Wives' tales

The trumped-up stories of "Wife Swap" and "Trading Spouses" have less to do with reality than with red mom vs. blue mom culture wars.

By Michelle Orange
Published March 17, 2005 8:40PM (EST)

Even by reality show standards, the off-camera coaching and playing loose with facts in ABC's "Wife Swap," as revealed in Wednesday's New York Times, seems extreme. But for anyone familiar with the show, it can't be that big of a surprise -- we already knew the show went to elaborate lengths to exploit the country's raging culture wars for melodrama.

In its first season, ABC's "Wife Swap " -- along with its doppelgänger, Fox's "Trading Spouses: Meet Your New Mommy" -- has been been the most politically divisive show on television (forget the late "Crossfire," Jon Stewart). Most reality shows traffic in pitting opposite "types" against each other, and usually the conflicts are rooted in issues of class, race, religion or even that snakepit of "family values." None, though, to the extent of "Wife Swap" and "Trading Spouses."

Neither "Wife Swap" nor "Trading Spouses" is a top 20 show, but both do fairly well (especially considering that their audience is probably split), with 10.2 and 7.9 million viewers, respectively, every week. Both play best in the South and the Midwest, while performing poorly in the Northeast and the Pacific Coast. "Wife Swap's" biggest audiences, for example, are in Tulsa, Okla., Louisville, Ky., Oklahoma City, Dallas and Atlanta -- with large ratings gaps between those cities and their blue counterparts. This makes sense, since both shows bathe red-state moms in an earthy, warm glow, while their blue-state counterparts are showered with lukewarm confusion at best, icy negligence at worst. And "Wife Swap," apparently, has no qualms about spinning the truth to make each show as incendiary as possible. According to the Times: "Making a 'swap' ready for prime time can entail withholding facts from the viewer that might muddle the central premise; supplying participants with material to read aloud; rehearsing pivotal confrontations off-screen; and, in some cases, re-enacting events the cameras missed."

"Wife Swap" is a transplanted U.K. show, and it's not at all surprising that the concept originally took off in Britain, where class divisions are notorious and geography (i.e., your native accent) is destiny. ABC shrewdly bought the show concept outright in 2003, but then the jackals at Fox caught wind of "Wife Swap's" anticipated September 2004 debut and slapped their own version together, getting "Trading Spouses: Meet Your New Mommy" on the air a full two months earlier, during the rerun doldrums of July. (In mid-December, ABC announced an $18 million lawsuit against Fox.)

According to forms from the networks, you can apply to ABC to be a "Wife Swap" participant only "if you are a family unit," which is helpfully defined as two parents and children. The Fox application is not billed as an application at all but as a "casting call." "Do you want a new mommy?" it asks, and then the chilling follow-up, "What if FOX could choose your family for you?" One of the most intriguing contradictions the shows set up is of woman -- or should I say "mother" -- as both interchangeable and indispensable.

In describing their appeal, both shows resort to clichis like "fish out of water" and "Is the grass greener?" and yet, looking at the forms, it's clear the producers are reaching for bigger buttons to push. "Wife Swap" just comes out and asks prospective applicants, "Where do you stand on politics?" and then, "What kind of vacations do you take?" and "Do you attend museums, the theater, ballet, opera?" Fox's application is much less involved and far more direct: Do you own or rent? What do you do? Who wears the pants in the family, and what family would be the opposite of yours? "Trading Spouses" is clearly looking to match odd couples.

The whole process (and the program, ultimately) is geared toward women; it's women answering the questions that fire the distended bellies of network execs, who have clearly rediscovered the joys of exploiting America's perennial surplus of maternal angst. The shows revolve around the assumption that the mother not only sets the tone of the family, she is the family, while the father and kids simply take cues. The shows pander to that notion, which many mothers use to anchor their identities, while at the same time revealing the fragility of that identity, holding it up to that of other mothers, and the prospect of being shown up by some hick from Arkansas, or some bitch from New York.

Of course, self-loathing and self-doubt are firm pillars of reality TV's foundation, particularly with regard to women. One of the earliest and longest-running shows was a reality show -- "Queen for a Day" (1956-64) -- that makes "Wife Swap" and "Trading Spouses" look like "Masterpiece Theatre." In each episode, two housewives tried to convince a studio audience that they had the more pathetic life; the "winner" was rewarded with a washer and dryer, a television or perhaps an oven to stick her head in when she got home.

Every week, both shows pit mothers from the heartland of America against those from either coast or the Northeast; sometimes they find blue-collar mothers from New Jersey, or Illinois, which in some ways amounts to red in the context of the show but is mainly another way to make Democrats look undesirable. The conflict that drives each episode is almost always drawn from the clash of the hippie (i.e., slovenly) or urban (cold, materialistic) values of the "blue" mothers and the warm, traditional, tough-but-cornfed, usually rural lovin' of the "red" mothers. High jinks ensue and toes are mashed when someone like Colleen Verruto, say, leaves her California high life to slum it in what looks like a taxidermy stand in Tennessee on "Trading Spouses."

"Trading Spouses" plays up the geographical origins of its participants a little more, but both shows stick to red against blue, with little variation. On "Trading Spouses," for example, you've got Minnesota vs. Tennessee, Texas vs. New York, and San Diego vs. New Orleans. Generally, the blue mom was either a lazy dipstick or more focused on work, money and order than family. The red moms tended to be gentle, focused and simple. Colleen Verruto's family didn't seem to miss a beat without her, falling in love with the "honest and hardworking" Chrystal Norton, who made real dinners, convinced the workaholic dad to spend more time with his kids and, despite her short-long hairdo and floral prints, was clearly the real "mother" of the two. Flighty Colleen, on the other hand, was blown off by the Nortons in Tennessee, who spent the entire episode pining for their mother

In a recent "Trading Spouses" the gloves came off when lazy Janet from New York (who is shown either snoring or inhaling food in almost every scene) decided that not only was the home of serene, loving Washington mom Mary Beth way too aggro for her (the seven kids expect breakfast?) that it must be possessed by unclean spirits. Janet's alienation drives her to hire "freelance supernatural investigators" to check out the evil forces that must be making this home so different from hers. Mary Beth's family finds bossy, fat Janet to be "kind of psycho" and counts the days until she leaves, while Janet's family will "always keep Mary Beth in our hearts," deeming her "a great mom." "Trading Spouses'" biggest gimmick is the $50,000 each mom gets to spend on her adopted family. The politics of how families spend their money is not lost on those involved, who without fail complain that there's no way their adopted mom will understand what they need, where they're coming from.

On "Wife Swap" being a red stay-at-home mom can seemingly lead to a pathological problem with bulk shopping and saying things like, "My husband has final say because the Bible says he should," while blue moms generally work full-time, hate "clutter" and say things like, "My job means everything to me" and "Our home is a business and I am the CEO." While the blue mother is rarely missed here either, and her kids are usually caught on tape lamenting her inevitable return, she occasionally does have a grudgingly positive impact on the family she visits, as was the case with Kym Young, who forced her Southern Baptist "husband" to try living his wife's life for a day to see just how grueling it was.

Young was able to do this as part of the show's "rule change," a feature that allows moms to change the household so it runs more to their liking. But according to one of the moms quoted in the Times story, her new rules "were written not by her (as the narrator suggests) but by a producer working off-camera on a laptop computer." And that's just the beginning.

The family of the blue mom featured on last night's episode of "Wife Swap," Christy Oeth, a Philadelphia working mom, is described as "putting 'success before family life' and as 'high achievers who run their family like a business.'" But Oeth, who works at an investment firm, told the Times that "she had stayed home for five years to raise her four children, a fact the producers never share with viewers, and that she had returned to work only last year, when her husband left a high-pressure job in Manhattan." According to Oeth, "There is a very big element of unreality to the way they pigeonholed me."

At least some of the drama, though, has been set up in the shows' casting. For February sweeps, "Wife Swap" went the extra mile, pairing a lesbian couple from Arizona (described as "radical liberals") with interracial swappees from Texas ("ultra right-wing conservatives"). Stay-at-home Texan Kris Gillespie, an African-American who can turn setting the table into a faith-based initiative, switches places with butch Christine. Over the course of the swap, Kris' terrorized teens get to drop their daily Bible table-reads, chores and "dining experience" for sleepovers and paper plates while they come to terms with the fact that there's a sinner "out to liberate" running the house. Christine is gentle and well-meaning ("She brought new light to the house," one family member says), even managing to get the extremely anal, zombie millionaire husband into the arms of a "cowboy" at a gay dance club.

Kris, on the other hand, brings both members of her adopted Arizona family to tears within 24 hours, and is outraged, offended and disgusted by the fact that a gay couple is raising a child (Lizzy, gay wife Nicky's daughter from a previous relationship). She grits her teeth and minds her manicure while being bossed around, counting the hours until the "rule change" when she can unleash hell, in the form of a huge American flag on the mantel, a Republican sign on the lawn, and an ironic "don't ask, don't tell" sit-down with Nicky that results in a screaming match over who's got it worse, black women or lesbian couples. Kris giveth and Kris taketh away from 11-year-old Lizzy, who gets a tiara and a cookie-baking lesson but loses the TV in her room. "This is what it means to parent excellently," Kris informs us, while over in her Texas home Christine mutters, "I feel like I'm in a mall." (While the show is remarkable in the way it primes the red vs. blue pump, it's unique in that Kris is so monstrous that blue Christine invariably wins the audience's sympathy.)

"Wife Swap" always ends with the two reunited couples facing off, ostensibly to share what they learned but usually with amusing stabs at tact: "You're unique in your own way," offered one stymied mom. In this episode Kris saved the best for last, calling Christine a sexual predator. Nicky responded with "asinine, ignorant" and "crazy bitch," prompting Kris to unload "depraved, freaky, weird" and "immoral." Kris' husband, Brian, completely buckled in the presence of his wife, and Christine joined the small club of her family members made to sob by the woman who will go home and pray for their souls as her children sit obediently by.

This, however, was at least a more honest version of the thin, phony gloss we're subjected to when the couples finally square off. The inevitable upshot is that both families testify about being newly aware of how great they have it, and relieved they don't have to live like those other wackos. Being exposed to difference "reinforced my values," Kris cooed, and surely those on both sides of the political fence nodded along with her. Which makes sense, since validating the audience's political convictions -- rather than capturing any sort of reality -- is what these shows are trying hardest to do.

Michelle Orange

Michelle Orange is a writer living in New York.

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