I used to be a regular in a pretty seedy bar. I know, I know, this is shocking. In my defense, it was a small town, and it was the ONLY bar. And, it was two blocks from my apartment. Anyway, one night I was there and had tossed my coat carelessly onto a barstool while I shot pool with friends. And in comes the seediest of seedy men – dirty jeans, beat-up leather coat, unshaven but with a skinhead sort of look, various faded-out tattoos, and an abominable scent. (actually, he was a regular too) The sort of man my mother would cross the street to avoid, while clutching her purse. This man wanted to sit down, and I spotted him out of the corner of my eye, approaching the barstool with my coat on it. I watched with trepidation as he picked up my coat, ready to go snatch it out of his grubby hands. But before I could move, he carefully draped my coat across the back of the bar chair, neatly squaring up the shoulders before propping his dirty boots onto the seat. He treated my coat much more nicely than I had.
What’s the point of this pointless story? Well, it’s that my mother would have marched right back across that street to make me hang up my coat properly. Also, that you can’t judge a book by its cover. And that’s relevant in this episode of Wife Swap, because by the end of it, the person I thought I’d hate at the beginning turned into the nicest of the bunch. (the seedy man turned out to be high on acid, but whatever.)
This week, we match the Harris family with the Van Noys. Dawn and Jimmy Harris live in Oklahoma with their three children. Jimmy works a construction job while Dawn stays home and does all the chores, housecleaning, cooking and child-care. She also holds down an 8-hour-a-day job doing medical transcription work from home. Dawn and Jimmy both say they think the traditional gender roles are best – that a man’s duty is to go out and bring home the bacon, and the woman’s job is to fry it up in the pan. Jimmy expects that bacon to be ready the second he walks in the door at night, by the way. And he expects his coffee to be prepared every morning, for which Dawn gets up at 5:30 a.m. Often, Dawn is unable to get all the housework and the transcription work done at a reasonable hour, what with all the people she also has to take care of, so she’s sometimes up till 3 a.m. typing her stuff into the computer. She says her needs are last in the house, after the dog.
Dawn will be swapping places with Kym Van Noy. Kym and her husband Hallmark – heh – have been married for eight months and live in Texas with her daughter Bailey. Kym is a hard-charging boss at a car dealership, while Hallmark is a house-husband. Yes, Hallmark does all the housework, takes care of Bailey, and serves Kym breakfast in bed. Where do I sign up for this deal?
Hallmark is fine with the house-husband gig – he’s an out-of-work actor who’s just waiting for Hollywood to call. What, waiting in Texas? Yeah, Hollywood calls unknown actors in Texas every day. Kym says Hallmark isn’t cut out for full-time work anyway, and she’s cool with earning the money in exchange for being spoiled. She has a high standard for spoilage, though, and is seen criticizing something about the breakfast he’s brought her in bed. Obviously Hallmark has learned you’ve got to EARN a sugar mama.
Chauvinism Goes Both Ways
As the women prepare to swap lives for two weeks, Dawn hopes Jimmy will see the enormous amount of work she does every day, while Kym hopes to lead a revolution of some unspecified sort. As Kym leaves, Hallmark says she’ll make mince-meat of whatever poor husband gets her.
Both women arrive, and get some time alone in the house before meeting their new families. There’s nothing particularly interesting about either of their assessments of the houses, except that Kym realizes that despite all Dawn’s housework, her house is kinda nasty, and dawn raves over the amount of shoes in Kym’s closet. Dawn also finds Hallmark’s actor head shots and muses that she’s never met a man with a head shot. I’m pretty sure one of them finds porn in a bathroom drawer, but I wasn’t paying close enough attention to be positive.
Both women left a manual explaining her life for the other. Kym is surprised that Dawn is a full-time housewife, while Dawn laughs at the idea of a house husband. As Kym reads on about Jimmy, she is less than impressed. “He’s a lazy slob male chauvinist pig,” she says, having not even met the man yet.
So let’s get right on that. This goes fairly uneventfully as well. Jimmy is friendly at first, and then Kym asks him about …. I can’t read my notes here. “nightmare sway”? OH! What’s his “nightmare swap”! Jimmy says his nightmare wife would be lazy. Kym says her nightmare was a male chauvinist. Assuming that by “lazy” Jimmy means “around the house,” they’re both in trouble.
Dawn, meanwhile, regards Hallmark as some new species of creature because he does all the cooking. It’s all she can do to stand by the counter and not jump in to fry things.
So far, Jimmy says Kym is strong-willed and stands her ground, she says he’s a male chauvinist, and Hallmark says Dawn is warm and sweet. Some of these people will shortly be proven very wrong.
Pretty is as Pretty Does
As Kym is living Dawn’s life, she must rise at 5:30 a.m. to get Jimmy his coffee and fix his lunch. Since Kym does so little around her own house that she doesn’t even know how a coffee pot operates, I think Jimmy’d be better off picking up a cup of joe at the 7-11. But instead, he patiently sets out the coffee, the filter, the gallon-sized cup, and I think about all she has to do is flip the switch.
Kym thinks it’s very selfish of Jimmy to expect Dawn to get up at the crack of dawn just because he does. If he’s such a man of the house, she says, surely he knows how to make coffee.
Meanwhile, Hallmark is serving Dawn breakfast in bed, as he does for Kym. Dawn says she could get used to it. She also savors having a morning shower, something she rarely gets at home, as showering apparently comes after cleaning and feeding the rest of her brood.
Kym, left alone to live Dawn’s life, is dealing with the phenomenal amount of mess this family seems to have made. Somehow, one husband and three kids have left a sink full of dirty dishes and three loads of laundry. Kym also finds a lot of gunge under the couch cushions, and claims there are maggots in the kitchen. She shakes her head and says that she can tell Dawn doesn’t enjoy being tied down by housework, since she does such a bad job of it. Ouch, that’ll hurt when Dawn sees that footage.
Dawn, free from cleaning badly, heads off to work at Kym’s dealership. There, she is shown cars and allowed to sit in a board meeting, and apparently little else. Still, even that makes her uncomfortable with the role reversal; she says Kym is the man of the Van Noy family. As we will see, Hallmark sure ain’t.
In Oklahoma, Kym is light years behind schedule. She hasn’t done all the cleaning, she hasn’t finished the transcription work – she’ll be up till 12:30 doing it -- and she’s just starting dinner when Jimmy gets home. In an attempt to be friendly, Jimmy tells her she looks nice, but Kym is having none of that politeness b.s. She goes off, telling Jimmy not to patronize her, that she hasn’t showered all day. Not one to waste time being nice to a beyatch, Jimmy huffs that he’s not used to being yelled at and won’t put up with it. I’m on Jimmy’s side on this one; Kym could learn to take a compliment, however superficial, with better grace.
“I Hate You, and I Hate Your Ass FACE!”
*props to anyone who gets that reference*
In Texas, Dawn is having serious issues with Hallmark’s unemployment. (she should also have issues with his name, but whatever). While he’s … somewhere else in the house, I guess, she sneaks a peek at his resume, which looks to be pretty thin. I’m positive I see “theatre” on there, which suggests to me that Hallmark has not had the sort of parts that would prompt Hollywood to call, unless there’s a Hollywood, Texas, with a dinner theater in need of a stand-in Rosencrantz.
Dawn decides to ask Hallmark about his employment prospects. He says his goal is to be in one good film; he knows it’s unlikely, but is willing to take the chance. Take what chance? The chance that if he leaves the house for five seconds to work he’ll miss the call offering his big break? Has he ever heard of an agent? Or, maybe, an answering machine?
Anyway, Dawn’s thoughts take the same general direction as mine, although she’s a lot meaner than I am about it. She says she doesn’t respect that he doesn’t make money, and she has no patience for slackers. The fact that he works just as hard as any stay-at-home mom (except Dawn herself, presumably) is lost on her. He has a Y chromosome, therefore he must leave the house and do manual labor. *insert manly grunt here*
It must be confrontation time all over Tornado Alley, because in Oklahoma, Kym’s spoiling for a fight, too. She’s tired, she’s miserable, and she’s blaming Jimmy. She says he is responsible for helping Dawn with the chores, conveniently ignoring the flip side of that, which would be that SHE is responsible for helping Hallmark with the chores.
As Kym is wont to do, she confronts Jimmy over the issue. She says he has Dawn “ball-and-chained to this house” and demands to know why he doesn’t help her? Jimmy’s answer is succinct and to the point – because he doesn’t want to. Kym fumes about this “backwards, redneck philosophy” and says that when she’s in charge, Jimmy’s going to get a taste of his own medicine, and she will delight in administering the first dose. She cackles as if she fully expects that medicine to be strychnine.
Requiem For a Dream
Having survived the first week of the swap, it’s time for the wives to take charge of the households, and force these men (and children, although we’ve hardly seen them) to live by the new wives’ rules. Before even hearing Kym’s rules, Jimmy intones that “she done screwed with the wrong damn redneck.” Really, which is the RIGHT redneck to screw with?
Dawn tells Hallmark that “real men should be outdoors doing hard physical work.” So he’s to spend the week going out to manual-labor jobs. She will take over the cooking and cleaning, and will give Bailey, the kid, cooking lessons. Flush with power, Dawn then tells Hallmark, to his face, that his dreams are “self-indulgent and unrealistic.” Good lord. Are you sure you crushed every bit of his self-esteem there, Dawn? You might want to tell him he’s short and has a whiny voice and a strange laugh while you’re at it, just to make sure.
Evidently she was NOT quite sure Hallmark had got the point. Because the next thing Dawn does is force him to burn his headshots and resumes. The daughter asks if they’re roasting something, and Dawn answers, “We’re roasting Hallmark.” What? I mean, this is just cruel. Who knew that passive woman had so much sadism in her? Hallmark has changed his earlier “sweet and kind” opinion. “That crazy bitch has lost her mind,” he fumes.
In Oklahoma, Kym’s rules are progressing as expected. She says Jimmy will now be a stay-at-home dad, in charge of all the chores, childcare, cleaning and transcription work that Dawn does. If he’s such a man, she says – in a voice that implies a complete disdain for men – then he should easily be able to do Dawn’s job. If Kym has any experience with rednecky men, she should know that such taunting will only get his back up. True to the redneck template, Jimmy tells us he’ll work circles around her. That’s one thing about men like Jimmy – they might be chauvinistic, but they are not lazy.
Read This Section or It Will Go on Your Permanent Record
Dawn begins her new week of living the way she does at home by taking Bailey to school. Hallmark gets sent out to dig ditches. Dawn says she’s trying to shock him into reality. She’s more likely to shock him into an emergency room; digging ditches is hard work, and Hallmark looks a bit too soft to keep up.
But if Hallmark could see Jimmy’s life right now, I think he’d dig with much better spirit. Because his wife is on Jimmy like white on rice. He’s supposed to be doing Dawn’s jobs, and Kym’s voice floats in from her comfy couch, shrilly telling him he’s going to be up late doing transcription because he’s started it late. Kym tells us she’s there to make sure he does every single thing that Dawn does. But she winds up nagging him so much that he gets up and stomps out of the house. Angrily, Jimmy says to the camera that he wants them (presumably, the people behind the camera who are running the show) to bring his wife back, and get rid of the harsh harpy in his living room. Kym complacently tells us that if he were her employee, she’d fire him.
Back in Texas, Hallmark has decided there’s no point in being nice and understanding to the woman who has done the cha-cha on his self-worth. Dawn has been home being a housewife all day, but she’s still running behind; Bailey is supposed to have dinner at 6:30 and be in bed by 8, but Dawn doesn’t finish making dinner until 8:30. Also, Bailey was nine minutes late for school. Hallmark points out that every tardy Bailey has goes on her record (the all-important Permanent Record <--- to be said in echoing voice of doom.) They really do keep those records; earlier this year my mother went to her 40th high school reunion, and she and her classmates were invited to visit their old school AND look at their permanent records. Which still exist. Permanent records probably couldn’t be destroyed if they took a direct hit by a nuclear bomb.
Jimmy and Kym continue fighting, over breakfast, of all things. She thinks it should be hot, or something, while he’s making bowls of cereal. Good heavens, the man is trying. Who cares if he fries up bacon or pours out Cheerios? Food is food.
As house-husband, it’s now Jimmy’s job to take his kids to school, something he has never done. And it appears to be his youngest’s first day of first grade or something. Jimmy gets teary-eyed, saying that it was nice being with the kids and this is the sort of stuff he never gets to see, and he didn’t know what he was missing. Awww.
What is the Locker-Cleaner’s Motivation?
In Texas, Hallmark is about to lose a lot of my sympathy. Dawn has sent him to a warehouse to clean school lockers for the day. He says he doesn’t know why, and thinks Dawn doesn’t respect him. Um, you think?
Anyway, Hallmark lasts for about 20 minutes and then decides that he’s quitting. Evidently cleaning lockers is beneath a thespian god like himself. Before he can leave, though, he’s forced to explain himself to the boss. His explanation is that he just doesn’t want to clean the lockers, that it’s a free country and he can quit if he wants to. The boss points out, quite rightly I think, that quitting is a poor reflection on Hallmark’s character. I mean, geez – they’re lockers. Other people on this show have had to muck out cow poop. It could be a lot worse, and he needs to just suck it up.
Hallmark must also tell Dawn he quit. None of this “putting on a suit and pretending to go to work” like they do in the movies to avoid a spousal confrontation over a lost job. He calls her, and Dawn is left to worry about what she’ll say to him when he gets home. She hates confrontation so much that she’s in tears. Hallmark, however, says that if he doesn’t like doing something, he just doesn’t do it. Must be nice to have a sugar mama who gives you that sort of freedom, Hallmark.
Dawn reminds him that it’s her week to make the rules, that by quitting his job he’s breaking the rules, and insists that he go rake the leaves in the yard to make up for it. He says he won’t do it. But the next shot is of Hallmark raking leaves. I guess they edited out the shot of Dawn putting Hallmark’s balls back in the box where Kym normally keeps them.
Speaking of that sort of thing, Jimmy better watch his own – Dawn says she’s feeling empowered now, and is going to go home and “kick some ass.” Both she and Hallmark are realizing that they no longer want to be the passive partners in their relationships; Hallmark says that he can’t see spending his life being dominated by Kym. I’m thinking he should have thought of that before he married her, as Kym doesn’t seem the type to have hidden her true personality until the vows are over.
Taming of the Shrew(s)
Kym’s loud brand of tough love seems to be working in Oklahoma. She’s managed to make Jimmy feel like an employee, and Jimmy has the sense to realize that if that’s how he feels, that’s probably how Dawn typically feels too.
He finally reaches his breaking point about 4 a.m. one night while he’s still up trying to finish the transcription work. Tearfully, Jimmy says Dawn has never told him she was unhappy, and that if she had, he’d have tried to fix it. That’s actually sort of sweet. Too bad for Jimmy his wife prefers passive aggression to confrontation, or they could have got this sorted out long ago.
Jimmy demonstrates his change of heart by fixing a hot breakfast for Kym’s last morning. She’s amazed. She’s even more amazed later when he actually apologizes for the way he behaved at the beginning, and thanks her for showing him how to love his family more, and tells her that she’s a friend. See, Kym, chauvinists can change. Now, can shrews?
Hint: Jimmy’s the One We Misjudged
Finally the swap is over, and the couples reunite with the usual hugs, kisses and tears before sitting down to judge the experience.
Dawn notes that both Kym and Jimmy are strong personalities, and she hoped they’d butt heads and realize how it feels for those who are run over by their domineering ways. She says she hopes that when she stands up to him in the future, he’ll react in a softer way; Jimmy says he will, and that Kym helped him to see that, and he also promises to help out around the house.
Hallmark says Kym gets too worked up about little things, and he doesn’t want to spend his life fighting with her. Kym says she doesn’t want that either, although she says it in a way that suggests to me she still thinks if he’d do everything her way, they wouldn’t have to fight.
Whew, Writing is Dangerous Work!
We catch back up with our families a few weeks later to see if they’ve made any permanent changes as a result of the swap. The Van Noys have hired a maid, while Hallmark has gotten a job – painting. Painting walls, not pictures. He says the work is hard and dangerous. Wha-huh? Dangerous? Maybe if you’re on a very tall scaffolding painting something and you fall off. Otherwise, I think Hallmark has been breathing a few too many paint fumes. And there’s no word on whether he has revived his acting dreams, or those remain roasted in the backyard. Kym is working on her temper, and we see them meditating together, or something.
In the Harris house, Jimmy has made some serious changes. He’s helping with the laundry and the housework, and even cooks a few times a week. He realizes that if they both do the chores, it makes it easier on both of them. Dawn is sleeping in occasionally, and she thinks the swap has made Jimmy a better husband.
No Swap next week, as it’s Thanksgiving eve. But come back in two weeks, when two families trade not wives, but husbands. Hopefully by then the leftover turkey will be all eaten up.
Send resumes, headshots, self-indulgent dreams and misplaced self-esteem to firstname.lastname@example.org