MAFS Knows It Has A Diversity Problem. Its Producers Told Me So.
Married At First Sight is known for a lot of things: dramatic dinner parties, wine being thrown directly in the faces of brides, the most tense honeymoons on planet Earth and an abysmal ability to match long-lasting couples. Something the show is not known for, however, is diversity.
Echoing the dire state of a lot of reality TV line-ups, MAFS has always been made up of a predominately white, hetero and straight-sized cast. Sure, there have been a few excellent brides and grooms that haven’t fit that mould, but they have been few and far between.
So when I had the chance to get in a room with the executive producers of the show, I knew I had to ask them about their diversity issue.
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Plonking myself in a room with Tara McWilliams (the Endemol Shine Australia Director of Content), Alex Spurway and Mollie Harwood (ESA MAFS Producers), John Walsh (Nine MAFS Executive Producer) and John Aiken (one of the MAFS relationship experts you see on screen) was a little intimidating, but I went for it.
“Do you think MAFS has a diversity issue? And if so, what are you doing about it?” I asked with a gulp.
Tara took the floor to respond on behalf of Married At First Sight and the team behind it. Here’s what she had to say:
“We’re always trying to be diverse and inclusive so we can have the best representation of Australia and society and a real dating environment. But first and foremost we cast people irrespective of race, religion and the way someone looks, but instead cast people that others will relate to and who will bring new perspectives, opinions and experiences to the show.”
So ‘colour blind’ casting is at play? Perhaps. But it seems the focus from the MAFS team is more on dodging fame-hungry applicants that can cause them trouble further down the track.
“We want people who are going to be super invested in the process but we have to weed out people who are just interested in fame,” Tara said. “We know there’s an element of people applying to be on the show who are seeking that out, and there’s no problem in wanting something out of it or wanting the experience of being on a TV show.”
I wanted to bring the conversation specifically back to diversity, so I grilled her on whether there was a ‘box-ticking’ approach to casting MAFS, and she said… yes… and then she said no.
“What we try to do is have diversity and tick boxes that we think are important in making any show, but we’re not like… Cassandra, for example, isn’t in [the show] because she has an African background but because she’s a wonderful personality with a beautiful backstory and is desperate to fall in love. It’s obvious why Cassandra is in the show and it has nothing to do with her skin colour. But we are so proud and happy that she wanted to be a part of this show. So, you know, it’s not in the forefront, it’s not like they’re taking a spot from someone way more deserving, Cassandra is there on complete merit because she’s fantastic, not to fulfill a quota – and I think that is really important.”
Full disclosure: I have watched the first episode of the new season of MAFS and Cassandra is an angel. I am hoping and praying that she is dealt a kind hand on the show and doesn’t have to deal with the drama we all know is coming.
MAFS is currently on par with fellow Australian reality TV shows when it comes to diversity, lacking representation across race, gender, sexuality, disability and body size in a big way. The States are certainly leading the charge with regard to inclusion and have demonstrated that shows are a better watch when they stretch beyond an all-white, all-straight, all-slim cast.
That progress, however, would likely come with complications. Graduates from TV shows like MAFS, Love Island and Love Is Blind exit their time on the telly and are welcomed back into society with a barrage of hate. Trolls lurk on every post, the comment sections on tabloid websites are vile about them and their DMs are a frankly frightening place. This is the standard for most contestants, but that vitriol is even more venomous when the contestant on the receiving end is a person of colour, a queer person or a plus-sized person. Kaz Kawami is one contestant who has spoken at length about the “vulgar racist abuse” she was sent while she was on Love Island – abuse that was an addition to the “trolling” her castmates copped.
This is why if MAFS has its heart set on boosting its diversity levels, it can’t be conducted with clumsiness. Producers need to be aware of the very real ramifications for these contestants and increase their duty of care over them for filming and (more importantly) for when the show is airing and they’re receiving abhorrent messages from viewers.
Despite the known side-effects of the show, it seems the goal from production is to have a diverse cast that isn’t treated any differently on MAFS – meaning all individuals getting married can and will be subjected to the chaos as well as the aspirational love stories. The production team behind Married At First Sight told us that they want there to be decent representation on their show and know that it needs to improve.
“I know we [MAFS] have been accused of being too white, but every show on Australian television is accused of that,” Tara says. “We hope that we can have it all, and I think we’ve done well over the years to be inclusive but there’s nothing tokenistic about what we do here.”
The new season of Married At First Sight premieres on January 29 on the Nine network.
Image credit: Nine + Punkee