The central premise of that popular and enduring television piece Wife Swap is to take two families, as wildly differing as possible, and swap the wives around, with hysterical results. I think by now even channel 4 has stopped pretending that it is supposed to be a social experiment, and we can all safely agree that Wife Swap amounts to nothing more than a gleefuly exploitative slice of voyeuristic entertainment where we can watch mad people lead a merry dance down a path that leads inexorably to a hilariously explosive confrontation.
That much is true enough, and whilst the mainstay of Wife Swap has always been to pit gobby proles against posh spazzes with predictable outcomes, they do occasionally get a bit more creative. This week we had hardline muslims vs. a modern liberal family. The other week it was Paul Daniels vs. Vanessa Feltz. Presumably at some point in the future it would be a real coup if they could swap two families where the son of one has previously murdered the son of the other.
Nevertheless, no matter how seemingly disparate in appearance, ideology and level of intelligence all the families that appear on Wife Swap appear to be, they are all actually united under one common banner – they are all familiies who would agree to go on Wife Swap.
That is, in contrast to the many thousands of families in Britain who would refuse on the grounds of ethics and good taste to let their homes be invaded by Television, all families that appear on Wife Swap are fundamentally similar in that they must all possess some distinct quality that compels them to pursue their glorious fifteen minutes, at any cost. This quality must be, I think, a combination of narcissism, a desperation for acknowledgment, and a complete absence of self-awareness, with the latter being the crucial ingredient. For surely, all families on Wife Swap ultimately reveal themselves in some way to be, at best dysfunctional, and at worse utterly mad. Yet, if any of them knew themselves to be so, you would expect they wouldn’t volunteer to put themselves on display for the amusement of the nation.
The most distressing thing I find about Wife Swap though, is not the lack of judgement displayed by these horrifying families in agreeing to let the film crews document their madness, but rather the plight of the children who, presumably without giving their own consent, are forced to appear before the cameras, and then live with the consequences.
I’m not so far past my school days that I don’t remember what kids are like, and I know this for a fact – for the poor children of Wife Swap, post-broadcast, anything they say in front of their peers, no matter how intelligent or witty, can always be trumped by the simple response ‘yeah, but your mum was a right slag on Wife Swap.’ And cruel kids have long memories.
Isn’t there some sort of government legislation that can protect children from their fame-hungry parents? Does forcing your unwitting kids to appear on a television programme that deals in intentionally manufacturing conflict not amount to child abuse? Alls I know is that it’s probably going to be my tax dollars that end up doing the funding when The Children of Wife Swap support groups start cropping up all over the country. I suppose that’ll be the price we have to pay for entertaining television of such a hideously compulsive nature.