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Wife Swap

Two themes ran throughout the episode of Wife Swap that I viewed. One was that of class conflict the other was the image of womanhood. The show depicted two families, the first being upper class family living in a large spacious suburban home. This family is headed by Shannon and Wayne. The second family is that of George and Belinda’s who are a working class family in a much more modest household.

Shannon and Wayne’s household is depicted as, prefect, clean, and civilized. In the show Shannon describes their life as “four beautiful princesses living in a fairy tale house.? This is juxtaposed with George and Belinda’s household which is depicted as trash ridden filth and barbaric. The show devotes a lot of attention to Belinda’s “trash picking,? where she revamps and reuses discarded furniture. The fist household is always shown in correlation with what they have, fancy cars, new furniture, a huge house set on a giant well manicured lawn. Working is never talked about; the viewer has no idea what Wayne does besides obsessively cleaning the house and playing golf. In one small blurb we learn that Shannon is a kindergarten teacher. It is never called into question how this family has so much money to afford such a grand life style. Their lifestyle is simply depicted as normal and ideal. Shots of the house are always paired with bright cheery music, birds chirping, and is always brightly lit. This is juxtaposed with George and Belinda’s household which is always filmed with dark lighting, dopey tuba music, and the sound of a record being abruptly stopped. George’s work hours are constantly highlighted as well as the fact that Belinda is a stay at home mom who home schools her children. At every turn Belinda and George are framed in the age old media archetype of the great unwashed working class. Belinda does not focus on housecleaning and thus is described as, lazy, filthy, ignorant and destructive. In the swap Shannon hopes to bring civility and cleanliness to the household to show the family “just how much better they can live.? Belinda’s family has a lot of pets, and often the family is depicted as living like their pets, as dirty poop covered animals. Belinda’s children are home school and she is depicted in a negative light for breaking with the norm of public education. He children are shown as being lazy and unable to focus and behind other normal children. In one scene Wayne declares that Belinda’s children will “be the ones sucking at life because they have no friends.? On the other hand the intellectual prowess of Shannon and Wayne’s girls is never commented on because they attend a “good? public school.
Both wives are depicted differently when it comes to what makes them women. Shannon is depicted as the ideal, perfectly polished and well groomed. She states that “the way you look says a lot about you.? She also states that she is always trying to improve herself by, reducing her wrinkles, keeping her teeth white, having her makeup and hair done at all times, and keeping her weight the same as it was in high school. This image of beauty is passed on to her daughter who are punished for having chipped nail polish and state that it is important to be beautiful all the time. Gender norms are also enforced in the household as dad is said to pursuer more manly activities like playing golf and leaves the women to “do face painting or whatever it is that girls do.? The main message of the household is that women are to be feminine by dressing like proper women, putting on makeup and doing there hair before being seen in public. Not to do these things would make them less than woman and filthy.
The archetype of filth in this episode is Belinda. She is shown as being frumpy and manly. Because she does not spend time painting her face and grooming she is constantly referred to as lazy and disgusting by Shannon’s husband Wayne. Interestingly Belinda’s husband George never comments on Shannon’s appearance.

The show really enforces a lot of the norms and stereotypes in society. The women’s main value is how well the can maintain a household. If they are unable to keep themselves and their houses in perfect condition they are shown as less than woman and a failure. Wayne is depicted as doing a vast majority of the housework; this problem is solved in the show by having the four daughters fall into their gender roles and start to do a vast majority of the house work while dad takes it easy. In the second household George also does a lot of the house work, because Belinda is depicted as a giant mess incapable of her gender role, the children are then urged to do housework and chores, thus normalizing the family. It is often stated in the show that George should not have to work 16 hours a week then come home and do house work, that his role should be as breadwinner and that his wife Belinda needs to step up either by working or by getting her house together. The norm of marriage is also reinforced. The wife is depicted as property of the husband and her role is to serve the family and ultimately the husband. Wayne perfectly illustrates this when he states “a wife is like a puppy dog, just flip them a treat or a dollar bill and they will do what you want.? Gender performance is also highly stressed. The show highlights that a true and successful woman is one who is feminine, skinny, and primped for her man’s pleasure. Anything that steps outside this norm of womanhood is depicted as barbaric, dirty, and inexcusable. To fix the barbarous Belinda, her house is cleaned and she is made to reflect on the values of the elite class, and to apologize for her unwomanly ways. Shannon is also made to reflect that being a caring mother is also the norm for a woman that she needs to spend more time focused on her daughters. Kristy Fairclough in her essay Women’s Work? Wife Swap and the Reality Problem notes that “it’s and old school morality tale which starts out with how frightful the working classes are, then winds us round to the inevitable conclusion that, hey, they may be poor, but they’re good and they’re happy (Zoe Williams 2003). The lives of the working classes are paired with a barge of commercials that reinforce the upper middle class lifestyle. Many of the commercials were for those of luxury SUVs, cell phone family plans, and home improvement products. Clearly the target of the show is the Middle American mother who upon viewing might want to step up her own lifestyle. The gender performance roles highlighted on the show are also reflected in its commercials, the vast bulk of the advertisements were for women’s beauty products, shampoos to make your hair shine more, products to boost the colour of blondes and brunettes, micro derma-abrasion and anti-wrinkle products, and makeup ads. In her book Feminism is for every body bell hooks explains that “images of reed-thin. Dyed-blonde women looking as though the would kill for a good meal have become the norm? (hooks pg 34). She also notes that this image reinforces and fuels a white male capitalist fashion and beauty industry (hooks pg 34). Also ads selling home cleaning products were also prevalent. The message was clear, good wives look good, and keep good homes, if you feel like you might be a sloppy working class woman it is easy to fix through a long line of products.

Comments

excellent point about the "dopey tuba music"... many viewers miss how all of the stylistic elements are constructed to inform your reading (like your examples: bird chirping - good neighborhood, dopey tubas - trashy nieghborhood). very good read of the good/bad roles of womanhood constructed on this show.
also, what in this society is "swappable"?... well, wives of course! i think of my daughter's girl scouts sleepover a few weekends back. each girl made "swaps" (little crafty pins to trade w/new friends). you swap OBJECTS not people... so is the message wives = swappable objects?

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Great post. Is was very interesting to read