Back when Wife Swap first came on the air (which seems like eons ago, back when dinosaurs roamed the earth and a younger, more innocent Lucy had no idea of the Sisyphean task that recapping this show would become) I expected that it would be exactly what the title promised – a wife swap. Not a philosophy swap. I thought we’d get women who take different approaches to cleaning, or child-rearing, and trade ‘em out and see what happens. And for a while, I was right. Anyone remember that chick with four nannies who had to swap with a wood-chopping bus driver? What about the pampered wife who traded with the farmer’s wife? An exchange of lifestyles. I did not, however, expect the wife-swapping to turn into the trade of political extremes that this show has been lately. It’s become Extreme Wife Swap™. Nice for ratings, but the weekly red-state-vs-blue-state battle is tiring me out.
This week, we have an exchange that you’d normally only see outside political conventions, inaugurations or at war protests – a family of liberal pacifists versus one of conservative ex-soldiers. I’m guessing we’re not going to see fights over dustbunnies or cow-milking.
Cheri and Ryan Patrick live in Kentucky with their three small children. Cheri was in the Air Force, Ryan was in the U.S. Cavalry (did I hear that right, by the way? I didn’t know we still had a cavalry) and served in Bosnia. They both believe President Bush is a good leader who was right to send American troops to the Middle East, and they believe America is the greatest country in the world. Cheri runs their house like boot camp, requiring beds to be made, shoes to be lined up and much cleaning to be done. The place looks as spotless as a model home (and not the Bluth family kind, either). Cheri’s day starts with 6 a.m. walks, and she spends the rest of the day fighting dust particles and otherwise keeping the house and the children spotless and well-behaved. Ryan works 10 a.m. to midnight at a steel mill, and rarely sees the children. There’s a lot of marching, praying and flag-waving in the Patrick household. Cheri is hoping the swap will help teach Ryan to appreciate her more.
Mina and Greg Leierwood, whom I shall curse forever for forcing me to spell that last name even once, live in Minnesota with their two teenage sons. They are anti-war and anti-Bush, and their front yard is decorated in signs saying so. Mina is a part-time art teacher who is shown making anti-war signs, which she takes to peace rallies. The whole family pitches in to do chores, which means that most chores seem to rarely get done. The boys have been brought up to question authority, with mixed results – they question authority, yes, but only if they disagree with it, and while they question everything they respect nothing. Actually, when I say “they” I mean “Dan,” the oldest Leierwood boy. I’m a bit biased here because I quickly came to loathe Dan – not for his politics but for his teenage ‘tude -- and my only questions regarding Dan involve finding synonyms for the words “smarmy punk.” Mina, however, thinks Dan is the most interesting person who has ever come into her life (a feeling that explains a lot about how Dan came to be the prat that he is). Dan’s an atheist, an anarchist, and he neither bathes nor washes his clothes. Oblivious to the impression Dan is likely to make on the television-watching public, Mina says she hopes the swap will give her the chance to show people what pacifism is like. Had I been Mina, I’d have tried to help the pacifist cause by sending Dan off somewhere for two weeks. Surely there was a World Trade Organization protest somewhere he could have gone to.
It was the Dubya Coffee Mug That Tipped Her Off
Most of us decorate our nests to reflect our personalities. This comes in handy when one is on a TV show, as personalities can be defined in minutes as the wives eye each other’s belongings with growing unease -- the sword over the Patricks’ bed, the anti-Bush signs in the Leierwoods’ yard, the condoms in the Leierwood boys’ bedside tables, all the Dubya paraphernalia around the Patrick house.
Mina is unnerved by the “for God and country” vein running through absolutely everything in the Patrick household, and finds it odd to see the Patrick kids’ shoes lined up in such straight rows. Cheri, meanwhile, has noted with trepidation all the peace signs around the Leierwood house, and reads from the manual, aghast, that Dan doesn’t wash himself or his clothes.
And now, on to the people behind the slogans. The wives meet the families, which goes well for all of about two seconds. Dan feels the need to immediately state his own anarchic beliefs, and Cheri feels personally attacked. She says he’s “lucky he’s not my child,” an opinion I’m sure Dan would agree with.
The meeting goes better at the Patrick house, where Mina marvels at how polite the children are, and says Ryan is more soft-spoken than she’d expected. Perhaps she expected him to bark out orders Platoon-style.
As always, the women must spend their first week living as the other woman does. This means a 6 a.m. march for Mina, then getting the kids off to school. As she goes through Cheri’s cleaning routine, Mina says she’s worn out by it all. She also gets a lesson in proper bed-making from a four-year-old. Mina quickly comes to the conclusion that the Patrick kids need to cut loose, and that Cheri needs to lighten up on herself and her family.
That’s going to be a bigger challenge than Mina thinks. In Minnesota, Cheri can’t help herself, she MUST make breakfast for the Leierwood men, despite that being nowhere in Mina’s job description. She then tries to find out who does what chores, doubtless ready to get cracking and make up a cleaning schedule and whip that place into shape. Sadly for Cheri, she’s stopped in her tracks by Greg, who informs her that the chores are a communal thing. He does offer up the fact that his sons claimed to have changed their sheets, and – gullibly – he believed them. A spot check by Cheri reveals some sort of unidentified brown stain on one boy’s pillowcase, as well as an air of months’ worth of dust, grime and general boy gunge.
In Kentucky, late-shift-worker Ryan is out of bed, and Mina tells him Cheri is overloaded with the housework and that maybe he could help out a teensy-weensy bit. Ryan points out that he works all the time, virtually literally. Mina is worried he doesn’t spend enough time marching in step with the family.
Mina also has issues with the Patrick boys’ toys of choice, which largely involve guns, toy tanks and the like. She tells the middle kid that in her neighborhood, the police would mistake his little pop rifle for a real gun. In a cute-yet-sad moment, he asks if they’d shoot him with it. Mina tells him that has happened in her neighborhood, leading me to wonder where the hell she lives. At any rate, she is opposed to giving kids violent toys.
Peace in the Burbs
As part of the swap, Sergeant Cheri has to go to an anti-war rally. She manages to get hold of a sign that just says “Freedom,” and waves it around without too much compunction. She tells us that the other protestors are “definitely unrealistic people.”
In Kentucky, Tyler – the oldest kid, I think – has art homework. He has chosen to draw a bomber plane, which he says was inspired by all the soldiers in Iraq. It must be all Fox News, all the time in that house. Mina decides about this time that she wants to set up a peace vigil, in the Patrick house, for the family and the neighbors. Now, if you’ve been actually looking at the TV screen during this show, you’ll have seen that this is a brand spankin’ new suburb type place, where the houses are younger than some shoes I own, and the trees haven’t even grown yet. Making judgments solely on limited experience, I’m guessing that the Patrick neighbors are largely of a similar mindset as the Patricks – I mean, you look at a subdivision full of new houses, it doesn’t scream “peace activist”, it screams PTA, and I get the feeling that on the Democratic political consultants’ precinct maps, that’s one they just write off as lost.
The Unrelenting Assness that is Dan
Speaking of the word “political”, back in Minnesota Dan has decided to push his political beliefs. The Leierwood family is sitting down to make peace signs and Cheri is doing her share of cutting, glueing and pasting. At some point, religion comes up, although I’m not sure what that has to do with glittering peace signs. Cheri says something about her Christian faith, which is Dan’s cue to be obnoxious. He tells her that her religion is a dictatorship. I could have taken notes on his logic, but I don’t really care – my take on religion is that you leave people alone about it. If they’re in a bona fide cult, you can laugh at them (and then run away), but otherwise you live and let live. Not Dan, though – he keeps pushing. When he gets to the point in his learned, intellectual argument about “Jesus was a carpenter who talked a lot” Cheri breaks down in tears and runs off. Not only is that a fairly shallow point made only for laughs, I doubt Dan even made it up himself, so he doesn’t even get points for originality.
As Cheri flees, Dan smiles with the smugness only a 17-year-old can muster, and says he thinks she needed to hear that. He’s an awfully militant little pacifist. Greg – his father, in case anyone forgot – tells us he hates to think he’s taught Dan to be that insensitive. Well, Greg, you did.
Push-ups or Push-over?
It’s rule-change time, when the women get to impose their own rules.
--The house is oppressive and Ryan needs to understand war is wrong. A more philosophical rule change, I guess.
--To help him understand this, he will have to hold a peace vigil for the neighbors and denounce the evils of war. Ryan looks queasy.
--The kids will create a work of art, and the downstairs TV room will be their playroom.
--All violent toys will be removed from the house. Mina announces this with a rising pitch to her voice and her body that is reminiscent of the fervor of an actual anti-war rally. Chill, girl, it’s just Kentucky.
--The Leierwood men will take down all “liberal stuff.”
--The boys will call her “ma’am.”
--She will clean the house, as a good wife should.
--They will hang up the American flag and say the Pledge of Allegiance.
Dan cackles at this last requirement, leading Cheri to call him a teenager. He replies that she’s a fascist, and an “ignorant American.” She tells him to drop and give her 20, which is an unfortunate choice as you should never give an ultimatum or an order that you can’t enforce. Naturally, Dan points out that she cannot make his ass get off that couch.
Toys of Mass Destruction
Mina starts the new regime by insisting the Patrick kids get rid of all militant toys. This includes a toy plane one of the boys plaintively says he made himself. Ryan is furious – he says the kids don’t see their toys as violent or a political statement, they just see that they have to give up their toys. They have plenty more, though; the new play room is chaos, and Ryan says Mina is just letting them run wild without any boundaries.
Cheri starts her rule by making the Leierwoods take down all their peace signs, including a rainbow flag that has nothing to do with war or Bush but is just meant to show solidarity with gay people. Cheri says it’s not that she’s homophobic – well, thanks for clearing that up – but it appears later that she just needed that flag-holder for an American flag. She makes the Leierwoods gather round, but as she is not a puppet-master she cannot force Dan to actually say the words to the Pledge of Allegiance. Cheri complains later that that’s “the most disrespectful thing I’ve ever seen in my life.” At this point I’m thinking Dan isn’t the only person in that house who’s set on pushing their own beliefs and refuses to see that others might feel differently.
The war between Cheri and Dan moves into hand-to-hand combat, as Dan continues to prod Cheri about her conservative beliefs. Somewhere in there he declares that by not pledging allegiance, he’s showing respect for Native Americans. I’m sure Native Americans across the country are breathing a sigh of relief that Dan is on their side. Cheri finally yells at him to shut up and get away from her. In other words, everyone’s yelling, and nobody’s listening.
Cheri’s upset that Greg hasn’t been sticking up for her against Dan, although I don’t see why this should surprise her; it’s clear that Dan is the one in charge in that house, and Greg, while he seems nice and well-meaning, has all the disciplinary power of a gnat. Greg admits as much to Cheri, telling her that by this point, Dan and the rest of the family are just trying to co-exist and that Dan has won the battle. “We’re at the point that Dan needs to leave the house,” he says. Cheri suggests they consider sending Dan to military school, an idea that I suspect would fill Dan with such fury that he’d spontaneously combust.
Rebel Without a Mop
In Kentucky, Mina has made Ryan invite the neighbors over for a “peace rally.” The voiceover says turnout is low, although I’d say there’s at least 15 people there, which seems pretty high given the topic and the conservatism of the neighborhood. But hey, even Bushies want to be on TV.
Forced to give a speech, Ryan points out that no one wants war. Fair enough. But inadequate for Mina, who launches into what seems to me to be an oft-recited stump speech about the evils of war, the benefits of peace and the right and duty to question one’s government. She is met with blank stares, although the neighbors finally do warm up enough to discuss the topic with her for a bit. I don’t think she won anyone over, but Mina says she loved having the chance to talk to people who believe differently than her.
In Minnesota, Cheri has decided to give up on Dan and concentrate on being a housewife. She cleans, she cooks, and Greg seems to love it. Dan is furious that his dad so easily fell into the bourgeois trap of woman-as-servant, and says he “lost a lot of respect for Greg today.”
Dan decides to rebel by cleaning, in an effort to show Cheri that an egalitarian sharing of housework is better than her “woman’s place is in the kitchen” mindset. In the one actual “I talk and you listen, then you talk and I listen” conversation Dan and Cheri have, he explains that it isn’t that he doesn’t respect Cheri’s choices, but he doesn’t like that she doesn’t see that her choices might not work for other women.
Whether it’s Dan’s influence or not – probably not – Cheri says she’s beginning to realize that Ryan doesn’t help around the house because she has never made him – she’s always insisted on doing it all herself. She says it has been her mission to make Ryan’s life as comfortable and worry-free as possible, and so she doesn’t ask for help when she needs it. Maybe, Cheri says, there’s room for a better balance in their household.
In Kentucky, Mina is trying to forge some tighter family bonds through a costume party. Using numerous swatches of leopard print and gold-sequined cloth – which I am positive were not in the house when Cheri left it – the kids dress Ryan up. His dress is sequined, his hat is leopard-print and painted cardboard, and his glasses are pink. The kids think this look is hilarious, and Ryan feels much happier than any man wearing gold sequins has a right to. He says he’s seeing how his long work hours negatively affect his family.
When Extremes Collide
We’re finally at the end of the swap, the moment where couples run across parking lots to hug and then sit down to rehash their two-week stint in each other’s lives.
Mina tells the Patricks she thought they were too authoritarian with their kids. She says the kids loved her own laid-back style. Cheri points out that if Mina’s style leads to children like Dan, she’ll pass. “You have a son that believes in nothing,” Cheri says. Which isn’t true, Dan believes in a lot of things, it’s just that most of his beliefs are rooted in opposing the things Cheri believes in, and also he doesn’t know how to express them without sounding like an ass.
Greg says Dan believes in “people,” while Mina defends her precious baby as being a very angry young man, and says she and Greg are trying to help him.
Getting back to what’s wrong with the Patricks, Mina says she doesn’t think Cheri is very happy with her regimented, uber-housewife schedule. Evidently she’s right; Cheri says she isn’t perfect, but that she feels she has to be for Ryan or he’ll find someone more perfect. If Ryan said, “No, I would never do that!” then I missed it; he says instead that he needs to spend more time with his family.
Since the swap, things have changed a bit in both households. When Mina got home she told Dan that the way he presents his views puts people off – good for her, but it doesn’t seem to have made Dan less surly, and Mina says they’re still working on him.
However, the swap experience gave Mina a glimpse into what a military family is like, and how much guts it takes to leave your family and go to war. She says it makes war less abstract for her.
In Kentucky, Cheri is trying to be less of a disciplinarian. The kids are allowed to do some art projects and generally have a bit more freedom. Ryan has cut way down on his work hours to spend more time with his family, and Cheri says she has realized she doesn’t have to be perfect and she can ask for help.
One extreme viewpoint versus another! Who’d have thunk it! This time, it’s religious peeps versus non-believers. I want to see someone get smited.
Pacify me at firstname.lastname@example.org