British television network Channel 4’s Wife Swap simultaneously presents a case against marriage and for birth control. Being dubious about anything called an “institution” in the first place, it didn’t take much to persuade me that a 50/50 chance of divorce is a bad wager. Despite the odds, though, Wife Swap demonstrates that most of us are suckers for the idyllic promises of marriage. And children? In Wife Swap, they range from wee pod people to foul-mouthed little Lord Fauntleroys.
Wife Swap‘s cringe-inducing familial interactions demonstrate reality tv’s primary effect, making us believe that we would do things differently than “those people.” This is certainly the tenor of water cooler, pop magazine, and radio talk shows the day after Wife Swap airs. Such distance is integral to the show’s popularity in the U.K. and its exports to the U.S. Wife Swap has won a BAFTA (the British version of an Emmy) and ABC will be airing a U.S. version, also called Wife Swap, in the fall, after Fox’s Trading Spouses, another version premiering 28 July.
The rules for Wife Swap are simple. Two wives trade homes and family responsibilities for 10 days. Each wife leaves for her substitute a manual detailing the household rules and routines in five areas: household chores, meals, evening routine, discipline, and The Relationship. For the first five days of the swap, while in the other wife’s house, they must abide by these customs. During this period, the family members engage in much eye-rolling and poor attempts to maintain poker faces, while the wives take up surreptitious smoking on the back patio, where they wonder why they thought being on reality TV was a good idea. The last five days are devoted to the “Change Over,” when the visiting wife gets to establish her own rules. At this point, it becomes all too evident that people are property, as much as houses and cars.
In the premier episode of the new season, Pat, a middle class black prison guard, swaps with Lucy, an unemployed white woman with five kids who’s receiving benefits. Pat regularly rises at 6am, her children exhibiting low-grade hysteria. The narrator describes Lucy’s children (never shown together in one frame, so it’s hard to tell how many there are) as “unruly,” with Madness’ “House of Fun” as the chaotic soundtrack.
In the Wife Swap world, the middle class is grasping, uptight, and overly disciplined; their kids are seriously annoying, dork-a-licious, and planned. Middle class wifey can’t help herself: she abhors being in the same room, much less the same home, as some stereotypically boorish, swearing, lager-drinking, belching bloke (husband or over 18-year-old son) who either has no job or is marginally employed. By the time of the Change Over, Pat cannot wait to implement routines she believes will rid her new household of its slovenliness. Pat the Prison Guard calls a State of Emergency her first day in Lucy and Tommy’s home because she finds the little nippers infested with lice. And what’s the first thing Pat does after issuing the briefest of hugs to her own kids after their 10-day separation? She checks ‘em for nits.
Low-income and working class women, on the other hand, are undisciplined and uneducated. Lucy balks at getting up at six in the morning to, as she astutely observes, do nothing. When she does take Pat’s place at work (not in the prison proper, but in the employee gym), she has to learn how to use the swipe card to get past the entrance turnstile. Spike, Lucy’s swap husband, undermines her during the Change Over (her rules include “Nobody has to follow any rules in the house”) by making the kids go to bed at their regular bedtime and shutting down a party with his friends and family. One actually roots for Lucy when, on her night out with Spike, she announces, “I hate you and I hate your house and I hate your kids. You’re a dickhead, a wanker, and a cocksucker.” Spike has taken advantage of being, shall we say, off Pat’s leash, but instead of dealing with his resentments of her, he reasserts his patriarchal power by ignoring the rules of the swap.
Each episode of Wife Swap concludes with a final “Table Meeting,” where the two couples sit down and discuss the experience. The show isn’t a contest in the traditional sense, as there’s no cash prize or brand new wardrobe to be won. But it does reinforce the idea of competition between women: whose house, kids, husband, and techniques for coping with daily life are better? Typically, it pits the Domineering Career Harpy against the Benefits-Scrounging Loudmouth. Instead of taking into account background or social context, Wife Swap boils down to a grudge match over personal effectiveness. Typically, the working class wife rails at the middle class wife because, we are led to assume, this is the only way she knows how to communicate her anger at a situation that equates her material lack into her lack as a parent and wife. The middle class wife tends to sit quietly in judgment, while her husband looks indignant.
The one person out of the four who appears to have learned a lesson is the working class husband. In the Pat-Lucy episode, when he can get a word into the conversation, Tommy is reflective, reckoning with the amount of work his wife does to sustain the family and how little time he spends with his children. He vows to change. Whether this happens is left for viewers to find out in the periodic follow-up program, Wife Swap Changed My Life. As with most reality television, even the changes that appear to have taken place in the families are dubious, as viewers cannot tell how much behavior is “real” and how much is performed for the cameras.
Wife Swap isn’t like Queer Eye for the Straight Guy or other home- and self-remodeling shows, where the experts come in, dismantle everything, and put it back together in (presumably) better form. Instead, wives who believe they are experts enter someone else’s home, dismantle it, and then return to their own homes. And typically, they restore their own homes to their original order, regardless of how dysfunctional they’ve been shown to be.
Watching Wife Swap is sadistic fun, in that it supports the delusion that we might do things infinitely better, without questioning the script of traditional family life. While the show reinforces our assumptions about what makes a good or a bad wife in today’s Western societies, it doesn’t consider any alternatives. The more the rules change, the more things stay the same.