Words by Rhianne Ward
In honour of this week's International Women’s Day, I’d like to discuss a show that I love, one that I am actually half-watching as I write this article. If you have watched the show you will understand why, despite its moments of glaring misogyny, I physically cannot tear my eyes from the screen each evening. By touching on the paradoxical relationship between the fear of ending up alone and the modern aversion to commitment, Married at First Sight speaks to the complex nature of relationships in a way that other reality shows have so far failed to achieve. In spite of its numerous flaws, this formula makes the program both enormously addictive and unusually relatable.
When addressing the aforementioned flaws, it is hard to know where to begin. This is because, as with most TV programmes, the misogynistic aspects of the show are simply a reflection of the society within which it was conceived. In all honesty, my main issue is that after every episode I come away with a vague feeling of unease. With each dramatic high and low, it becomes increasingly clear that this story is being told by men, for men.
Whilst this show is incredibly modern in format, some of its content reflects a tale as old as the conception of marriage itself: the subjugation of women. Take this season's rift between Elizabeth and Sam as an example. Sam not only cheats on Elizabeth with another woman from the experiment but also leads both women on, describing later to “the boys” his disgust that Elizabeth is all over him. The fact that the man walks away from their rift with his head held high, whilst the woman is shamed by the group for making a fuss and “not trying hard enough” for her man, is frankly disgusting. To the best of Elizabeth's knowledge, due to a lack of any real communication on Sam’s part, there was no reason to believe Sam wasn’t invested in the experiment—they were, after all, married. As far as I can see, the fact that this was framed as her fault just reinforces the idea that men simply aren’t held accountable for their actions. More worryingly, the only act that Elizabeth committed to attract such ridicule was to be unattractive to a man (god forbid).
In numerous instances throughout the series, women are shamed for being “clingy”—aka attempting vulnerability and yet simultaneously being criticized (as in Heidi’s and Ning’a case) for not trying hard enough and “pushing them away”. Another glaringly obvious example of disrespect for women is the constant gaslighting of Heidi. Partnered up with the beautiful—perpetually single—Mike, she is met with challenges that may be all too familiar to some of you. He is persistently self-absorbed. As should be the case, Heidi reacts to the way that Mike is inconsiderate of her feelings by expressing her very reasonable concerns. Sure, leaving to get dinner and coming home with only food for himself, or planning a huge date on a boat for his habitually seasick partner, may both be reasonably small acts in themselves, but they have a larger impact. Anyone who’s been in this situation will know how these tiny infractions chip away at a relationship. Shockingly, the so-called experts publicly shame Heidi on the couch for “nagging” at Mike. No words are spoken in regards to his lack of consideration for others. Instead, she is told she has commitment issues, that she's trying to sabotage the relationship, and generally that she’s making it all up. This is blatant gaslighting.
My question to you, and in fact myself, is this: can we continue to support a show that puts out the rhetoric that women are only valid when they’re desirable? Or one that holds women accountable for the short-falls of their male counterparts? We can see in real-time the impact that subtle but continuous gaslighting has had—not only on women but on society as a whole. We are all familiar with the stereotypes: clingy, naggy women, and cool, disinterested men. While the show contains many questionable characters, there are also several strong, powerful women, women who have, I feel, been let down by the producers and/or so-called ‘experts.’
In an ideal world, I’d love to see the same gripping, dramatic reality show reframed in a progressive context. Certainly, the show is a product of its society, but it would be great to see more of an emphasis on input from trained and impartial marriage counselors, instead of ill-informed conjecture based on the opinions of the mob.
[Image credits: https://metro.co.uk/2021/02/11/mafs-australia-star-says-co-star-wife-accused-him-of-being-gay-14067450/]