• Caitlin Delaney

Mental abuse on Reality TV

Many of us have been watching Channel 4’s dating show, “Married At First Sight” but for those not familiar with the show, it is a dating show with an intense twist; the contestants marry complete strangers (at first sight)! The ‘Experts’ match the couples based on their personalities, careers and lifestyles. And of course - as with any reality show – it is packed full of inevitable drama.

While the show entices large audiences, do some of the reasons for these large numbers of viewers coming back and watching each week present a moral dilemma? During the Married at First Sight Australia series, we see larger than life Elizabeth Sobinoff in a startlingly low mood just days into the social experiment, with the seeming cause for these low moods being her tumultuous relationship with partner Sam Ball. Throughout the series we see these two argue and even later see Sam betray Elizabeth. Of course, this all makes for great viewing and perhaps shines a disturbing light on our indulgence of schadenfreude - but that is perhaps why many of us watch reality television!

Although, when really observing the behaviour and language and of the couples, we start to witness the elusive traits of gaslighting. The term gaslighting is derived from the title of a 1989 stage play ‘Gaslight’. During the play, the husband to the protagonist continuously and purposefully turns the gas lamp higher and lower. His wife unaware of him changing the lights assumes she is going crazy, which is not helped by his repetitive accusations that she is indeed going crazy. Gaslighting is the mental manipulation and continuous sowing of doubt to alter someone’s memory and perception. Examples of gaslighting include ‘you’re too sensitive’, ‘you’re crazy’ and the classic, ‘It was only a joke’. The constant invalidation of someone’s feelings to justify another’s actions.

As soon as the couples are wed, criticisms of contestant’s appearances and personalities are blatant throughout each episode. But at any sign of rebuttal or questioning, they are deemed ‘crazy’ by their partners, while the viewers at home may be more aware that they are being gaslighted.

However, the issue raised is that the broadcasting of such behaviour on a mainstream channel is silent complicity to the embedded abusive behaviour resulting in an acceptance of this behaviour, even leniency perhaps. Reality TV Shows that featured physical abuse would not be broadcasted nationally and it would not be portrayed in the same ‘guilty pleasure’ manner. We have decided as a society that physical violence is unacceptable and should not be tolerated, however the mental abuse evident in the program is never highlighted or wronged by the experts, in fact,it is the experts’ passivity to the clear emotional abuse that makes the program so morally challenging. The program never highlights clear gaslighting. The behaviour is never called out or challenged by the ‘experts. It is never identified clearly as gaslighting either. There are no help numbers as we may see after a program that features elements of abuse. As a result, the coercive mental manipulation carries on, unscathed.

Perhaps the initial motive to entertain could have been so much more purposeful if producers had added this element of culpability. Highlighting examples of emotional abuse to viewers in a proactive way rather than glamourizing it. This program is viewed by many young people at their most impressionable and is setting the worst example of how to behave in a relationship. The emotional manipulation and gaslighting contributed by individuals are dramatized with music and dramatic looks but more focused on, usually, the women’s demise not the men’s appalling behaviour.

The latest development of drama in the MAF Australia series is the allegation that the infamous Ines Basic and Sam Ball affair was in fact entirely manufactured by the producers. If this is true it raises this moral question about the show even further. Not only is the show not highlighting the immorality of behaviour but is actively encouraging it!

Married at First Sight Australia is an active guilty pleasure for a lot of people (including myself) but maybe it is that feeling of guilt that we should take note of when viewing.

Spotting the patterns and phrases of the elusive gaslighting may help many viewers identify manipulative behaviour. The ‘you’re too sensitive’ or ‘you’re crazy’ during arguments. Whether it be friends, partners or colleagues. These are all clear examples of gaslighting. Watching the widely approved TV show reminds us how easy and common it is to be gaslighted but most significantly the damaging effect it has on one’s mental health.

So, watch MAFS, enjoy it, cringe at moments but above all be aware of what you are viewing. Have opinions about behaviour and denounce the behaviour you do not like!

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