As women we are sold so many lies about our gender, about what constitutes a good life for us, about what we should aim for and want for ourselves. About what we can and can’t do, and what we’re capable and incapable of. How we should look, act and feel. One of the grandest lies we are sold pertains to marriage, and that it should assume a crowning centrality in our lives. Marriage is the glittering pinnacle towards which all women should climb, and along with motherhood, should be the Holy Grail of our existence. Being marriageable is a measure of a woman’s worth. I know that I personally have, and continue to fall into the pitfall of feeling unworthy and unloveable because I am unmarried. There is a deep yearning (seemingly in my psyche) to have my loveability validated by a man declaring his undying, unconditional love for me, that, even as a card-carrying feminist, I cannot shake. Being marriageable is a measure of a woman’s worth. I repeat that statement because until quite recently in the West, what a woman could bring to a marriage financially (her dowry) was of the utmost importance. Also, her youth, her health, her ability to be impregnated were assets traded, sold even, from one family to another. Thankfully these days, in the West most people adopt a model of marriage as a love match, but residues and remnants of a woman’s literal worth and its trading are still apparent in the majority of wedding ceremonies, even those claiming to be non-traditional. The giving of an engagement ring is a deposit on your bride to be; the bigger the deposit, the more she is worth to you. The giving away of the bride, from one man (the bride’s father, usually) to another (the groom), as if she is a possession, merely chattels. The highly decorative way the woman is dressed, as if she is a wrapped present, often complete with bows, sparkles, vast swathes of cloth for the man to untie and unwrap at the end of the day. It surprises and saddens me how many of these ceremonial traditions are upheld (along with many others), as if a marriage ceremony couldn’t be reconfigured to truly respect women, to reflect the progress that has been made in recent decades; as if, somehow, a wedding is not a wedding without these elements. As a feminist, unmarried woman, I’ve thought about this a lot, as a way to assuage my own somewhat embarrassing yearning to be married, and maybe more to justify to myself why, in fact I wouldn’t want it. But a marriage is not the same thing as a wedding, and with a partner of 13 years, I’ve surely experienced – by now – something quite similar to what a marriage is; and yet there’s a niggling part of me that still desires that our relationship have public recognition, complete with declarations of love, a ceremony, a wedding, even if most of the traditions and trappings would be abandoned in what would be a truly feminist celebration. Weird isn’t it? Yes, but no.
As young girls, we are told that “her wedding day is the happiest day of a woman’s life”. At least, this is what my mother told me from the time I was five, verbatim, over and over, and I grew to believe it. It’s clearly been imprinted on my psyche. The sad flipside of this is that her own wedding day wasn’t all she had hoped for. And we’re not talking about the sort of wedding that lives up to today’s wedding “standards”, in which it seems necessary to re-mortgage one’s house to produce the kind of performed, over-the-top extravagance that is considered a bare minimum. No, we’re talking about an average middle-class mid-1960s wedding, with a simple church service, flowers, matching bridesmaid’s dresses, printed invitations, and a reception afterwards. Except that my parents didn’t have a proper reception as my Mum’s father (Poppa) was too mean to pay for one, so a modest reception was had in the church hall instead, organised by my Dad’s aunty, with party pies and sandwiches and no sit down meal. To this day my mother’s disappointment and sadness about her wedding reception is palpable. Poppa was not poor: he came from a family of jewellers and secretly squirrelled away his earnings, preferring to let the family house go without proper maintenance, and micro-managing finances at home, denying luxury or even simple pleasure most of the time. When he died in 1980 he left an unexpected, hidden fortune that allowed my Nanna to live comfortably for the remainder of her life whilst generously sharing her bounty as much as she could with her daughters and grand-children. Nanna was not a happily married woman, and the money she was left was an opportunity for a new life. Even though she was legally blind, and dealt with great challenges due to this, once Poppa was gone, my Nanna, Iris, blossomed in her own quiet way, and seemed content with her life.
All of this is a lengthy preamble to what is essentially a discussion I want to have about the much-watched, much-mocked trash reality TV show Married at First Sight (MAFS). MAFS is a show that has always struck me as supremely silly and decidedly un-feminist, and yet I find myself nevertheless being sucked in to (guiltily) watching large portions of it from time to time. The basic premise of MAFS is described on the Channel 9 website as follows: “Australia’s most controversial social experiment returns. After being matched by three relationship experts, 20 strangers looking for love meet their partners for the first time at the altar in the quest to find true happiness.” All of the couples in this season are heterosexual, which is a little disappointing given that gay marriage was recently legalised in Australia. As an intermittent watcher of MAFS, I cannot profess to know all of the minute goings on in the various faux marriages on this show, however, one particularly backwards “marriage” has particularly caught my attention: that of Dean and Tracey, and it’s this relationship that I want to discuss.
Dean has been portrayed on the show as an Alpha male with traditional values, a real “man’s man” (whatever that means). Married to the seemingly-naïve Tracey, also portrayed as a lover of old-fashioned, traditional values, we have a marriage that appears, on paper at least, a match made in heaven. But what we’ve learnt over the past six weeks or so of this show is that Dean comes across as a real player, a lad who likes ladies and (contrary to the whole purpose of the show) seems to eschew commitment. That is, unless he can use it, and his retrograde value set, as a way to get something he wants, i.e. a wife who will bear and raise his children while he lives the life he wants outside of the domestic sphere. During MAFS, we’ve seen Dean crack onto someone else’s wife, talk about wife-swapping with the other male participants, and try to convince Tracey that in Sydney, where he lives, no-one really does committed relationships anyway; it’s all free and easy there, apparently. Tracey comes across as sensitive, fragile, insecure and unable to stand up to Dean’s transgressions and retrograde attitudes towards women, probably because she is so invested in such traditional values herself. It must be confusing for her. A naturally pretty girl, she appears to have subjected herself to several plastic surgery procedures, all unneccessary, which hint at a deep insecurity about her looks. Sadly, the old-fashioned, traditional (read: patriarchal) values that she holds dear, are also to blame for her insecurity about how she looks, her lack of assertiveness and her inability to stand up to Dean and just leave him. It’s a package deal: traditional, old-fashioned values entrap and enslave women, in their bodies, in their defective relationships, in themselves, while promising fantasy lives of unconditional love, domestic bliss and happy families. Such values take time and energy away from us as women, from us becoming who we truly could be, from focusing on ourselves and growing into our potential. While they might seem romantic, and while they might seem innate (we’ve been fed these lies our whole lives), such ideals can ultimately land us in hot water, valuing our own image of ourselves much less than we value someone else’s.
In one of the most recent episodes of Married at First Sight (Episode 27), the remaining couples went on final “dates” to see if they are really into one another after all, and if they are happy to continue their relationships outside of “the experiment”, as it is called. (It’s worth noting here that the couples are not legally married, even though they participated in wedding ceremonies). Think of these dates as a last-ditch attempt for someone in each couple to persuade the more recalcitrant party that, indeed, there is something worth fighting for. One thing I found odd about these dates was that the men in each of our couples seemed to be doing all of the organising, all of the wooing, and it was all very tragically romantic, in a schlocky kind of way: paying a musician to sing a song to your wife on the beach, giving a gift of diamond earrings, sailing on boats, drinking champagne, etc. etc. Every romantic cliché in the book that you can imagine happening, happened. I don’t know about you men out there reading this, but if I was the man in a relationship, I would have loved my “wife” to do something thoughtful, interesting, or romantic for me too. The message I got from this was that only women need wooing, they are the recalcitrant ones, because the men are being naughty or disappointing. Boys will be boys, after all (ho hum). Or, taking my earlier argument further, the other message I got is that women can be bought. That women’s love needs to be some kind of transaction paid for with diamonds and expensive romantic gestures, rather than her trust and love being earned, and for the expression of that love (and yours) to be enough.
Dean and Tracey’s date was full of the usual drama and tears (all hers). You could see that Dean was truly worried he was losing Tracey, who brought up, once again, all of his transgressions. The look on his square-jawed, ruddy face was one of bafflement, interspersed with anger, and finally fear. When he realised he mightn’t get his way with Tracey, Dean started back-pedalling furiously, eventually coming out with the following proclamation:
“I can commit. I can be trustworthy. You can trust me.”
“I’ve had my time, I’ve had my fun, I’ve been single long enough. I want to give all that stuff up… I’m looking for a partner to have kids with.”
“I want my wife to be there for our kids and taking care of our kids. I’ll be there as well,” (he adds, as an afterthought) “but my wife would definitely be very responsible for raising the children, and I think that’s the right way for it to be done.”
For the first time on the date, Tracey’s face lights up. She is glowing and looks reassured. (Personally, I would have jumped over the side of the boat they were on at this point, even though I can’t swim). Tracey smiles and looks at Dean with dewy, tear-stained eyes. She says to him:
“Wow, such a serious side to you. It’s very reassuring to hear.”
“You know I’m very old-fashioned,” she says. “And I do have very old-fashioned values about being a stay-at-home mum, and that’s really important to me.”
Dean breathes out, his massive sigh of relief audible, and then grins from ear to ear.
“You don’t come across a connection like ours every day,” says Tracey.
No, you do not. My brain hurt; I was utterly gobsmacked and I couldn’t compute, until I thought a little about how we are conditioned as women. Basically Dean wooed Tracey by saying: “I want to have children, and I want you to have them (with your body) and then look after them, all by yourself for me. And that will be your job, because you’re a woman and that’s what women do… oh, and I nearly forgot to say, I’ll be there too… but I’m only saying that because it’s 2018 and I know I have to because, well, feminism exists and all that, and I’ll get in trouble with other people on the show if I don’t say it, and I’ll get slammed in the media, but really, between you and I, I’m just kidding about that last bit, OK? I don’t really mean it.” But I’m guessing what Tracey thought she heard Dean say was something along the lines of: “I love you, I want to commit to you and connect with you. I want to spend my life with you, and only you. You are such an amazing woman that I want you and only you. You are beautiful and worthy and wonderful. You are enough for me to stop my philandering ways. I want to share our gene pool and procreate with you and make children together because you are an amazing woman and I love you and I’d like to create offspring with you as an expression of our commitment and love.”
Poor Tracey is confusing traditional relationship values with love, and is eliding traditional gender expectations with love. Not once did Dean say he valued her, or loved her in his panicked outburst. Notice he only talks about “my wife”, he never says “you” or directly addresses Tracey. He wants a vessel for his children. He wants someone who will raise them without him having to lift a finger; ok, well maybe he’ll help out a bit on weekends. If she nags. But only then. If Tracey performs the role of perfect wife and mother for Dean, that must mean she’s loved, adored, valued, respected, right? In reality, she’s only played her expected role, and played it well. And she may well feel happy about that – her own expectations and those placed upon her have been fulfilled. But Tracey doesn’t look happy, no matter how tenaciously she clings to her outdated value set, she often looks sad, humiliated, confused. As women we are trained to please, to put others first, always. We are masters of that fine art. Being a mother is the ultimate example of a situation in which you have to put someone else’s needs first, especially in pregnancy and the early stages of child rearing. Ultimately there is nothing wrong with selflessness, thoughtfulness, thinking of others and giving. They are all amazing human qualities, and something that most women are incredibly good at because of the ways in which we’ve been conditioned. What I’m proposing is that things be more even. If women were a bit more self-serving it would help tip the balance and be fulfilling for them too. It would help women like Tracey find their feet and form more secure selves, and stop being predated upon by self-centred and dangerous men who sadly only seem to be able to look after their own needs.
It’s reassuring to me that Dean is reviled by most of the other participants on MAFS, with the exception of Tracey. It’s also reassuring that on such a silly show, with its conservative representations of gender and marriage, Dean’s behaviour is portrayed as outdated and disrespectful. That demonstrates that we’ve come some small way towards gender equality, but there is still a very long way to go.
And now back to me, and why I watch this drivel. Because as a very tiny girl, the seed was planted in me that my worth as a human being was attached to what others think of me, as a woman, and that being wanted by a man, as his wife and the mother of his children, was the greatest thing that could ever happen to me. And I stress “happen to me” because it’s a very passive thing. You can wait forever for this to happen, as I certainly have. Married at First Sight taps into the residue of what remains in me of this deeply damaging, deeply limiting gender programming. Wouldn’t it be great if we as women could be loved simply for being ourselves, rather than for what we can do for others? Wouldn’t it be even greater if we could just love ourselves, and that was enough?