'90 Day Fiancé': A look at the soft xenophobia of TLC's hit reality show

Leander Schaerlaeckens
·11 min read

I am a product of the 90 Day Fiancé process. Or, as it’s actually called, the K1 nonimmigrant visa.

Sort of.

The U.S. Citizens and Immigration Services website promised it would take about four months to process the K1. My American fiancée and I were living in Brussels. We applied about half a year before the wedding was scheduled stateside, with the venue already booked and the invitations sent out. That’s when a friend who worked at the American Embassy told us it would be closer to nine months and that we’d better get married, on paper, in Belgium and file for the much quicker spousal visa, then do the actual wedding as planned. So that’s what we did. We called it “getting paperworked” because we didn’t like the idea of our wedding not really being our wedding.

We’ve been married 11 years. We have a 4-year-old son. I became a U.S. citizen almost three years ago.

For the past six years, we’ve been watching 90 Day Fiancé, the hit TLC franchise in which Americans bring over a foreign partner with the legal caveat that they must get married or leave the country within three months. We’re fans of the show. Some of the dynamics are relatable to us.

We’re also appalled by it.

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Our misgivings are shared by others.

“There are undercurrents of xenophobia throughout the show, and at points it becomes very explicit,” says Jonathan Kraszewski, a professor at Seton Hall University and an expert in reality TV who is teaching a class on 90 Day Fiancé this semester.

He too is a fan of the show. But he’s reluctant as well. “To a certain extent, the show is popular because it just embodies the sleaze and scandalous nature of reality television, but I wrestle with its rise in popularity,” he says. “Is it because of the cultural moment and this whole conservative movement in Trump’s America of being skeptical of immigrants? That’s something I haven’t necessarily come to terms with yet: Is it resonating with anti-immigrant rhetoric of the moment or not? Or is the show so ridiculous that you can’t even take its message seriously? I’m actually stumped by the show a little bit.”

The series is hard to untangle. It’s the rare reality show that appears to be genuinely unscripted and that layers in real cultural substance. It dives headlong into globalization and the societal friction it creates. Yet it also panders to the worst instincts of reality TV.

Xenophobia is a pillar of every arc. The suspicion and condescension of foreigners isn’t always overt. But it’s always there.

Chantel Everett and Pedro Jimeno (Photo: TLC)
Chantel Everett and Pedro Jimeno. (Photo: TLC)

In Season 4, Chantel Everett marries Pedro Jimeno from the Dominican Republic. From the start, her family is deeply skeptical of Jimeno. Over the course of a few seasons, Jimeno’s relationship with his wife’s family grew so toxic that it begat its own spinoff show, The Family Chantel — an unsubtle wink at Jimeno’s struggles with English grammar. Everett’s family suspects Jimeno and his admittedly materialistic mother and sister of every imaginable scheme, all boiling down to his taking advantage of Everett. It doesn’t seem to occur to her family that he loves her for, well, her, a sweet and pretty girl.

To Everett’s mother, Jimeno’s family thinks they are just “stupid Americans.” So, in an instantly iconic rebuttal, she declares that “things are about to get a little bit more stupider.”

The scammer witch hunt is well-worn terrain on the show. The families often assume that the foreigner is some kind of con artist. In some cases, they are. Or appear to be, because TV editing can make anything look like anything.

Mohamed Jbali married Danielle in Ohio. (Photo: TLC)
Mohamed Jbali marries Danielle Mullins in Ohio. (Photo: TLC)

In Season 2, Tunisian Mohamed Jbali married the guileless Danielle Mullins in Ohio and, in short order, leaves, moves to Florida, builds himself a new life and successfully fights the annulment she demands in court — arguing that she deceived him about her finances. Season 4’s Azan Tefou, from Morocco, strung the impressionable Nicole Nafziger along for years, weaseling out of an actual wedding again and again as she supported both him and her daughter on her meager earnings as a barista. Luis Mendez didn’t actually appear to be all that interested in being a part of Molly Hopkins’s life in Georgia on Season 5 before leaving, getting a divorce and remarrying within five months.

This is the central tension of the show: whether the foreign partner is genuine in their affections or merely angling for a one-way ticket to an American dream that still looms large in the imagination, never mind its evisceration by reality. All the potential spouses are implicated by association.

“The show goes out of its way to construct a narrative where these people are potential scammers, and it doesn’t even resolve it by the end of the season,” says Kraszewski.

But of the 40 or so couples who have appeared on the show, the overwhelming majority seemed to be in honest relationships — the above outliers excepted. Plenty of them are unconventional or explosive unions, made up of odd personalities that can seem hopelessly mismatched, but then that’s television. The genuine love stories far outnumber the dubious relationships. Yet the suspicions abide. The fear of the other is omnipresent. It’s usually a parent or another family member who attempts to stage some kind of intervention to question the foreigner’s motives.

Elizabeth Potthast’s Season 5 relationship with the Moldovan Andrei Castravet comes off as a perfectly organic partnership, albeit one beset by cultural differences. Yet it is perpetually strained by her family’s unrelenting suspicions of him. Even after they have a daughter and plan a second wedding in Moldova, Elizabeth’s family digs feverishly into his past for any incriminating tidbits while trashing the country at every turn. The whole thing is, of course, played up to a fever pitch on the 90 Day Fiancé: Happily Ever After? spin-off.

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A TLC executive recently told Marie Claire magazine that network executives “never really look at it as an immigration show.” Instead, the channel has portrayed 90 Day Fiancé as a documentary about the pursuit of love.

But TV shows can be a powerful influence on how we view the world. The effect of TV on societal attitudes has been studied extensively.

“Most reality shows are problematic in how they deal with race and gender issues,” says Rachel Dubrofsky, a professor at the University of South Florida, where she researches culture and reality TV. “90 Day Fiancé is timely by touching on current cultural anxieties about immigration. On the series, difficult immigration issues involving global structural inequalities, U.S. nativism, xenophobia and racism are turned into an entertainment product. It normalizes, [and] can make unremarkable, everyday racism, sexism and xenophobia, among other things.”

But by turning culture shock into content, Dubrofsky argues, much of the experience is glossed over or sanitized. “The series sidesteps the devastating real-life experiences of being from a different country and trying to live in the United States: separation from one’s children, indefinite detention in a center under horrific conditions, the risk of being deported and discrimination, to name just a few,” she says.

A study of 90 Day Fiancé by the Norman Lear Center’s Media Impact Project at the University of Southern California that isn’t published yet found that it has a large and varied audience. “Viewers of this show are predominantly female, and highly diverse, both in terms of race and ethnicity and political ideology,” says Erica Lynn Rosenthal, director of research at the center. “This suggests the show has a high potential to inform American audiences and shape their attitudes and beliefs about nonresidents, either positively or negatively.”

“Its popularity is not clear-cut,” Kraszewski says, “because a lot of the people I know who like the show are not in support of the border policies of this administration. I don’t know what their pleasure is. I think it tends to be that they like a circus. But there are very damaging messages about immigration.

“I can’t think of a show that resonated more with a political topic. The thing that’s so fascinating about it is I know people who are far left who love the show, and people who are far right who love the show. And yet it’s resonating with both types of people, but in different ways.”

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While they take no responsibility for their power, the producers never shy away from the immigration tropes — the opportunistic engagements, the pursuit of a better life in America, the green-card frauds — even though there is no evidence that such scams are actually common. The questioning of intentions remains a unifying plotline. The foreigners are all guilty until they are proven innocent by a purity test of loyalty to deeply flawed partners. And when relationships end, as relationships sometimes do, the show harps on the vengeful feelings of jilted exes attempting to get the partners they sponsored deported — as if a place in America was something bestowed by them and therefore also theirs to take away.

“You got to America because of me,” Tania Maduro from Season 7 tells her South African husband, Syngin Colchester, during a fight on Happily Ever After. “Where are you? Where were you when I found you?”

“In Cape Town,” Colchester deadpans. “Having a job and an apartment.”

The send-you-back play is all too on-the-nose in today’s political climate.

Yet the inverse deceptions are never explored. Plenty of the Americans aren’t forthcoming about their own motivations, about their finances, about past relationships, about run-ins with the law. The inherently skewed power dynamics are never explored. Nor is the question ever asked why the Americans look so far afield for a partner — usually on some app or website that caters to exactly these kinds of relationships, tilting the odds heavily in the Americans’ favor.

“The Americans are never implicated as being wrong,” Kraszewski says. “But they’re always labeled as being damaged and susceptible to being conned.”

Cultural insensitivity runs rampant through most every episode and is never reckoned with, either. Angela Deem, a sentient wrecking ball and the star of several seasons, flaunts her support for Donald Trump in Nigeria, a country the president demeaned and put on his travel ban list, while making only quarter-hearted attempts to accommodate the culture of her fiancé, the impossibly patient Michael Ilesanmi.

“I asked about your culture,” Deem tells Ilesanmi in a recent episode of Happily Ever After?. “You didn’t tell me nothing about I had to kiss your ass when I’m mad or when you’re wrong. And I’m not doing it for you or any other man.”

On a tell-all reunion episode, Deem pushes back against her new sister-in-law’s assertion that she ought to be submissive to her husband because that is the African way. “I don’t got to do s***, because I’m an American,” she bellows, before launching into a tirade.

On Season 4 of 90 Day Fiancé: Before the 90 Days, Lisa Hamme is more pliant while courting her own Nigerian, Usman Umar. But in a tell-all episode segment that never aired, Usman confronts the white Lisa with calling her much younger fiancé the N-word. On the evidence of the footage that did air, it didn’t feel out of character.

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Most of the immigrants are left disillusioned as the chasm becomes clear between the life they had imagined and the life they actually live stateside. Many of the American spouses are struggling to cling to the middle class, if they are in it at all. In that sense, they are everyday Americans. But they are rarely up-front about their economic situation with their prospective partners, instead leveraging the warped power dynamic to their benefit. Some of the immigrants arguably wind up worse off than they were in their home countries.

The foreigners suffer through it all, never cast as the victims of prejudice, deception or manipulation. From the show’s vantage point, it’s the Americans who are taking the risk, never them. The nuance to consider the immigrants’ plight is absent. It caters only to the worldview of its television market. Because once assimilated, every wave of American immigrants eyes the next one warily.

Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.

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