by Jana Záhoráková
This article will analyse how identity building of the participants in the reality show Wife Swap is maximised to create confrontation between them. The show originated in the United Kingdom and then transferred rather successfully to the United States as well as many other countries. I will first show research from four academic sources about the intervening ways in which this is done through linguistic phenomena. I conclude with a discussion from a sociological perspective.
Wife Swap is constructed to maximise opportunities for conflict. This tendency is evident from start of each episode when the participants name the problems in their respective relationships before the change to explain why they decided to participate in the first place and how this could help them. However, there is neither an expert at the end helping them solve these issues nor a host to mediate their conversation. These explanations are followed by the wives riding in the car on their way to new families where they talk about the situations that they are afraid of with their new families. Later, they examine their new homes alone and read the ʻmanualʼ written by the other wife. In all these segments, the editing process maximises potential underlying conflict. Confrontational scenes are kept while calmer incidents are most likely deemed too boring for the final cut. Conflicts naturally arise over the following ten days, however, the greatest platform for confrontation comes at the end of the programme, when the two families meet and discuss what they have learned from the exchange. As the show is, like all of reality TV shows, heavily edited, we get glimpses of troubles between the couples as well as between the two wives, which come to fruition towards the end when both families meet each other to communicate their newly acquired first-hand knowledge of the others’ home situation.
The idea of private becoming public and vice versa is very prominent in Wife Swap as both families essentially invite a new mother into their households as well as the camera crew and the public.
Confrontation itself is a very important part of every reality show. For example, the notion of “interfacing of the private and the public”, as discussed by Ian Hutchby, is a key element in these shows (Hutchby 66). The idea of private becoming public and vice versa is very prominent in Wife Swap as both families essentially invite a new mother into their households as well as the camera crew and the public. During the exchange, the participants either talk to each other or the camera in what could be considered a more private space, but it is as public as the rest of the show as the most interesting parts of it will most probably be broadcasted on national television. However, this format enables them to vent their frustrations or explain their stances on certain things that might have happened previously. In his essay, Hutchby mentions the cruciality of multiparty confrontation between all the participants in the kind of talk shows analysed by him, but in Wife Swap, because of the lack of not only the expert or the host but also the studio audience, the contestants only confront each other for the sake of the audience (Hutchby). This lack of professionals in the show makes for an uncontrolled environment where anything can happen and that is possibly the biggest draw of the show itself. It also means that people argue and talk over each other, especially in the more dramatic final meeting of the two couples. As there is no mediator, moderator or anyone else regulating the flow of the exchange, the couples are free to insult each other and the state of the other couple’s household. The show is often edited in a way that this final confrontation is magnified in that the audience gets to see the occasional hostile comments during the wives’ stay at the other house which build-up to the final part of the show. Thus, the occasional smaller confrontations gather momentum until they burst into major conflicts the couples deal with at the end of the show.
One of the critical aspects of the participants that fuels the conflicts between them is the substantial differences between the families, and their take on domestic chores and parenting. In her book about reality television, Laurie Ouellette points out the switch that happened in British and later American television broadcasting in the 2000s when the centre of attraction and interest for TV audiences shifted from documentary-style reality programming into something narratively more structured with focus on the participants’ character (Ouellette 108). The producers’ main concern is to make the whole show as interesting for the viewers as possible, which makes it possible that the contestants are often chosen exactly because their characters will most likely make for entertaining conflicts when their natural personalities clash. Ouellette specifically argues that there is a bias about social classes with the middle-class being privileged and that “consequently, reality television as a genre has a special relationship to the constructed middle-class self of neoliberalism” and working-class ways of life are considered and systematically depicted as less desirable and often even somewhat loathsome (Ouellette 210). For example, the notion that the wives should tidy up the household before they leave in order to establish their competence in being able to take care of the house and by extension their families is very middle class in its essence. The state of the new home first visited is a very important introduction to the kind of family that occupies this space and as was mentioned previously and together with reading and commenting on the manual of the other wife, it is a breeding ground for potential conflicts to occur later in the episode, especially when one of the women is stricter about the cleanliness level than the other. For example, in the history of the Czech and Slovak versions of Wife Swap, the neatness of the exchange household is often the first thing the wives comment on and some of the more radically dirty houses have gone viral on social media after their presentation on television like, for example, Věra from the Czech version of the show whose not only lack of cleanliness of her household but also her non-existent personal hygiene earned her the filth inspired nickname Špindíra. Ouellette questions what this reveals about society (Ouellette 210). Certainly, the expectations of what constitutes a ‘normal familyʼ, or in what way such a family should conduct its domestic chores are challenged by some of the people willingly appearing in these shows.
In the 2000s when the centre of attraction and interest for TV audiences shifted from documentary-style reality programming into something narratively more structured with focus on the participants’ character.
This social struggle is analysed by Beverly Skeggs and Helen Wood in their book about reality television where they invoke the feminist view that ʻthe private is publicʼ and therefore politicised (Skeggs & Wood 27). In other words, by focusing on inherently private domesticity and dragging it out into the public sphere, the creators of these shows engage their products in a political polemic (Skeggs & Wood 27). Some people oppose this idea and claim that these reality shows are quintessentially apolitical, however, the fact that they expose people in their most private moments and space still stands (Skeggs & Wood 27). The documentary aspect of reality TV could be seen as the prime carrier of the idea of fetishizing the ordinary, however, they are not always entertaining, and this is where the importance of camera work and subsequent editing process comes in. As Skeggs and Wood argue: “the regularity and importance of the close-up across all reality programmes, coupled with ironic music and juxtapositional editing, register the close proximity reality programming has to melodrama and its manipulation of affect” (Skeggs & Wood 25). In some similar shows as well as other versions of Wife Swap, an ironical and often condescending voice-over is also added to this manipulation in an obvious attempt to portray one wife’s ineptitude when it comes to keeping the children and their home clean. However, the class struggle comes into question again here, because some families can neither afford to get rid of the old furniture in their homes nor buy new ones and although the show runners could easily be accused of trying to paint the poorer families as simply lazy when they often, unfortunately, do not have a choice and these close-ups of ancient kitchen units with lots of smudges on them only achieve further stigmatisation of these families for whom often the money they receive for this television appearance is enough of a stimulus to participate in what usually ends in their humiliation in front of the whole nation. This shows the notion that whatever happens in these homes, everything from private to mundane becomes political, a subject of discussion and lamentations for the whole country.
In her essay on tele-factual genres, Thornborrow points out that these participants occupy a special space on television as there are “neither media professionals nor celebrities or public figures”, they nonetheless manage to capture the imaginations of millions of viewers all over the world (Thornborrow 143). It seems that the viewers find whatever is private to them revealed in an unflattering way at someone else’s sake entertaining. Thornborrow further states that reality television is:
blending the observational documentary with the scripted soap opera to produce hybrid genres which have given rise to new conceptualizations of mediated performance. At the core of these debates is the concept of an ordinary person whose private self is repackaged through a mediated public performance as a reality TV participant. (Thornborrow 143)
The main focus of each episode is the performance of the two wives, but the husbands also play a part as do the children, especially the older ones. Thornborrow suggests that the participants build their personalities as opposites to the others, creating a kind of ʻnot meʼ or ʻnot like meʼ identity (Thornborrow 149). The preceding choice of the two families in the first place as well as the subsequent editing process helps to escalate these dissimilarities in the hopes of creating as much drama as possible in any given episode. Although all reality shows are marketed as authentic, emphasising the ʻrealʼ in their own name, the result is hardly equivalent to real life as we know it as every person who knows they are being filmed becomes a persona and provides performance. Furthermore, possible meddling of the crew not only during postproduction in the editing room, but during the filming makes the shows semi-scripted. This would mean that the participants do not create their television personalities independently. Thornborrow stresses the interplay of the participants’ apparently contradictive “lifestyle choices and cultural values” and how they help create possibilities for disputes and frictions as well as how they are juxtaposed from the very first shots and regular segments which are typical for the show for example, the first arrival to a new home or reading of the other woman’s manual (Thornborrow 153). The structure of the show is very similar in every country’s version of the program.
Pornography of the poor and for the poor as the viewers feel better when they see evidence of other families living in even worse conditions than themselves.
The program obviously mines the field of potential conflict while pretending to be solving the marital problems of its participants. What can audience take form this exploitation without feeling bad about watching it in the first place? Perhaps, instead of judging the untidy rooms and unkept households of some of the families we should think about whether we are in a position to judge them or whether we are just manipulated into doing so by the camera crew, director or the production of the series as a whole. To what extent do these dichotomies inflated by the crew reflect the true nature of the participants? A Czech sociologist Irena Reifová studied reality TV and the Czech version of Wife Swap only to reach the conclusion that these programs serve as so-called poverty porn or pornography of the poor and for the poor as the viewers feel better when they see evidence of other families living in even worse conditions than themselves. Reifová also stresses the fact that even people who are in a very comparable situation judge these families when they see them on TV and she attributes this to a complete lack of class solidarity in Czechia and Slovakia. Reifová explains this by the aversion towards anything resembling socialism after the fall of communism in Central and Eastern Europe which caused most of the countries to accept the neoliberal kind of capitalism and its philosophy that poor people are to be blamed for their poverty because they simply do not try or work hard enough. In the interview, she also mentions what she calls judgment shots of great detail; for example, a shot of dirty hands on a dinner table which intensify and fetishize the state of the poor households or the low level of hygiene of the adults and even children on the show. Reifová further laments the fact that had the program used their ticket to the inner workings of these families, they could probably help resolve some of their issues and set a positive example for others either to perceive those who are less well-off with a more welcoming attitude or encourage them to change something in their own lives. This, however, may not be as entertaining a process as the current way of shooting and consuming these shows, which means that such a change is very unlikely to take place, but the viewers can start their own small revolution if not by abstaining from reality TV altogether, then at least by refraining from judging the people on the screen.
This article is based on author’s final paper which she submitted in the Linguistic Analysis of Broadcast Talk course.
Coupland, Nikolas, and Joanna Thornborrow. “Styling the ‘Ordinary’: Tele- Factual Genres and Participant Identities.” Style, Mediation, and Change: Sociolinguistic Perspectives on Talking Media, Oxford University Press, 2017, pp. 143–164.
Mortensen, Janus, et al. “Styling the ‘Ordinary’: Tele- Factual Genres and Participant Identities.” Style, Mediation, and Change: Sociolinguistic Perspectives on Talking Media, Oxford University Press, New York, 2017, pp. 143–164.
Hutchby, Ian, and Ian Hutchby. “The Spectacle of Confrontation.” Media Talk: Conversation Analysis and the Study of Broadcasting, Open University Press, Maidenhead, 2006, pp. 65–80.
Ouellette, Laurie. A Companion to Reality Television. Wiley Blackwell, 2014.
Skeggs, Beverley, and Helen Wood. Reacting to Reality Television: Performance, Audience and Value. Routledge, 2012.