Pop itself: Wife Swap is example of ethnocentrism in America

David Taintor

TV shows featuring people out of their element, such as Wife Swap, have become incredibly popular because Americans see their particular lifestyles as natural and right. America’s touchstone opportunistic individuality fosters side effects. Ethnocentrism is one example, and whether that’s good or bad is purely opinion (I think there are both setbacks and benefits myself), but its pervasion here in America is undeniable. For evidence, we may look to America’s poor intercultural competency in comparison to other globalized cultures.

Ethnocentrism affects more than just international communications; it affects all communications, including those between differing Americans. Remember that a culture is not defined as geopolitical borders are. Traveling within America, the tendency to encounter vastly differing cultures makes it not exceedingly different from traveling throughout Europe.

As I mentioned in last week’s column, a culture is like a language that we use to interact with the world rather than with one another. But just like the borders in our globalizing world are quickly becoming, the independence of these different types of communication is superficial. “Culture” and “communication” are two inextricably bound dimensions: Communication modifies culture while culture raises communication.

The point of this holistic argument is simpler than the argument itself. When you stick people together who “communicate with the world” quite differently and are unwilling to use the lens of the other’s culture, it renders them frustratingly unable to communicate with each other as well. The show Wife Swap is a stage for communication breakdowns, and a lucrative stage at that. Its success owes to the flamboyant conflicts between participants.

It doesn’t take a social scientist to understand that viewers aren’t fascinated by the mismatches in and of themselves, though they are the foundation for the yelling matches that do provide the entertainment. The only episode I watched featured two stereotypical American families: one of obnoxiously strict, progressive SoCo yuppies and the other of shamelessly oblivious, indulgent Midwesterners.

Now, I’m rather ignorant about reality TV, but I’ll admit my first analysis was off. I thought that people loved this stuff because they could easily take sides. I thought the self-proclaimed worldly intellectuals who “just so happened to pause on their way to the History Channel” would praise the Californians while the unexacting, “proud-to-be-an-American” folks, who are irritated with the aggressive green movement, would adore the Midwesterners.

I apologize for being so stiff when I refer to the contestants, but it takes dynamite to make a pigeonhole, and these are the terms Wife Swap must translate to screen.

It soon dawned on me as I observed a friend retorting every moronic statement the shut-eared, gun-toting burger kings (and queen) made. He wasn’t taking sides. He was merely able to tolerate every moronic statement the snobby, Tchaikovsky-listening superiority complexes made. He was being passive about, or even ignoring, what they were saying. They were speaking the same “language.”

However, between my friend and the Midwesterners, there was plenty of tension to exploit. Thus, I suppose an effective episode is one where most people find an “idiot” to slam. The rest either hoot and holler about the fireworks or shyly switch the channel and declare themselves above such inane fodder. but those are completely different psychological scenarios I don’t have space for.

Waldbillig is a senior English major, with a creative writing emphasis, and guest columnist for The Spectator. Pop Itself appears in the Showcase section every Monday.