For better, for worse? Toxic Misogyny in Married at First Sight
Sarah discusses the toxic misogyny in the popular show Married at First Sight and reflects on how this affects our perceptions of relationships in real life.
I am reluctant to admit that over the summer, I became completely obsessed with the seventh season of Married at First Sight, UK. For those of you who aren’t familiar, the show is exactly what it says on the tin; complete strangers meeting each other for the first time at the altar on the ‘wedding day’, agreeing to commit themselves to each other until death do them part (or, in this case, until the end of a six week reality tv experiment). Whilst these weddings may not be the legally binding ceremonies we would typically associate with marriage, the guests, wedding dresses, food, decor, family fights, and awkward wedding nights, are certainly very real for the newlywed couples. From the moment they meet at the altar, the couples embark on a six-week journey where they are encouraged to develop their relationship through a series of tasks set out by a team of professional matchmakers (generally referred to as ‘the experts’), who check in with each couple during weekly catch-ups in front of the whole cast (dubbed ‘Commitment Ceremonies’) where they offer advice as to how they can improve their connections.
In our first glimpse of the show’s ‘brides’ we are introduced to a group of women who claim to have joined the show as a last-ditch attempt at finding love. From 36 year old Kasia, to 49 year old Lara, and 26 year old Sophie, the show’s female cast are united mainly in their search for a partner who will value them, support them, and give their marriage a chance, often coming into the process following a series of ill-fated relationships. In this they are not alone; the show’s ‘grooms’, including 31 year old Duka, 29 year old Jordan, and 42 year old Kwame, also claim to have joined the experiment in the hope of finding long-lasting love.
Since the show aired, I have been reflecting on the relationships it portrays. Whilst on the surface the show is comical, drama-filled, and at times heartwarming, underpinning the entire process is a concerning amount of misogyny, which seems to permeate even the show's most ‘successful’ relationships. In weekly ‘Commitment Ceremonies’, the couples must reveal to the group the high points and low points of their individual marriages. These sessions often end in tears, and sometimes in arguments, as the couples are forced to face some of their most painful fears and insecurities, in front of the rest of the cast and a huge TV audience. Despite waves of evidence that some couples have been badly matched, and are beginning to form quite toxic relationships, the residing message from the experts is always to keep trying, keep persevering, keep doing the work, until you have created a relationship that will last. There seems to be little to no regard for the cast’s mental wellbeing, but instead a resolute focus on preserving their marriages.
Whilst on the whole, all the couples have good times and bad times, often working through issues that arise with the help of the experts, I couldn’t help but notice the overwhelming power imbalance between the brides and their partners. Overlooking toxic behaviors and upholding the institution of marriage above the wellbeing of its cast, Married at First Sight is a show that is built on exploiting women’s insecurities and fears about being unworthy of love, encouraging them to stay in relationships that often appear to further damage their confidence and leave them with an overwhelming sense of failure when their new marriages come to an end.
In an incident that shocked viewers and fellow cast members, groom Jonathan warned his new wife Sophie to be careful with what exercises she was doing at the gym as he didn’t want to date “someone who has got horse legs”, going on to comment in another episode that he would not want to continue dating Sophie if she put on weight. In defense of his words, Jonathan criticizes Sophie for being overly sensitive. Encouraged by the experts, Sophie remains with Jonathan throughout the process, attempting to work through Jonathan’s brutal remarks, and focus on creating a successful marriage. When the show aired, Jonathan’s comments sparked a wave of unsolicited opinions about Sophie’s body online, as some viewers saw Jonathan’s words as an invitation to further attack her weight and appearance. To this day, Jonathan continues to defend his comments, saying on his Instagram stories recently that his words “[…] were never directed at any individuals at all within the series. Neither were they being negative about any body type. They were simply a personal preference”. The imbalance of power between the couple is clear, as Sophie attempts to repair and develop their relationship, Jonathan focuses more on defending his words than trying to support his wife, seemingly oblivious to the impact that his words can have.
I am not alone in my view of the show’s toxic relationships. Since the show aired, many articles have been published criticizing its format, and accusing it of “prioritizing ratings over the well-being of cast members”. At a time in which the rate of marriages in the UK continues to fall (reaching the lowest on record since 1862 in 2019) the show’s approach to love seems slightly outdated, as it pushes the antiquated message that marriage is the only route to love. As a result, out of the ten couples that originally entered the experiment, only one was still together in the show’s recent Christmas reunion: Jenna and Zoe, the show’s first female same-sex couple. From the beginning, the couple was arguably the show’s least problematic relationship; despite minor issues over Jenna’s veganism and Zoe’s anti-veganism, both appeared to maintain a mutual respect for each other, which seemed absent in the show’s other marriages.
Despite criticism, Married at First Sight was Channel 4’s most successful show of 2022, gathering a total of 51.7 million views. The show’s eighth season, set to air in 2023, will reportedly be even longer than previous seasons, and will apparently run for around eight weeks. Although I cannot hope that the show will overhaul its entire format in upcoming seasons, I hope that cast members are more actively supported and empowered by the experts to make the choices that are best for them. Rather than prioritizing what the show’s creators consider to be ‘successful’ marriages, they should instead be focusing on proving to the cast members that they are still worthy of the love they don’t believe they will have.