On a recent episode of 90 Day Fiancé: The Other Way, cast member Ariela travels to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia with her mother, Janice, for moral support. Ariela, who is pregnant and positioned as a world traveler, has decided to move to Addis Ababa to be with her child’s father, Biniyam, who she met on vacation, even though she is concerned about the potential lack of painkillers in the hospitals here. Janice describes the drive to her daughter’s new home as “nerve-wracking” and feels “concerned” about the “extreme poverty” to the point that she had “chest pain” entering the temporary apartment her daughter’s boyfriend had procured while his two-bedroom apartment was under construction (which was also found unsatisfactory). Janice swears she is “not a snob”—it’s just that she comes from a different culture and has visited poor countries before where she says “the people are very nice.”
Ariela acknowledges it can be “intimidating” to see the “beggars on the street, garbage everywhere”—it is perhaps no accident that she makes a subtle comparison of the underclass in Addis to garbage while complaining that her boyfriend should have gotten everything ready given how much she, a U.S. citizen, has given up to be there. Her worldliness ideally would have given her more perspective, but Ariela is a white woman who, while holding her belief in Judaism as highly important to raise her child in, calls her boyfriend’s beliefs “superstitious.” Yikes!
This is just one couple on the second season of 90 Day Fiancé: The Other Way, a spin-off of the series that started in 2014. Depicting U.S. citizens traveling abroad to be with their international partners, 90 Day Fiancé: The Other Way’s “other way” is a reversal from the parent show’s premise where subjects have to marry in 90 days on K-1 visas to stay in the U.S. In this version, the U.S. citizens go abroad. This reversal should, in theory, lessen the xenophobic violence of bringing a foreign national to the United States with precarious legal and economic status, but this spin-off becomes a rich text about the passport privilege into which U.S. citizens are born. In following U.S. citizens as they largely refuse to assimilate or even understand the host country’s culture, the show inadvertently draws a contrast to the tacit expectation of assimilation and humility from immigrants of the global south who move to richer countries.
Like the original show, the spin-off highlights cultural differences as the main source of conflict, and like the original, it shies away from making any sort of critique of the xenophobic, racist, and bigoted behaviors of its subjects. 90 Day Fiancé: The Other Way conjures and captures conflict that is inherently political, by nature of the difference of power in the relationships, a differential that is further brought into relief when I see the way some U.S. citizens traipse across continents, turning their noses up at the living conditions of people they purport to love, opening their cultures up to the censure of a TLC television show.
Most of these couples are not the stereotypical older white man looking for the derisively titled “mail order bride.” (I mean, some are—and most of the men treat love as capital.) The power dynamics are more insidious than that: They are rooted in passport privilege, that is, the privilege of unequal access to foreign space. It is also informed by the unequal access to opportunities, as citizens from countries that have concentrated wealth on account of colonialism and wars can travel more. Their currency goes further, just like the citizens of these countries physically do.
Travel as leisure indicates a degree of privilege as it is—but to travel with the seventh most powerful passport in the world (a slide from No. 1 in 2015), from the richest country in the world, is a privilege that many U.S. citizens can take for granted. It is near impossible for a white American to be ascribed the identity of immigrant. Passport privilege turns these travelers into expats rather than immigrants: to immigrate to another country requires a lesser status in the world. In 90-Day Fiancé: The Other Way, trite phrases like “sacrificed so much” and “given up everything,” are bandied about by these U.S. citizens and their families, making them appear cognizant of their power and yet completely ignorant of how that lack of parity makes their relationships fundamentally unequal. These subjects do not have the pressure to assimilate like their foreign counterparts would have to in moving to the U.S. Like other pregnant American halves on the show, Ariela also frets over what is “safe” for a baby to grow up in, what childbirth conditions are ideal—indicating that these countries are not good enough for U.S. citizens, adults or infants.
It is surreal to watch 90 Day Fiancé: The Other Way in the era of coronavirus when the U.S. passport’s power has significantly declined. In the Trump era, U.S. conservatives wanted a wall—and I’m sure Mexico wants it too, now, having closed the borders in Arizona due to COVID-19. U.S. citizens are not welcome, explicitly because of our infectious selves, while also broadly reviled because of our country’s political antics. It is curious to think about how this loss of passport privilege is affecting people whose Tinder bios once read “Travel is life” and purported to be “digital nomads.” The Eat, Pray, Love model of drowning existential anxiety as an Occidental traveler doesn’t quite work if they cannot forget their worries and fill their void of culture in a new country that doesn’t want them anymore. The Occidental traveler seeks authenticity from their travels, and love can feel like the most authentic way to experience it—the fact that this is extracted from the Occidental traveler’s movement in the world sets the visited country or person as a resource to be exploited. And now, to watch a show about moving across the world out of choice—when the idea of going anywhere at all, even the grocery store, is a ludicrous and worrisome prospect—is a trip.
A story arc from Season 1 of the show depicts Jenny, a 60-year-old white woman who is in love with a 30-year-old Indian man, Sumit, who catfished her, frantic that she won’t get a visa in time. That this is an anomaly on the show, from a franchise predicated on the difficulty of moving to the U.S., a spin-off purely based on the partners of these U.S. citizens being unable to move to the U.S. themselves, is telling. Visas are not hard for U.S. citizens to come by, but somehow viewers are to believe that they are equal to their partners. As Scaachi Koul wrote for Buzzfeed on 90 Day Fiancé, it is a show that depicts how the nation-state process of visas and border patrol turns adults into dependents.
In televising stories of perhaps wily foreigners and deluded U.S. citizens to a country marked by immigration anxiety, this direct, center-of-the-aisle play for “nonpartisan” television leaves so much room for conjecture. You could walk away like I did, full of critiques of the callous way in which U.S. citizens travel the world and treat their partners. It could be a study about passport privilege that makes the case for no borders, a living document of the delusions of love, of anti-fantasy catastrophic television. Or maybe, after watching the franchise prod family members to accuse characters of wanting green cards and having ulterior motives, you’ll find the foreigners shady for not having the “right reasons.” Maybe the main show can form an argument for discontinuing the fiancée visa altogether. The show does not critique or treat the U.S. citizens with the same mistrust it engenders for its foreign nationals. (For e.g., seasons of 90 Day Fiancé: The Other Way highlight patriarchal Muslim men while also putting the U.S. women in a position to be victim-blamed for not knowing any better. You can hate either character and feel justified, though the choice feels inherently Islamophobic and misogynist.)
It is this ambiguity in which the show really “works”—it does not alienate most U.S. citizens since it places a high priority on U.S. citizenship as being coveted, important, needed. That is political. Immigration is political. Travel is political. Love is political.
Immigrating is way harder than many U.S. citizens think it is. It is taken for granted that people from the global south would wave brave goodbyes to their family members leaving forever to find opportunity—an innuendo for trading safety and community for the chance to be more prosperously exploited for labor—but when a white, blonde family cries seeing their gay father drive away in his move to Mexico to be with his much younger paramour, the spectacle of white tears is supposed to elicit an emotion that I find completely absent within.
That moving could be a choice rather than a compunction, a complex interaction of colonialism, class, and war is far beyond my emotional logic. There is no glamour, no Instagram followers, no interest in the average story of economic immigration. It is a given, that here is better, and there is worse. That someone would choose worse is confusing, and thus, as reality television, engrossing.
Aditi Natasha Kini writes cultural criticism, essays, and scripts in Queens, New York.