Wife Swap: Children and Reality TV

By Jenifer Dana Miller


This year, the predictable has finally happened: TV has sunk to newer, formerly-inconceivable lows and ABC's "reality" show Wife Swap proves it.

I watched Wife Swap in November 2004 at the urging of my mother, who told me that it is “the most real show” on TV. The premise of the show is something that happens to us all every day: two mothers change families for two weeks. Of course, the two families are chosen based upon an obvious polarity and the mothers are as eccentric as imaginable. After all only polar opposites can produce the most conflict and turmoil and therefore the best ratings. Previous wife swaps have included switching a rural-country mom with a rich-New York City heiress and trading a fitness-crazed mom with an overweight couch-potato one.

The episode I watched featured Paulette, an Italian-American mother of a well-to-do family from New Jersey. Paulette is a suburban housewife whose most notable quality is the fact that she cleans her house for five hours every day. Paulette's TV persona makes clinically diagnosed obsessive-compulsives look normal. Paulette's husband is an accountant and has two children: a teenage daughter and a 10-year-old son.

Paulette trades families with Elizabeth, a California hippie whose house should be condemned by the Board of Health. The house is strewn with clutter and dirty clothes and to Paulette’s horror, infested with a colony of dust bunnies and ants. Elizabeth is the mother of three biracial children and has never married their father. Elizabeth is also a new-age vegetarian who meditates two hours a day and sets a timer to clean for 15 minutes a day. Whatever cannot be done in those 15 minutes has to wait for another day. It is not clear whether or not Elizabeth works.

For the first week of the Paulette-Elizabeth wife-transfer, each mom must live by house rules. Therefore, Elizabeth must clean 5 hours a day and cook meat-based meals for her new family. In contrast, Paulette must limit herself to 15 minutes of cleaning and meditate. After the first week, Paulette and Elizabeth get to shake things up and make their own house rules which then must followed by the members of their new family.

Both women try to live each other’s life as successfully as possible. This is aided by a house manual left by the former mom, detailing what they do each day as far as cooking, cleaning, child care and hobbies. As one might guess, Elizabeth succeeds in making a mess of Paulette’s house, while Paulette breaks down in tears as she is subjected to living in a pigsty without the ability to clean it up.

The second week both women run their new home like their old home, and make predictable changes that the children are not accustomed to or happy with. The two husbands are largely left out of the picture, seemingly going along with everything and encouraging their kids to listen to their new mom.

I'm not sure what motivates people like these women to reveal their lives and quirks to the world on TV. Neither woman comes across as normal. Perhaps it is the money or TV exposure. Of course, they are adults and they can do with their lives what they want.

However, what is appalling and disturbing about Wife Swap is the fact that these mothers sacrifice their children's welfare in a quest for TV fame. These mothers willingly subject their children to the drastic and surreal change of having a new mother radically change the house rules. This show should really be titled Mom Swap.

When Elizabeth is able to make the rules, she decides that Paulette’s children need to eat better and not be coddled: both are obvious assumptions. Paulette’s obese, spoiled 10-year-old-boy, though, is not happy. This child's diet changed from fast food to vegetarian meals and is now asked to meditate. He is not allowed to watch TV on school nights and is forced to read instead of television and video games. (Editors Note: here at TurnOffYourTV.com, we fully endorse this anti-TV philosophy and wish more TV shows portrayed people not watching TV.)

However, Paulette's son is more upset that his new mom will no longer pick out his clothes and style his hair for him. Every morning before school, the boy throws temper-tantrums and rages against his new mom. Regardless of whether Elizabeth is right, this child will no doubt be teased and humiliated by his friends upon seeing him on TV. While the child does project the personality of a spoiled brat, this is in response to a contrived situation. The boy also acts much like a typical 10-year old -- something lost in the editing. This 45-minute program barely gives a glimpse of the 2 weeks (20,160 minutes) he spent with his new mom and the 20,160 minutes his mom spent with her new family. The ABC network chose to show only the most unreal and TV-friendly events which are filled with conflicts and distortions.

I'm sure when he thought of being on TV, this 10-year-old thought only of the coolness factor. However, the TV producers have purposely given this child a mother sure to bring out the worst in him, good for ratings but hardly good for the child’s mental and emotional development. The coolness of being on TV likely is offset by his embarrassment at seeing himself act outrageous on television.

The tragedy of this show is that innocent children are unwittingly subjected to a stressful and unreal environment in exchange for being on TV. Undoubtedly, these children are eager to be on TV, completely unable to comprehend what it is in store for them, both on the show and the aftermath of their lives. These children are incapable of understanding the implications of being on TV, and how they may be negatively portrayed or affected by the experience.

The worst aspect of Wife Swap is that children, who are legally incapable of giving consent to being on TV, are willingly sacrificed by their parents in their desire for fame or money. It makes one wonder what kind of parent would subject their kids to this? Maybe Elizabeth and Paulette are more alike then it would seem.


© 2004 by Jenifer Dana Miller on TurnOffYourTV.com