Is Married At First Sight broadcasting domestic abuse as entertainment?

And what does it have to do with Jesus?

Australian reality television show Married at First Sight is probably not a favourite television show for most Eternity readers, given its premise has strangers paired together by “experts” before being unofficially “married”. But this season, one contestant’s behaviour has provoked concerns about an issue that Christians do care about deeply – failure to recognise the red flags when a man abuses a woman.

For those who have not seen Married at First Sight (MAFS), it’s based on a Danish television show where several couples really do get married at first sight. In Australia though, the couples on this Nine network show are not legally married, but rather take part in an unofficial, initial “commitment ceremony”/wedding.

They meet for the first time at the altar and agree to take part in a “social experiment”. Next, they spend a wedding night in a hotel, go on a honeymoon, and return to live together while deciding whether to continue together – with various tasks set to help them “progress their relationship”.

Every week at “commitment ceremonies”, couples sit down with the experts who matched them. They discuss their issues and reveal whether they will stay or leave the experiment, by unveiling written answers they have prepared earlier, individually.

All this is filmed, (heavily) edited and packaged up for the viewer’s entertainment.

This year, MAFS is making headlines with contestant Bryce Ruthven – who has been matched with “wife” Melissa Rawson – being called out by viewers for behaving in a way they say is abusive.

Several viewers have suggested that the show needs a trigger warning.

Viewers are so outraged, they have created a petition calling on Nine to apologise for failing its duty of care to address Bryce’s behaviour. More than 9,500 signatures have been collected.

The petition states: “There is a clear failure of duty of care for Melissa during filming of the show, allowing her to remain in a toxic and dangerous environment with her partner for the ‘benefit’ of the network. She is being subject to gaslighting, emotional manipulation, isolation, and countless other TEXTBOOK signs of a controlling and or abusive relationship. The network has also failed duty of care to viewers putting together a final edit that shows these signs, supporting the relationship, and completely ignoring the obvious signs of control and abuse Melissa is subject to. This situation is incredibly triggering and stressful to watch.”

On social media and in entertainment news articles, viewers have pointed out that Bryce has criticised Melissa’s appearance, ranking her looks below that of other female contestants and explaining that she wasn’t his type – but “wasn’t ugly”. He has criticised her for confessing she had an affair with a married man – despite his having also cheated on his ex-fiancee. He has also been accused of playing “mind games” at the weekly commitment ceremony when he came prepared with the word “leave” written on his card, only to change it in the moment and write “stay”.

“You wrote LEAVE at the top with space to write STAY below proves that was a premeditated and strategic move for impact on Melissa. A… abuser who enjoys the power trip. Experts. Step in! At least call it out!” tweeted one viewer.

Melissa has openly admitted she is scared to upset Bryce, and she has an ongoing issue with fear of abandonment. She also has rebuffed other contestant’s concerns about Bryce’s treatment.

In an episode this week, Bryce – called on by the group to apologise for disagreements during the previous evening – performed a sarcastic apology. He then forced a kiss on the cheek of fellow contestant Rebecca Zamek, while she protested and tried to push him off. Rebecca has clashed with Bryce ever since she told Melissa that he had flirted with her. Rebecca has increasingly become the object of his anger.

The following evening, contestants split up for a boys night and a girls night. Melissa, while initially enthusiastic about the prospect, chose not to attend, explaining Bryce did not want to take part and was upset, so she needed to stay with him.

Now, like you, I am anxious to get past all of this MAFS commentary and get to talking about the better model of relating that Jesus offers. Bear with me.

I do realise that all of these incidents have been provoked by the show’s premise and format and the tasks purportedly set by the show’s “experts”. Clearly, editing plays a significant role in how each contestant appears to viewers. Yet watching the show, I was struck by how the contestants lacked the ability to clearly identify and state why Bryce’s behaviour was unacceptable. They simply did not have the language to talk about what they were observing and how they felt about it.

In one example, Bryce stood at the head of a dining table where all the contestants were seated (he and Melissa arrived late). He spoke aggressively about the way he had been treated, taking aim at his most vocal critic, Rebecca.

“Don’t stand up and deliver a message to someone who’s sitting down,” yelled fellow contestant Jake Edwards, getting to his feet. Bryce refused to sit and told Jake he was just standing by his wife.

“Of course I’m standing by my wife, mate. You’re the one impacting your wife!’ Jake told Bryce, going on to rebuke Bryce for his treatment of Melissa, who he said was “vulnerable”.

Jake is an ex-professional AFL player and now the CEO of a mental health charity, Outside the Locker Room. Yet even he seemed to lack the language to explain why Bryce standing over a seated group and speaking aggressively was wrong. Unlike viewers on social media, no MAFS contestant or producer stepped in and said, “What you are doing now is a textbook case of someone who uses power over another person to intimidate them.”

They just knew that it was gross, affecting the entire group, and they were concerned about Melissa.

Perhaps MAFS is simply holding a mirror up to Australians and reflecting back to us, exactly what we are …

At this point, you might be possibly drawing some parallels from the MAFS outcry and what has unfolded in Australia over the past six weeks, as Prime Minister Scott Morrison has made gaff after gaff since rape allegations against a coalition staffer were first revealed.

Broad similarities include how MPs, journalists and everyday Aussies have expressed disbelief when watching the Prime Minister make remarks which have been labelled everything from inappropriate, to victim-blaming, to unnecesarily referencing violence.

Granted, the PM is in a no-win situation and his task is damage control, over the allegations of rape by a coalition staffer inside Parliament House (not to mention allegations of historic rape by the former Attorney-General). But somehow a well-seasoned and successful politician – who presumably has some of the nation’s best communications and speech-writing staff at his disposal – has actually managed to make a bad political situation even worse with what he has said and how he has said it.

So perhaps MAFS is simply holding a mirror up to Australians and reflecting back to us, exactly what we are – from reality TV stars to Prime Minister – a country of people who don’t really know how to recognise, discuss and address the problem of men abusing women.

A similar thing happens in Christian circles, judging by the social media comments of any article Eternity publishes on the subject of women being abused by men. One after another, Christian men comment, seemingly without questioning whether the subject matter requires their insights. These men – our brothers in Christ – critique female authors, subjects and commenters. They ask where the articles about women abusing men are, and question statistics that show that violence against women is almost always perpetrated by men. They assure everyone that the current situation for women is not that bad, and that our legal system handles sexual abuse very well, and make helpful suggestions about what women can do to keep themselves safe from men. They explain that sin is at the root of women’s abuse and suggest everyone focuses on that. And they recommend better articles written on the subject of women’s abuse – by men.

When I pitched this MAFS article to my editor, he asked me whether there was a way for me to contrast the problem of sexism with how Jesus responded to women. I immediately replied, “Always. That’s why he’s my favourite guy.”

The truth is that even the most conservative reading of scripture shows that Jesus encountered vulnerable women often and they clearly felt safe with him. Even those who exhibited the most culturally inappropriate behaviour – like the woman with the alabaster flask (Luke 7.36-50), the woman with the issue of blood (Mark 5.25–34), and the persistent widow (Luke 18.1-8) – were were shown grace and compassion by Jesus.

Perhaps we could also reflect on Jesus being an example we can all follow.

In fact, the gospels show a man who not only showed women love, but who also treated them with respect, confronting any men who sought to condemn, isolate or scapegoat them.

“Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her,” Jesus told the men who had brought a woman caught in the act of adultery (but not her partner) to him.

“Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet.  You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet. Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven — as her great love has shown. But whoever has been forgiven little loves little,” Jesus said to Simon, critiquing him with the example of the woman with the alabaster flask, after he had tried to shame her. (Luke 7.44b-47).

And the Samaritan woman at the well? The disciples evidently knew better than to even question Jesus about his interaction with her, despite the Bible recording their surprise in John 4.27.

Faced with some men who sought to condemn, isolate and scapegoat women – and who lacked the will and words to address their oppression – Jesus was entirely different.

Heading into Easter, we reflect on the truth that Jesus was and will always be the Saviour humanity needs.

Perhaps we could also reflect on him being an example we can all follow. Women and men.