The feminist conundrum of Wife Swap

From patronising stay at home mothers to indulging “make me a sandwich” sexism, the show – much like society – had it both ways.

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I was a big fan of Wife Swap in its heyday. Was the joke on me? I was never precisely sure.

From its knowingly suggestive title to its indulgence of mundane, make-me-a-sandwich sexism, Wife Swap was reality TV that never even attempted to be progressive.

Indeed, alongside the usual charges of exploitation, you could add the charge of deliberately turning domestic inequality into entertainment. And still I watched.

Not unlike gender politics itself, Wife Swap resembled a game show, albeit one with enormously high stakes – relationships, trust – and no clear winners. Each week two sets of (almost always) heterosexual couples were matched, with each wife then sent to spend two weeks in the other’s household.

For the first week the “new” wife had to follow the “old” wife’s rules, helpfully written down in a manual (he likes to be waited on hand and foot … during weekends I get up around 7am and clean until midday … I tend to refer to myself using his name preceded by the prefix ‘Of-’…).

For the second week, the “new” wife got to impose her rules instead.

After 50 minutes of watching women crying in the kitchen while boorish hubbies conspiratorially informed the video diary that this new one “wasn’t hacking it”, we’d see both couples meet up for the showdown, in which they shared what they’d learned from each other. Or argued. Usually it was arguing, with the twist being that you never knew if it would be couple against couple or husband against wife.

We’d then catch up again a few weeks later, to check whether the experience had changed people’s lives (spoiler: it hadn’t). If anything, the ending was always somewhat deflating. You’d hope against hope that someone, somewhere, would change, although in which direction – handmaid to ball-breaker, layabout to new man, or vice versa – depended very much on the viewer.

Was the programme, with its obligatory sarcastic voiceover, mocking sexists or trolling feminists? Wife Swap got to have it both ways. Take this example of dialogue from an episode swapping the Who Wants to be a Millionaire? coughing scandal’s Charles and Diana Ingram with reality TV’s Jade Goody and Jeff Brazier:

Voiceover: Charles and Diana have an old-fashioned and set routine.

Charles: [Sipping a beer, watching his wife ironing] Good-oh. Hubby has a beer while wife gets the ironing done, excellent.

Charles: [To camera] I look after the sort of bigger issues and Diana looks after the day-to-day running of the house.

Ha, feminists! For all your big ideas, this is how real people still live their lives! But also, ha, sexist husbands! You think this is a statement of dominance but truly, you look like an idle, un-self-aware prat!

After a while, it became tempting to suspend political allegiances and simply pass judgement on everyone. Look, there’s Ostentatiously Bumbling Man, desperately performing masculinity by pretending he can’t locate the semi-skimmed (“you can tell I don’t often go in the fridge!”).

And there’s Uptight Handmaiden, sharing all the precious wisdom that feminism forgot (“I use baby oil on the hob because stainless steel can look a bit dull and grey whereas if you rub the baby oil on it can make it look like the day you’ve bought it.” Um, thanks).

You’d have frequent, if unconvincing, hints that superficially submissive wives were in fact the most powerful people of all. Nonetheless, one thing the programme did show is that domestic power distribution is far more complex a question than that of who does the washing up.

Sexism begins at home. From the most seemingly trivial issues (who cooks and cleans, who manages the cash) to the most serious (who is most likely to rape and kill you), it’s in our personal relationships that gender politics is at its most vicious and raw.

Even so, gender is not the only social hierarchy shaping our private lives. Wife Swap was as much, if not more, about class and the way it intersects with our understanding of “natural” male and female roles.

A middle-class couple (cue classical music intro) would tend to be paired with a working-class one (cue dance music or “comedy” brass band). While there was no consistent match between gender role distribution and income, the different slants applied by both the programme and the couples themselves were illuminating.

Middle-class women who cared for children were simply stay-at-home mothers; working-class women doing the same – the most well-known example being Lizzy Bardsley – were benefit scroungers. The issue of which woman was “laziest” (naturally both women would consider it to be the other) was informed by both gender and class prejudice.

“Nobody owes you a living. Get a job,” says the wealthy mother of three who’s been at home for 14 years. “It’s her first day’s work in years!” announces the chirpy male voiceover, of a working-class mother of eight entering the comparative oasis of calm that is her fellow wife’s office.

This is not the poverty porn of Benefits Street or the anger-baiting of Jeremy Kyle – but there are hints of it. Just as Wife Swap straddles critiquing and endorsing traditional gender roles, it sits uneasily between questioning privilege and delighting in it.

Time and again we see a middle-class couple’s perception of themselves – hard-working! Aspirational! Living the dream! – translate into mindless judgements passed on those who live “lesser” lives.

Just now and then, however, traces of empathy and understanding emerge – traces which can be genuinely touching.

Domestic politics cannot be separated from the politics we adhere to elsewhere. The personal is indeed political. As a question, “Why does she wait on him hand and foot?” is not a million miles away from “Why are so much of the Mail’s readership women?” or “Why did so many white women vote for Trump?”

The survival strategies we apply behind closed doors, and the lies we tell ourselves to justify them, seep out into the world at large. It’s apt that the one Wife Swap reboot we’ve seen in recent years has been on the topic of Brexit. The enormous divisions we see at the ballot box have their roots in the minutiae of daily lives.

I am not going to try to justify my watching of Wife Swap on the basis that it constituted some great sociological experiment. I watched it primarily out of nosiness. How do other women live? Why do they make the compromises they do?

Rewatching it now, my responses are altered by the fact I now have children; I no longer feel quite so superior to the mothers I once thought of as “selling out”. It’s reality TV that I, like everyone else, came to pre-programmed by the domestic bubble in which I live; by the politics I think of as objective and rational, but which may be anything but; by the people who raised me, the papers I read, the numbers on my bank statement.

I’ve no idea what rules I’d write down for any woman coming along to live my life for two weeks, but already I can imagine the camera zoning in on her face as she reads some statement about my routine and beliefs which I consider wholly sensible but which sounds, to her, quite mad.

And that’s possibly the beauty of these programmes, and the thing that makes them a little less exploitative than they at first appear. If you watch them enough, you end up seeing yourself, impenetrable, alien and more than a little ridiculous. It’s the start, if not the end, of understanding the other side.

Read more from the New Statesman’s retro reality TV week 2018 series here.

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.