Take My Wife

You think you're family has problems, and then you switch with another.

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Wife Swap, however, flies under the critical radar. This is a surprise, since Swap is one of the more insidious reality shows on television today.

The series, now in its sixth season, follows a rigid format that takes two wives, and then swaps them. The key is choosing families that exist at either end of an rotating spectrum with seemingly incongruous ends: hard-workers vs. funlovers; savers vs. spenders; athletes vs. the lazy (or, to be honest, the thin vs. the fat).

Reading the pairings on the Wife Swap website is like looking through a kind of only-in-America! panorama of our populace:

– A traditional wife who runs the pet funeral and crematorium family business swaps lives with a wife who’s a shock jock radio DJ.
– A strict martial arts family who run their family like a business swap lives with an unconventional family of actors drowning in unpaid bills.
– A hard-working real estate couple who never take a day off swap with a fun-loving family of jokesters.
– A biker family obsessed with all things motorcycles swap lives with a family passionate about their wholesome Irish heritage and strict, structured schedule.
– A family who spend 10 hours a day entering sweepstakes swap lives with a family of party animals.
– A woman whose family subsists on the Louisiana swamp swaps lives with a ballerina accustomed to cultured refinement.
– A rugged lobsterwoman who wears clothes till they fall apart swaps lives with a shopping-obsessed Cali-girl who bought her biggest assets from a plastic surgeon.
– A disciplined champion kickboxer mom steps out of the ring to swap lives with a carefree karaoke-loving mom.
– A liberal Christian career mom, whose stay-at-home husband cooks and cleans, swaps lives with a conservative Christian housewife who obeys her husbands every command.

Pet funerals vs. shock radio! Kickboxing vs. karaoke! Louisiana vs. cultural refinement! If you’ve never seen Wife Swap, you probably assume that each episode — each pitting of values and hobbies and politics and body type — is meant to dispel the idea that these things are in opposition. But that idea is dispelled in the show’s first five minutes. Every episode opens with each mother packing a suitcase as she tells the camera what she hopes to teach the other family and never what she hopes to learn. When she arrives at her new home, she’s given time to explore it alone, during which she criticizes everything: a frugal mom will inevitably think a flat-screen TV is excessive, a city mom will think it’s disgusting to work with farm animals, a health fanatic will be appalled to discover aerosol cheese in the refrigerator, and so on. On Wife Swap, it seems, you never get a chance to make a good first impression.

For one week, the new mother follows the routine of the other, which usually involves more criticism. If a husband cooks breakfast, his new wife will decide he’s not a man; if a pampered wife is forced to wake up at 5 a.m., she’ll decide that this is no way to live. Then, in the second week, the new mom creates her own rules drawn from her personal narrative, which usually involves insults. (The hard-working mom of one recent episode: “The Drago family is very lazy. They have no work ethic and they have no responsibility. It is time for the Dragos to grow up.” Her nonworking counterpart? “Dave you’re a selfish old man. You treat your children like servants.”) This means it’s time for dad and the kids to criticize.

The show ends with the couples reuniting in a chain hotel parking lot and meeting one another in a rented conference room inside. I have yet to see a meeting (and I watch a lot of Wife Swap) that doesn’t involve tons of criticism. In some, couple will concede that, yes, maybe their kids need to learn some responsibility, or should be allowed to have friends. In others, one parent will feel so insulted she walks out or flips the table or leaps across the table.

Does anyone change? Well, most shows end with each mother returning home and tearing the other moms’ rules off the wall. In episode-ending updates, some families will offer up token changes. A previously cold, overscheduled family will awkwardly kick a soccer ball in the back yard; the spoiled, trash-talking daughter of another family will push a broom clumsily around the kitchen to demonstrate the new responsibilities imposed on her. But overall, most parents admit that — you know what? — things were actually fine just as they were.

Wife Swap is a product of ABC — a network that lacks both the cynicism and irony of NBC, and CBS’ eye for popular prime-time programming. The show’s focus on families seems to dovetail nicely with the network’s other reality shows: Extreme Makeover Home Edition, which gives families down on their luck extravagant new homes, and Supernanny, which gives parents at the end of their ropes help reigning in terrible children. Underlying this hopeful reality programming is this idea that nothing is more important than family; fixing yours, therefore, is more important than winning a race around the world or a drag contest or the approval of Tyra Banks or the hand of Tila Tequila.

What makes Wife Swap so dangerous is not how it reinforces the idea of family, but instead how it validates the idea of looking at the world through the lens of your own particular family. The show could have tried to instill in its participants the idea that people are different, and doesn’t that make this an exciting place to live? The conclusion, instead, is that people are different, and boy are they stupid for it. • 23 April 2010

Jesse Smith is a writer based in Philadelphia.

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