Victoria sponge cakes and female submission do not a happy home make. Ealasaid Gilfillan reviews Channel 4’s dubious TV series "Make Me a Perfect Wife".
The memorable moment for me from the recent Channel 4 television series, “Make Me a Perfect Wife” was the shot of the five wives standing in front of a meeting at the Mothers Union. A crowded room looked on as a panel tasted the wives’ cakes in order to judge the women on their baking skills. Some wives, it seemed, were more perfect than others. Giving up your job and looking after the home was just not enough. You then had to have your efforts scrutinised in surprisingly petty detail. Could you make an passable Victoria sponge cake? Was the tidiness of your living room up to the standards of the secretary of the local branch of the Mothers Union? Could you manage to let your husband dictate your clothes choices to you and then could you sit through his favourite television programme, struggling to enjoy it?
It seemed that the series conflated two ideas and left them horribly entangled. The first was that women today face lots of pressures juggling home life and work. The second was that according to old-fashioned notions of gender stereotyping, a man should be the dominant partner in a marriage. These rather mismatched ideas were blurred by the programme’s invocation of a vague golden age of housewifery and female submission. Although the programme purported to address the first idea, it was clearly the second which was key, because the onus fell on the wives to restructure their lives by giving up work rather than on the husbands. Apparently the conflicting demands of home and work were a women’s problem. The possibility of the men giving up their jobs or of both partners dividing up their time differently was just never mentioned. On the contrary, that the men should be breadwinners by day and slobs in the evenings and that the women should be full-time housewives was presented as a return to the natural order of things.
The introduction of rules for the wives also showed that the real focus of the series was a shift in power relations. Rules were to be obeyed by the women and enforced by the men. This meant that the women were to take care of their appearance and cook all the meals. There was to be no “whining” and the men were always to have the final say. By contrast, the husbands were only kept in check by peer pressure, being told by the others that they were letting the side down if they laid the table for example. In fact the men clearly did not display enough stereotypical behaviour for the programme makers because they were encouraged to find their inner assertive selves by activities like going on an all-male fishing trip, walking on hot coals and punching their way through blocks of wood. You might well question the validity of teaching the men to become more physically assertive to empower them to give the orders in their relationships. Was there a shadow of a hint that they should resort to physical discipline if persuading their wives verbally failed? It is presumably futile to expect that question to be explored in a series which exasperatingly left lots of issues unaddressed. Why not ask the wives more about the pros and cons of being a housewife versus going out to work? The couples could even have switched roles part the way through the experiment so they could explore alternative domestic arrangements.
[pulloutbox]men were taught to become more physically assertive to empower them to give the orders
In fact there was remarkably little discussion of the difficulties of juggling homes and jobs at all. A large, even perverse, amount of time was spent on watching how the minutiae of the women’s domestic lives were controlled. We saw which garments the husbands chose to throw out from their wives’ wardrobes, untidy rooms under the scrutinising gaze of the lady from the Mothers Union and the wives being given a five course meal menu to produce. Bizarrely, the women were given a dummy on which to practise kissing, in preparation for when their husbands returned home from work.
It would be easy to lambast the women for taking part and submitting to such a controlling set of rules. Equally you might argue that the women were right to utilise an opportunity to find out what worked best for them. Either way, I would not want to fall into the unhealthy mindset of the programme which encouraged viewers to judge the wives on their successes and failures. Take the surprising formality of the cake-baking competition. Indeed, in the final programme, we discovered that only three of the five wives had done well enough over the month’s experiment to be pampered by their husbands on Christmas Day. Two of the women who were deemed to have done poorly seemed to be penalised by having to carry on doing all the work. By the end of the series, I felt that the programmes were not really about running a household at all; they were about judgement and power relations.
Tellingly, the power politics spilled over into some really odd scenes which had absolutely nothing to do with having a happy home. One of these involved the women having to kill and pluck their own turkeys for Christmas dinner. Surely a woman in the 1950’s would be likely to buy one already slaughtered from a butcher. However, one of the husbands insisted that the women do this because he felt that it would be unpleasant and improving for them to have to go through with it – clearly to let them know who was boss. Another strange piece of power politics involved one wife having to run up and down stairs all evening, serving drinks and snacks to her husband and his male friends who were ensconced in the attic watching the football. This meant that she could not spend time with her children who were fretting and crying in their bedroom. A domestic goddess presiding over an abode of bliss? Forget it.
The title sequence suggested irony with its Stepfordian wives serenely pushing trolleys through a supermarket. Perhaps the series was simply an tongue-in-cheek attempt to push the participating couples into a televisual row or two. Then again, all the women had to restructure their lives for a month, and two of them gave up their jobs to become housewives as a result of the experiment. This was a serious personal impact, perhaps on viewers as well as participants. But if the programme was intended to be serious, why was it so cheekily regressive?