve lived most of my life in small towns. I think that people think, “It’s going to be ‘aw, shucks’ glamour.” One thing that Home Town does very well is make it seem like Laurel, Mississippi, is a place where you might want to live and get to know your neighbors, even though I think they’ve maybe had two black couples on their show…

AVC: And one of them was an actor from Los Angeles who was just buying a home to rent out.

RG: Yeah, and that’s in Mississippi. I think it’s just so different that it’s dishonest, but they really do make it seem great.

It’s the whole “here’s a local artisan and here’s the couple that owns a bar. Here’s a guy moving back to be the town doctor.” It’s really manipulative and it taps into this nostalgic idea that if we just get back to small town values, everything is going to be okay for white people.

Chip and Joanna [Gaines], I think, are hilarious. I’m actually writing a book about this. Joanna is the brains of that operation. She is a barracuda and very ambitious and, you know, respected, I guess.

The challenge with Chip and Joanna is that they have wildly changed the value of the homes in Waco, which has left the people from there, the working class community, behind. They have priced out the working class in their own community because they’ve made Waco a destination. It’s a problem. It’s a mess. And I think it’s well and good, like “yay, capitalism!” But at what cost?

That this entire town basically now exists to serve the egos of the Gaines family… that’s something. If they were just “aw, shucks,” this couple with four or five thousand children, it would be one thing. But they’re also Evangelical Christians, which is their right—I actually have no problem with people’s faith. But their pastor is extraordinarily homophobic and even though HGTV is one of the more diverse networks, I don’t think we’ve ever seen a queer couple on the show.

On the show, they make it seem like they’re all inclusive. But outside of the show, they put their time, energy, and money into a very evangelical way of thinking and seeing the world. They clearly believe in the prosperity gospel. It’s a lot to take in. And I feel bad for the people in Waco who are just like, “I just want to live here and forget about David Koresh.”

HGTV is very good at making you think that what they put on the screen is the whole of the story, and that’s not the case. One of the shows, Windy City Rehab, [the host, Alison Victoria] is facing several lawsuits for crap construction. Her houses sell for a million or more because it’s Chicago and she buys these pretty large homes and you would never know what’s going on.

AVC: When we talked to the Property Brothers for Why We Love, they said that before COVID they were working on something like 50 houses a year, and I remember thinking that there’s no way they’re ever there. It’s just when they’re on-screen. They can’t even have their hands in a lot of the designs, really.

RG: They’re not even doing a 20th of the work. No, even that is too generous. They come in, they do their thing, and they leave while the actual work gets done. If I was one of those construction workers, I would be pissed.

There is only one house person on these shows, and he’s not on HGTV. He’s on DIY. It’s Mike Holmes. Mike Holmes is the guy. He actually talks about the nuts and bolts of home construction and he fixes problems. He doesn’t really focus on design. He just fixes homes. It’s just so addictive, because he’s got that soothing Canadian voice and you just feel like, “If my house is fucked up, Mike Holmes is going to fix it.” I get the entertainment value of some of these other shows, but I wish more shows would have some of [Mike Holmes’] gravitas because he has a good sense of humor.

AVC: It seems HGTV the network really thrives on really bland individuals.

RG: It’s people that you can project some shit onto.

AVC: Even when we see quirky people, it’s like “Look at me! I’m rockabilly!”

RG: It’s always that type of specific family with alternative children who are into Wicca. It’s like, “Yeah, good for you.”

AVC: Even the throuple that was on House Hunters...

RG: That was awesome.

AVC: It was awesome that people were getting to see what that meant in some sense, but it was also a very specific safe-seeming kind of throuple, and they were using very specific, kind of safe-for-the-general-public terminology. It was like a sanitized version of what it means to be in that kind of relationship.

RG: Right. Anyone who’s hung out with polyamorists knows that’s not representative of the community at all.

AVC: That’s why, to me, I’m almost more interested in what we’re not seeing on HGTV. Why aren’t certain couples cast, and why are we only seeing what we’re seeing?

RG: Again, I don’t think this is just an HGTV problem… [But] HGTV is not only trying to sell us a vision of home ownership and the like, it is also trying to sell us a vision of who deserves to own a home, and that is generally someone who is physically fit and conventionally attractive and thin and who has good enough credit to buy a home. And then has money for renovations.

AVC: If you were to design a home renovation show, what it would be like?

RG: Part of me thinks that I would have a show for people like me who don’t know anything about construction and have very little interest in construction and/or interior design, but also have very strong opinions. It would be “How does someone like me go about renovating a home or a room when I am not of this world?” And then we’d talk about the real costs, because, you know, [home renovation shows often] do this glossing over of the budget where they’ll say “My budget is $115,000 for renovations,” and [the hosts will say] “The bathroom is $25,000 and the kitchen is $25,000 and…”

Fixer Upper is notorious for doing that, and I always look at it and think, “Wait, what?” What did the costs actually break down to? How much is labor? How much is material? What do the materials cost? I would just love to see that, but I don’t think people really want to watch that. Another part of me just want to see whole home renovations. I’m tired of only seeing, like, two rooms. Show me what the fuck else is going on in this house, thank you very much. Because Chip and Joanna actually renovate the whole house, but they only put three rooms on the show.

AVC: They also fill the house with Magnolia Homes furniture that they probably then just take back.

RG: You can buy it from them, but if not they take it back.

AVC: Sometimes on Home Town, for instance, they’re using some of the peoples’ furniture, but I want a show that says “Cabinets and countertops and appliances are going to be $30,000. If you want chairs under that island, you’re going to have to pick. Do you want the $99 chairs or the $300 chairs or the $700 chairs?” I want to know how much people are paying for their couches.

RG: Exactly. Go to IKEA once in a while, like most of us. There is no shame in IKEA.

[Chip and Joanna Gaines have spun Fixer Upper off onto their own HGTV sister station, the Magnolia Network, scheduled to launch sometime this year. New episodes of Fixer Upper: Welcome Home are now available on Discovery+—Ed.]