February 07, 2009

Wife Swap is a reality show where the wives of two families change places and lifestyles for two weeks. During the first week, the newly arrived wife tries to follow the rules of the household ... or not. During the second week, she gets to rewrite those rules as she sees fit ... and the various members of the household may or may not abide by the revisions. At the end of the experiment, the husbands and wives meet and discuss the week. Sometimes they find common ground. Sometimes "discuss" is an overly polite word. And sometimes it becomes blazingly clear that it is only one member of the couple who is completely behind a family policy, sometimes even of ostricism of one of its children: and I wonder whether this moment of clarity will once again be covered over, whether a new family equilibrium can be evolved, or whether a divorce is in the near future.

In general, I avoid reality shows, from Survivor to Big Brother to others I don't know exist. What I know of them is mostly what has drifted into the common currency: which means that I can usually tell you the premise and maybe some of the tactics of the major ones, but I usually have no clue who participated or what interesting water-cooler moment happened last week, and the names of the winners mean nothing to me. My interest is in human interaction and human reaction, and I tend to find viewer reaction to shows such as Survivor of far more interest than whatever happened on the show itself.

Like most reality shows, Wife Swap draws from the extremes in the interest of entertainment, and expands on that voyeuresque entertainment by clashing opposing lifestyles. In these stressed cross-sections of humanity, I find a fascinating window opened on that place where ideology is expressed in its most basic building block: the nuclear family.

This goes far beyond lifestyle, into an entire life view that colours all else. Part of the success of Wife Swap is in having identified a few core polarities, which find many different ways to express themselves and which almost immediately evoke defensive reactions upon being challenged. Oddly enough, differences of religion are only superficially polarising, and then only among those who absolutely cannot abide the existence of another religious belief within their world space: not really all that common in the environments which have given birth to Wife Swap. The much sharper religious polemic is between a deep religious belief and observance contrasted against lack of any religious core, or even against an equally faith-based atheism. Other core polarities include:(This last one ties into a curious observation in myself. I rarely have "free" time as others understand it, and for a very long time now I have not had anything resembling a need or a desire to "kill" time. However, I also discovered that there was a time when I was participating in so many activities and reading voraciously, which kept me comfortably from thinking about what I was reading, or indeed about anything. It makes an interesting side note that this did not negatively affect my grades -- quite the opposite.)

I myself hold an ideology that almost certainly colours my view, of this and other things. I firmly believe that no one knows everything, and that there is always something that can be learned. In this, perhaps, lies the core of my fascination with Wife Swap, for the most extreme of the polarities are invariably marked by one common element: one or both spouses so firmly believe in their way of life that they can't conceive of there being anything worth learning from something different (except, of course, the error of the other's ways).

Perhaps the most ironic example of this came up in the swap between the intellectual and the (below?) average Joe. As usual, each was convinced of the absolute rightness of their way of life: but since it was upon their intelligence that the intellectual couple based their superiority, every failure to use that intelligence for anything more than abstract superiority games stood in particularly stark relief.

The wife did try to compromise, a little and clearly painfully. She, at least, did not use her vocabulary as a weapon. Yet for all her intelligence, she was incapable of anticipating that some tastes might be acquired ones.

As so often happens on this show, the husband was by far the more defensive of the two, although I doubt he saw it as such. His defensiveness took the form of such vicious mocking that he reduced the guest wife to tears -- yet at the end of it, she was able to see herself the higher for it: "I learned something from all this. I came through this, I can survive anything."

He, on the other hand, actively refused to learn anything from her: although he said it again and again as an apparently objective observation, that there was nothing to be learned from her. In this manner, by the end of the first day, he had utterly closed himself off to anything she might have to say, let alone any potential value it might have. Such conviction did he have in the inherent superiority of his tested intelligence score that he considered himself above any ability to learn from others whom he did not consider to be his equal. He must have mentioned his percentile on the graduate studies admission test at least half a dozen times: and since I myself have scored similar percentiles, I know exactly what they do and do not mean.

(Apparently the ability to regurgitate facts and demonstrate some abstract problem-solving skills does not translate into the ability to see that another family's demeaning label of "skirt work" is really not all that different than hiring a cleaning lady -- and it was never questioned that it was "lady", not even "cleaning person".)

Yet who could blame him for his self-assessment? Every aspect of the society in which he chose to participate continually reinforced his own perception of himself, from grades to salary. Quite possibly participating in this show was the first time his assumptions of self and appropriate measuring stick had ever been challenged -- and like so many others of us, he accepted as valid only those measurements which supported his self-assessment, and rejected those which did not.

Perhaps the final measure of his intelligence must surely be that he and his wife agreed to be on this show. I, who treasure my privacy, often wonder at people's motivations in doing so. There is money involved, so for some at least, it would have to be the money ... but I can't see that motivation for him. Instead, I can only think it might be a determination to display to the world the inherent rightness of a particular way of life, so powerful a rightness that it must necessarily convince others who experience it ... who equally come on this show to demonstrate their own superiority of lifestyle.

If this is accurate, perhaps the only remaining question is whether this is only another example of "Hey Mom! Hey World! Look at ME!" or whether this is intended as yet another form of evangelism. To even begin to answer that question, ask first who the participants see as the focus of their efforts: the swapped spouse and family, or the television audience?

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