TLC's '90 Day Fiancé' is a xenophobic train wreck that Americans can't stop watching

Matt Sharp, Molly Hopkins, Paola Mayfield and Russ Mayfield
David Buchan/Variety/Shutterstock
ByLakin Starling

“I just don’t understand how you’re 48 and you still don’t have anything,” Annie, a 25-year-old bride-to-be from Thailand, tells her would-be fiancé. She’s one half of a couple on the TLC reality series, 90 Day Fiancé in which Americans quickly — and most of the time mindlessly — marry long distance partners in order for them to legally live together in the U.S. This particular couple, from season three, had audiences hooked. Annie’s fiancé, David, is a middle-aged white American man who she met at a Thai karaoke bar. Days before their traditional wedding, as they ride a tiny speed boat up a local river, Annie begins to realize how broke David is. Her soon-to-be husband claims he’s been low on funds ever since he lost his job and money in a tumultuous divorce from his ex-wife. Somehow, she is supposed to to leave Thailand and move to America to get married to this man.

All of the 90 Day Fiancé couples have up to 90 days to get married before the K-1 visa expires and forces them to go back to their home countries. On the show, the K-1 is mostly portrayed as a benign factor in a fairytale love story involving a non U.S. resident and an American. In practice, it’s mostly wielded as a tool lonely Americans use to expedite their thirst for companionship. A means to exert their privilege over their partner. The potential promise of citizenship is usually an embellished facade as cast members like Annie arrive to live in what they immediately recognize as a boring town in rural or middle America, void of financial security and far-off from the dream sold to them by their lovers.

In a nation filled with xenophobic rhetoric and policies, 90 Day Fiancé’s numerous storylines are complicit with the larger anti-immigrant sentiment in America.

In Annie and David’s case, they arrive in the U.S. and first live with David's wealthy friend Chris and his wife Nikki, then in an empty firehouse, and finally in a storage unit. Although she deals with disrespect from David’s adult daughter, his surprisingly heavy drinking, and lies about his debt, Annie stays with David despite the disappointments. The show covertly tilts the narrative to “prove” that Annie doesn’t have ulterior motives for coming to the U.S. In the show’s logic, she must put up with David’s half-assed efforts or be seen as a manipulator. In the trailer for the follow-up spinoff, 90 Day Fiancé: Happily Ever After, Annie warns her husband that if he doesn’t move them out of the storage unit where they’re living, that she would go back to Thailand.

"My life in America is not happy like [how I thought it would be], but I love you, and I want to support you,” Annie says on a clip from the season. "So I will stay here and try to be happy for you. I will pack my bag and I will move there with you, but I will not unpack my bag because this is not my home."

As I watch the show, which is now in its sixth season, every week, I always wonder, what kind of person can uproot another person from their homeland with promises of a good life and lie about everything? This doesn’t negate that real love transcends borders, but seeking out a partner in a foreign country with the intention of changing them and/or interrupting their life with no regard for their culture can’t be trusted. It’s the motives of the Americans that are often most alarmingly questionable. We see first-hand the lengths they’ll go to satisfy their desperation for control and companionship.

In another episode, a Dominican Republic native named Luis marries Molly, a busy-body entrepreneur and single mother of two. The couple met while Molly was on vacation in the DR but the fairytale ended quickly when Luis showed very little interest in their home life, being a stepfather or making new friends. In the end, they divorced. It’s worth considering how stifling it must feel to have to quickly adapt to a household and parental roles while your status of legality is determined by the government and your intimate partner.

The Americans make such pointed choices to pursue foreigners of specific nationalities. It often reeks of fetishization.

It was almost unbearable to see Season 6’s chaotic couple, Ashley and Jay, have an argument about infidelity that results in Jay's wife calling immigration to get her black Jamaican husband deported. Without fail, after each break-up, just about every American threatens to send their ex back to their home country.In a nation filled with xenophobic rhetoric and policies, 90 Day Fiancé’s numerous storylines are complicit with the larger anti-immigrant sentiment in America.

90 Day Fiancé leaves out a big chunk of this type of lopsided relationship dynamic. The Americans make such pointed choices to pursue foreigners of specific nationalities. It often reeks of fetishization.

Despite some of the lofty myths about America’s wonder, there must surely be people from the U.S. who seek out international partners with intentions of gaining access to another country. American born citizens are not exempt from using privilege to work in their personal favor elsewhere. The closest we get to see things on the flipside is during the new 2019 spinoff, 90 Day: The Other Way. In this set-up, the U.S. citizen decides to give up everything and go live in another country and get married to their partner. As expected, the visits are tumultuous and the Americans take issue with having to adapt to the various social and cultural rules of each country.

In India, Jenny, a 60-year-old white woman in a sham of a relationship with Sumit, complains about having to wear saris in his neighborhood. Over in Tunisia, Aladin and Laura get married despite their 25-year plus age difference. As she gets dressed up in her traditional Tunisian bridal garments, Laura complains and pouts during the massive celebration.

Elsewhere in the North African country, Rebecca suspects that her jealous boyfriend Zied only wants her for her cash (which he does) and talks down about his family home. She makes judgments all while still being married to a Moroccan man that she refers to as a controlling and one she changed her life for. It’s mind-boggling that she, a professional private investigator, continues to seek out men with similar backgrounds and beliefs, and still find a way to absolve herself of the ability to acknowledge what those cultural differences mean. She, just like everyone else on the show ignores several red flags.

The unwillingness to be held accountable while also resisting and refusing to honor the customs of a different country is truly the most American thing ever. The storylines in the show also have the power to encourage harmful stereotypes about immigrants and their reasons for moving to the U.S. There aren’t any moments that push the casts to have a responsible dialogue about the crookery of the Americans and the truths about the uneven power dynamics in these relationships. It is, of course, reality tv full of sensation and dramatic stops. But with the K-1 visa being what ties each couple together, it’s a missed opportunity to unpack what it means to have a shaky relationship that’s revolved around citizenship.