Once upon a time, some co-workers and I somehow got in a debate over whose personality best fit each character in “Steel Magnolias.” Somehow I doubt this is the sort of debate women have in, say, Tibet, but in the South, it’s the work of two minutes to figure out who is the Shelby in any group of women. (It takes a lot longer to mollify the egos of all the women who *thought* they were the Shelby). Anyway, two drama queens in the group immediately declared they’d be the Julia Roberts and the Dolly Parton characters. And – I’ve never forgiven them – they unanimously declared that I would be the Weezer of the group. Yes, Weezer! Listen, I like my sarcastic personality, but NOBODY wants to be compared to an aging, frumpy, grumpy Shirley McLaine.
The reason I’m thinking of this is that it led me to think of another such conversation, regarding the TV show “Designing Women.” Again, I was told I’d be the Dixie Carter of the bunch. And I was thinking about Designing Women because as soon as I read the preview for this week’s Wife Swap, I knew exactly who one of our wives, Christie, would be. She’d be the Delta Burke character. Oh, she’d sound like that other one, the blonde (not the bitchy one, the other one). But she’d be the pampered princess like Delta Burke.
And kids, this Weezer was right.
Christie Baker lives in Tennessee with her husband, Richard, and their daughters. She does not work, nor does she do housework; instead, Richard works 60 hours a week and still does the cleaning, the cooking, and the bringing-Christie-breakfast-in-bedding. Christie spends her days getting manicures and shopping, and she’s raising her daughters to do the same. Now, don’t get the idea Christie’s an evil slave-driver. Oh, no. She rewards Richard. We see them together in a bubble bath, as Richard is presumably being rewarded under the bubbles. Personally, I don’t see how seeing Christie naked would be rewarding At. All. And he relates an incident in which Christie breezed into his office in a black teddy, asking if he liked it. “It was about a month before I realized I’d bought her a mink coat that was covering up the teddy,” Richard says with a rueful laugh. Oh, ha ha, Richard! Oh, that’s funny! *slaps knee* Um, yeah, with a relationship like this I would just Laugh. All. Day. And then I’d throw that sorry Christie out on her feather-boaed behind.
In contrast to this close and loving relationship, we have the Donahoes. Audrey and Jeff run a dairy farm in rural New York. They have six kids. Audrey milks the cows – 150 of ‘em – twice a day, plus does all the housework and the cooking. She gets up at 4:30 a.m. to do this. Jeff is happy to be teaching their children a strong work ethic, and they both think they’re teaching the children that things don’t come easy.
Frankly, My Dear, I Don't Give a Sniff
As you know, the wives swap places for two weeks, yadda yadda yadda. We see them both packing, but Audrey’s dull so we’ll focus on Christie, whose bedroom seems to be painted HOT pink, and her bedspread appears to be green. We’ve already seen her in her closet, which is full of flouncy, appliquéd, gold lame sorts of tacky things, so I don’t think anyone expected that Christie would be Miss Tasteful. But that bedroom is just fugly. Richard hopes Christie will learn to be more – as in any – domestic. Their girls simply hope the new mom is cute and not fat. Simple dreams, my friends. Simple dreams.
Christie announces in the limo that she hopes the people she lives with “don’t smell.” Actually, I think she means, “don’t stink.” Because if they don’t smell, that’s a problem with their own olfactory senses. See? Stink… smell… different meanings… never mind.
Christie arrives in the house with HER sense of smell on full alert. She says it smells. “Is it pigs?” she asks, sniffing from room to room, despite having just commented on the large number of cows outside. Christie arrives at a window decorated in pink lace curtains, and in a Scarlett O’Hara moment, wraps herself in the drapes and says she could wear them. Christie does resemble Scarlett, in that she’s a self-absorbed, pampered egotist, but there the resemblance stops.
Audrey, meanwhile, laughs at the things in Christie’s closet, particularly a feather boa – Christie must have a stockpile of these, because she took one to New York as well. Reading the diary Christie left behind, Audrey is amazed that Richard does all the work, and that on Saturdays Christie sleeps in till 3 in the afternoon. “I didn’t think that was humanly possible,” Audrey says.
Christie, reading Audrey’s diary, is horrified at just how much of Audrey’s day revolves around cows. “She’s a slave,” Christie says. A slave who drinks whole, unpasteurized milk, which if possible appalls Christie even more than the idea of touching a cow. “You think it comes out of the cows?” she asks. No, Christie. It comes out of the moon. Idiot. I will say this, though – my grandfather used to have a dairy farm, and I’ve had milk that came from an udder that morning, and I wasn’t real thrilled with it.
It’s time for Christie and Audrey to meet their new families. For this occasion, Christie has chosen to wear a hot-pink feather boa and leather pants. I hope she doesn’t wear those pants too close to the cows. They might get suspicious. Anyway, Christie, in true fake-friendly style, hugs the Donahoes. One son is not impressed with her boa, saying she looks like she’s from Hawaii, and she’s not going to last.
Christie’s impression of Jeff is that he’s “a little different” and that he expects someone to wait on him. And that would be different from Christie…how? Jeff says Christie seems flamboyant and fun and adventurous, but that the pace of farm life will quickly wear her out.
Back in Tennessee, Christie’s superficial daughters are appalled that Audrey doesn’t wear makeup. They’re also sickened at her suggestion that they drink milk. These women are like the poster children for osteoporosis. Richard, however, is impressed with Audrey’s recitation of how much work she does.
The Queen of Manure
It’s the first day, and not surprisingly, Christie’s the only one in the Donahoe house not up at 4:45 a.m. for cow duty. She finally lumbers downstairs, only to insist she must put on lotion. Jeff points out that the cows won’t care, but to no avail – it’s another hour before Christie arrives in the barn. She immediately has difficulties dealing with the smell. Listen, I know cows do not smell good. I know that 150 cows smell even worse. But I really don’t think it should be such a crippling assault on the olfactory nerves as it seems to be for Christie.
At some point, Christie has put on makeup. I assume this was during the hour she was supposedly putting on lotion. Jeff rolls his eyes and tells us that in the farm business, there’s no time for yourself. At any rate, Jeff has put Christie on manure-shoveling duty. She says the moment in which he showed her the manure room “was a real special moment in my life.” She also wants to know what Jeff is doing while she shovels sh*t and the kids do other cow stuff. Jeff says he’s the supervisor and he delegates. Christie knows all about delegating responsibility. She just isn’t used to having it delegated upon her.
Meanwhile, Richard is bringing Audrey breakfast in bed. All the fruit is cut and lined up perfectly. I think that’s a bit much. I’ve brought people breakfast in bed on occasion, but they were more likely to get a Hardee’s biscuit plopped on a plate. When you need a ruler to arrange orange slices, that’s a sign you’re taking things a bit far. Anyway, Audrey has to lie there in bed, bored, while Richard cleans the house.
Finally Audrey is allowed to get up and go out – to go shopping with the girls. She is aghast at the $200 price tag on a dress, and proudly tells the girls that her last outfit cost about $9. Um, Audrey? Unless you managed to get a quality, brand-name outfit for $9 – which is not entirely out of the realm of reason; I shop at Marshall’s, and sometimes their clearance rack is a gold mine – then you’re basically saying you got an outfit at Wal-mart. Not to knock Wal-mart, because I shop there too, and if I paid $200 for a dress I would wear that thing every damn day until it fell off my body, but my point is, a $9 outfit is typically not going to survive many turns in the washing machine, and you might as well spend $30 and get something with stronger seams.
Returning to Cowville, Christie is sick of shoveling manure, and wants to do the milking. It’s day three by now, evidently, and Audrey does the milking, and so Christie wants to do it too. But she doesn’t move fast enough, trying to go hang up her jacket while Jeff tries to insist that she just chuck it and grab a teat. They argue and she does not wind up milking. Christie says Jeff is bossy and arrogant – I say it takes one to know one – and that he takes advantage of his kids.
Christie also thinks Jeff takes advantage of Audrey and that he needs to help around the house some. She doesn’t like that the kids work in the barn so much. Jeff says she hasn’t seen the awe in their faces when a calf is born. I’m guessing that cowbirth would send Christie running screaming from the ickiness of it all, so she’d probably never see it even if she lived there the rest of her life. I myself have never seen a calf being born, although my grandfather once set me on top of a calf’s back and laughed uproariously as it tried to buck me off. Yeah, good times.
In Tennessee, Audrey is homesick. Living Christie’s life is pretty lonely, evidently – the all-day every-day camaraderie she has with Jeff at home is missing. Richard is sympathetic, and notes that he and Christie definitely don’t spend the kind of time together that Jeff and Audrey do. He says Audrey’s family must be pretty special. I really can’t think of anything snarky to say here. Richard is a really nice man. I’m just sorry he’s saddled with someone like Christie.
Taking a Break and Taking the Bus
The women have lived by the house rules for a week, and now it’s time for them to impose their own changes. Even a cow of below-average intelligence, for a cow, could predict that Christie’s rules will have a lot to do with Christie sitting on her ass. They also involve Jeff’s kids sitting on their asses; Christie announces that Jeff runs his farm like a business and that the kids aren’t going to be doing any more farmwork. Gee, imagine that – he runs a business like a business. Christie, of course, has milked her last cow. One of the sons is highly upset by being told he’s not to work anymore. “My farm is my life,” sobs this kid, who has to be all of 10 years old.
Audrey’s rules are different. She decrees that Richard is not to do the housework anymore; she and the girls will do it. The girls, who are spoiled beyond belief, protest. Audrey also wants the family to drink milk, and wants the girls to take the bus to school instead of her driving them. She really doesn’t understand why they are so horrified at the thought. Obviously Audrey has never been on a school bus. They are places of taunting and terror. I’m with the girls on this one.
Although I hope I wouldn’t have reacted as they are doing; by crying, and ignoring Audrey’s rule about milk, and making her cry. Poor Richard, alone in a house of sobbing women. But the plus side is, for the first time in 17 years he can get ready for work with the lights on. Evidently he usually tiptoes around the house in the mornings by the light of a muted TV. He gets to actually say goodbye to his daughters, which is about the last word the girls speak this morning, as they’re not speaking to Audrey. They sullenly do a half-hearted job at the chores she’s assigned them, and breeze by her as she tries to ask them about the school bus. As it turns out, they plan to walk to school rather than bus it. I guess this is a matter of some miles, because before long, one girl returns, unable to handle the trek. She looks around her driveway for the schoolbus, as Audrey directs her to the corner where it actually stops. The girl glares into the camera before getting on the bus of horrors.
Rhett Butler Would Never Stand for this Crap
In New York, Jeff has been in the barn since 3 a.m. Christie took his team away, so he’s got to do everything. I would think a farm of this size might hire a little outside help, but I guess not. Meanwhile, Christie and the kids are enjoying a morning off; she sleeps in, of course, and the boys play basketball before catching the bus to school.
Jeff also has to make Christie breakfast in bed. She insists he come upstairs to take her order, and then imperiously sends him off for a napkin and some salt after he brings her her eggs. She also has that ridiculous boa draped across the headboard. Jeff tells us that he’ll accept her bossiness for now, but that another night of three hours of sleep will make him much less accommodating.
In Tennessee, Audrey has the girls working at a deli and teaching a cheerleading class to help teach them the value of a dollar. The girls say they know they’re spoiled.
Um, I guess that wasn’t interesting enough for me to take any more notes on it. Back to Christie. It’s the third day of her rule, and she’s pissed that she hasn’t been brought breakfast yet, an hour and a half late. She calls down to Jeff in the barn, but he informs her that she will not be getting breakfast today. And when she suggests that he just run into town and pick up some chicken for the kids’ lunch, he hangs up on her. He’s only 1/3 of the way through his workday, he says, and he can’t deal with Christie whining while she sits on her butt.
When Jeff gets back to the house, Christie lays into him about his phone demeanor and the lack of breakfast. He says she’s going beyond the rules, and that breakfast in bed was a one-day deal. They argue about who’s more self-absorbed, and Jeff complains that Christie demands what she wants, instead of asking for it. He is worn out after several 18-hour days in the barn, and he’s way behind on the household chores. Christie sniffs that there aren’t any clean towels and the tub is stopped up, and she just guesses she won’t be getting a bath. Rather than get off her butt and pour some Drano in the tub, she waves her befeathered wine glass around in anger.
Outside, Jeff has broken down in tears. He can’t do everything, he says, and he misses Audrey, and he hates that with Christie it’s always “I” and “you” and never “we” and “us.” That’s a difference he notices between him and Christie – he misses his spouse, and he doesn’t think she does.
But help is on the way. Jeff’s sons, tired of watching their father work himself to the bone, decide to defy Christie’s no-work edict and sneak out to the barn to help. They told Christie they were going to the movies. Jeff is very proud of the work ethic and compassion his kids are displaying.
Audrey’s trying to teach a work ethic to Christie’s kids, getting them to help Richard clean out the garage. Richard is just overwhelmed. “We did it,” he says. “That’s a we, not me.” I feel so bad for this poor man. Audrey says he didn’t respond immediately when asked if he misses Christie. And at least one daughter is seeing that she and her sisters could be closer to their dad.
On Audrey’s last night, the girls give her a makeover, tamping down that wild hair and putting some makeup on her. She looks quite pretty.
Jeff has learned that living with someone who thinks only of themselves is not fun – a lesson I’m thinking Richard is learning as well. Christie says Jeff takes advantage of Audrey, but she doesn’t think she takes advantage of Richard. I’m sure those blinders she’s wearing have rhinestones on them and cost a mint.
Richard says Audrey has taught them how much better family life can be. And a daughter says that while Christie hands out money, she doesn’t spend much quality time with them. This girl is going to college in a year and wants to be closer to her mother.
The couples reunite with hugs, tears, etc. – boring stuff till we get to the sit-down assessment of each other. Christie pipes up to say she felt sorry for Audrey’s kids, who are working too much and act like robots. Audrey says that’s untrue, and that Christie’s kids have no jobs and no responsibility. Richard, emboldened by two weeks without being dominated, puts in that some work wouldn’t hurt his daughters at all. Christie turns a laser-eyed glare on him – how dare he speak without permission! – and says any work for her girls would have to be “major part-time.” Because, you know, they have all those cheerleading responsibilities.
Jeff says Christie walked in and didn’t look at the whole picture of how his family and farm work. Christie’s response is to say that Audrey’s house smelled. She goes on and on about this and says she had it fumigated. Don’t think for one second that Christie didn’t mean this as the put-down that it is. She’s from the south, she knows that to criticize a woman’s house is to criticize the woman. Audrey knows it too, and breaks down in tears. Richard, still happy to have his balls back, scolds Christie, telling her how rude she is.
Back home, Christie suggests that the girls get jobs; they pout and flounce off, and I’m guessing that’s about the last we’ll hear of that. Christie says the girls need to learn not to take her for granted, while Richard, being taken for granted, stares stonily ahead.
A Pretense of Change
We follow up with both families a few weeks later. Christie says she’s more appreciative of Richard – until she met Jeff, she says, she thought all men were like Richard. Doormats, in other words, there to do her bidding. I find it difficult to believe she got this far in life with that particular fantasy intact, but whatever. Anyway, she’s developed a closer relationship with her eldest daughter, everyone is helping Richard around the house, and Christie tries to be with him when he does projects. The “project” we see involves Richard drilling a hole and hanging a picture – not exactly a “This Old House” level of project, but I suppose it’ll do. Besides, Christie has some sort of god-awful feather things in her ears, and it only takes one time standing too close to a circular saw and those suckers would be gone. She’s better off with picture-hanging.
At the Donahoes, there have been some changes as well. The kids are allowed an afternoon off every now and then. And living with Christie has really made Jeff appreciate Audrey. I’m thinking that living with Christie would make one appreciate Leona Helmsley. Jeff says he’s lucky to have Audrey, and the time apart has rekindled some romance that had died down in their 20-year relationship.
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