Witness: Surrendered Wives

Sunday, April 1, 2001 by

Viewers watching this episode of the Channel 4 documentary series Witness could have been forgiven for thinking that the whole thing was a glorious April Fool’s Day joke; rotund, American woman writes a self-help book for women who want to save their relationship, the crux of which, dictates that the woman should surrender completely to the whims and wishes of her partner. But no, this was for real, and what followed was a funny and telling film which said more about America’s obsession with self-help and the role of women, than any serious study could have hoped.

The film featured three couples who had turned to Laura Doyle’s book The Surrendered Wife in an attempt to save their relationship. Looking at the first couple, it was clear that they needed help, when it became apparent that their pet parrot was more interesting than themselves. Merilee and John were both advocates of helping oneself and agreed that Merilee should follow the rules of Doyle’s philosophy and surrender to John’s wishes. Poor Merilee was, we were told, an advocate of self-help and positive thinking, but when at a support group meeting of fellow “surrendees” she was asked by Doyle to name an asset of hers that was attractive, she was stumped and descended into tears.

Connie – another of the women featured – had no such trouble naming her best assets (and they weren’t her eyes, lovely though they were). Connie was dating Ted, a die-hard Republican whose idea of leisure was time spent at the shooting range. Connie wept as she explained in a phone call to Doyle that she couldn’t cope with Ted’s political views and personality traits – while Doyle smiled smugly and affirmed that Connie just needed “to let go” – of her sanity, presumably. Connie was a tired woman, tired of dating a man who made a romantic gift of a carpet, tired of all the effort needed to maintain her relationship and her tan, but somehow carrying on with it all regardless.

The third couple were Tammy and Tom. Tammy and Tom’s relationship had reached a point where they no longer cared what they said to each other. Tammy spoke candidly to camera about the repulsion she felt for her husband’s rapidly expanding waistline. Her husband looked on forlornly and tucked into another bowl of desert. Tom’s stomach was certainly a turn off, but that did not prevent it from having a starring role in the programme and wobbling about beside the pool at every opportunity.

One of the funniest scenes in the film occurred when, as part of Doyle’s programme, the male partners arranged a date on which the wives were obliged to go. John took Merilee to see a film. When we saw her distraught and almost speechless afterwards in the cinema car park, we may have been under the impression that John had dragged her off to view The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or some other bloodfest (“violence … blood …” she mumbled dramatically). Merilee however, had been traumatised by Ridley Scott’s Gladiator, and was incredulous that her partner could have chosen such a film. Well, they do say you never really know someone. She should have thought herself lucky; Tammy was treated to a tour of a mind-numbingly bizarre museum dedicated to The Wild West, with a venue straight out of an episode of The Simpsons. Tammy gaped open mouthed at a feeble mannequin dressed in Indian garb and gasped: “Well … you can’t imagine living like that … with no shampoo and hairspray?” Judging by her own permed ’80s barnet, the thought was too much to bear.

Laura Doyle herself was the most interesting character in the programme, but while she was happy to appear with her own husband, and espouse the virtues of subservience and passivity, her sweet smiles and coy looks were fooling no-one. It would have been easy for the programme makers to portray these women as stupid and subservient, yet somehow this intelligent and revealing film didn’t take cheap shots – delicate prompting from the director showed that all three had experienced traumatic episodes in their past which had somehow impacted on their present lives. The women all appeared to suffer from a lack of self esteem – why else would they choose to turn themselves into servile idiots on Doyle’s recommendations? But stupid they were not.

“Surrendered Wives” would have been a far more gutsy programme, had it featured more feisty subjects (both male and female), yet it still managed to convey the futility of Doyle’s “rules” and highlight the holes in her logic. The film offered a snapshot of the confusion surrounding gender roles in 21st century America, while keeping it’s tongue firmly in it’s cheek. A British version would be a sure winner.


Comments are closed.