Reality TV phenomenon “90 Day Fiancé” kicked off its 10th season last Sunday. We got to meet the lucky internationals who got a K-1 visa and 90 days in America to decide whether they will marry their American fiancés or call it off and go back home.
In a vintage “90 Day Fiancé” moment, Jasmine explained what she — a Kardashian knock-off — saw in Gino, a man 20 years her senior who lives in Canton, Michigan: “He has the belly fat, the flamingo legs, the sharky nose, the nonexistent lips, it’s kind of my thing.”
This mix of brutal honesty, questionable motives, and slow-motion trainwrecks is the heart of “90 Day Fiancé.” The show’s dramatic tension derives from obvious imbalances in these relationships: a beautiful immigrant and a frumpy American, a Third World resident eyeing an American suburb. Seemingly every season, at least one concerned friend asks, “Do you think he’s just in it for the green card?” This simple formula made “90 Day Fiancé” into TLC’s flagship program, but it has become a liability.
Reality TV from a Politically Incorrect Era
The unspoken assumptions of the drama — that beauty standards are real, that America is a desirable destination, that age might be a meaningful relationship factor — are no longer politically correct. It’s fat-shaming. It’s ageist. These immigrants aren’t from the “Third World.” It’s the “Southern Hemisphere” — no better, no worse than the USA. And to entertain the thought that these immigrants may be self-seeking or dishonest is xenophobic.
The show hinges on cultural difference fused with romance, presenting the obvious risk of cultural value judgments (a no-no) in favor of American values (big no-no). “90 Day Fiancé” debuted in 2014, just before The Great Awokening, and it’s hard to imagine it getting greenlit today.
Yet, it is a massive hit. There are now spin-off shows for every stage of this K-1 process and a devoted Reddit community with verve and spice that might exceed the drama of the show itself. The showrunners face a dilemma: They have a hit program that demands a re-up in a climate ready to cancel it.
So, this season, they tried a bait and switch to take the most threatening aspects of “90 Day Fiancé” — traditional values, American exceptionalism, and objective beauty standards — and subvert them with an American witch, a U.K. immigrant, and a trans person.
A Huckster Witch Toying with the Occult
This season opens with Ashley, a modern-day witch engaged to a Latin American Catholic. Her witchcraft borders on outright hucksterism, from vague Tarot card readings (I’m sensing “limiting beliefs”) to basic mindfulness techniques (she says witchcraft is “working with your own intuitions through all different kind of spell work, affirmation work, mantra work.”) Yet by making the American the witch, the show inverts its prior message.
Previous seasons often featured Mormons (who met international fiancés on mission) or other stable, Norman Rockwell-type families. But now America exports its enlightened tolerance of the occult to backward Christian immigrants. When asked if “witchiness” is a thing in Ecuador, Ashley replies with mock solemnity, “No, GOD is a thing in Ecuador.”
She is saddened to find that her Catholic fiancé Manuel would like her to be Catholic too and views witches with a “negative connotation.” She worries that he won’t accept that this is who she is, that this is her lifestyle. In other words, she worries that he will reject the cornerstone of modern American ethics: “You do you.” What if he is bothered by her “actively working at [her] altar?” Viewers are encouraged to sympathize with her plight.
How sad, this bitter fruit of colonialism: Christianity. The backward immigrant and the knowledgeable American, a trope of the series, are now inverted: The immigrant is the narrowminded Catholic, the American is the wise witch.
U.K. Immigrant Reluctantly Comes to America
Here to discredit the idea that America is anything special, we have Rob from L.A. and Sophie from London. Rob lives in a studio apartment in a rough part of Inglewood, with a shared bathroom that resembles an outhouse. Meanwhile, Sophie comes from an upper crust British family. Moving to America is a downgrade for her.
See, America is not great, especially compared to Europe. Immigrants to America come for all sorts of reason, but it’s not because we’re a shining city on a hill or a land of opportunity. Having to live here is a sacrifice they make for love. Sophie and Rob are both mixed race, though that may not be obvious from her bleach-blonde hair and light skin. They bonded over shared experiences of bullying and racism as kids, the legacy of their colonialist countries.
Butt Implants and Genital Surgeries
Then, there are two people this season who love plastic surgery. One is a woman named Jasmine, who spent the budget of her wedding dress on butt implants.
The other is Nicole Sanders, who was born a man, and then underwent transgender surgery followed by “every plastic surgery procedure from head to toe. Nose, lips, jaw, chin, cheek implants, eye color change, breasts.” After telling all this, Nicole laughs and quips, “You can’t expect a woman to have all these curves naturally,” which is the heavy-handed narrative for Nicole: Trans women are women.
Nicole got surgery just like Jasmine. Nicole’s stage name is Nikki Exotica, and viewers are thus assured that Nicole understands the difference between an alter ego — Nikki Exotica — and being truly transgender. This is not a case of confusion! Yet, despite all that certainty and the shared experiences with Jasmine, Nicole is not accepted by straight men, including the fiancé: Justin.
At first, Nicole’s trans life was “stealth,” to the point of only telling Justin after two years of dating, “I used to be a man.” It took Justin time to come around, but now, Nicole, at age 47, feels like this may be the last shot: “It’s very rare you’ll find a straight man to date a trans woman.” The focus in these 90 days will be on sexual intimacy, which Nicole found lacking after Justin learned about the transgender surgeries. The show portrays Nicole as a romantic deserving of pity: a woman in every way yet limited by a world of straight male bigots.
TLC Joins the Revolution
Season 10 of TLC’s “90 Day Fiancé” retains some of the elements that made this series a juggernaut, but the original assumptions behind the show have been turned on their head. America is no longer cast as a land of opportunity, stability, and plenty. Now, it is the land of fundamentalism, bigotry, and racism, which its citizens and immigrants seek to vanquish with tolerance and witchcraft. This is a formula for leftist praise but perhaps not great reality TV.
This article has been updated.