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Women's work? Wife Swap and the reality problem

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Women's work? Wife Swap and the reality problem
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  344 COMMENTARY AND CRITICISMROWE, KAREN E, (1979) 'Feminism and fairy tale'. Women's Studies, vol, 6, pp. 237-257,RUE, ROBERT (2003) 'Misogyny TV', Popmatters Television, 16 January, [Online] Available at:http://popmatters,com/tv/reviews/j/joe-millionaire-030116.shtml (29 Nov, 2003). Women's Work? Wife Swap and the realityproblem Kirsty Fairclough The optimistic viewer may have expected Channel 4's ratings success Wife Swap toreveal something about women's evolving roles in society and perhaps even exude somepositive messages about feminism in the twenty-first century, after all, the programme isstructured around the examination of gender roles within the domestic sphere, butregrettably, no such messages were revealed.Hence, the following will address the place of women within such shows, thedeployment of class and the notion of television as a vehicle to change lives.Factual programming has undergone profound changes since the idealistic phaseof the talk show and the emergence of reality TV has altered the landscape of televisionalmost beyond recognition. Despite widespread critical disapproval, reality TV appears tohave been embraced by audiences, and has become a popular and inexpensive form ofentertainment. Concurrently, there is a new trend within television that purports tochange people's lives and the notion of producers conducting experiments with "real" people is an alluring concept for audiences.Consequently, there has been a growth in reality shows that focus on heterosexualsex, relationships, and marriage. The Farmer Wants a Wife, Mr Right, and Would Like ToMeet provide significant examples. There are numerous issues for feminism here and theseemingly endless popularity of these programmes necessitates detailed examination ofthe representation of the female participants.Regrettably, Wife Swap is simply another in the increasingly long line of "car crash"reality shows along with Joe Millionaire, The Bachelor, and Mr Right, where women areeither portrayed as commodities, desperate individuals obsessed with marriage, or in Wife Swap's case, entirely measured by their success in the domestic sphere. Now in its secondseries, it is evidently capturing the imagination ofthe British public with audiences of overfive million per episode (Plunkett 2003). Wife Swap and its antecedents have received much criticism in terms of voyeurism,humiliation, and the oft-cited "dumbing down" debate, yet little of this condemnation hasaddressed the crucial issues relating to the representation of women. Early criticismtended to focus upon the debasing and corruption of public sensibilities as RichardKilborn has noted:  COMMENTARY AND CRITICISM 345The audience can sometimes be manoeuvred into eavesdropping positions and allowedto witness events in ways which pander to less desirable traits in human nature. Thereis in other words, a quite understandable fear that reality programming if taken to theextreme, embodies the worst kind of common denominator TV. (Richard Kilborn 1994,• p. 427)This is also evident more recently in the broadsheet press:These "humiliation shows" have re-ignited the debate over standards in television.Ministers, psychologists and even some programme-makers have condemned them as"sick-making". Producers and directors admit the shows are sadistic but say celebritiesand members of the public are "queuing up" to take part. (John Arlidge 2003)Such criticism is part of a long tradition of cultural commentators bemoaning theeffects of television and expressing a parental concern for the audience. Conversely, inthe 1990s, feminist critics such as Jane Shattuc (1997) championed popular television andtalk shows in particular as a positive forum for the examination of women's issues.Unfortunately, after the quantifiable progress that has been made in terms of therepresentation of women within visual media, a programme such as Wife Swap isintrinsically negative and even threatens to undo this progress due to its harking back toan outdated and conservative representation of wives and mothers. Wife Swap's premise is a vicious one, staged so that the women are positionedagainst each other from the outset, and naturally the situation is exacerbated to make"good TV." The programme makers have clearly designed a format to create conflict butsurreptitiously hide behind a seemingly observational mode. Predictably, the couples arechosen in terms of their social status and class issues are the unspoken basis for selection.The female participants are often represented as pushy, domineering or stupid. Mostepisodes conclude with the husbands looking on innocently as their wives attack eachother's lifestyles and furiously defend their own. For instance, series one saw Kate, ahousewife and mother of six, sneer at Tracey, her career-focused counterpart "for awoman to fail as a housewife is ridiculous."Compelling as this may be. Wife Swap achieves nothing except to further emphasisethe fact that women should be natural homemakers by virtue of their gender andconfirms the notion that there is little positive about these types of outmoded genderstereotypes.The questions that Wife Swap calls forth are many. Not least, are the participantsreally representative of the way most couples still operate, with the men portrayed asdoing little of the domestic work and often emerging from the programme as heroes,whilst the women appear as either impossibly controlling or exploited doormats?The premise of the series is based exclusively around the women's place in thehome and any reference to careers and the workplace is inconsistent and alarminglylimited.Indeed, the programme makers have an incoherent attitude towards the womenby representing only half of their lives. Allusion to the women's jobs is often portrayedas troublesome, an interference in the lives of those who have to live with them. In thefirst series, one woman's career was unashamedly used as an attack on working mothersand appeared to confirm the belief that women simply cannot have it all. This episodewas particularly troubling and highlighted further the continued struggle that women still  346 COMMENTARY AND CRITICISMhave to negotiate at home, at work, and within society at large. It appears that accordingto television producers, the division of household chores, personal habits, taste, andparenting are the new battlefields in which women are contesting their homes, marriages,and self-esteem.There is occasionally, a weak attempt at highlighting the oppression of women bytheir domineering husbands. In series one, Michelle swaps with Carole, whose husbandPeter appears as an enlightened "new man." Michelle is married to Barry, a difficult,insecure, and domineering individual. Humiliation is key, and admittedly, Michelle'shusband Barry is amusingly officious, but the overt humiliation of Michelle's decision tolive with this man smacks of middle-class snobbery. This humiliation is concealed in a veilof self-discovery for the participant and presumes that the audience will learn somethingfrom watching the misery and embarrassment of others.Yet Wife Swap has become something of a cultural phenomenon which hasgalvanised the press, not due to its negative portrayal of wives and mothers, but becauseof the overt class warfare on display. Indeed, class appears to be an increasingly populartheme within reality TV. Recent programmes including Dinner Party Inspectors, HolidayShowdown, and Take My Mother-in-Law use class as the underpinning force for conflict.The premise of these shows is an arrogant one which invites the viewer to delight insneering at the working classes in a way that hasn't been acceptable since the 1950s.This class conflict appears to be key to the success of Wife Svi/ap. What becomesclear is that the lower middle classes are positioned as educating the earthy, raucousworking classes about social etiquette and the working classes often exhibit moreemotion and warmth for their children than their aspirational counterparts. Or as Guardian journalist Zoe Williams asserts, "It's an old-school morality tale that starts offwith how frightful the working classes are, then winds us round to the inevitableconclusion that, hey, they may be poor, but they're good and they're happy" (ZoeWilliams 2003).The range of class fractions on display is palpable, the lower middle-class womenare often portrayed as seeking to distance themselves from the working-class women andthis is of course where conflict is fashioned and played out. Indeed, the representation ofwives and mothers within this class war is repeatedly outdated and unnecessary.Despite the misguided naivety that Wife Swap may be more than cheap entertain-ment, it ultimately reveals little about changing social attitudes towards men andwomen's roles in the domestic sphere, is decidedly unconcerned with how gender isnegotiated, contested, and reconfigured across media forms, and simply reinforces theoutdated stereotype that a woman's place really should be in the home. One can onlyhope that the overall message arising from Wife Swap is that feminism is not only relevantin contemporary society, but absolutely essential. REFERENCES ARUDGE, JOHN (2003) 'Cruelty TV', The Observer, 18 May, [Online] Available at: http://observer,guardian.co.uk/focus/story/0,6903,958246,00,html THE BACHELOR (television series) ABC, DINNER PARTY INSPECTORS (television Series) BBC2. THE FARMER WANTS A WIFE (television Series) ITV. HOLIDAY SHOWDOWN (television series) ITV. JOE MILLIONAIRE (television series) Fox.  COMMENTARY AND CRITICISM 347 KILBORN,RICHARD (1994) 'How real can you get: recent developments in reality television', European Journai of Communication, vol. 9, no. 4, p, 427. MR R/GHT (television series) ITV.PLUNKETT, JOHN (2003) The Guardian, 29 January.SHATTUC, JANE (1997) The Talking Cure: Television Talk Shows and Women, Routledge, London. TAKE MY MOTHER-IN-LAW {te\e\/\s\or\ series) ITV. WIFE SWAP (television series) Channel 4,WILLIAMS, ZOE (2003) 'Bride and prejudice'. The Guardian, ^ 1 November, [Online] Available at:http://guardian,co,uk/comment/story/0,,1082297,00.html WOULD LIKE TO MEET (television series) BBC 2, Taking the Nation "From Drab to Fab": Queer Eye for the Straight Guy Dana Heller A distinctive sub-genre of reality television, makeover shows invite us to participatein a fantasy of physical and social transformation, the complex cultural srcins of whichconnect to myths of American immigration, evangelicalism, and expansionism. RobertThompson, Director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at SyracuseUniversity, summarizes these connections in a word:If you had to describe the American mythos in one single word, "reinvention" reallywould not be a bad choice. One could argue that from the time of the Pilgrims' arrivingat Plymouth Rock, a lot of at least the European settlement story of America has beenabout reinvention, leaving the Old World for the New. It's American culture as theannihilation of history, of the past .... In a very real sort of way, the history of the United States is one big fat makeover show. (Thompson cited in The Chronicle of Higher Education 2003, p, B4)What Thompson's observation does not explicitly account for are the gendered,racialized, and sexualized notions of self-realization, appearance, and pleasure that informthe "big fat makeover" otherwise known as American history. Makeover industries thataddress white middle-class women as their principal clients and offer feminine instructionand advice in physical appearance and lifestyle remained staples of nineteenth- andtwentieth-century popular culture, from magazines such as Ladies Home Journai, to 1950stelevision shows such as Queen for a Day, to lifestyle gurus such as Jane Fonda andMartha Stewart, Of course, there are many exceptions to these structures of address andidentification in makeover marketing, evident in the history of "Charles Atlas" (bornAngelo Siciliano, an Italian immigrant) and the men's body-building culture he helpedspawn, the popularity of African-American lifestyle magazines such as Ebony, and theindeterminate number of men and women, gay and straight, who have enjoyed exercis-
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