Christianity, Gender Roles, and Wife Swapping

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Katharine writes... Channel Four’s “Wife Swap” recently saw Judith, the wife of evangelical pastor Glen, and Dawn, a born-again Christian who swears, drinks and gambles, exchange “husbands, homes, and kids” for two weeks. They are, as Judith notes, “streets apart,” and that, of course, is the point of the thing.

I’m always intrigued by the ways in which these programmes and the people profiled in them construct and maintain gender roles, but the religiosity of this episode’s couples placed this construction front and centre. The interlinking themes of self and self-sacrifice are useful points upon which to hang a discussion of gender in Christianity and contemporary UK culture.

Right at the outset of the show, a montage from the rest of the programme quickly hones in on pastor Glen’s emphasis upon individual salvation when he asks Dawn, “have you accepted Christ as your personal saviour?” to which she responds, “I thought I had.” When Dawn first arrives at the house, Glen reassuringly whispers to his 9-year-old daughter Alice, “It’s alright, she used to go to church so I reckon she’s gonna get saved.” His theology of individual salvation is evident at these and other points of the show.

But Dawn has her own emphasis on individualism, saying that “God gave me this personality; he wants me to enjoy life while I’m here” and “God wants you to do things for yourself.” Equally, her husband Scott says, “I know I’ve got God in my heart but I still believe he’s made me who I am.” For Dawn and Scott, God creates unique individuals, whom he does not wish to see conformed to a mould. They are made as swearers and drinkers and gamblers, and these subjectivities (obviously among others!) are valued by God. While they follow the First Commandment, as Dawn says, they also, as Scott advises Judith, “live for the day.”

Judith, however, articulates neither the personal salvation theology of her husband (although that does not indicate her disbelief in it) nor the subjectivised individualism of Dawn and Scott. In accordance with the gender roles Judith and Glen derive from the Bible, Judith exhibits self-sacrifice. She asserts that the man is the head of the household and “has the final say.” She wakes Glen in the morning with a cup of tea, before laying his clothes out for him. In an interestingly parallel yet simultaneously dissimilar moment from the other household, Dawn says, “I’m the boss of the house – Scott wears the trousers; I just tell him which ones to wear.”

Despite the thematic similarities between these two moments, the sentiments that are expressed are at odds. While Dawn’s words are intended as a metaphorical statement about their situation, alluding to Scott’s carer role in relation to both parenting and household chores, Judith’s laying out of Glen’s clothes speaks to her conviction about her role as a woman. Glen says that, “the woman is the homemaker so it’s the woman in a sense that keeps the home together… I don’t see it as my role.”

I did my Masters research on how lesbian Christians construct selfhood, particularly in terms of how they simultaneously retain a strong sense of their unique selves (as lesbians, as women, as mothers, as partners, etc.) whilst remaining within a religion which encourages selflessness. Many feminists (both radical and revisionist) have been vocal in noting that the Christian religion engenders what Ida Magli refers to as a “sacrificial spirit” in its adherents (Magli 2003:43), socially constructing the category of “women” as, in the words of Pope John Paul II, predisposed to “making a ‘sincere gift of self’ to others, thereby finding themselves” (cited in Woodhead 2004:130). In other words, in self-sacrifice women find that their authentic self is in essence a self-sacrificer, a self-negator, a non-self.

Writing in 1960 (and so open to the criticism of gender essentialism), Valerie Saiving argues that, while self-sacrifice might be a cure for the particular (male) sin of pride, this cure will be detrimental to women who have already been constructed as selfless (1992:25-42). At the end of the programme, Glen has a new understanding of the role Judith plays in his life, and to an extent exhibits the ‘cure’ of selflessness in helping out more with the daily chores which Judith previously had to undertake by herself. When we revisit Judith, a month after her two weeks in Dawn’s shoes, we find that she is making more time for herself, attempting to relax more than before, and enjoying learning from Dawn’s spontaneity. As she says to Scott at one point during the experience, “I’ve gotta say, Scott, it’s an absolute blast chilling out.” Judith perhaps exhibits the ‘cure’ of self-assertion in response to her previous self-negation, or at least self-neglection.

My own research amongst lesbian Christians suggests similar movements away from the constructed gender roles of women as self-sacrificial towards a celebration of selfhood. Also, the language of selflessness is preferred to that of self-sacrifice, due to both the negative connotation of the term ‘sacrifice,’ and to the perceived impropriety of comparing their own sacrifices to those of Christians in other contexts, of historical martyrs, and of Jesus Christ himself.

A voice-over at the beginning of the show informs us that the aim of the exercise is “to see what they can learn from the experience,” so I wondered whether readers of this blog would engage in a thought experiment and think about with whom they would like to swap lives. In whose shoes would you like to walk? Who would you like to see try to live your life? Remember that one week they live by your “rules,” and other week you live by theirs, so choose carefully – and do so in the spirit of learning, rather than exploitative entertainment! Or maybe we could indulge ourselves in a little bit of “Pastor Swapping”?

Katharine Moody

Katharine Moody is a PhD candidate in the Department of Religious Studies at Lancaster University, UK. She is undertaking research exploring how truth is conceptualised and functions in the emerging church. Her research blog can be found at http://opensourceresearch.blogspot.com

Hyperlinks: Wife Swap – http://www.channel4.com/life/microsites/W/wifeswap/index.html 2003 – http://www.amazon.co.uk/Women-Self-sacrifice-Christian-Church-Nineteenth/dp/0... 2004 – http://www.amazon.co.uk/Christianity-Very-Short-Introduction-Introductions/dp... 1992 – http://www.amazon.co.uk/Womanspirit-Rising-Feminist-Reader-Religion/dp/006061...