Out of the nine seasons of Married At First Sight that have aired, only five couples are still together. It proves that while audiences are entertained by the reality show, the desired outcome of the social experiment (i.e. to find love) is often not achieved. Marriage in the real world already demands huge life adjustments, so marrying a stranger on reality TV is unsurprisingly a massive challenge.
All contestants come up against different personalities and values to reckon with as they navigate their new relationships. But women of colour on the show in particular can be dealt a tough card. This year in Season 10, this is clearly evident through the journeys of Sandy Jawanda and Janelle Han.
Dental hygienist Jawanda is the daughter of Indian immigrants, while beauty influencer and TikTok creator Han's Singaporean Chinese parents came to Australia in the 1980s. Growing up as first-gen Aussies, both women say they have faced racism and felt unseen in a media landscape that's still lacking in multicultural representation.
Dating shows have been criticised for not featuring as culturally diverse a cast as other reality shows such as MasterChef, My Kitchen Rules, Australian Idol or Survivor. While casting agents are often blamed for this, we can't ignore that many culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) communities tend to frown upon involvement in shows about relationships and sex. Jawanda's situation is an example; her parents refused to appear on camera and didn't attend her wedding.
On the show, she explained that her Punjabi parents' worry about what the "community is going to say" about her finding a husband on national television. She shared that her mother said, "if [Sandy's] going to do this, we don’t want anything to do with her".
While Han's parents supported her and attended the MAFS wedding, she has faced the pressure of cultural expectations in finding a husband with financial stability and a respectable career because, as she says, "in Asian culture, your career is part of your identity".
Stepping away from the cultural norms means that these women arguably have more to lose by coming on MAFS. There's the pressure to represent their race and project a positive image of Asian women to the rest of the country. And then there's the expectation to succeed in their on-screen relationship, while their off-screen bonds with family could be fractured.
In the past, women like Ritu Chhina on The Bachelorette Australia have claimed that they felt tokenised as a woman of colour on a dating show. Overseas, Black women on shows such as The Bachelor and Love Island have been made to feel as though they're the "supporting cast of their own love stories".
This season, Han has been portrayed as somewhat of a supporting character of the 'cheating storyline' on MAFS. Co-star Jesse Burdford has accused his TV wife, Claire Nomarhas, of being more than just friends with Han's husband, Adam Seed. Both Seed and Nomarhas firmly deny the allegations. In the episodes that have aired so far, Han's position has been portrayed as almost an afterthought, despite her being Seed's wife. The focus has been on Burdford's outrage towards Seed and Nomarhas.
"We have hardly seen anything of her. It's all about the drama," one MAFS viewer wrote on Facebook, referring to Han.
Before going into the show, Han had an additional layer of anxiety, telling Refinery29 Australia she feared her TV husband wouldn't like her because she's Asian. Seed, who has Jamaican West Indian heritage, hasn't had an issue with Han's background. But being a woman of colour, she came onto the show needing to perform more emotional labour. She's since watched footage back and realised she was perhaps more removed from (or oblivious of) the issues she felt existed in her relationship than she'd first realised.
"Looking back at the footage from last night, I honestly just think I'm stupid," Han said on Today Extra this week. "Because I didn't see how shit scared he appeared to be." She was referring to footage that showed Seed telling Han there was no need to check one another's phones, despite the show's experts giving them the green light to do just that as part of a trust-building exercise.
Meanwhile, images have surfaced of Jawanda's husband, Dan Hunjas, kissing another woman after filming ended. The spoiler has already indicated that her and Hunjas' marriage doesn't go the distance. Losing love is not easy for anyone, but as a woman of colour, Jawanda has got a lot more to answer to, and a lot more to lose.
Married At First Sight airs Sunday at 7pm and Monday to Wednesday at 7:30pm on Channel 9 and 9Now.