A Look into Narratives about Gender and Immigrants on 90 Day Fiancé
Author’s Note: This was my final project for my Gender and Sexuality history elective. Credit to SlidesCarnival for their amazing presentations.
Before we begin our in-depth analysis, I want to read a quote from Andrei Castravet, who was on the show as a foreigner marrying an American woman:
“I am not marrying a country, I am marrying a woman. And that’s it.”
 As we go through this presentation, I want you all to think about the ways in which the people portrayed on the show 90 Day Fiancé, although all individuals, represent larger concepts and whether this statement is true.
In this presentation, I am going to cover three major themes as we talk about gender and identity in transnational relationships as portrayed by 90DF. The first is gendered roles, gender-specific traits, racism, and sexism in the relationships. We’ll be diving into the reasons why many men and women go into these sorts of binational relationships and the expectations they have of their partners. We will also talk about the gender-specific expectations of each partner.
Next we will talk about immigrant narratives and immigrant-specific xenophobia in the relationships. Especially with Trump’s presidency, we saw a rise in nationalism and anti-immigrant sentiment which influenced the edits the producers gave the show’s protagonists. We will look at the specific narratives given to the people in the show and whose side we, the audience, are directed to take. Which leads into the general idea of how producers influence the show’s narratives. By looking at clips from two couples, Ed and Rose and Mark and Nikki, we will explore how what the producers show us relays the message that they want to get across.
But before we go into discussion and analysis, we need to define our terms so we know what we’re working with. First, a little background about the show itself. 90DF focuses on couples, all of whom are heterosexual, with one foreigner and one American. For the foreigner to attain citizenship and live in the US permanently with their partner, the American must petition for a special visa called the K-1 visa. Once the government grants the visa and the foreigner arrives in America, the couple has 90 days, or 3 months, to get married — hence the name of the show. 90DF tracks multiple couples after they’ve received their visas as they try (and some fail) to get married. When I talk about transnational or binational couples, these are the couples I am talking about. A “sham” marriage is when the foreigner is not marrying the American for love, but for the visa and citizenship. Now, whether there are a lot of these “sham” marriages is something we will be discussing later.
When I talk about traditional masculinity and femininity, I’m talking about the “classic” nuclear family, in which the wife/women stay home to take care of the kids and do all the shopping for the family while the man is in the workforce, earning money to take care of the entire family and being the sole breadwinner.
Lastly, I want to discuss reality television. Reality TV’s purpose is to capture the “real” lives of others, to allow the viewer to be a “fly on the wall.” Now Reality TV has evolved so that everything delivered to the viewer has been highly produced and edited, and whether the shows still portray “reality” is unclear. The channel that hosts 90DF is TLC, The Learning Channel, which was established in 1972. The show started in 2014 and in 2022 has eight seasons on the main show and over a dozen spinoffs. Now that we know more about the show, let’s look at the content — namely, the relationships between the Americans and foreigners.
The search for a spouse and preserving American culture:
In many of the American men foreign women relationships on 90DF, we see many men trying to find a “lost femininity.” As Felicity Schaffer-Grabiel discusses in her article “Planet‐Love.Com: Cyberbrides in the Americas and the Transnational Routes of U.S. Masculinity,” which we read for homework this year, many men “want a less liberated woman, someone less spoiled and materialistic than the women in their lives.” Julia Meszaros, in her article “Race, space, and agency in the international introduction industry: how American men perceive women’s agency in Colombia, Ukraine and the Philippines” in which she talks about her experience on romance tours in those countries, agrees with Schaeffer-Grabiel’s assessment. According to her, “The introduction industry largely appeals to men that are facing challenges to their masculinity at home. Many of these men feel left behind by globalization, but not just in terms of economic status, as some men involved in the industry are relatively economically comfortable…they all feel out of place within the new gender, racial, and sexual norms of Western societies.” As a result, many of these men try to find more “traditional” women over whom they can exert control and they find these women in the global south, where they have financial, racial, and gendered power as white American men. Now, many of these men’s search for an Asian woman specifically is, according to Meszaros “predicated on their racialized understanding of women from the Global South as more docile and submissive” and that’s why so many of these relationships don’t work out — the men expect total compliance from the women and when that doesn’t happen and the women don’t like being controlled, the entire premise of finding the “submissive Asian wife” falls apart. From there, we see the American men fall further into their crisis of manhood. As Leslie Marie Vesely writes, “Much of the literature on binational marriage… [positions] women as victims of the male gaze, inadvertently pigeonholing them into roles of brides, and ignoring the agency and multiplicity of identities they hold.” The men have a very specific expectation of gender expression of the women they marry. However, the women, being multidimensional people, break these molds. It’s usually in the home, because the women who come to America often do not have jobs in the US and have lost their support networks, but these acts of resistance, going against the American man’s expectation, can cause chaos and vitriol.
On the flip side, when we take a look at the couples where the woman is the American and the man is the foreigner, we see different fears and expectations arise. In the example of the couple Elizabeth and Andrei, whose quote I shared earlier, we see the man actually having to tone down his masculinity. Elizabeth is the embodiment of the new American woman — she works and she expects freedom in a relationship. It’s almost ironic that we’re supposed to root for her considering she’s the type of woman who most of the American men on the show wouldn’t like. Anyways, when Andrei comes from Russia, her chief concern is that he, being ultra-masculine, will stifle her. Interviews with her sisters show that they’re worried Elizabeth will have to “bow down” and Elizabeth herself even says that although Andrei wants her to change and be less like “an American woman” she refuses to “forget where [she’s] from just to make [him] happy.” When a foreign man comes to the US, the show portrays them as trying to chip away and eventually destroy American culture and the American way of life. And so, both American men and women seek foreign partners who will affirm their “American” styles of living. For American men, they want women who will be active participants in the nuclear family and for American women, they want men who will support their endeavors in the workforce and their independence. Also notice how American men are praised for being strong while foreign men are called “overbearing” and American women are praised for being independent while foreign-born women are called “cunning” and chastised by their husbands for the same behavior.
Immigration Narratives and Trumpism
90DF, being an American show, always makes us try to sympathize with the American. As Ladan Rahbari writes, “USA citizens are often presented as hardworking, honest, and gullible victims who are merely looking for ‘love…’ the risk of the non-American partner leaving the American one after getting residence rights is amplified in the narratives. There is a constant narrative of suspicion towards non-Americans that… creates a caricature of foreigners as cunning invaders.” The rise of this nationalistic anti-immigrant invader rhetoric, while not started by Trump’s presidency, was definitely helped by it, to the point that many families don’t even bother to hide their racist and xenophobic behaviors from the foreigners. Trump’s open hatred of immigrants and minorities, despite his wife being an immigrant, has set an example for other Americans.
The show actively works to dehumanize the non-Americans and put them into one of two narratives: the helpless, impoverished person ready to leave their home country or the cunning, invaders, domineering, only in a relationship, “taking advantage” of the American who can give them citizenship. The fear of being used, even if the men are using the women for emotional and sexual labor, sews mistrust into the relationships. As Meszaros writes, the men “expect women they meet abroad to maintain a clear distinction between economic practicalities and their intimate relationships…For this reason, [they] make calculated and racialized assessments of women’s sincerity…based on a false binary of authenticity that fails to recognize the economic implications of their own assessments. Trump’s xenophobic rhetoric has found its way into binational relationships, where men and their American families fear that foreign women only see them as green card opportunities, regardless of whether that’s the truth. Furthemore, the desire to keep American tradition alive leads to feelings of disgust directed at the traditions of the foreigner. Vesely writes “Nationalists are committed to preserving national cultural homogeny, which is a sameness in values, practices, race and/or ethnicity” because they believe “their nation’s values and ways of being are superior to others and should be dominant. And so, relationships are again challenged when foreigners try to involve Americans in their cultures only to be rejected and mocked.
However, some men view the women as helpless and in need of being “saved” — which lets men indulge their classic American male power fantasies in which, through imperialism, they can be saviors. Although they might not have much sway in the United States, their Americanness, and therefore potential to give citizenship status, automatically makes them more desirable abroad. Participants in Salamatu Gwadah’s focus group he put together during his research for his master’s thesis on the impact of stereotypical media portrayals on the average television watcher “noticed a bit of a trend with some of the couplings whereby the ones that have come in from developed backgrounds tend to fetishize those who come from low-income backgrounds.” Thus, because Americans are always either suspecting “scheming” potential immigrants or saving “poor, defenseless” foreigners, they are positioned in the right — no matter what they do, it is justified, while the foreigner is left, dehumanized, to be ridiculed by the audience while their relationships suffer.
“The reality TV show, 90 Day Fiancé, reflects multiple sociocultural discourses, primarily nationalism, xenophobia and colonialism, which are tied into discourses of sexuality, gender, ethnicity and nationality. Using music, narration, footage and the sequences of these clips, 90 Day Fiancé plays on these discourses to create drama in the show. The show positions the American as wealthy and dynamic, while leaving the foreign partner voice- less and objectified, reminiscent of America’s colonial history.”
As we move forward into examples, I want us to keep in mind the editing of the clips and ask ourselves questions: what specifically are they showing us, the audience? How are they editing the clips? What might the producers want us to think coming out of it? And how are these people acting out the theory and ideas we’ve just talked about?
Example 1 — Ed and Rose
Ed and Rose met online and were featured on the show 90 Day Fiancé: Before the 90 Days in which the couples are together, but have not applied for (and therefore not received) their visas yet. At the time of filming Ed, who is from San Diego, California, was 54 and Rose, who is from the Philippines (I couldn’t find from which city in the Philippines) was 23. (Play the clips: the first video from 00:47–1:17 and the second video 00:00–2:09)
Discussion of Ed and Rose
Now, there’s a lot going on here. Let’s start with more gendered expectations. Ed expects Rose to shave her legs with him having to ask, calling her leg hair “gross.” We’ve already seen how American men on 90DF expect foreign women to perform femininity and this conversation here is a prime example of this phenomenon. We also see the power fantasy play out here in how Ed believes he has every right to dictate what Rose does with her body. Instead of her choosing to shave, he tells her to do it and then expects her to immediately do it — playing on the view of foreign women as submissive and docile. Ed’s shock at Rose’s resistance also reflects what I was talking about earlier — when you’ve built up this certain image of Asian women, when they don’t act the way you expect them to, there’s cognitive dissonance that creates confusion and frustration, which we can see in Ed.
In the second clip, we see the suspicion of a “sham” marriage that comes from Angela, Rose’s sister, asking for money and Rose spending Ed’s money at the marketplace. Succumbing to the narrative of foreign women being interested in American men solely for their money that the show has helped to propagate, Ed calls into question Rose’s intentions. In this clip, we also see the producers’ hands in what shots of the Philippines we see and what Ed, our audience stand-in, says about it. He calls the place “hot” and “dirty” and “crowded” and shows visible discomfort. Those words fit into the theme, as Salamutu Gwadah points out, of the country that the foreigner lives in being categorized as “the third world” and “underdeveloped,” also possibly invoking the American imperialist and colonialist narrative of Americans having to come in and help “develop” these countries.
Example 2 — Mark and Nikki
Mark and Nikki met on OKcupid, a free dating website and were featured on the original 90DF on its third season. At the time of filming, Mark, who is from Baltimore, Maryland, was 54 and Nikki, from Cebu City, Philippines, was 19, younger than his children. (video)
Discussion of Mark and Nikki
In Mark and Nikki’s relationship, we can see many of the themes we’ve talked about so far. The first is Mark’s white savior complex. As we can see in his comments about the Philippines, about the lack of amenities, about how the women there just “don’t want to eat rice,” it is clear from the tone of his voice that he sees himself as saving Nikki from a horrible environment. There is also a fantasy of protection there — remember how after the penny test, he puts an emphasis on what he can do for her, thus giving himself agency. In having these power fantasies and offering Nikki all of these material luxuries, Mark fulfills the traditional role of the husband as a breadwinner and puts Nikki into the position of the housewife.
But let’s talk about the penny test. I spoke earlier about Americans’ fears that their foreign partners are only in the marriage for the money. As Rahbari writes, these tests fit in perfectly with the narrative the show has crafted of foreign women — that they’re “insincere” and “only using the American partners as a passage or opportunity to come to the United States or live off them” because of how the producers have portrayed America as developed & forward-thinking land of opportunity compared to the “undeveloped, backwards-thinking” countries they came from. The penny test perfectly symbolizes Mark’s fear he’s being used (a fear which compels us to sympathize with him) and the show’s unquestioning nature towards the test also implies that these kinds of fears are perfectly normal.
Lastly, in a subtle yet still very much there dig at American women, when Mark says that American women don’t like his submental fat, he implies that Filipina women are less superficial and therefore better — that Nikki likes him for who he is rather than explicitly what he looks like and that is a trait that puts her above American women.
I think it’s important to question and analyze all of the media we watch, read, and listen to and ask ourselves what narratives the producers are trying to push. After all, if we simply accept whatever we see, we can let ourselves become ignorant and prejudiced without even knowing it.
Conclusion and Reflection
As Alexis Soloski for the New York Times wrote, every couple needs a story. TLC’s President said “If everything was smooth sailing, and everything was happiness and perfect and there was no opposition, I don’t know if that would make for a powerful story.” Even though these shows pass themselves off as entertainment, apolitical, and educational, there are always deeper motives that these producers have — after all, they want to keep you watching. Gwadah’s focus group agreed, saying that “the show is both educating and entertaining.” Concerningly, real people use these types of shows, which are supposed to be for entertainment and fuel stereotypes, as a source of truth. This widespread acceptance is dangerous and might lead to violence outside of the show against people of those ethnic groups because of how powerful reality TV is at shaping dominant social discourse and the public’s perception. So what should we, as viewers, do?
Over the past few years, as a fan of the Bachelor and the Bachelorette who watches weekly breakdowns of the editing, I’ve become a lot more conscious of producer manipulation. But watching clip’s and reading articles while researching for this paper showed me just how insidious TLC is when it comes to producing and editing their shows. Especially with the clips I’ve shown today, some of the most egregious examples of imperialist fantasies and American feelings of superiority while abroad, it’s very easy to get angry or frustrated and forget not only that we’re only getting a small glimpse into these people's’ lives, but also that — that they’re people too. I think it’s important to question and analyze all of the media we watch, read, and listen to and ask ourselves what narratives the producers are trying to push. After all, if we simply accept whatever we see, we can let ourselves become ignorant and prejudiced without even knowing it. So, make “The Learning Channel” actually educational again and let it teach you a lesson in consuming media critically so we can begin to deconstruct these harmful narratives.
Gwadah, Salamatu Tinnet. “Filtered Reality: The impact of the stereotypical representation of
ethnic groups on reality TV series “90 Day Fiance” on its’ viewers.” Master’s Thesis,
Griffith College Dublin, 2020.
JustJen. “90 Day Fiancé Before The 90 Days Recap: Cut Both Ways.” Accessed January 7, 2022.
Meszaros, Julia. “Race, space, and agency in the international introduction industry: how
American men perceive women’s agency in Colombia, Ukraine and the Philippines.”
Gender, Place & Culture 25, no. 2 (2018): 268–287.
Rahbari, Ladan. “Solidarity Marriage or Sham Marriage? Marriage as Radical Political
Solidarity among and with Migrants in Europe.” Journal of Identity and Migration
Studies 14, no. 2 (2020): 55–70.
Schaeffer‐Grabiel, Felicity. “Planet‐Love.Com: Cyberbrides in the Americas and the
Transnational Routes of U.S. Masculinity.” Signs 31, no. 2 (2006): 331–56.
Sheffield, Rob. “How ’90 Day Fiancé’ Summed Up America in 2018.” Rolling Stone, December
18, 2018. https://www.rollingstone.com/tv/tv-features/90-day-fiance-sheffield-768997/.
Soloski, Alexis. “‘90 Day Fiancé’: An Anti-Fantasy for Troubled Times.” New York Times,
August 15, 2019.
The Learning Channel, “Meet Mark and Nikki,” video, 4:45,
Wikipedia. “90 Day Fiancé.” Accessed January 2, 2022.
Velasco, Gina K. Queering the Global Filipina Body: Contested Nationalisms in the Filipina/o
Diaspora. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2020.
Vesely, Leslie Marie. “Media portrayals of binational couples in 90 Day Fiancé.” Continuum 35,
no. 4 (August 2021): 571–584. https://doi.org/10.1080/10304312.2021.1933385.
90 Day Fiancé. “Ed Wants Rose to Shave Her Legs | 90 Day Fiancé: Before The 90 Days.”
YouTube video, 2:57. April 7, 2020.
90 Day Fiancé. “Is Rose Scamming Big Ed? | 90 Day Fiancé: Before The 90 Days.” YouTube
video, 2:11. March 13, 2020.
Leslie Marie Vesely, “Media portrayals of binational couples in 90 Day Fiancé,” Continuum 35, no. 4 (August 2021): 580, https://doi.org/10.1080/10304312.2021.1933385.
From here on, I will be abbreviating 90 Day Fiancé to 90DF
Ladan Rahbari, “Solidarity Marriage or Sham Marriage? Marriage as Radical Political Solidarity among and with Migrants in Europe,” Journal of Identity and Migration Studies 14, no. 2 (2020): 68, http://www.e-migration.ro/jims/Vol14_No2_2020/JIMS_Vol14_No2_2020_pp_55_70_RAHBARI.pdf.;
Rahbari, “Solidarity Marriage or Sham Marriage,” 64–65.; “90 Day Fiancé,” Wikipedia, accessed January 2, 2022, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/90_Day_Fianc%C3%A9.
Rahbari, “Solidarity Marriage or Sham Marriage,” 62.
Vesely, “Media portrayals,” 571.
Felicity Schaeffer-Grabiel, “Planet‐Love.Com: Cyberbrides in the Americas and the Transnational Routes of U.S. Masculinity,” Signs 31, no. 2 (2006): 340, https://doi.org/10.1086/497347.
Julia Meszaros, “Race, space, and agency in the international introduction industry: how American men perceive women’s agency in Colombia, Ukraine and the Philippines,” Gender, Place & Culture 25, no. 2 (2018): 272, https://doi.org/10.1080/0966369X.2018.1433638.
Vesely, “Media portrayals,” 573.
Rahbari, “Solidarity Marriage or Sham Marriage,” 65.; Gina K. Velasco, Queering the Global Filipina Body: Contested Nationalisms in the Filipina/o Diaspora (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2020), 1. The relationship between Brett, an American, and Daya, a Filipina woman, is a perfect example of this, in which Brett’s mother is suspicious of Daya.
Rob Sheffield, “How ’90 Day Fiancé’ Summed Up America in 2018,” Rolling Stone, December 18, 2018, https://www.rollingstone.com/tv/tv-features/90-day-fiance-sheffield-768997/.
Meszaros, “Race, space, and agency,” 269.
Vesely, “Media portrayals,” 574.
Salamatu Tinnet Gwadah, “Filtered Reality: The impact of the stereotypical representation of ethnic groups on reality TV series “90 Day Fiance” on its’ viewers” (Master’s Thesis, Griffith College Dublin, 2020), 57.
Vesely, “Media portrayals,” 580.
JustJen, “90 Day Fiancé Before The 90 Days Recap: Cut Both Ways,” Reality Tea, accessed January 7, 2022, https://www.realitytea.com/2020/04/27/90-day-fiance-before-the-90-days-recap-cut-both-ways/.
90 Day Fiancé. “Ed Wants Rose to Shave Her Legs | 90 Day Fiancé: Before The 90 Days.” YouTube video, 2:57. April 7, 2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wXy10rgXOFQ&list=PLVIZLKFEK3V4eSTM5V1231zX7QxIFk_xI&index=10.; 90 Day Fiancé. “Is Rose Scamming Big Ed? | 90 Day Fiancé: Before The 90 Days.” YouTube video, 2:11. March 13, 2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wXy10rgXOFQ&list=PLVIZLKFEK3V4eSTM5V1231zX7QxIFk_xI&index=10.
Gwadah, “Filtered Reality,” 44.
Wikipedia, “90 Day Fiancé.”
The Learning Channel, “Meet Mark and Nikki,” video, 4:45, https://www.tlc.com/tv-shows/90-day-fiance/full-episodes/meet-mark-and-nikki.
Rahbari, “Solidarity Marriage or Sham Marriage,” 38–40.
Rahbari, “Solidarity Marriage or Sham Marriage,” 68.; Vesely, “Media portrayals,” 571–572.; Meszaros, “Race, space, and agency,” 268–269.
Alexis Soloski, “‘90 Day Fiancé’: An Anti-Fantasy for Troubled Times,” New York Times, August 15, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/15/arts/television/90-day-fiance-immigration.html.
Sheffield, “How ’90 Day Fiancé’ Summed Up America in 2018.”; Soloski, “Anti-Fantasy for Troubled Times.”; Gwadah, “Filtered Reality,” 60–61.; Vesely, “Media portrayals,” 573.
Gwadah, “Filtered Reality,” 57.
Vesely, “Media portrayals,” 572.