When I first heard about the hugely successful U.K. show Wife Swap, I assumed it would be titillating: reality TV finally becoming literally pornographic. But the program—which has now reached our shores in an Americanized version, alongside the Fox rip-off Trading Spouses—is both much tamer and far more provocative than the Ice Storm–esque car-keys-in-a-bowl scenario the term wife swapping brings to mind. Instead of 1970s-style permissiveness, the show is about something even more quaint: class war. Wife Swap should really be called Life Swap. Stay-at-home moms trade places with ambitious career women. Trailer-park dwellers get transplanted into the gardens of affluent suburbia. Values collide in an all-out lifestyle catfight that leaves nobody unscathed.
The old adage says you shouldn’t judge someone until you’ve walked a mile in his or her shoes. In both Wife Swap and Trading Spouses, the interloper (usually a woman, though Trading Spouses recently did a dad swap) casts a gimlet eye over the host family, passing judgment on everything from how hard these strangers work to how they rear their children to the contents of their fridges. Revealingly, the biggest friction is over attitudes toward food and kids. One installment of Trading Spouses features a hayseed hubby who goes to live with the family of a high-powered Manhattan lawyer. He’s appalled by the way they waste money ordering deliveries or eating out instead of cooking every night. The lawyer, meanwhile, tries to broaden the culinary horizons of his temporary wife by taking her to a fancy restaurant, only to have her proudly declare that she’d rather save the money and dine at a fast-food joint.
There’s a similar clash of worlds in Wife Swap‘s debut episode, which switches the wives of a wealthy Upper East Side family (the Spolanskys) and a working-class clan from rural New Jersey (the Bradleys). The announcer sets up Jodi Spolansky as a sort of aging Paris Hilton: “Jodi has never done a day’s work in her life and has four nannies to look after her three children.” Lynn Bradley, meanwhile, is cast as a hardworking daughter of the soil, who “chops wood for six hours a day.” Jodi’s normal life includes a lot of “me time,” as she puts it—shopping, the gym, the salon. Her husband jokes, “She really is driven, but right now she’s driven by a chauffeur.” When she enters the Bradleys’ modest but clean home for the first time, Jodi’s face contorts in disgust at—the horror! the horror!—coffee left to sit in the coffeemaker. “That would never happen at my house! Someone would clean it out.” Lynn, meanwhile, disapproves of the meager amount of time Jodi has been spending with her young children. Much to Steven Spolansky’s horror, she actually dismisses the numerous nannies. (A stunned Steven asks, “Are they taking the kids with them?”) By the end of the episode, though, the two women aren’t so far apart. Jodi has so much fun teaching Lynn’s daughters to read fashion mags and baking inedible cookies that she realizes she hasn’t spent that kind of quality time with her own spawn. Lynn hasn’t exactly developed a taste for “me time,” but when she leaves, Jodi’s little daughter tells her, “I’m gonna miss you. You’re a very good mom.”
Both these shows play every card they can think of—race, class, region, philosophy, lifestyle. And both try to milk the predictable “we can all learn something from each other” narrative payoff. The big difference between Wife Swap and Trading Spouses is the unnecessary and very cruel reality-TV twist that the latter show incorporates. Each family is offered $50,000 for its participation, but once the program starts, the suckers learn that it’s the swapped spouse who gets to decide how the other family’s cash will be spent. So far this dirty, Joe Schmo–style trick has yielded enjoyably excruciating results. In an early episode, Tammy Nakamura, the slim blonde wife of a wealthy Japanese American plastic surgeon, traded places with Al Mela Biggins, an overweight, blue-collar African American. Tammy doesn’t cook or clean much—that’s all handled by Tammy’s elderly Japanese mother-in-law, Nana. Yet Tammy charges into the Biggins house with all the self-righteous condescension of a 19th-century missionary. She harangues the family for their overreliance on carbs and orders the poor kids to tidy the house while she watches TV. Meanwhile, Al Mela enters the Nakamura house with an open mouth (she’s stunned by the luxury) and open mind; she tries sushi, plays with the kids, and bonds with Nana, who’s the unappreciated workhorse in the house. In the end, Al Mela bestows the entire $50,000 to Nana—a fabulous slap in the face to the rest of the spoiled family. For once Tammy is left speechless.
It’s oddly satisfying to watch series like Trading Spouses and Wife Swap reveal how deeply divided American society is—especially at a time when the current administration holds up our country as the perfect model for all other nations. If Trading Spouses and Wife Swap prove anything, it’s that “the People” don’t exist—this country is a fractious confederacy of demographic clusters. Each believes its way is the right way and can hardly tolerate the existence of anybody except those most alike itself, as evidenced by the recent polls showing that Americans now listen to the news source that most closely aligns with their political beliefs. Forget Manifest (Common) Destiny; it seems Americans barely inhabit the same reality.