TV

‘Married At First Sight’ Is Revealing Some Very Gross Truths About Men And The Pack Mentality

If you felt shit after last night's episode, you're not the only one.

This post discusses emotional and physical abuse against women.

Happy International Women’s Day, readers! I’ve spent this auspicious day with a hangover-like ache in my head following last night’s dismal entry to the Married At First Sight canon. Like all hangovers, I’m feeling a little shaky and a lot queasy, and the thought of imbibing more (in this case, nonsense from Andrew and Anthony of Married) is a fairly sickening idea.

Indulging too much is an apt metaphor for this season of Married At First Sight, where the producers added a Santa’s sleigh worth of bells and whistles to tempt us into yet another round of faux-marriage hell. One of these new additions to the series was “communal living”, whereby the couples all share an apartment building and a Weekly Dinner Party. Here, the field producers surreptitiously refill the contestants’ glasses with monk-like dedication over the long night, then sit back and let the cameras roll as pack mentality takes over.

At times, it’s bordered on sickening to watch how the stronger and meaner in the group have banded together to attack the more vulnerable individuals. This week has absolutely been one of those times.

Some Catch-Up On Andrew And Cheryl

Throughout the season, one contestant has been disproportionately in the firing line on the many occasions when the whole group are thrown together. I’m talking, of course, about poor 25-year-old Cheryl, who ditched her original partner — the ill-matched serial texter Jonathan — and returned to the show with fireman (and fellow jilted contestant) Andrew to try again.

This move, to re-enter the “experiment” (read: fake marriage game designed to entertain trash-loving Australians like you and me) with another man, enraged a large portion of the Married contestants. This angry Married mob were presumably annoyed that they could not, or rather hadn’t first thought of trading in their dud “scientifically matched” spouse for a date with whom they have actual chemistry.

From the moment Andrew and Cheryl re-entered the show together, the gloves were off. It may or may not surprise you (depending on your capacity to remain surprised when women are relentlessly and excessively shamed about love and sex) that Cheryl copped the majority of the sanctimonious verbal abuse from the other contestants. Though both Cheryl and Andrew had re-entered the experiment after failed attempts at a romance with their original spouses, apparently it was Cheryl alone who did not deserve a second chance at love.

At one drunken Weekly Dinner Party, Cheryl was attacked by Married’s resident Patrick Bateman-wannabe, Anthony; the increasingly cruel Blonde Twins, Sharon and Michelle; and Sharon’s husband, Nick, who is the kind of man who refers to himself almost exclusively in the third person. These four banded together and pecked away at Cheryl like vultures, while the other contestants (chief among them the sole sympathetic couple, Susan and Sean) watched on in horror. It was okay for “Jonesy” to try again, but Cheryl was apparently trying it on big time. How dare she sully the integrity of this incredibly meaningless television program!

Thanks to a terrible home visit and some more tense encounters, it all went downhill from there for the couple. But because Married is a TV show-cum-torture chamber, rather than breaking up, Andrew and Cheryl were put into “Marriage Boot Camp” by the show’s gleeful head psychologist John Aiken. Marriage Boot Camp involves sitting in a park and reading questions from cards, like, What is your least favourite quality in your partner? (To which Andrew unhelpfully replied, “Do we just get one?”). It also involved attending yet another drunken Weekly Dinner Party — and this time the shit really hit the fan. The culprit? Boys’ Night.

During Married’s “Boys’ Night”, in which the guys proceeded to get on the piss (this is Australia, after all), Andrew said some pretty rough things about Cheryl to all the male contestants — egged on by Nick, Anthony and a few of the others while Sean and Simon (bless them) watched from the outskirts in horrified silence.

Since then, whenever questioned about it by Cheryl, the psychologists or the producers, Andrew (who doesn’t yet seem to understand what having cameras in your face 24/7 means for your honesty evasion) has played dumb, insisting he “can’t remember” any of it. The Boys’ Night, and Andrew’s behaviour, came under fire again at the dinner party after the couples watched Andrew publicly treat Cheryl like absolute trash.

Truly “Unreal” Reality TV

Let’s start by saying: yes, Married is a reality TV show; it is not real life. However, the contestants are real humans who, however willingly, are put under incredible strain in order to produce a TV show that we want to watch. And hoo boy, do we want to watch it.

Married has been Australia’s top show for the last three nights running and last night peaked with more than 2 million viewers. Though the show honestly reveals very little about marriage, or partnership, or what it takes for a couple to last the distance, this season in particular has revealed some interesting, if generally horrifying truths about general human behaviour.

These contestants, placed in a mildly competitive atmosphere where they are required to perform not just for the invisible audience beyond the camera, but also for the “experts” and their fellow contestants, have taken a stand as either self-interested and nasty, or empathetic and kind. And what a surprise (note: sarcasm), in the bulk of cases, the couples who have remained empathetic throughout the season are the ones sprinting toward the finish line with (mostly) solid relationships. Relationship or otherwise, there’s a lot to consider about our tendency toward either cruelty or kindness.

One particularly disappointing element of the growing drama on Married is how gendered the unkindness is — the men on the show have often packed together in “the brotherhood” to “take down” a female contestant. Cheryl, a 25-year-old glamazon who is unfazed admitting she has had plastic surgery, and that men are either intimidated or misdirected by her good looks, seems to present a great threat to many of the men on the show (and a couple of the women).

Anthony, acting like an A-grade sociopath with an image complex, has been particularly unkind towards Cheryl, and no wonder: here is a good-looking woman who is self-possessed enough to pick her own destiny, rather than have “experts” decide for her that she belongs with someone who is clearly not her match. She is a woman who has wrested control from another man (the “experts” ringleader, John Aiken) and independently decided what she wants out of her experience on the show. For a man like Anthony, who seems to see women as trinkets and men as titans, this seems to be infuriating, and Cheryl has copped it worse from him than almost anyone else.

But now Cheryl is getting the worst abuse from Andrew, who is lashing out at her after being rejected during a sexual advance. His behaviour is textbook: he trashes Cheryl to other men to make her seem undesirable; he is attentive and flirty to other women in front of her. He is petty and childish, all the while insisting, “I’ve tried to be the nice guy”. (Red alert! Beware those dreaded words, friends). While Andrew bullies, excludes and publicly shames Cheryl at the table in front of the other contestants, Cheryl notes sagely: “Andrew is not acting like a 38-year-old”.

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Pictured: a grown ass man.

Truth time: though this is a reality TV show with inflated drama and manufactured scenarios, it has honestly tapped into exactly what terrifies me about men. It’s what gives me my instinct to be wary and distrustful of them, especially when they are in groups, and to naturally want to police and/or avenge their persistent bad behaviour. Because, even in a reasonably controlled environment like a TV show, when let loose these men will lash out at women who threaten and ‘emasculate’ them. In the real world, this is precisely the kind of behaviour that leads to abused and murdered women — the ones who dared to step out of the invisible boundary drawn for us, and who have roundly suffered as a result.

This isn’t just a problem for beautiful 25-year-old TV personalities, (hopefully) protected from physical violence (but apparently not from emotional violence) by producers and contracts and cameras. It’s an even bigger problem for the kinds of women who don’t fit our society’s ‘feminine’ restrictions: queer women who choose not to prioritise (or who outright reject) the male-female sexual dynamic; women of colour who refuse to be fetishised, made invisible or subjugated by their race; women with disabilities, who are seen as weaker and therefore easier to control; and trans women, and non-binary individuals, who do not conform to ‘traditional’ ideas of what a woman is and whom she ‘belongs to’.

There is just too much at stake to write off this sort of behaviour as “boys will be boys”, or to ignore the very clear lesson we are being taught (whether unwittingly or not) by Married: that men’s misogyny (and emotional abuse of women) is ingrained, and when it breaks out it is encouraged by other, like-minded men. It’s a tough pill to swallow, but if we don’t, what is the point of this nasty season of Married, beyond mere weeknight jollies? I have to believe there’s another reason we’re choosing to bear witness to this cruelty.

What Have We Signed Up For?

It is a comfort to know that, just like in life, all men in the show are not out to humiliate and control the women. Married may have given us Andrew and Anthony (and Nick scrambling to play the behaviour down and protect the sanctity of the detestable bros before hos mentality) but it’s also given us Sean. Sweet, loving Sean who, just like his partner Susan, seems to have a firm sense of what is right and wrong when it comes to cruelty toward women, and who isn’t afraid to stand up and say so.

As Andrew and Anthony treated Cheryl to a Beginner’s Course in Gaslighting last night, Sean made them accountable for the bad behaviour at Boys’ Night. “Everyone was standing there,” Sean insists.

Along with Sean there’s also Simon, whose take on the Boys’ Night shenanigans was: “For starters, you just don’t talk like that about women”. As he and his partner Alene discussed Andrew’s behaviour toward Cheryl, Simon cried with frustration, “The woman’s done nothing wrong, for crying out loud! Leave her alone.”

But what about Channel Nine and the show’s producers, who have revelled in the drama and packaged the “Dinner Party From Hell” like it was teams of gladiators suiting up and entering the Colosseum for a fight to the death? Though the psychologists disapproved of the behaviour, Cheryl was left to sit at a dinner table, surrounded by cameras, while a group of men threatened and dismissed her. Andrew cruelly imitated her, and Anthony shook his finger in her face. How far will this show go to eke drama out of these people?

Of course, they signed up for the show, but did Cheryl sign up for weeks of public abuse at the hands of men who are supposed to support and respect her? While Andrew bullied and intimidated her throughout the dinner party, the psychologists sat back and watched. If my psychologist was watching me copping a verbal attack from my partner without intervening, I think I’d be making an appointment elsewhere.

Married is TV, sure — worse, it’s reality TV, the most derided and ‘frivolous’ genre on the box. But these are real people playing out scenarios and emotions that happen in real life and can have serious ramifications. Slowly but surely, Married has become anything but a game. So if Channel Nine wants us to buy that there’s any integrity to this series, where supposed experts guide real people through the trials of loving and living together, they might want to re-think how they present us with a scenario where a pack of men on their show band together to victimise a woman.

If you or someone you know is impacted by abuse of any kind call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit 1800RESPECT.org.au. In an emergency, call 000.

Men can access anonymous confidential telephone counselling to help to stop using violent and controlling behaviour through the Men’s Referral Service on 1300 766 491.

Matilda Dixon-Smith is a freelance writer, editor and theatre-maker, and a card-carrying feminist. You can find more of her ramblings about women and the arts on her website. She also tweets intermittently and with very little skill from @mdixonsmith.