When I was a kid, I had a book version of “My Fair Lady”, and I loved it. I’d never even heard of the movie, hadn’t seen the George Bernard Shaw play “Pygmalion,” just had that book. Obviously there is a point about “My Fair Lady” that I am going to make in this intro, and I’ll get to it in a moment, but to remember the name of it I had to turn to Google. And I have *just now*, after all these years, discovered that the book I loved was simply a proseification of the play script. (I might have made up the word “proseification”. If so, it’s a damn sight more original than whoever was listed on my copy of “My Fair Lady” as the author.) I am irked about this. All these years I’ve been enjoying the superiority of someone who prefers the book to the movie. And here it wasn’t even a bloody book. I mean, it’s all a lie! Does the rain in Spain even fall mainly in the plain? I doubt it.
Anyway. My original point here was to talk about accents and speech patterns and language (all of which are key to My Fair Lady, and if you don’t believe me, I guess you can just go
read the bookwatch the movie.) I was going to point out that one of our families this week on Wife Swap – yes! the show I’m recapping! Finally, getting around to mentioning it – is from the same state as me, and so I was trying to spot from their accents where, specifically, they live. Like Henry Higgins. But I couldn’t, which makes this whole intro rather pointless, but I’m still outraged at the fraud perpetrated on me as a young nerdgirl by that book, so I’m leaving it. Deal.
This week, we have the Bittners and the Reimers. The Reimers are from south Florida, and their lives seems to be organized so as to be a fortress against fun. Paul and Melissa Reimers have five kids. I only know the youngest’s name, because it’s Lucy. Heh. There is no running in the house, no talking back, no candy, no meat (they’re vegetarians) and very little television. There is, however, quite a bit of rule-enforcing, chore-doing, and spanking – the Reimers believe in spanking, and they believe in using a leather strap, dubbed “the Whacker” to do it. A version of the Whacker hangs on each child’s door, as a deterrent, and it looks a great deal like the razor strop my father used to be whupped with as a child. We actually have an antique razor strop hanging on a wall somewhere in our house, not as a weapon but as an antique. Melissa and Paul believe children need boundaries. Melissa home-schools the children, and they pride themselves on the kids being “pure.” They’ve got a 14-year-old daughter who isn’t allowed to date. I wasn’t allowed to date at 14, either. So I snuck out of the house a time or three to do so. I’m thinking Melissa wouldn’t have enjoyed having me as a daughter. Especially since she says it’s important to extinguish the kids’ tendency to talk back. *sigh* I talked back to everyone when I was a kid, even doctors. Yeah, I’m really not feeling Melissa.
Melissa will be swapping places with Cindy Bittner, who lives in Virginia – somewhere – with her husband Steve and her daughters Stevie and Blake. Unlike the Reimers’ Discipline Central, the Bittner household is very much fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants. Large pants, actually, because the Bittners are very much carnivores. They’re also junk-foodivores. Stevie, the oldest daughter, is 18 and unemployed. Blake, who is 14, is allowed to date a 16-year-old, whom she frequently entertains in her bedroom. Good lord. I don’t hang out with boyfriends in my bedroom in my mother’s house, and I’m 28 years old. I don’t live in my mother’s house, though. Thank god. The Bittners are a loud family who seem to play hard and fight hard. Cindy, in an unwitting understatement, informs us that her family “may seem a little rough on the outside.”
Melissa, in contemplating the switch, hopes to have an impact on another family’s life, while Cindy just wants to shake things up. I can guarantee you right now, she’s a shake-em-up kind of woman.
Hot Fast-Food Action in a Vegetarian Military Church
The two women get some alone time in each other’s houses before meeting the families. Cindy says the Reimers have a nice house, but it’s bare-looking. She spots a family photo and freaks out at the number of children and the complete absence of meat or cheesy poofs in the family diet.
Melissa says the Bittner house is warm and friendly, but isn’t happy with the contents of the kitchen cupboards. “Looks like we might have some fast-food action going on here,” she says. Melissa is so dry that although I was going to make a joke about fast-food porn here, she’s already sucked the life out of it, so I’m not going to bother.
Melissa also notes the piles of laundry in one of the girls’ rooms, saying it’s obvious a teenager lives there. I don’t know how she’d know this, as her own teenagers are little automatons who probably have to do penance if they let an article of clothing touch the floor, but whatever.
Both women left each other a manual describing their families and their daily routines. Evidently Cindy’s routine includes forcing poor Steve to give her foot massages, and I think we can all agree that Steve has earned his way into heaven just through that sacrifice alone. Cindy just seems like she’d have nasty feet. Melissa chuckles and says she hopes Cindy will train Paul to do that sort of thing while she’s gone.
The manual is Cindy’s first introduction to the Whacker, and it seems to have jarred her into a stutter, as she starts repeating words. Cindy also seems mystified by the concept of “forgiveness,” and snorts at reading that Paul is HOH – sorry, that’s “head of household” for those of you that don’t watch Big Brother. Neatly encompassing all the oddities of the Reimers household, Cindy terms it “a military church with a bunch of vegetarians in it.” Whoa, that sounds fun. Sign me UP. Not.
Two Unaccounted-for Paragraphs
The families meet, without any particular fireworks. Melissa says the Bittners are friendly and thinks the next two weeks will be fun. Cindy, however, takes a dislike to Paul pretty quick. She says he thinks everything revolves around him. As Melissa has already told us he’s head of the household, I’d say everything probably does revolve around him, so Cindy does not score any points for perspicacity. The kids are told to call her “Miss Cindy.” Miss Cindy is ok with that, but she doesn’t like the rigidity she sees in the house on her first night. The kids, for example, ask to be excused from the dinner table, and Cindy says they’re like little robots.
Melissa, meanwhile, is unhappy with the absence of rigidity at the Bittners’. “There’s a lot of unaccounted-for activities, where they’re just sitting around watching TV,” she says. Well, heaven forbid there should be unaccounted-for activities. Hasn’t this woman ever just wanted to flop in front of the TV with a bowl of popcorn and watch a trashy Lifetime movie?
Just Writing This Section Took Twenty Minutes
As the wives must live by household rules for the first week, Melissa spends her first morning frying breakfast for the first time in years. Cindy, whose morning beverage of choice is coffee, is instead forced to try some nasty green sludge of a health-drink that Melissa usually drinks. She can’t get it down.
The kids in the Reimers family do all the household chores, and once they’re done they’re allowed 20 minutes to play video games. What the…? Twenty minutes? What’s the point? Twenty minutes is barely enough time to kill enemies, collect whatever it is that needs collecting and hit a save point. I’ve spent far more than 20 minutes back in college just trying to get Mario to bounce off walls properly on a friend’s Nintendo 64 (and I know THAT dates me).
Anyway, no sooner does Cindy give one kid the go-ahead to play his game than Paul, who’s been hovering, swoops in to remind the kid he missed a chore. Cindy fumes that Paul does nothing but order his little soldiers about, and that he needs to stop following her around and breathing down her neck, because she can figure this out on her own.
Speaking of chores, in Virginia, Melissa is doing them. She never does at home, because as we’ve just seen, she birthed a set of troops to do them for her. But the Bittner family relies on Cindy to clean, so now that’s Melissa’s job. As she scrubs what appears to be dog drool off a wall, she dryly notes that this is perhaps something the daughters can do next week when the rules change.
“You Canna Toucha Da Mango!”
We’ve come to the point where things start to go really bad. We almost always get to this point, since the show makes a point of matching the most mismatched families in existence. But Cindy’s personality is about to bring us there in record time.
Paul has decided to take the whole family out for a treat – fruit milkshakes. Or some sort of fruit shake. I doubt it has milk in it. Paul just *looks* lactose intolerant. Anyway, while he tries to nudge Cindy into getting whatever flavor Melissa likes, Cindy defiantly chooses mango. Then, because they appear to be in a grocery store, Cindy starts picking up things like a bag of potato chips. Paul is appalled and quickly tells her that Melissa wouldn’t even touch a bag of chips, much less the dried fruit or jelly that Cindy has also stashed in the bag. Cindy stomps off to put it all back on the shelf, declaring she’s not buying anything in that store, then storms out to wait by the van. Unfortunately for her, it’s raining. Paul brings her out her mango shake, but a very wet Cindy tells him to not bring it to her unless he wants it in his face. She grumbles her way into the van, while a very flummoxed Paul hesitates by the trashcan, trying to decide whether to toss Cindy’s shake. His decision is made for him when Cindy, off-camera, yells “THROW IT AWAY!” Ah, what a sweet and pleasant woman that Cindy is.
The Subtle Dating Plumage of the Bittner Girls
The happy façade is starting to crumble at the Bittners’, too. Blake, the 14-year-old, is preparing for a date, and by “preparing” I mean, “coating her face in makeup and putting on a slutty shirt that shows her little baby yabbos”. Melissa, whose own 14-year-old isn’t allowed to know boys exist, is decidedly unthrilled with the prospect of letting a child out of the house looking like a hooker. “You can’t dress like that and have purity,” Melissa says. Well, no one said purity was what Blake was aiming for.
Melissa is disturbed enough to talk to Steve, who surely does not want to be having a conversation about his step-daughter’s breasts. He shrugs and says that’s the sort of thing kids these days wear. Melissa says she just wants to shake him and say “do you not see her breasts?!” Melissa, he’s her step-father. He probably hasn’t dared look below her eyes in years. He doesn’t want to see what is or is not hanging out of her shirt. He wants to think she’s six years old and flat-chested. Let him have his dream.
The Moment When Paul Realizes He Has No Control
Because Melissa home-schools her kids, Cindy is having to play teacher. She thinks the kids need to be exposed to different cultures, but says they’re sure not getting that staying at home and just talking to each other. It’s not clear how the entire day is spent, and whether Cindy makes for a good schoolmarm, but when Paul comes home he’s not happy. The house isn’t tidy and he sits Cindy down for a talk, trying to tell her that she didn’t do, or force the kids to do, all the things that she was supposed to. Cindy, displaying what is already a characteristic lack of restraint and quickness to fly off the handle, interrupts, talks over him, and storms off in a huff while poor Paul stutters, stammers and finally says, pitifully, that he didn’t even finish his thought.
Lighten Up, They’re Just Cheesy Poofs
As always, the wives spend the second week of the swap making the families live by the wives’ rules. If we thought there was conflict before, this is the part of the show guaranteed to multiply it by at least 10.
Cindy comes into the rules ceremony (I don’t know if they call it that, or if I’ve just been watching too much “Bachelor”) with a bowl of candy and tells the Reimers kids to help themselves. Cindy goes on to say the kids need to be kids. She ceremoniously destroys the Whacker, and declares all previous household rules to be moot. She has installed a satellite TV system, and waves the TV remote victoriously, telling them they have “over 115 channels. Good channels.” She does not specify what “good channels” entails. I’m guessing QVC is not involved, however.
Cindy has also enrolled the kids in a real school for three days. Paul looks like he’s swallowed a falafel, and eventually manages to whisper that he retains the option to end the family’s participation in the whole thing, an idea Cindy dismisses with a flick of the remote, telling him he has no control. I’m thinking by week’s end, we’re going to find Paul curled up in the bottom of the laundry hamper, sucking his thumb and just whimpering.
Cindy herds the family in for dinner, which will now consist of the meat and fried food groups. She’s set out bowls of chips everywhere, and the kids dive in, stuffing their faces full of the glorious trans-fats. Paul, left alone in the dining room, says he feels bad for his children that they did not exhibit self-control. Paul. They’re kids, not soldiers who’ve chosen to visit a brothel on their leave. Self-control for an 8-year-old means not wetting his pants before he can get to a bathroom. Lighten up.
Melissa says the problem in the Bittner house is that everyone gets everything they want. I don’t see how this is a problem, myself. I think if everyone got everything they wanted, the house – indeed, the world – would be in perfect harmony. But harmony is not in Melissa’s vocabulary. Discipline is. The girls are to call her Miss Melissa – yes, even the one who’s actually an adult. She tosses all the junk food, and informs Blake that she’s to dress appropriately. Melissa makes a nice vegetarian dinner, involving mung beans – mung? Is that right? – couscous and various other non-tasty things. Blake refuses to eat it, and later gets whiny and pouty about the fact that she’s supposed to clean up the kitchen. She stomps upstairs, Melissa appeals to Steve to intervene and make Blake follow the rules, Steve says he’ll give her a minute to calm down, and eventually we have Blake sulking in the dining room, muttering apologies and rolling her eyes like 14-year-olds the world over.
Look! People With Different DNA!
The Reimers kids are psyched about going to school, possibly the only children in the world who are. While I personally found school, especially the junior high years, to be a hell of snapped bra-straps, gym-shower avoidance, snotty cliques and daily agony over hair and clothing choices, I will admit that socially, it was light-years better than staying at home with my sister. So when the Reimers kids rave that it’s fun, because they get to meet kids to whom they are not related, I can see their point.
In Virginia, however, things are not going so well. Blake is being forced to stay home and be taught by Melissa, and if there’s any kid who took to the socialization aspect of school like a duck to water, I’m thinking it’s Blake. So she’s not happy, and she’s trying to rush through her work so she can see her boyfriend. Melissa, however, does not put up with shoddy work, and tells Blake so in no uncertain terms. “Don’t toy with me, get over there and do your work right,” she demands.
Paul, meanwhile, is not thrilled with the idea of his children exposed to the depredations of the public schools system. The kids’ behavior on being picked up from school would seem to prove him right, as they’re loud and riotous – in other words, behaving like normal, happy kids. Paul cannot take it and pulls the van over. He’s frustrated that because of Cindy’s rules, he cannot discipline his children. I didn’t hear anything in her rules about not telling them to quiet down – I only heard her outlaw the Whacker. At any rate, Cindy isn’t giving in, and Paul is left to lamely tell his children to “cooperate with me and behave like you should” before getting back in the van to drive home.
This SECTION is NOT to be SKIPPED
At the Bittners’, Stevie has usurped Blake as the bad child. Melissa gave her a 10:30 p.m. curfew, and Stevie is -- *gasp*-- nine minutes late. I will avoid a dissertation on the silliness of giving an 18-year-old a 10:30 curfew, and of flying off the handle when someone is nine minutes late. Half an hour, maybe then you can chew her out. But nine minutes says to me that she was at least trying to hit 10:30. Anyway, Stevie is met at the door by the whole family, and has to endure a lecture from Melissa. She rolls her eyes, sending Melissa off on a tangent about breaking that irritating habit. Finally Melissa grabs Stevie’s face to make her look at her; Stevie protests that she doesn’t like being touched. I don’t think that’s usually a problem.
Not to be outdone in the bad-child department, Blake didn’t do her schoolwork, so she’s grounded from going out. Blake greets this news by flipping Melissa the bird, but I’m guessing Captain Melissa didn’t see it. Meanwhile, Stevie has neglected to do her laundry, so in the interests of family peace, Steve surreptitiously does it for her. Stupidly, however, he then tells Melissa of this rule breakage, and she is not very understanding. “The RULES are NOT to be BROKEN,” she says emphatically, telling me right there, if I didn’t know, exactly what kind of a life Melissa leads.
Melissa sends Steve off to remind Stevie to finish her laundry. Stevie cries, Steve yells, and Blake is yelling that Melissa’s not her mom and can’t ground her. Steve sends them both to calm down and hopes then they’ll do what they’re told (despite all evidence to the contrary). He then goes out in the backyard and cries. I have to say, Steve is the only person I’m liking out of either of these families. He seems calm and reasonable and is trying to follow the rules and be nice at the same time.
However, even nice guys have their breaking point. With two weeping daughters on his hands, Steve decides the best thing to do is take them out of the house for a break. I actually think this is quite wise – gives everyone a chance to calm down, and gives the girls some time away from Melissa to vent. Melissa disagrees, however, because Blake is grounded so is not supposed to go out. Steve overrules her, telling her it’s “conditional flexibility” and she should try it. Steve, honey, “flexibility” is NOT in Melissa’s vocabulary. Melissa says he’s undermining her authority, and tells us she wants to slap him.
Poor Little Soldier Just Can’t Win
In Florida, things are just getting funnier, in a trainwreck sort of way. The kids are allowed to have a sleepover/pool party for the first time ever – I guess with five kids, every night is like a sleep over, except without the fun, since it’s the Reimers house. The presence of large numbers of screaming, out-of-control kids, however, has Paul practically hyperventilating. He says the kids have them outnumbered, and worries that they didn’t sit the whole group down to go over rules for the pool. But hey, better late than never. Paul attempts to impose order, stopping a small girl by the pool and earnestly telling her it would be “confusing” if everyone swam before they eat, “so I need you to stop doing that.” Oh, poor, poor, unbendable Paul.
Eventually, however, Paul moves – with quick, jerky movements – into party mode. The kids have a piñata, and Paul’s in charge of shaking it with a string. However, he gets carried away, shaking out all the candy before more than four kids get chance to hit the piñata. Once again, he has pissed off Cindy, who calls him an “ignorant ass” and stomps off. Poor Paul is left bewildered.
It Was Pure Hell For Us, Too, Cindy
The swap is winding to a close, forcing the participants to ruminate on the lessons they’ve learned. Steve hopes that now the girls have seen how much worse their lives could be, they’ll appreciate his and Cindy’s lax parenting style a bit more. Cindy sees a big difference in the Reimers kids – like, they smile now. While Paul says stiffly that he rejects her style of parenting, I think he should take a look at his brood – they say they liked her, and one girl wistfully says that Cindy understood how they felt.
In Virginia, as the door closes behind Melissa, the Bittner girls do a dance.
The couples reunite – hugs, kisses, etc. – and sit down together to evaluate the experience. After a couple of polite starts by Steve and Paul, Cindy jumps in – and aren’t we surprised – to howl that she got zip out of it. “It was pure hell,” she snarls at poor Paul, who is trying to thank her for her attempts to live the Reimers lifestyle. Cindy says she found the Reimers kids to be almost robotic, but that she had fun with them. Melissa tells Cindy she found the Bittner girls to be “extremely irresponsible” and notes in passing that she made them do chores. Cindy flies off the handle again, informing all and sundry that “nobody makes my kids do anything.” Well, exactly, Cindy. That’s rather the problem.
Continuing to behave in her typically classy manner, Cindy then tries to stop Steve from shaking Paul’s hand. To Steve’s credit, he shakes her off. Finally, the three rational adults and the one white-trash Cindy agree to disagree on their parenting skills and the relative merits of each other’s spouses, and part.
In Other Words, Little Has Changed
In the weeks since the swap, both families have tried to incorporate some changes. The Reimerss have not reinstated the Whacker, but they did cancel the satellite television service. The kids are allowed more sweets, but meat no longer graces their table, and the kids don’t miss it.
The Bittners have discovered a new discipline tool – deprivation. They’ve realized that they can take away the girls’ cell phones, and that threat evidently has Stevie and Blake as putty in their parents’ hands. The daughters, meanwhile, have decided they’re lucky to have the parents they do. I would think this goes double for the adult woman who doesn’t work, doesn’t do housework, and whose parents evidently pay all her bills, including her cell phone. Stevie, I’m looking at you. Now stop rolling your eyes at me.
A pampered wife who doesn’t lift a finger versus a woman who does all the housework. Since we’ve mostly seen these traits in conjunction with far weirder characteristics, I’m not sure this dichotomy can carry a whole show. We’ll see.
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