If Chuck can write about reality TV, so can I. Actually, for a while now I've been mulling over some thoughts about why my gf and I keep watching Wifeswap on Wednesday nights.
A prefatory note: we don't actually watch much TV, for various reasons. We don't have cable, and because of our proximity to downtown, we can't even get some of the networks (or PBS!) very clearly. We don't really have the time to watch much TV (I read those statistics on "average" Americans and really wonder where they find 5 hours a day). And if we have the time, we tend to watch movies on DVD instead. I wasn't raised watching much TV, and for many years didn't even own one, so it's not an instinctive reflex. I hate having it on unless we're actually watching something. I don't like it as background noise, because I'm too sensitive to the noise and can't tune it out.
But this fall we've been watching three shows: Desperate Housewives, Lost, and now Wifeswap. All on ABC -- we only found Wifeswap because it's on the same night as Lost. (Which is a really interesting drama, but that's for another post.)
If you haven't seen it -- the premise of Wifeswap is that the wife/mothers of two families trade places for 2 weeks. During the first week, the wives have to obey the "rules" of their host family (rules are drawn up in a "manual" by each woman before she leaves her home); during the second week, the visiting wives get to set their own rules that the family has to follow. The families are selected to be really different from each other -- the strict Christian goes to stay with the rock-n-roll family, the fitness fanatic with the fast-food eaters, etc. Stress and difficulties arise, words are said, tears are shed. And most episodes end with at least somebody learning some lesson about themselves or their spouse. And, if you believe their "follow-up" tapes, some changes occur because of doing the swap -- children or spouses do more chores, couples spend more time together away from the kids, etc.
Why do I watch the show? Partly because it's fascinating to see how people actually live their lives. Like any home makeover/reality type show, it's reassuring to see that other people also have trouble keeping everything in tip-top shape on the domestic front. (Some of the "wives" work outside the home, some don't. I think all have had kids, in the episodes we've seen.) It's also interesting to see the dynamics between the couples, and especially with the kids. It's so clear from watching this show how much your environment while growing up shapes you -- we all know this instinctively, but you look at these sample families and can really see patterns.
We generally have one family we like, one we don't like so well. But there have been plenty of pleasantly surprising moments, like when the bossy redneck man broke down in tears once he realized how hard his wife was working to maintain a full time job and do all the chores, cooking, etc. One of the things I like best about the show is that it makes it really clear that domestic labor is labor -- tiring, boring, draining labor. Add to that an unreasonable spouse or irritating children, and you have a show that usefully deconstructs some of the mythology around women's roles in the family. It also makes clear to the women, especially, that things don't have to be the way they are -- just seeing how other people live, what choices they've made, can be really eye-opening and instructive.
As a spectator, the show is fun on a values-clarification level too. "Would you ever do that?" "Am I more like her, or him?" etc. Many of the show's themes/issues are the same for same-gender couples. There are chores to be done, food to be cooked, and various assumptions about whose job it is to do what. Every household involves complicated arrangements of money, time, and labor. For us, our arrangement follows many of the gender-typical roles -- my partner is more masculine, and I am more feminine-- but not all of them. The way that same-sex couples perform gender is always a negotiation, a choice, a performance. It's not just handed to you by the larger culture with your sex assignment. So I suppose that's also why the show is interesting for us, since we both are and are not like the couples profiled on it. And, to the credit of the show's producers, they've actually found a number of families who aren't following "typical" male-female gender patterns, even though all of the families have been two-parent heterosexual couples (not all of them married, btw).
Unlike a lot of "reality" shows, there's no competition, no voting people out of group. And no external authorities dictating changes to the participants. It's just opening up the windows onto people's lives for a little bit. I'm sure plenty of things are staged for effect. But even so, it's been pretty compelling.