The Cruel Brilliance of 90 Day Fiancé
For all of you are-we-or-aren’t-we Foreign-Or couples out there: prepared to be TRIGGERED.
Following couples going through the K-1 visa process, in which a U.S. citizen petitions for their foreign fiancé’s entry to the States on the pretext that they will marry within 90 days, this reality show is TOO REAL. If you think reality TV is a waste of time, well... duh; but just remember that just like the self-made(?) billionaire Kardashians and former-Apprentice-star-now-leader-of-the-fucking-FREE-WORLD Donald Trump... this genre just cannot be ignored. Why it matters:
AS A SHOW
The premise is promising: the audience gets to know hopeful migrants, witnessing their substandard living conditions, learning about familial pressures, struggling along in forming thoughts into English. It also features everyday U.S. citizens, weighed down with financial obligations and facing public scrutiny for adding to “the immigrant problem”. It also teaches Americans geography, and teaching Americans to recognize Addis Ababa on a map is a thing of beauty.
However, ‘The Learning’ stops there. TLC, originally known as The Learning Channel, was bought by Discovery in the 90’s and consequently phased out its own educational programming in favor of reality TV. Jon & Kate Plus 8, Here Comes Honey Boo Boo and Dr. Pimple Popper saw rising viewership tuning in to be entertained— not educated. Thus, 90 Day fills the gaps between the facts with soap opera drama, the K-1 time bomb ticking; a formula that inspired several spinoff shows including 90 Day Fiancé: What Now?, 90 Day Fiancé: Before the 90 Days, and 90 Day Fiancé: Self-Quarantined.
Such phenomenal growth for a cable channel is unmatched these days, unique in its rise as viewers shift from traditional channels to streaming platforms. Network president Howard Lee calls the franchise “our version of a Marvel Comics Universe.” So with all the money pumping through that ‘universe’ and millions of attentive fans the question is:
what is the show saying?
AS AN EXPOSÉ ON IMMIGRATION
The total cost of the K-1 visa is around $2,025, not including translations, travel, medical exams, and other incidentals. It takes about seven months to procure, in contrast with its three-month duration. If the couple does not marry within the 90 days, then the visa expires, and the foreigner is obligated to leave the country. If the marriage does go through, the alien spouse must remain in the U.S. until their green card is processed (another $2k at least), prohibited from travel outside of the country without an Advanced Parole Travel Permit.
All of these scenarios are based on piles of paperwork: petitions that need to be filed, paid for, and processed, with approval timelines that have lengthened significantly since Trump took office. Marriage, in the eyes of the government, is a binding legal partnership. And as such, it must be regulated.
Love, however, is messy. 90 Day is much more interesting when couples fumble the many steps of integrating their lives romantically and legally, and often reads as a cautionary tale against making a foreign romance 'USCIS official'. This is why the 90 Day Fiancé: Happily Ever After? spinoff includes that question mark in the title. ‘Low-immigration’ writer and former state department worker argues that '90 Day Fiancé' should be required viewing for every American, “particularly for liberals”.
To boot, chaos is king in reality TV. While there are plenty of spectacular 90 Day fails, the most troublesome to immigration advocates are the young, attractive foreigners duping and dumping their spouses to retain access to the U.S.:
Russian model Anfisa is enjoying a new found freedom since her husband was locked up on drug charges.
Larissa, who has since gotten multiple plastic surgeries and is avoiding deportation in Vegas, had her mind made up not to be happy with Colt.
Danielle and Mohamed are too gross to even think about, but watching her shout “user” and threaten to deport her estranged husband is like watching a scene from Cops.
AS AN EXPLORATION OF AMERICAN FRAGILITY
In a sensational twist on the power play that is the K-1 visa scheme 90 Day Fiancé: The Other Way is the core concept but in reverse— the U.S. citizen tries to make a life in their partner’s country. If you’re into the schadenfreude of squirming Americans this is a solid hate-watch. Aaaand noooow, coming to terms with their entitlement, please welcome:
David, in a classic gold digger-catfish story, whose 28 year-old fiancée confronts the 48 year-old about feigning his fortune!
Brittany, realizing she should have learned some Arabic before meeting her in-laws (as well as a bit about Jordanian culture, and probably Sharia as it pertains to marriage)!
Kenneth and Armando, both newly-out-of-the-closet single Dads, struggling to integrate in a small Mexican town! (Sadly one of their struggles is getting their marriage recognized by local government. In the U.S., same-sex spouses of U.S. citizens and Lawful Permanent Residents (LPRs), along with their minor children, are eligible for the same immigration benefits as opposite-sex spouses (*slow👏clap👏for👏that👏*).)
And Paul, whose visa was rejected due to “crime of terrorism, genocide, a crime against humanity and war crimes”! Also: Paul was never going to learn Portuguese.
AS A STUDY ON (SELF) LOVE
With all the headache of making transnational partnerships work, can love really conquer all? It can, but it's important to identify love for whom or what. Remember that being on a reality TV show is calculated move. Though there are success stories of loving, well-adjusted couples and their growing families, 90 Day is often an ugly look in the mirror, a 'selfie' of society, showing a complicated mix of motivations:
for the MONEY: U.S. talent gets paid a rumored $1000 - $1500/wk. Not quit-your-job kind of cash, but great for those who don't have a job to quit.
Foreign fiancés, in contrast, get paid nothing. As Matt Sharp of Sharp Entertainment says, “that would be illegal to pay someone. They would have to have a green card, which they do not." Tricky tricky.
for the POWER: Undoubtedly, there is a strong mail-order bride narrative running through the series. And with the imbalance of pay and resources it seems the foreign fiancés are powerless. But for many, the vulnerability they face in the beginning is worth the stability and security they seek. And for some, the guaranteed exposure is worth any risk.
The endless intrigue of this production comes from trying to understand who, in this global sample of fully-fledged adults, are the puppets are and who are the puppeteers?
for the FAME: Everybody in this game knows that popularity = payout, and savvy fiancés use their influence to turn a profit. Rosemarie, who escaped a no-neck troll named Big Ed now has 1M followers on TikTok, many stars are brand ambassadors for lifestyle products, and a few faves are making more on their own spinoffs: The Family Chantel and Darcey and Stacey.
A growing number also have an account on Cameo, a booking platform where people pay stars for personalized shoutouts.
Several are also on OnlyFans, a subscription-based, NSFW alternative.
THE FINAL QUANDARY
This leads us to an intellectual impasse on the nature of this franchise and in general, of reality TV: is this content exploratory or exploitative?
Shamefully avoiding answering this question ourselves, we'll just leave you with this:
As the child of Chinese immigrants, he says, “I saw how [my parents] were pretty much ignored every time they walked into a store holding my hands because they had really bad English. I’ve always felt like an outsider,”.
He follows up with, “Just look at me right now. You don’t really see, normally, a network head who’s an Asian male.”
Brilliantly cruel, to build his own notoriety by giving Americans a looking glass, exposing them to their own bad behavior?
Slow 👏 clap 👏 Howard Lee 👏.