If network television could invent the consummate porn for women, it would probably feature a gorgeous prince on a white horse with a bouquet of roses tucked under one arm, a fabulous Los Angeles hair-colorist tucked under the other, and whatever appliance it takes to fix the damn garbage disposal wedged into the back pocket of his Levi’s. Female fantasy, particularly in the post-feminist era, is a complicated blend of escapism and pragmatism. We’re not so much interested in ditching our lives as we are committed to living them—but perfectly. There’s a whole Real Simple Industrial Complex devoted to helping us achieve this goal, and most of us believe we may actually get there.
Now along come Wife Swap and Trading Spouses, two TV shows that cater to a woman’s need to both escape her home and family and make them over. While appearing to be throwbacks to pre-feminist notions of domestic hierarchies—both shows feature a wife and mom switching place with another for a few days (and both assume that fathers’ jobs are too important to fuss with)—they are, instead, the curious outgrowth of the post-feminist dilemma. Having learned the hard way that women just can’t have perfect homes, kids, and jobs, we’re offered a chance to escape our own impossible choices, and an opportunity to completely remodel someone else’s. None of us, it turns out, can decide if we want to be Laura Bush or Teresa Heinz Kerry, but Wife Swap lets us at least try out both. Happily, women utterly failing to “have it all” with their own families, then switching lives with other women who have failed as well, makes for fabulous theater.
The husbands in Wife Swap and Trading Spouses are almost universally caught sitting on couches, looking expectant. They rarely step up to show their new “wives” the ropes, or suggest any sort of household partnership. It’s not because these men are lazy. It’s simply that how households run is still somehow primarily the province of women. As a study released in September by the Bureau of Labor Statistics revealed, men are either congenitally unable to help out around the home, or women are congenitally unable to let them: Women still do an hour more housework a day than men do. Whether we will be a “neat” family, a “rules” family, a “fun” family, or a “takeout food” family, still depends mainly on mom’s choices. Because husbands and fathers just don’t have six movies screening simultaneously in their heads telling them what they ought to be, as women do. (One can’t quite shake the feeling that if this were Husband Swap the dramatic apogee might come at Day 5: In Which the Big Chair in Front of the TV Is Shifted Infinitesimally.)
Both Trading Spouses and Wife Swap are based on an award-winning British series. In Trading Spouses, the wives switch homes for a week then muddle along while the cameras roll. There’s a $50,000 prize doled out to each family, just so you know it’s a reality show and not merely a visit to the most depressing neighbors you’ve ever met. Wife Swap wisely requires the wives to live according to their new family’s rules for the first week before being allowed to impose their own house rules in the second.
The women on Wife Swap and Trading Spouses seem to roughly sort into “good mommies” (who shun materialism, cook, and tumble with their children) and “bad mommies” (shopaholics, neat freaks, too strict, and avoid their children). The shallow Manhattan millionairess—Jodi Spolansky—from the premiere of Wife Swapcheerfully admits her top priority is “me-time.” Her three small kids are tended by four nannies while she shops, works out, and lunches with friends. She does try to get in an hour with the kids each day, which is more than her husband logs per week.
The compulsive Veronica Thibodeaux from the finale of Trading Spouses worries more about her immaculate home and perfect valances than her children—who consequently seem only to watch television or be taken shopping. “The only place my mom takes me is the dentist” says her 10-year-old son A.J. in surprise, when his borrowed mom, Diane, plans a picnic.
Jodi Spolansky has a master’s degree and has worked as a teacher. But for the first half of Wife Swap she tosses her $500 hair in disgust and brags about her $4,000-a-week shopping habit. She clearly relishes playing the snob princess, smiling brightly as her husband puts her down for the cameras. When Jodi is confronted with the harsh new life she’s expected to live—her counterpart, Lynn Bradley, lives in rural New Jersey, chops wood six hours a day, drives a school bus, and does 100 percent of the cooking and cleaning for her husband, two teenage daughters and the obligatory three-legged-dog—she sobs like Celine Dion on the first day of Outward Bound. “This is not the kind of mom I am,” she weeps.
Jodi quickly finds herself in open warfare with Lynn’s sullen husband, Brad. “You’re supposed to be doing my wife’s job!” He hollers. “You haven’t dusted, vacuumed, cleaned the bathrooms. … You sit here and pretend to be a good mother!” Jump back, Mr. Cro-Magnon guy. Jodi comes back with the winning rejoinder of divas everywhere, “I am not going there with you.” She snaps, flouncing to the porch for a cigarette and a cry.
The real problem confronting both Diane Famiglietti from Trading Spouses and Lynn Bradley is that as designated “good moms” each recklessly reshapes her new family’s lives and boundaries, certain these kids need nothing more than a perfect replication of what she has created for her own family. That’s the makeover part of the shows. The bad moms often seem to do better, because they have observed and then attempted to synthesize their old values with the culture of the new family. Diane, the good mom on Trading Spouses, embarks on a frantic Mary-Poppins-on-Crack spree of picnics, water-fights, and doughnut-eating competitions with the stupefied Thibodeaux family. Similarly, when given the chance to set her own rules, Lynn Bradley fires the entire Spolansky staff of nannies, cleaners, and drivers and then demands that her rental husband join his kids for dinner every night. She also installs a flowered plastic tablecloth and a fuzzy Welcome Home mat that must have been murder to track down on the Upper East Side.
But since Wife Swap and Trading Spouses focus on how each mom performs on the cooking/cleaning/childcare front, it’s no surprise the stay-at-home moms look like wizards, while the working (or shopping) moms bumble around like Abbott and Costello. This is, of course, hilarious, but it ignores the fact that most women work because they have to. Turning those women into villains moves the feminist debate sideways, rather than forward.
The surprise in both shows is that some people actually do change. When Jodi simply offloads all the cleaning and cooking onto Lynn’s husband, Brad, he does it. And suddenly realizes what his wife has endured for years. He recognizes what a jerk he’s been in expecting either Jodi, or his wife, to do all the housework alone. Even Jodi has a tender moment with the Bradley girls and some cookie batter—generously recognizing that both cooking and children are not just for poor people anymore.
Steve Spolansky has no such revelation—not even when his young son’s face lights up like heartbreak in Yankee Stadium on learning his dad might actually be dining at home for a week. Steve dismisses Lynn and her values as “hillbilly.” He’s worked hard for the right to neglect his kids and disparage his bride. Confronted with a “good mom,” he writes her off as an anachronism. Steve’s failure to learn anything from the swap stands in stark contrast to Brad’s realization that he treated Lynn like a doormat, to Lynn’s realization that she allowed herself to be treated like a doormat, and to Jodi’s realization that her kids aren’t short houseplants.
Perhaps the best thing that can be said about Wife Swap and Trading Spouses is that while each allows us to gorge on our escape fantasies, the shows seek to achieve more than just a superficial makeover. For a generation of women struggling with sometimes extreme and often heartbreaking alternatives regarding work, childcare, and home, it reminds us—as all the TV wives eventually seem to understand—that we can be wrong and self-justifying; and that we can still learn a lot from the choices made by other women.