s President Bush and the Republican Party have been so passionate in telling us, marriage is a sacred institution — the union of one man and one woman as husband and wife. To hear them tell it, this sacred, holy bond must be defended at all costs by a constitutional amendment before those godless homos defile the institution with their lust-filled, depraved “lifestyle choices.” They’ll queer marriage just like they queered show tunes and the name Bruce.
Rest easy, George. If people are willing to be on shows like Trading Spouses and Wife Swap, then the gays can’t do anything to marriage that the straights won’t do themselves.
Trading Spouses and Wife Swap are the most subversive shows on television. On the surface, both shows reinforce America’s most traditional values. In the episodes of each show that I’ve seen the poor or working class family is more virtuous than the wealthy family, the temporary separation leads to a tearful reunion and renewed appreciation of the swapped spouse, and the importance of the family unit as the inviolable cornerstone of society is reinforced.
But these shows inadvertently question the institution’s inviolability: Marriage can’t be that holy and sacred if people are willing to swap their spouses just to be on television and make a couple of bucks. Supposedly marriages are complicated relationships that evolve over years, require lots of work and, ultimately, a great deal of introspection, sensitivity, compassion and compromise. But as we watch these traded spouses bicker with their host families over money, values and the distribution of household labor, it becomes evident that marriage is as much about politics as “family values.” And that even liberated, modern women (and this season, a couple of token men) are still not that far from being servants or property.
Take the women in the first episode of Wife Swap. One is well-kept multimillionairess and spoiled Manhattan wife Jodi Spolansky. The other is wood-chopping bus driver Lynn Bradley. Spolansky lives a life of ease with four nannies and a housekeeper, spending her days shopping and going to the gym, her nights dining out and socializing with her Gordon Gekko-like husband, Steven. Lynn Bradley gets up at 5 a.m. to chop wood for the family’s firewood business, makes the family breakfast, drives a school bus, then comes home to chop more wood, do the chores and make dinner. At first glance they couldn’t be more different, but while they have different amounts of money, their relationship to it is telling.
As Steven Spolansky astutely observes, Jodi has her own money and doesn’t really need his, yet she still comes off as a trophy wife. Every time her husband opens his mouth, he talks about her as if she were an accoutrement. And while Lynn Bradley is the primary breadwinner in her family, she’s also their servant. Her husband and kids sit around on the couch watching her cook, clean and earn a living for them.
The families in the first episodes of Trading Spouses have a similar, if less upscale, dynamic. Tammy Nakamura is a Texas Rose Laura Bush-type married to a Japanese plastic surgeon named Yuki. Mela Biggins is a working-class African-American woman married to a man named Anthony with an unspecified job, possibly delivering medical supplies. Once again, the rich woman leads a life of relative luxury — Tammy shamelessly exploits her mother-in-law Nana as a domestic servant and her husband is glad to have both of them wait on him. Mela is the backbone of her family — up at dawn, cooking, cleaning, raising the kids, earning a living.
Each series conforms to the television convention that requires all family shows to conclude with moral uplift. In Wife Swap, Jodi Spolansky succeeds in making Lynn Bradley’s husband get off his ass and do some work around the house. By the end of the episode, he’s absolutely fawning over his wife and apologizing for being so unappreciative. And Lynn Bradley convinces Jodi that she should actually spend some time with her children without the nannies, though Jodi’s husband remains unchanged and unaffected.
In Trading Spouses, the moral uplift component is explicitly financial. While each family gets $50,000 for participating, the swapped wives get to decide how the money is to be used by their host family. Probably everyone watching cheered when Mela Biggins, recognizing an oppressed sister when she sees one, gives all $50,000 to Nana, the Nakamuras’ Japanese grandmother and housemaid.
As satisfying as the moral lesson of each show should be, lurking under the pat answers and convenient pro-family rhetoric is the murkier truth of the American marriage: Nobody knows quite what it is, why we perpetuate it and what we think we’re supposed to get from it. Watching these families spout Hallmark homilies, Dr. Phil affirmations and say they love each other, I wanted nothing so much as for it all to fall apart. I wanted to see the façade crumble the way it does in real life. I wanted these shows to reveal what happens when you don’t or can’t actually “love” somebody anymore.
As I watched Trading Spouses and Wife Swap, I started thinking about the salacious come-on of their titles. Both hearken back to the 70’s — that lost era of experimentation and social disorder when hippie ideas of free love and open relationships gave way to swingers, vans, open marriage and Hustler. As naïve and embarrassing as that era may seem in retrospect, it was a philosophical time. People everywhere, even in the flyover states, were questioning what family meant. And while for some it resulted in divorce, latchkey kids and venereal disease, for others it meant freedom from a life lived out of obligation. The social upheaval of that period allowed women to claim their own bodies and leave bad husbands and gays to come out of the closet. It forced people to look beyond the myth of the family and at its realities.
So Trading Spouses and Wife Swap are inadvertently subversive, but the people watching won’t know. Like Fear Factor for marriage, couples do these scary stunts, but there’s never any real risk — they’re strapped in with safety harnesses, helmets and kneepads. There’s never any real threat that they will be seduced by another family, another lifestyle, another person. It’s a stunt that we all can watch and rest assured that no one really gets hurt. They may be named after quaint 70’s sexual experiments, but that’s as far as the similarity goes.
And so these “reality” shows are emblematic of our time. We know what life is like, we saw it on TV. n°