Turkish Marriage Shows

Here is the original draft of a story I did for The National. The published version was cut a great deal, so I wanted to put up the longer original as well:

ISTANBUL — The two contestants sit on stage with a barrier blocking their line of sight, music playing softly in the background. Erkan is clean-cut with chiseled features and a fair complexion, wearing a purple plaid sports jacket and black collared shirt partially covering a neck tattoo. Zahra looks like a model, tall and thin with long dark hair contrasting sharply with her snow-white outfit and towering high heels.
They exchange formalities and Zahra explains that she came onto Turkey’s most popular marriage show after noticing Erkan, who had been featured in previous episodes she’d watched.

“I just saw you and liked you,” she says. “You’re respectful to your parents. I love my parents so much. You’re emotional, and so am I.”

Erkan asks if she’s a jealous person.

“No, I don’t like jealousy.”

“But I’m a jealous guy.”

“So?” she responds, unfazed.

“Would you do things I don’t want you to do?” he pushes.

“For example?”

“Like if I told you not to go somewhere, would you still go? Would you wear what I tell you not to wear?”

When she confirms that she would indeed follow his requests, the audience cheers their approval.

Minutes later Erkan is already smitten.

“For the first time in my life I’m really taken with a person I’ve never seen before. This can’t be happening,” he says, as the audience goes wild.

The host, Esra Erol, finally lets Zahra walk around the barrier to meet Erkan, where he’s standing and waiting with his eyes closed, face tilted upwards. The music from the popular Turkish drama Aşk-ı Memnu soars in the background. When he sees Zahra for the first time, Erkan’s eyes bulge, his mouth forming a giant O as a joyful expression of awe springs across his face. He paces around the stage, too excited to stand still, and finally comes back to give Zahra a hug.

“I swear to God my hands are shaking,” he says, as Erol playfully splashes water on his face.

Soon Erkan is down on one knee proposing to Zahra. She accepts, as the crowd whistles and cheers.

“That was fast,” exclaims Erol.

***

Erkan and Zahra’s love story is one of the best known from Turkey’s ultra popular marriage shows, which Erol pioneered.

The shows are similar to western matchmaking shows, except that marriage is always the end goal, families are heavily involved, sex isn’t openly discussed and like many Turkish shows, they’re incredibly long – three to four hours.

They’re also criticized by religious conservative groups who deem them improper, feminists and leftists who think they degrade women and are too conservative, and regular people who think they’re trashy and damaging to Turkish society.

Last March then Deputy Prime Minister Nurman Kurtulmuş stated that Turkey’s Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTÜK) had received 120,000 complaints against marriage shows, which “ruin Turkey’s social and traditional family structure,” and that more restrictions needed to be imposed.

“Some of these shows are really out of control. They’re against our family values, culture, faith and traditions,” he stated.

RTÜK has threatened to cancel them, but the latest announcement in August was that “this season there will be a different format.”

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At an airing of the Esra Erol show on October 9

Despite the massive popularity of marriage programs (the top three garner over three million of the seven to eight million daytime TV watchers during the summer), the National struggled to find anyone who didn’t insist on hating them, some even getting offended by the topic.

“People who watch these shows are idiots. Read a book. Play chess. If you watch these shows, you’re an idiot,” said Canan İskender, a 22-year-old.

“I feel like [the contestants] are being staged like apes, and they’re aware of it,” says İstem Özdilek, a 40-year-old café owner and architect. “I think this goes against self-respect. That’s why I don’t like them.”

“It’s ridiculous that they need a TV show to find a partner,” said Semiha Gürsel, a 48-year-old housewife.

Feyza Akınerdem is a sociologist at Bosphorus University in Istanbul who studies marriage shows.

“It’s really difficult to find someone who says they like these shows. Even if they watch them, if you talk to them about these shows, they’ll say they hate them, they’re very bad, they’re trashy.”

Part of the cause of this stigma is the same reason why Akınerdem is fascinated by marriage shows – they often expose the problematic aspects of domestic life in Turkey, particularly for the working classes, that many people simply don’t want to know about.

When a female contestant is introduced to the viewers, she talks about her life, her relations with her family and her romantic history.

“It opens up a huge, formerly secret aspect of family life, and when you look there, you see very systematic violence [and] discrimination,” particularly towards women, Akınerdem says. “In the end I’m in favour of opening up these secrets in public so we have a chance to talk about them, to have proof about what’s happening to women.”

In October 2016, Leman, a 25-year-old contestant and mother of two came on Erol’s show and told her story. Her father had left her family and she married at 16 in an unofficial religious ceremony. Her husband later abandoned her and the kids.

“I ruined my life and now my kids are living the same life I did,” she said on the show. “I just want to get my life back on track; that’s the only reason I’m here.”

“Marriage shows basically promise a new life,” says Akınerdem “Marriage means happiness in the end, so they’re searching for happiness.”

Sometimes the domestic problems the shows reveal are even darker.

In May 2014 Sefer Çalınak, 62, was kicked off a live broadcast of Flash TV’s Luck of the Draw after confessing he’d killed two of his former romantic partners. Also in 2014, a contestant who’d gotten married on Erol’s show killed his wife three months later.

Erol was horrified and asked Akınerdem if it was her fault, but Akınerdem says femicides are caused by systemic problems like patriarchy, and marriage shows reveal these problems rather than causing them.

“You can single out marriage shows as the sole source of evil for Turkey’s familial problems. Politicians like to do that; they never want to see systematic problems,” she says.

Until 1990, Turkey’s national public broadcaster, the Turkish Radio and Television Corporation (TRT) was the country’s sole TV channel. TRT was tasked with promoting the values of Turkey’s then Kemalist elite, secularist followers of Turkey’s founder Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. Programs showed an idealized version of Turkish society, hiding the problems.

“After commercialization [in the 1990s], television opened its screens to the lower classes and their tastes. At that time urban elites started to criticize television, like ‘It’s trashy, I hate these things, it’s for lower classes, it’s for foolish people,” Akınerdem explains.

The ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) important Islamist allies have always opposed marriage shows, but the dilemma the populist, religious-conservative AKP faces is that their core constituents – regular lower middle class people who are conservative but not Islamist – are also the core viewership of marriage shows.

“The elites of the AKP hate these shows, but they have to remain populist, so they can’t ban them,” says Akınerdem.

Television is extraordinarily popular in Turkey, so much so that it’s a key component of society, particularly for women, working classes and rural populations. According to government statistics, 95 per cent of Turks count TV as their favourite activity.

“We have a very domestic life in Turkey, and television is at the core,” Akınerdem says.

Suzan Akyüz is a 68-year-old retired director of libraries at the Ministry of Culture. She’s an Esra Erol fan (though repeatedly stresses she only watches from intellectual curiosity), or at least was until she felt marriage shows became too sensationalized in the last year or two.

Akyüz liked Erol’s show because she says it dealt with important social issues. Erol even spoke out against religious marriages and wrote two books about women’s experiences. However, Akyüz says that recently Erol’s show and others have become more lurid in order to compete for viewers.

“I don’t want to deprecate them, but they bring gypsies and sex workers, and the more they fight, the more viewership they have. They’re bad role models for society,” she says. “First they come looking like village girls – very simple – and then they put a lot of makeup on them and make them look like models.”

Akyüz says marriage shows became so popular in the first place because viewers could actually relate to the participants and their struggles.

“These shows reflected society. That’s why I think they’re popular. They’re real people.”

As for Zahra and Erkan, they were married on live television on Zuhal Topal’s show – Esra Erol’s main competitor.

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Contestants on Esra Erol

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