Wife Swap

Natasha Forrest wonders if she was the only one shocked by the attitudes portrayed on Channel 4's controversial "Wife Swap"

, 16 February 2003

Having been brought up by a feminist Mum and a Dad who does all the washing up, I’ll admit that my outlook on the world may be slightly naive, but surely I’m not the only one who was shocked and depressed to discover that, according to Channel 4’s most recent voyeuristic venture, Wife Swap, women are still expected to do everything around the house, even if it means getting up at 5am to do the ironing before driving two hours to work. Whether or not the twelve couples who agreed to swap partners for two weeks, displaying their lifestyles for the scrutiny of the nation, are really representative of the way most couples still operate, most of the husbands certainly came out looking like stubborn, domineering idiots. So was this some big feminist conspiracy to expose the extent of women’s oppression today? Hm, possibly not.

Men’s lives are far too difficult and important to be messed around

In the faux egalitarian world of the popular media, where there’s always some guy getting beaten by his girlfriend and Bond girls don’t just get rescued anymore, you would expect the programme to at least be called “Partner Swap”. But no, apparently “girl power” is just for the media babes; “real” women are too busy to bother with any of that silly women’s lib stuff. Come to think of it, “Husband Swap” wouldn’t work at all – you’d just end up with doctors trying to fix cars for the week, or lawyers crashing planes. Men’s lives are far too difficult and important to be messed around like that.

You see, the whole premise of Wife Swap relies on the undisputed assumption that a woman’s place is in the home. While some of the wives featured did have jobs, their jobs were skirted around or seen as some sort of troublesome character flaw, complicating the lives of those who had to live with them, or indeed live as them. In fact, the programme adopted an inconsistent and decidedly confusing attitude towards the women’s jobs. In some episodes, their jobs were hushed up as much as possible, in others they became the focus of the programme and incentive for attacks on working mothers, and in yet another episode, one substitute wife did actually take over the secretarial job of her opponent for the two week period, in a bizarre and inexplicable break with the established format. While one of the programme’s main aims seemed to be to highlight the dilemmas of women trying to juggle housework with careers, the creators of the series appeared to have their own dilemmas about how to realistically portray a wife swap while only showing half the lives of the wives.

On the surface, Wife Swap could be seen as a positive programme for women in that it exposes the ways that women still have to struggle and make impossible compromises in order to have careers in a society where, despite the equal opportunities rhetoric, traditional ties binding them to the home are still very much a reality. I would like to think that the programme may have opened some people’s eyes to the fact that feminism is still not only relevant but absolutely essential in today’s society. However, what really disturbed me about the series was the way it seemed to assume that no-one other than the women themselves could be blamed for failing to meet the demanding standards of their husbands, substitute husbands or replacement wives. There was no mention of structural inequalities and certainly no suggestion that things might be a little less stressful all round if some of the precious husbands took it upon themselves to lend a hand occasionally. Instead, Wife Swap managed to pitch the women against each other so successfully that each episode ended with the poor confused husbands looking on in wide-eyed innocence as their wives laid into each other, attacking each other’s lifestyle choices and angrily defending their own. As one housewife bitterly told her career-focused opponent, “for a woman to fail as a housewife is ridiculous.”

Barry has helped Carol with the shopping and made her a cup of tea

Of course, there were a few carefully selected “liberated” couples who were swapped with “unliberated” couples in a contrived attempt to highlight the stupidity of downtrodden women. In one episode, Michelle escapes her misogynistic husband Barry to take the place of liberated Carol and is shocked to discover that Carol “likes to be treated with respect! Ha!” and is even allowed to go to the pub. Michelle then endures a two week period of being patronised by Carol’s enlightened husband, Peter, at the end of which he asks her how she feels about her own inadequate life “now that you’ve seen what it’s like to be modern”. No wonder Michelle is almost moved to tears when she finds out that, in her absence, Barry has helped Carol with the shopping and made her a cup of tea. There’s nothing like humiliating the victim to make for some great television. I suppose Channel 4 would claim that they they were merely trying to portray reality and if the wives chose to blame each other instead of forming bonds of sisterhood and overthrowing their husbands then that was their own silly fault. I doubt anyone was naive enough to tune in expecting anything more than cheap entertainment, which is certainly what we all got.

And one more thing: when did we all become so obsessed with cleaning? Who is responsible for the idea that a house has to be dusted, scrubbed and polished from top to bottom every single day? It’s just a house. It’s not going to fall apart if we neglect to dust the ornaments once in a while. In the age of washing machines and vacuum cleaners, where cleaning needn’t necessarily be a full time occupation, someone seems to be strangely preoccupied with creating more and more excuses to keep women indoors.

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