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?

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4 thoughts on “Married At First Sight’s Dean and Tracey: When Traditional Gender Expectations Mean “I Love You”.

  1. It is enough. Your mother was wrong. No day is the best day of your life, there are always more to come. Wouldn’t we all hope for the next to be the best? Or at least better? Otherwise, why go on? ahhhh. And your life is not hung on the externally designed structure of the rituals or the roles or any culture or other people’s artificially constructed expectations. Ceremonies really are all kind of silly. All of them. Not bad inherently, but not as important as you are told when they are imprinted onto you over many years. In one place. With one community perspective. They often call them “sacraments,” meant to be an outward visible sign of “inward” grace. Especially in religion. Don’t even get me started on that. Supposedly, sacraments are very centering and important, and we should do them just exactly as tradition prescribes. We are told. But I think it is up to us to design our own sacraments, if we even want them. If that is how we choose to meditate on life. So these stale, uniform ceremonies are not mandatory. They’re ok if you feel like it, but not necessary, or even good for each individual. And sometimes the banality and sameness of it all is just draining and unsatisfying. Why pretend? Anyway, that is what I’ve come to believe, at 55. And always vaguely felt from childhood.. After all, no one knows what’s inside of us but us. For me, it is not a white dress or a ring. And I’ve married in a white dress. Albeit a white maternity dress. But fancy. And borrowed. With golden braiding at the sleeves.I even had a headpiece and vail.That was just odd and so un me. I Had a cake with birds on it. In Las Vegas. And the cake was delicious. I will always remember that. But I didn’t save the top. I don’t remember to do that stuff. It takes up too much of me. The dress. The ring. The headpiece. The shoes. The culturally exaggerated version of femininity such accoutrements suggest is not inside me, even though I am a straight woman. I have observed, having moved around as a child and teen, and with the perspective of my current age, that one tends to put more import and magical thinking into things like marriage and jewelry because of the long held opinions of those around us. Not the real us. Rings. They are just there, like us. Not important in and of themselves. I am 55. When I was young, we moved many times. As a result, I could float about the outside of my routines and community rituals, and never be bound by them. I was told one time, by a girl at the third high school I attended(I don’t remember her name, only her obsession with getting me a date)that I must get a boy to take me to prom. Or I would regret not having that experience the rest of my life. For a moment I worried. But I had a vague undercurrent inside me saying, “no, that doesn’t make sense.” I think it was because I wasn’t rooted in any one community. I didn’t really feel it was as important to me as she thought it should be, and in fact, I recoiled a bit emotionally from her. She was southern. We had also moved from the North to the South. That also played a part in my cultural disassociation. I didn’t go to prom. It didn’t bother me. That night. Or the next or ever. So I was right about that. I am married. But I don’t have to be. I can think of many reasons not to be. That have nothing to do with the goodness or badness of my husband, but mostly because of the draining aspect of role expectations in our cultural construct. And I wish I could convince my sisters who never married not to have such regret over such a silly thing as having never married. Because the marriage, the prom, the ring, even the children. Or lack of children. These are no causes of regret.Or purpose. We have ourselves. We have our inner voices. We have our pens. And we have our tomorrows. Full of anything we can think to write about. You are a very good writer. Be married to that. Marry if you want. Don’t feel compelled. Don’t sweat marriage or lack of it. Anymore than you sweat the opportunity you squandered not becomimg a gymnist. Or a dental hygienist. Have a laugh. Think a thought. Maybe a glass of wine. Or beer. Or tea. Have a ton of conversations with people who you’ve always wanted to talk to. And keep writing. And enjoy watching Married at First Sight. I have watched it like Jane Goodall watches chimpanzees. It’s fascinating. And entertaining.

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    1. Thank you so much Jane, for taking the time to really engage with and reply to my post. I’ve been really hoping to find someone to chat deeply with about these things for a while now, other than my usual circle of friends, my partner and so on, so it’s very refreshing and simulating to read your take on things. I appreciate it! I wish we could talk some more in fact. You write very well also and I really like your take on things and your wisdom. I really hear you on religion – something that’s always felt intuitively wrong to me, and these marriage traditions are also steeped so very much in that, so that’s something else for me to consider. My mother was indeed wrong, but that message of hers really got embedded somewhere deep and dark in me. I’m only now managing to extricate the final remains of it! 🙂

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  2. What an interesting read. There is a French version of the show, that I watched once, and not long enough to really understand the principle of the thing – but long enough to found it quite stupid indeed. That being said, I felt like this was people being groomed into a role to make the show more exciting, not “real people”.
    A marriage and a wedding are two different things, you are so right. Many glittery weddings end in abusive marriage – in France, every 3 days, a woman dies under the physical abuse of her partner. You can experience wedding without having a real marriage, and married life without getting through a wedding ceremony. But it’s true that many people value wedding so much that’s it’s one of the very few events where one gets his full family and friends reunited. I travelled 12 000km to attend friends weddings, but their newborns had to wait until my schedule matched theirs.
    I found your remarks about what our mothers pass to us about these things worth thinking about… What do men pass to their sons? I cannot answer that. I don’t remember idealising wedding as a young kid; I have often claimed as a teenager that I was “not made to marry” (that’s a lame translation for a French expression I despise, “bonne à marier”, which basically applies to every young woman who can cook and take care of a home) and made a point to NOT cook at all, and showed the least possible interest in everything related to household. And yet, when I got married (I’ll dwelved into that a bit later), my mother gave me a print of an old photo, where a 7 years-old me was playing bride and my brother groom, and our little sister was holding a long white cloth behind me. I think that the disgust I had for all things feminine for a looong while protected me from that wedding-obsession non-sense. Probably came from a will to emulate my older brother.
    My mother was a stay-at-home mom. She had done long, difficult studies and diplomated in medicine. She was pregnant when she formally presented her thesis, but choose to raise her children at home. It struck me as a non-feminist act – why depend on someone when you could earn good money yourself? Why spending so much efforts in your studies if not to reap the benefices of those? Why being a stay-at-home mother, not exactly valued in society, when you could be a doctor? Growing up, I realised that parental love was something she experimented only after becoming a parent herself… that her studies had been the choice of her parents, her high diploma the price she was willing to pay to get free from them, and staying at hole her first real decision, made for herself. Somehow, her eldest girl – me – was a tomboy. I never felt pressure to be any different that what I was – or I don’t remember. I had short hair, I didn’t own dresses from 7 to 22 years old – I had to buy one to attend, guess what, a wedding. I was rather successful in my studies and musical pursuits. I was fond of books, spoke with passion of that, and that was enough for my mother. She never asked if I had boyfriends.
    I got married at 25, which I still find VERY young. My boyfriend and I shared a flat since a couple years at that time. He was proposed a job in Japan, we agreed we were either staying together in France or going together in Japan. For me to go with him, I had to get an elibigle visa – Japanese immigrations laws are strict, and eligible visa in that case meant spouse visa, and so we got married. He “proposed” in our kitchen, next to the fridge – he does all the cooking. There were no engagement ring because a wedding ring sounded more than enough! No church, no veil, short white dress, a small concert from my former orchestra, a dinner and a party. I would have loved to make something very not traditional, like my best friend did; but we felt like we were doing this for our parents too. I have heard a lot of sentences starting with “Now that you are married…” but that was a lot of BS! Now that I am married, I am married and that’s all.
    This wedding gave me access to a shared experience in Japan. I would have been happy with civil union too… The 5 first years of my marriage were spent in Japan, where it was clear that I was, first, someone’s wife, a feeling that didn’t sat well with me. And when I got my first child, I became, for the Japanese society, first and foremost, someone’s mother. Now that I am back in France, things are less rigid.
    I feel like I have already said too luch, and probably not that closely related with your essay… but I can’t resist to add that every time my 4 years old son sees a wedding picture he says “oh, a princess!”. I always correct him : not a princess, just a woman in a fancy dress.

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    1. Thanks so much for your reply! It sounds like you’ve had such a strong feminist personality for such a long time. It’s really interesting to hear your take on things. Indeed, marriage can be a practical thing, but it sounds like in your case it was a love match as well. It’s also interesting how sometimes we grow in opposite ways to our parents, I know I have in so many ways and it sounds like you have too. It is indeed depressing that women are often seen only in relation to others, as you say, as someone’s wife or mother, rarely as simply themselves! Its interesting that your son sees women getting married as princesses. I think that’s how a lot of women see their wedding day, as a huge romantic fantasy… The amount of domestic violence is way too high and a scary thing. I’ve put up with a lot of sexual, emotional and verbal abuse in my time, but thankfully nothing much in the way of purely physical violence (apart from one incident that I’ll write about soon). It’s something that must be stamped out and it’s all part of this one big problem…

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