Domestic Reality TV
by: Allison McCracken / DePaul University
I have finally found a reality program that I can watch without cringing with embarrassment for the participants and/or becoming enraged at the producers. Not surprisingly, it’s trailing in the ratings and on the brink of cancellation. Although the title is not immediately endearing, ABC’s version of the hit British series Wife Swap hovers somewhere between the infotainment intent and documentary-like structures of the original and the highly constructed shock-and-spectacle of American reality-tv. In part, this is due to the producers’ conflicting desires both to raise social awareness and to provide the high drama expected by American audiences. But the show’s domestic setting and its concentration on female characters is at times also in conflict with reality-tv’s ideological traditions, so well delineated recently on this site by L.S. Kim. Wife Swap reveals the difficulties involved in sustaining a more typically relationship-based “feminine tv” reality show in an American market and, more importantly, the disruptive power of even the most cursory attention to the actual material conditions and social complexities of women’s lives.
The British series Wife Swap (2003- ) has been enormously popular and won several prestigious awards. Its premise is simple: one wife changes places with the wife of another family for two weeks. During the first week, she follows their “rules” and during the second, they “must obey” her requested changes to their household. The producers’ stated aim is not one of providing exciting competition or reward (the participants are not paid) but of personal enlightenment: “a couple’s opportunity to re-discover why they love each other and decided to marry in the first place” (ABC on Wifeswap). I recently had the opportunity to view the British and American cuts of the same episode of the show and they were markedly different: the British version was much longer and much less sensationalized, with more of a focus on the educational aspects of the show and what the couples learn from their experiences (there was considerable critique of the U.S. way of life from one of the couples, which was cut in the American version).
While the British version reflected the program’s stated goals, the American version was much more uneven. The promos for the American version (which are shown not only before the show as a whole but continually before every commercial break) emphasize the dramatic conflict and contrast between the two couples, who are chosen for the extreme differences in lifestyle (i.e. the working class biker family vs. the middle class environmentalists). While the promos promise continual bitter confrontation and acrimony, the bulk of the program reflects the more feminine values of reconciliation, emotional connection, and mutual understanding. And feedback from participants (widely reported on-line and in the press) suggests there would be even more emphasis on relationship-building if the wives had final cut. Indeed, one participant recently revealed that producers kept encouraging her to be more critical of her new family in order to heighten conflict (which she refused), and that the illuminating 3-hour conversation she had with her temporary spouse to help work through their differences ended up on the cutting room floor.
This tension between the interests of the program’s participants and the commercial expectations of ABC — which encourage the British producers to replicate the arguably masculine, conflict-based aesthetics of American reality — has resulted in confusion and anger among many reality fans. My examination of three different websites for the show suggests that part of the pleasure for many reality tv fans is their expectation of the conflict of opposites that the show promises; their enjoyment also seems to hinge on their desire to judge and feel superior to the people on the screen. The learning and reconciliation aims of the participants undercuts that pleasure, as one self-aware fan on TelevisionWithoutPity.com suggested: “That was a Happy-Go-Lucky episode where people acknowledge and recognize the need for change. I still can’t get used to these happy endings and I don’t want to get used to them. I want hateful, rule resistant people that I can snark on forever and ever. When the couples met they were all so good natured and friendly, it hurts me to like both families. It makes me feel like I’ve failed.”
Some fans welcome the changes, however. The domestic realities of these people’s lives makes it difficult for viewers to divorce the participants’ attitudes from their material reality, which changes the nature of the “conflict” discussions from a typical clash of personalities to more substantial discussions of social difference. Wife Swap reveals the specificity of people’s lives through attention to the mundane, rather than sensational, details that accompany the “wifely” role: cleaning, cooking, child care, spousal negotiations, religious practices, professional responsibilities. The program also foregrounds the variety and complexity of class, race, religion, region and, of course, gender, difference in a way that significantly departs from most reality-tv by eschewing the usual artificial setting of social “equality,” equal opportunity, and middle class norms and values. As a result, the contrasts in social class are revealed since each person’s home and routine is put on display.
Houses are judged by the wives according to both working — and middle-class standards, and the program, stunningly, does not promote one standard over the other. Indeed, one of the program’s most popular and heroic wives, Cristina (a Christian Latina liberal rocker), rejects the dominant notion of the necessity for a “neat and orderly” home by asserting that “we value human relationships above a spotless house.”
Particular objects within each person’s home become symbolically central and take on a rare historical and social dimension. When a black mom, Shelley, objects (politely) to a Mammy cookie jar in her new home, one teenage daughter bursts out, “I am so sick of being called racist just because I’m from Mississippi!” while the other proudly displays the “Mammy” doll both girls have slept with since they were children. In this case, the materiality of the cookie jar and the doll form the core of the show’s conflict, one which results in Shelley (again, a very popular figure with viewers) patiently explaining to her new daughters why she finds the figure of the Mammy offensive. Because Shelley, the heroine here, is both aware that race matters and is permitted to explain her position at length, she brings attention to racial difference and undercuts the ideology of racial equity. The resulting on-line discussion of the episode focused on the cultural and historical meanings of racialized objects, with posters bringing up Marlon Riggs’ film Ethnic Notions as a helpful resource. In this case, difference became a subject of thoughtful discussion rather than serving merely as a source of conflict and eventual ridicule.
The most moving example of the way in which Wife Swap both addresses difference and provides examples of reconciliation is in the experience of a woman from a traditional Christian family to Christina’s alternative rocker family. Although also Christians, the rocker children have piercings and wear Goth clothing. Christian mom Wendy is initially very critical of the family, calling them “devil worshippers,” and she eventually breaks down crying, admitting her fear of difference: “It’s culture shock to me. It’s just scary to me. And I know you’re godly, wonderful people, it’s the appearance that scares me to death. I’m sorry I feel this way but it’s very disturbing to me. I’m just totally out on my own here.” By the end of the episode, Wendy has moved beyond external appearances, even allowing the children to dress her up as a Goth chick and singing with them. Her transformation–which is internal more than anything, and in stark contrast to most “Swan-like” transformations — suggests the way in which the program’s attention to difference helps to break down rather than reinforce barriers or hierarchies between people. As a result of the program, Wendy is more able to build a strong relationship with her own daughter. Labels like “redneck,” and “white trash” get unpacked and examined through actual people’s lives, and descriptions like “Christian” are shown to have widely varying meanings.
If anyone is a villain on Wife Swap, it is the inflexible, the intolerant, and the irrational, who most often (surprise!) are personified by the rigid husband of a patriarchal family. The fact that female outsiders are put in charge of traditional male households is remarkable in itself, one of the few instances where women have unrecuperated authority on a television program, reality or otherwise. This moment of take-over is one of the chief pleasures of the program for its fans, whose desire for traditional reality-tv showdowns gets conflated in these instances with those feminist viewers who want to see these women turn patriarchy on its head. These reversals are often also sweetened by race and class critiques: a black women has the opportunity to interrogate and browbeat a white Southern male about his shoddy treatment of his wife until he breaks down and cries; a working-class single mom (gently) takes a wealthy husband to task for his neglect of his children and his need for total control of his environment. Although the changes these women make may be temporary, their critiques offer moments of genuine enlightenment that, I hope, will outlast Wife Swap‘s inevitable cancellation.
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