The Ethics of Reality TV: Has Married at First Sight Australia Gone Too Far?Mar 31, 2023
The premise of many reality TV series of the aughts seemed to be this: give participants unlimited amounts of booze with cameras rolling 24/7, and see what happens next. Emotions run high when you’re either hungover or drunk every day, and while it does make for good television, it is wildly unethical to base the success of your show on just how badly people can embarrass themselves on television. Thankfully, we’ve grown out of this phase of reality TV — alcohol intake is now often limited and the premise of the shows less humiliation-based. Despite this, we’re not exactly in the clear when it comes to unethical reality shows, and nothing makes this more apparent than the latest season of Married at First Sight Australia (known among friends and trash TV aficionados as MAFS).
The premise of the show is simple: you pair up sexy, desperate singletons for marriage. They meet for the first time at the altar. They’re plonked together into a household, and with the support of relationship experts, they try to get their marriage to work. Each week, the couple gets to vote whether they wish to stay married (and thus continue to be on the show). If both contestants vote to stay, they stay; if one votes to stay and one votes to leave, they stay; if both vote to leave, they leave. A slightly dubious concept? Absolutely. But it’s also wildly entertaining.
Season 10 started off strong but quickly veered into something quite dark. The show makes it seem as though the contestants are chosen from a pool of tens of thousands of applicants and paired together with their perfect match through a careful deliberative process by experts (psychologists, sexologists) featured on the show. That’s not exactly true. Most of the contestants are headhunted by the producers, who trawl bars and social media to find suitable characters for the show. It doesn’t seem as though there is an effective vetting process for contestants either — while you would expect the production team to prioritize what would make good television, this season has consisted of a constant stream of emotionally unstable and/or abusive partners, paired with vulnerable people, exploited for drama and thus more views. Two couples were allowed to leave the show despite the other contestant voting to stay, and they provide an excellent overview of what exactly is wrong with MAFS.
Josh and Melissa
Josh is a kind and considerate family man who describes himself as a station wagon — sturdy and dependable. He comes to MAFS to find a partner to share his life with. He gets paired with Melissa, a divorcee whose only life goal seems to be getting pumped by someone who looks like a Hemsworth brother. You could not find a more incompatible couple if you tried. In their wedding interviews, Josh talks about the emotions he was feeling when he first saw his bride, whereas Melissa tries to guess the size of his penis by looking at his shoes. When the pair are asked to make a five-year plan, Josh prioritizes his career, relationship, and family. Melissa prioritizes her career, investments, and sex life. In a challenge where the couple is asked to write confessional letters to each other, Josh describes his loneliness and emotional struggles, saying “It’s hard, life’s hard.” Melissa shrugs off his letter with no comment and reads her letter where she explains that after being stuck in a sexless marriage, she now wants a life full of sex.
If Melissa were a man, she would comfortably be labeled as a sex pest by almost every viewer. While Josh views sex as a part of a healthy partnership, Melissa views sex as the key topic of conversation and relationship priority. She keeps telling Josh that she doesn’t just want a roommate, she wants sex, and if he doesn’t, he can leave. She questions his manhood and says that perhaps he just isn’t man enough to keep up with her. Josh laments that he feels like a sex toy. It appears that Melissa never asks Josh a single question or wishes to talk to him about anything other than herself or boinking. This boils over in a fight where Josh asks Melissa whether she knows what her husband even does for a living. She does not. Josh votes to leave the program and says that Melissa uses degrading and dehumanizing language about him, and tries to control every aspect of his life off-camera. Melissa votes to stay. The team exceptionally agree to let Josh end the marriage due to the emotional distress that he is under.
Shannon and Caitlin
These two seem to have a relatively harmonious relationship, until Shannon reveals that he believes he may still be in love with his ex-girlfriend. Despite this, the couple decides to stay on the show. Shannon then spends time with another woman off camera, and when confronted by other contestants who believe it was his ex-girlfriend, he says that it was his cousin. He later braggs to the camera about how he got away with it in the douchiest way that is humanly possible: “with the boys, I’ve got a new nickname now: Tefal — everything just slips off me.”
Shannon then goes on to tell Caitlin that he would not actually have any feelings towards his ex if he had found her attractive when she first walked up to him at the altar, but alas; unfortunately, he just finds her to be unattractive. In the ceremony where the couple chooses whether to stay or go, Shannon is questioned about his comments. He said he doesn’t believe what he said is true, he simply wanted to hurt her. When pressed further, he says “I’m a monster. Every relationship I ever have I just put people down to make me feel better about myself.” While Shannon wishes to stay, Caitlin is given the option to end their time on the show. She chooses to leave.
Has It Gone Too Far?
It seems that even the most basic amount of vetting could have eliminated contestants like these from ever taking part in the show, and it seems deliberate that the most venomous individuals are paired with those who seem more kind and gentle in order to create the maximum amount of discontent. These two couples aren’t even the only questionable ones on the show — a Daily Record article highlighted the backlash that production had received due to audiences perceiving two other contestants, Harrison and Jesse, as abusive towards their partners. One could assume that perhaps production had made a mistake by allowing these people on the show, and maybe they learned something from the dramatic exit of Josh, Melissa, Shannon, and Caitlin. That is, however, not true. The next contestant to come in after the exit of those two couples says to the camera “‘My control is quite extreme at times, it has impacted my relationships in the past.” She proclaims that she wants Married at First Sight to help her break her pattern of unhealthy behavior in relationships.
While these are consenting adults taking part in a television program on their own free will, it does feel unnerving that the show knowingly gives a platform to individuals that are emotionally volatile and prone to coercive control, especially after being cautioned for featuring abusive behavior by a women’s aid organization in 2021. The UK reality tv show Love Island has come under fire in recent years for the series of suicides that have followed contestants appearing on the show. Many suspect that this is due to online harassment and a lack of ability to cope with the fame that follows from being on reality TV. Against this backdrop, Married at First Sight Australia feels like a powder keg — not only do contestants have to deal with the fame and harassment after the show, some may also need to grapple with the effects of having been the victim of emotional abuse in front of the entire world. The show skirts the line of what’s appropriate and takes it entirely too far. Changes should be made to the casting process, including comprehensive background checks and psychological assessments conducted by experts in domestic abuse and intimate partner violence. If not, it’s only a matter of time before something irreversible happens at the hands of a self-proclaimed monster.