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 woke. 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 the wife in each 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 the arguing, with the twist being that you never knew whether it would take the form of couple against couple or husband against wife.