ABC's Poly vs. Tea Party "Wife Swap": What Happened
I was dreading it, but I broke down and watched it anyway. So that you don't have to. I'm talking about ABC's prime-time episode of "Wife Swap" just now, in which a mom from a polyfamily swaps homes for two weeks with a mom who's a Religious Right talk show host married to a former state senator from Missouri; they're on God's mission to save America.
I steeled myself with a pass-the-popcorn attitude.
We're first introduced to the two families. The polys have four kids, the Tea Partyers have five. The polyfamily consists of Chris Envy (his real name), a pro wrestler who works at a warehouse for his day job; his bi wife Angela, and their younger live-in girlfriend Ashley. The three sleep together. All care for the kids together. Chris explains at one point how they came to be: There was this party at the house, and Ashley got too drunk to drive home, so she stayed over, and one thing led to another. She's been with them for a year now. They and the kids eat mostly junk food and watch lots of TV together for family time. The women cook and clean. Chris would be fine with another woman getting involved but not a man — an OPP kind of guy.1
Cringe, go I.
On the other side of the country, Gina Loudon runs a radio talk show where she rattles on about how "You take Hitler. You take Mussolini. You take Pol Pot. They were all liberals. Let's not forget that." And, "the reason for Planned Parenthood was to eliminate the black race." Her youngish-looking husband John Loudon, even more of a Christian evangelical, used to be a Missouri state senator when he was even younger.
When Gina first arrives at the Envys' house it's empty, and she cannot make sense of the pictures on the wall. "I'm utterly confused about the family situation here. What I'm seeing is, two couples who live here?"
Each mom has left a family handbook for the other with explanations and house rules. Gina reads the word "polyamorous" with confusion and growing disbelief.
Meanwhile, Angela is telling Mr. Loudon and his children about her poly home, and already she is looking defensive, embarrassed, and outgunned. Literally; he and the kids take her to a shooting range for some gun education, and after a few flinching shots she says she never wants to shoot a gun again.
It goes downhill. "Wife Swap" is designed to be a drama fest, and its producers are skilled. Gina rags on Chris for being a lazy pig and makes him cook a real sit-down dinner. She views Ashley as an exploited afterthought and orders her out of the house; her new rule. Ashley breaks down crying and refuses. So do the kids; they cling to her, and Chris wades in to defend them all. Ashley stays. Still, in her smiley way, Gina sets other rules: no TV, and dump all the junk food and white sugar. And she tells Chris that he's going to be turned into someone "worthy of living in America." Starting with studying the Constitution under her tutelage.
They get into arguments over religion. Chris blurts that the Bible is "a mythical comic book where a man walks on water." Gina says she is being persecuted for her religion.
Angela, meanwhile, is trying to set a new rule on her end. In the interest of peace, there will be no discussions of politics or religion. The Loudon family will get out of their "bubble" and do new things together, like art and skateboard lessons for the kids (who have been homeschooled). It doesn't stick. John cracks belittling little jests about deviants in front of her and the kids, and reads her Leviticus where it says homosexuals (and, we presume, bi women) shall be put to death "and their blood shall be upon them." She breaks down.
And so on.
But as the two-week swap nears its end, developments take a twist. Gina leaves the Envys' home — whether she was kicked out or stormed out isn't clear to me — and she breaks the show's rules by phoning John on the other side of the country. We hear him (through a closed door) telling her to pack and return immediately: "we're definitely dealing with dark forces here."
And that's it. Usually "Wife Swap" ends with the two families sitting at a roundtable to discuss the experience. But ABC made a big thing in its publicity that this was the first time in the show's history (it's now in Season 6) when one family refused to met and discuss.
Which side chickened out? On that cliffhanger, we get a bunch of commercials. Then we're back. It was the Loudons. A narrator says that John and Gina's attorney informed the show that they would no longer participate in any way. So, we are left with the triad and their kids at the roundtable alone, discussing how awfully things went, how disrespectful and judgmental the politico-religious couple were, and how utterly overjoyed they all are to be back together safe again in their own happy home.
We see a followup six weeks later. The Envys, says the narrator, continue as a happy, loving family. Angela tells the camera that one good thing to come from the experience is that they feed the kids healthier snacks now, and Chris helps cook. Angela laments for their naive early hope that they would make new friends on the show. We close with a heartwarming scene of the three adults and four kids joyfully gathered on the couch in each other's arms.
And then a black screen with the narrator saying that despite repeated attempts, the show was unable to make any further contact with the Loudons.
My assessment: The show displayed Religious Right evangelicals being their worst. No viewer can have missed this. The poly family came off as trashy at first, but became much more sympathetic during the ordeal as they pulled together and stuck up for each other at every turn. The happy ending was lopsidedly pro-poly.
P.S.: One useful lesson learned: To get overweening fundies out of your hair, make them think they're "definitely dealing with dark forces here." They'll vanish.
(Disclaimer: I scribbled notes while watching the show just once, so I don't guarantee that all details above are error-free.)
Update: You can now watch the full episode. Also, here is Wife Swap's webpage.
Wife Swap typically has about 5 million viewers. And there will be reruns.
Oh-The-Irony Followup: A local online newspaper where the Loudons live, the Imperial Beach Patch, has a story on the episode the morning after, including this:
While on the show, Gina said she participated to overcome stereotypes about conservatives, but on her website and radio show last week, Gina explained that her family moved to California and appeared on the show to be a part of a "culture war."
"I think there comes a time when you look at the culture we're in and you ask yourself the question 'What am I really doing?' We all enjoy calling ourselves culture warriors but how do you really fight that culture war?" she asked.
Conversatives can't fight a culture war by addressing people with similar views and beliefs, said Gina, who has appeared on Fox News and written a book.
"Anytime I have a platform I'm going to take the opportunity to fight for what I believe in. You can't very well call yourself a culture warrior and then be afraid to engage in the battle."
Some warrior. Once outside her bubble she broke and ran, the first in the show's six years to do so, leaving the "enemy" in uncontested control of the battlefield. Yet here she is back on the air telling her bubble of believers what a great warrior she is.
More update: Rush Limbaugh weighs in, fuming that the Tea Party family was portrayed as “intolerant, Bible-thumping prudes” while the polyamorous family was portrayed as “the normal, loving, sympathetic characters whose worst trait is eating a lot of junk food.” But apparently he couldn't find much so bad to say about them either.
1. "One-Penis Policy," highly snarkable in the poly world.