It’s almost Christmas (or Hannukah, or Kwaanza, or Festivus – take your pick) and supposedly we’re all full of joy and cheer and love for our fellow man. In reality, of course, we’re gunning the car to beat little old ladies to mall parking spaces and elbowing our fellow man over the last Playstation on the shelf, but whatever. But no matter how grinchy we feel – and trust me, I’m grinchy in general, and mall crowds make me more so – I think the producers over at ABC are trying to minimize Christmas conflict. This week’s Wife Swap has very little of its trademark conflict and rancor. Instead of seeing more angst than you’d find in a mall employee forced to dress as an elf, we’ve got a fairly peaceful episode. Maybe ABC saved this one up for the holidays, not wanting to spoil our festive spirits. After all, we’ll all get plenty of stress and argument from our real-life families in just over a week. Maybe ABC thought we’d want a break from that. I do, but I’d prefer it in the form of a movie with Colin Firth in it. Could I maybe swap places with Colin Firth’s wife? Please? It wouldn’t have to be for the whole two weeks. I’d take one week. Or one weekend. Whatever Santa can spare.
Anyway, the result is a pretty bland but heartwarming episode that would feel right at home on Lifetime. And, as it incorporates some of my Christmas wishes (such as, no more people refusing to play by the rules) I guess I’m down with that
This week our swappers are the Elliots of Maryland versus the Burkhalters of Mississippi. Shelley and Carl Elliott live with their two young-teen kids Justine and Javier. Shelley is a driven career woman with a job in the federal government, while Carl never got a college degree and works the night shift as a hotel doorman – which means he and Shelley have little time to spend alone together. Shelley says Carl is an example of the importance of a college degree, and she drives the kids hard when it comes to schoolwork. She wants them to go to Ivy League schools. They’re not allowed to get phone calls or watch TV on school nights, they don’t get an allowance and they pretty much do all the household chores. Shelley says she feels like blacks still have to work harder and be better than whites to prove themselves.
In Mississippi, Sue and Jeff Burkhalter still support their two daughters, who are 18 and 21. Neither girl works, and neither one pays for jack – Nancy, the elder, is a college drop-out, and younger Laura-Beth is supposedly home-schooling herself online. Sue does ALL the cooking/cleaning/chores, and admits she is a doormat. Meanwhile her daughters stay out late partying, sleep late, and max out daddy’s credit cards on shopping sprees – sometimes up to $3,000 a month for Nancy. Jeff says with her spending habits, Nancy will one day put someone on the street with a tin cup, and it might be him. He and Sue admit they spoiled their daughters, but don’t see any way to change things now. The flip side to Nancy and Laura-Beth’s busy social lives is that Sue and Jeff get to spend lots of time alone together.
Sue hopes the swap experience will make her stronger and more able to put her foot down; Shelley thinks she’ll find that she’s maybe been too strict with her kids.
Getting to Know You… Getting to Know All About You
After traveling 1,000 miles to each others’ homes, the women get some time alone to adjust to the houses. While previous wives have gone through each others’ closets and made rude remarks about draperies, this time the house inspection is pretty uneventful. At least until Shelley spots a mammy cookie jar on the counter. I’m from the south, so I knew straight away what it was, but I understand some of y’all Yankees might have missed this. It’s a cookie jar made to look like the old caricature of black mammies. I’ve seen them at the occasional junk shop in the south. I don’t really know why you’d want one, but the Burkhalters have one, and Shelley raises her eyebrows, but lets it go – for now.
The women also left manuals to describe their day-to-day lives. Both Sue and Shelley are surprised to learn who does the cleaning in the new house, and note the differences in their families regarding children’s allowances, family meals, and couple time. Shelley is appalled that Nancy sometimes comes home at 4 a.m. “not always sober.” What time do the bars close in Mississippi? (says Lucy, who when she was 21 also often came home at 4 a.m. not always sober.)
The families meet in a scene which voiceover man calls “the moment of truth” but is really anything but. Week after week, people who will shortly be screaming at each other, crying, slamming doors and intoning threats of bodily harm when confessing to the cameras, behave nicely and politely at this first meeting. And, this week is no different. The Burkhalter girls think Shelley will have to adjust to dealing with children who are older than her own – which is true, given that these girls are too old to technically be children. Justine is relieved that Sue isn’t mean, and Jeff says he can tell early on that Shelley’s life is a lot more structured than the Burkhalters’.
The Elliott start off the week by taking Sue along to their church. They regularly attend a large gospel church, and Sue’s the only white person there. She says she turned some heads, but she seems to enjoy the service, thus depriving the producers of what they probably hoped would be a religious conflict. She says her family are only occasional churchgoers.
After church is the weekly grocery shopping. Sue, driving with Justine, says she’s amazed at how regimented the Elliotts are, and says when she read Shelley’s manual, she felt like she was reading a military manual.
Sue is amazed at how obedient Shelley’s kids are, doing their chores without complaining. But she already is thinking they deserve an allowance, as a reward for all the work they do.
The Sisters of Slack
The Burkhalters take a different approach to Sunday morning – they pretty much sleep through it. Or, at least, the daughters do. Shelley’s up and about doing the laundry and the dishes, and says she thinks they take Sue for granted.
Another thing the daughters take for granted – Sunday treats. Since these two basically get whatever they want, Sunday is no different, and what they want is a ride on Jeff’s boat. So the whole lot of them are out for a Sunday spin around the lake, during which they see alligators. (or, possibly, crocodiles. I personally cannot tell the difference). Shelley says that before the swap, she couldn’t really visualize that the other family would be that different from hers. Guess she got a wake-up call.
In Maryland, Sue spends Sunday night supervising the kids while they do three hours of schoolwork. Javier has some project and Sue tries to help him do it well, telling us it’s important to Shelley. Javier says he likes Sue and that she doesn’t raise her voice like his mother does.
In Mississippi, the girls have decided to include Shelley in their favorite activity – shopping. Armed with their absent mother’s checkbook, they go on a spree that does not impress Shelley in the least. “They take a lot for granted,” Shelley says, in a huge understatement.
Continuing to spend other people’s money (you down with OPM? Yeah, you know them) the girls take Shelley out for a fancy dinner, allowing Jeff to come so he can sign the credit card receipt. Over escargot (not really, probably) Shelley makes the mistake of asking Jeff when he and Sue check Laura-Beth’s homework. Why is this a mistake? Because the be-pierced Laura-Beth is pretty defensive about her homework being checked, which should be a red flag that there IS no homework to BE checked.
“She’s supposed to be acting like my mom, but my mom would never be picking at me like that,” says Laura-Beth, demonstrating a total blindness to why the kind of mothering she got is exactly the problem.
Doesn’t Everyone Get Gingersnaps From a Black Woman’s Head?
Here’s something else the Sisters of Slack are defensive about: their mammy cookie jar. Shelley points out that as a black woman, that jar is offensive to her, because it embodies a caricature that was based on slavery. Oblivious to the idea that a non-white person might have a better idea than they do about what is racially problematic, the girls protest Shelley’s opinion, even trotting out a second mammy doll that they claim to sleep with. I know you’re all thinking what I’m thinking – cotton-stuffed stereotypes aside, why are these girls sleeping with dolls at their age?
Moving on to Laura-Beth’s second overreaction of the night. She whines that she’s tired of being called a racist because she’s from Mississippi. Well, Laura-Beth, if the mammy cookie jar fits, wear it. Besides, Shelley didn’t call anyone a racist or, as far as I can tell, voice an opinion on Mississippi at all.
Christmas in Maryland, Mount Crumpit in Mississippi
It’s time for the wives to change the house rules to suit themselves. Shelley says the Burkhalters need structure and that everyone is to pull their own weight. The daughters will do the cooking, cleaning and grocery shopping. They won’t get an allowance, they won’t get daddy’s credit cards, they cannot pass go or collect $200.
Instead, Nancy will be working at a grocery store all day, and Laura-Beth will be forced to actually do school work from 1 to 4 – which Shelley will supervise. The mammy jar will go in the cupboard. Nancy takes offense in general, saying that Shelley’s tone of voice and some of the things she said were inappropriate. What things? I didn’t hear any. Sit down and shut up, check-out girl.
Jeff, however, is pleased with Shelley’s rules, as she’s imposing limits on his daughters that he has no spine to impose himself. Shelley collects the credit cards and checkbooks, as one daughter snidely asks whether she can be trusted and why can’t Jeff hold them? Because, as Jeff says, he’s a pushover, and those two would wheedle the plastic back out of his hands faster than you can say “new shoes.”
Sue takes the opposite route, taking the structure Shelley and Carl have built and smashing it to bits, which, if it lasted more than the week of the show, would probably turn Justine and Javier into copies of her own lazy kids. Sue gets both kids their own television AND cell phone, which are things I only got after I moved out of my mother’s house, graduated college, and got a job. The kids will not be doing chores anymore either, but they will get an allowance.
Carl is upset, telling us that everything he and Shelley worked for just went out the door. But on the plus side for Carl, Sue decrees he’s to work dayshift, which somehow is ok with his job, so he can be home in the evenings. Too bad the one week he’s on days, his wife is a thousand miles away.
Sue feels more powerful, which suggests to me that her version of power is giving people things. Although, under that theory she should have more power than God over her own daughters, and she does not. So, um, never mind. One semester of Psych 101 does not an expert make.
An F for Effort
Eye-rolling from the sisters aside, everyone in both families pretty much tries to follow the new rules, which makes a nice change from last week. Laura-Beth attempts to do the laundry, although it’s clear she thought clothes cleaned themselves.
Evidently she also thought homework did itself. When Shelley finally forces her to sit down in front of the computer, she finds that Laura-Beth hasn’t logged on in two and a half months, and is 11 projects behind. As my grandmother would say, that’s plumb sorry. Shelley calls it ridiculous and fears that Laura-Beth won’t graduate on time. You think?
Obviously, as much as Laura-Beth would like to keep her head in the sand on this one, Shelley must tell Jeff. She does so during a dinner that the daughters cooked, and the mild-mannered Jeff is not happy. Laura-Beth, however, refuses to talk about it. She says – and for once, she has a point – that it’s hard to accept discipline when you haven’t had it your first 18 years.
In Maryland, since the kids aren’t doing the chores anymore, Sue has hired a maid. She also takes the kids shopping with their new allowance, and they are delighted – Justine buys jeans, I think, and Javier looks in some sort of buy-toys-you-put-together store. He says it’s the best day of his life, better than Christmas, which is probably sad for Shelley to see.
Later, Sue and Carl have a dinner date – with crabcakes, it being Maryland. Carl says he can see he needs to do more spontaneous things for Shelley, and spend more time with her.
It’s All Too Nice For Words
Nancy, who’s a check-out girl at the grocery store, is doing ok, although she appears to have trouble ringing up a food stamp purchase. I’ll give her a pass on this, as I was a grocery store cashier for two summers and food stamps were tricky. Taking off her grocery store apron, Nancy notes that she only made about $41 for the day. This actually makes her consider returning to college, something that delights Shelley.
In Maryland, the Elliots go bowling together, and everyone seems to have a high old time. The kids enjoy spending time with Carl, and tell us that they like the rule changes and wish they never had to return to the old way. Carl has a good time too, and tells us that Sue is great with the kids and if he ever had to pick a surrogate mom, she’d be it. Aww. Can’t you feel the warm fuzziness invade your grinchy little heart? Nah, me neither. Grinchy hearts are well-fortified.
To round out her two weeks in Mississippi, Shelley takes the Burkhalters to a gospel service, which they’ve never experienced before. She wants them to get in touch with their spiritual side. Both daughters and Jeff seemed to really like it, which must have had the show producers gnashing their teeth over the lack of conflict.
As the swap winds down, the Little Sisters of Slack seem to have learned a lesson. Nancy tells us that the experience has made her and Laura-Beth more aware of things they should do in their home. Laura-Beth feels guilty for having taken advantage of her parents all these years. Nancy thinks some of the changes will stay (although probably not the change that has her working a minimum wage job, nor the one that deprives her of daddy’s credit card). Laura-Beth promises to keep up with her schoolwork.
As Sticky-Sweet as Sugarplums
As the wives leave to go home, the goodbyes are happy and friendly all around. Sue says she had a great experience; Shelley says she sees things she’ll change at home, especially when it comes to being more lenient with Justine.
The two couples’ reunions are predictably huggy and kissy. They’re like the Whos down in Whoville, the tall and the small.
Even their judgment sit-down is friendly. Sue says she thinks the Elliotts have too many rules, and admits that she got the kids phones, TV’s and gave them allowances – of $200 a piece, which I hadn’t heard before. She says it was to help them learn to manage their money, and is self-aware enough to recognize the irony of that statement, given her own daughters’ free-spending attitude. Sue says there are things she would do differently if she could go back and raise her children again.
Carl reveals that Sue hired a maid, which, surprisingly, delights Shelley, who screams, “My girl!” Shelley also tells Sue her girls cooked AND cleaned, which amazes Sue. Jeff says he realized that chores didn’t kill his daughters and won’t kill him, and apologizes for not having done more around the house before.
Carl says he realized that eventually, his children will leave and he and Shelley will be alone together, and it would suck if by that point they’ve spent so much time NOT spending time together that they’re strangers.
All in all, it’s a sickeningly mature and friendly affair.
The Whos Never Had an MP3 Player
Since the swap, things have changed in both households. Sue has taken charge and makes the daughters help her out – she tells them, instead of asking them. She’s more assertive and the daughters are more willing to help. Nancy has gone back to college, and Jeff has cut up their credit cards.
At the Elliotts, Justine says her parents are more lenient. The kids were allowed to keep their phones, but her TV got traded for am MP3 player and Javier traded his for an electric scooter. Shelley says she didn’t want to completely go back to the old ways, because she wanted them to learn from the experience. And Carl is looking for a day-shift job to spend more waking hours with his family.
Next week: Is hopefully a rerun; there were no previews. And as I have a five-hour holiday drive to make the next day, I hope that means no new episode.
It could be that my heart is two sizes too small. firstname.lastname@example.org