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November 11, 2004


Hope for America: Wife Swap


In our divided nation, driven into further anger and resentment post-election, we need something to bring us together and show us that despite our differences, we all have something to learn from each other. Our best hope for national unity and mutual understanding that I can find is ABC's excellent new show, Wife Swap. There are some other decent new shows this year--I enjoy the occassional Lost episode, and yeah, Desperate Housewives is funny, but Wife Swap is one fascinating, voyeuristic show. Even Tom Shales likes it.

You think we have culture wars in our country? This is illustrated every week on Wife Swap. Let's consider last night's episode. Cindy's family consists of an affable husband with a goatee, two teenage daughters who get to wear, do, eat, and say whatever they want, and Cindy herself, an independent and easy-going woman who likes to eat chips and pizza. Read her family rules. Melissa's family is described very accurately by Cindy as "like a military church, with a bunch of vegetarians in it." Read her family rules. Melissa home-schools her 5 children, and her husband, who is in fact in the military, governs the house with strict rules, order, and a leather whacker used to discipline the children when they get out of line.

Well! Remember in the '80's when there were those student exchange programs between the Soviet Union and the US so that kids from each nation could learn to understand each other and, hopefully, build the foundation for a peaceful future? And organizations like Seeds of Peace who now do the same for Israeli and Palestinian kids? Wife Swap works much the same way. After two weeks of living with another very different family, the wives realize that maybe some of their household norms are too restrictive, or too permissive (hint to families chosen to participate in Wife Swap: if the producers choose your family, that means you are nuts.)

The families are usually harder to break. Last night, we saw 14 year-old Blake sitting at the dinner table and crying and carrying on because she had to eat some spinach and bean soup. Paul, Melissa's controlling husband, started twitching and fidgeting when Cindy told him he can't discipline the children for 5 days. After living with a new mom figure for two weeks, the families learn that there are other ways to interact with each other, they appreciate their real mothers more, and the husbands often suffer a "meltdown", code word for crying on camera, and sometimes start being more considerate.

There are some important parenting lessons to be learned from the show. If you are too rigid and structured and never let your kids do anything without getting your permission first, they will completely freak out when given the freedom to manage their own behavior. Witness Melissa's kids stuffing greedy handfuls of M&M's into their faces when Cindy gives them a big bowl of candy, and watching as many as possible of the 100 channels of TV they are suddenly allowed to watch. These are the kids who drown in their own vomit during the first semester of college after doing 38 tequila shots. Conversely, if you don't have any household rules at all and let your kids do absolutely anything they want, they will not develop beyond the maturity of a 3 year-old and have a hissyfit when you tell them they have to clean the bathroom.

But despite all their differences, the families take some valuable lessons away with them after the 2 week production ends. Some families learn that sometimes you can eat food that is not cooked in a microwave. Some learn that their husbands are unappreciative pricks who should maybe start doing some of the housework and spending time with their kids. If the Wife Swap families can learn from each other, there's hope for us yet. Husband Swap and Boss Swap are both in the works.

categories: Culture, TV
posted by amy at 9:37 AM | #

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