Topic: Society

“The Worst Husband in the World”

The Scoreboard is torn on its verdict regarding the treatment Stephen Fowler is getting in the media and blogosphere. Perhaps you make good enough use of your time to be blissfully ignorant of who Stephen Fowler is. At the risk of using up brain cells you might need later for something more important, like, well, almost anything, let me enlighten you. Fowler is a British-born San Franciscan who for reasons unknown agreed to allow himself and his family to participate in the (awful) ABC reality show “Wife Swap,” in which two families (usually as contrasting as possible) “trade” mothers for two weeks, a sufficiently long period to prompt chaos, humor, self-discovery, or attempted homicide.

As with all reality shows, “reality” is severely manipulated by the producers, who will urge participants to engage in extreme behavior and to play “types” in the unfolding dramas that are further manipulated in the editing process. All participants sign releases that essentially waive their rights to object when and if the final broadcast makes them look like idiots, sex fiends, clown, boobs or maniacs. The Scoreboard has previously expressed doubts that these waivers are always truly informed, believing that many of the reality show victims were tricked or deceived to get their consent, especially since agreeing to be on such shows in the first place is prima facie evidence of a mental defect. But I have to admit that the longer these shows are on the air, the less persuasive that argument becomes.

It is especially unpersuasive for Fowler, who (as he was quick to tell anyone within earshot on the show) is intelligent and educated. But he may have been too intelligent and educated to actually watch the program he was agreeing to be part of, what with reading “Gödel, Escher and Bach” and all. In any event, he dived into the role of an arrogant, misogynist, rude, offensive egomaniac with such gusto that he gave “Wife Swap’s” editors an abundance of juicy footage, resulting in a performance by Fowler that made Omarosa, the reviled villainess of “The Apprentice,” look like Miss Congeniality.

His family received, in exchange for Fowler’s wife, a down-to-earth, unpretentious Mid-Westerner named Gayla Long, who inspired Fowler to fire such witticisms at her as…

  • “I think the worst thing that James [Fowler’s son] could do is to tell me that he wants to move to Missouri. What is wrong with the United States is that people in the middle of the country frankly (laughs) are just like you. It’s amazing…uneducated, simple and without a clue about what’s going on in the world! You’re under-educated, over opinionated, and you’re overweight. It’s not a good combination, Gayla.”

  • “Yeah, [tomorrow is] rule change. That means starting tomorrow we have the pleasure of pretending we live in some Podunk town in Missouri. That will be interesting, won’t it?”

  • Gayla: “You keep degrading me in front of your kids!”)
    Fowler: “That’s easy!” (laughs)
    Gayla: “You think you’re so much better than me?”
    Fowler: “I probably earn more in one week than you do in a year!”

  • “You read that so well, Gayla! Congratulations. I didn’t know that you could read!”
  • “Agenda? That’s a big word for you. Clearly your two languages appear to be bad English, and redneck.”

And so on. Perhaps it was the British accent, perhaps it was the sympathetic Gayla, but for whatever reason the same American public that laughed at Archie Bunker, loves the non-stop sarcasm of Dr. House and shrugs at the crass, sexist, boorish participants on “Blind Date,” “The Bachelor,” “The Gils Next Door” and many other vile reality shows decided to punish Fowler for his performance. Numerous websites, including the unambiguously named, documented his flaws in daily rants and postings. YouTube’s clips (filed under the heading, “The Worst Husband in the World”) made sure than those who missed the show could learn to loath Fowler anyway. Some websites published his email address and phone number, guaranteeing hate mail, and probably a couple of death threats.

Now Fowler has been kicked off the boards of two non-profits, and friends say that he has lost business opportunities as a result of the controversy. A longtime family friend who attended Fowler's TV viewing party when the episode aired Jan. 30 said Fowler prepared friends for his appearance by assuring them that he had gone all out for the cameras, obeying the producer's directions to be confrontational. "He was definitely playing a character," the friend says. "He just carried a bad choice too far."

After his public humiliation, Fowler posted a statement on his wife's web site apologizing for the "terribly insulting way I treated Gayla," confessing that "my comments were just stupid and made me look like the one who is undereducated."

True. But here’s the ethical conundrum: given the hybrid nature of reality shows, in which real people engage in staged situations in front of a camera to create material that others edit to maximize entertainment value, is it fair to subject Fowler or anyone to this kind of treatment? Is he really that different from an actor playing any villain, like Hannibal Lector, Jack the Ripper or Adolf Hitler, or any performer playing a comic foil, like Major Burns (in “M*A*S*H”) or Archie? We don’t attack actors for the behavior of the characters they play; that would be absurd. Can it really be right to try to hurt Fowler’s career and reputation because he chose to act the part of the ultimate snob? (Let us stipulate that giving out Fowler’s phone number and e-mail is indefensible under any analysis.)

The Golden Rule should apply here. Who among us couldn’t be made to look like a monster if our worst moments were skillfully edited for that purpose? Can we really know Stephen Fowler, or anybody, based on one TV episode?

It is true that Fowler brought all of this down on his own head, and it is amazing that he and so many others allow money or the lure of TV fame to goad them into such situations. But someone making a stupid mistake does not give everyone else free reign to ensure that it does as much damage to him as possible.

The other side of the argument, and the reason the Scoreboard is torn, is this: Fowler is hearing the culture speak. The public is making a judgement, and rightly is rejecting values and conduct it finds repugnant: prejudice, meanness, cruelty, arrogance, and snobbery. This is a healthy process. This is how we decide, as a culture, what behavior we want to encourage and what behavior we want to discourage. We don’t attack actors for the parts they play, but audiences at melodramas in the 19th Century often hissed the villain and pelted him with fruit. It was the character and his conduct, not the actor, being rejected.

The best reality shows, like “Survivor,” “The Apprentice,” and “The Amazing Race” are morality plays. They illustrate good and bad behavior, and can help viewers engage in some ethical inventories of their own. Stephen Fowler’s mistake was that the character he played had his face and name. It is hard to attack one without injuring the other, and that may be unfair to the real Stephen Fowler. But the fact that the public is strongly expressing its rejection of the Stephen Fowler they saw on “Wife Swap” makes an important, powerful and useful cultural statement.

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