90 Day Fiance is a massively successful franchise consisting of an ever-growing bouquest of spinoffs.
Memes from the show are spread far and wide, some shared by people who have never watched the show.
The cultural impact of this hit TLC series cannot be questioned.
But what a growing portion of the audience -- even hardcore fans -- are questioning is whether the show's cultural impact is a good thing.
The show has undertones of racism, xenophobia, and misogyny.
This isn't just about the stars, either.
At every stage of the process, it sometimes appears that 90 Day Fiance aims to appeal to the worst assumptions that viewers already have.
This doesn't mean that we can't watch 90 Day Fiance or enjoy it, but it's important to be cognizant of exactly what we are consuming.
And 90 Day Fiance has some real problems that are growing bigger as the show tries to outdo past seasons with each new season and spinoff.
90 Day Fiance has a race problem
No, not a race problem -- a race-ISM problem. In that, it is very representative of many American (and international) institutions. There are also issues of xenophobia and misogyny.
Not all racism looks the same
It's not as simple as Baby Girl Lisa calling her husband Usman, a Nigerian man, the N-word -- a slur that she also favored using on social media -- and TLC cut the footage of it and rehired her. Only when the footage leaked followed by courageous Black Lives Matter protests from coast to coast did TLC realize that maybe having a slur-slinging racist on their network was not a great idea, at which point they reportedly fired Lisa from B90 Strikes Back. That's one of the more obvious examples ... but the main problem with the franchise is more insidious.
This is a complicated, multi-faceted topic
It's not always about the stars of the show proudly spouting American supremacy, though that is a deeply screwed up thing to watch. Angela Deem is beyond parody at this point. If all of the problems with 90 Day Fiance were as glaringly obvious as the verbally abusive and toxic stuff that comes out of her mouth, it wouldn't be an issue.
In a way, 90 Day Fiance is not alone
Many reality shows are accused of reinforcing racism and misogyny in their viewers, with shows like The Real Housewives of Atlanta having been the subject of lengthy scholarly articles on the pernicious ways that they cement racist stereotypes in the mindsets of viewers.
Step 1: Casting
Reality TV isn't scripted, but there are a number of tools on hand to guarantee that what you produce is entertaining and will resonate with your audience. The first step is editing. Though 90 Day Fiance is always sure to include at least a few couples that are just dealing with some awkwardness or some outside adversity but are otherwise normal people in love, they also cast couples with dramatic or even suspicious age gaps, couples where one or both parties appear to be a scammer, and they're always happy to cast stars who appear to have ... glaring personality disorders that will play well on TV.
Step 2: Meddling
Production sets up group activities, asks stars to repeat a line more audibly or with more energy, and can ask leading questions in confessionals to get stars to say what they want, how they want them to without feeding them a script. Production prods the stars to fight each other at Tell All specials, dangling the possibility of future seasons if they are entertaining enough. In some cases, they straight-up feed stars lines -- as they famously did to a friend of David and Annie's, who was filmed asking Annie for a "massage" at the insistence of producers who wanted to create needless awkwardness.
Step 3: Editing
Editing can destroy any context. Last year, Jihoon got distracted by his phone and stopped watching Drascilla while Deavan was putting Taeyang into the car. Drascilla ended up in the road, and Elicia chewed out Jihoon for his careless neglect. What did 90 Day Fiance viewers see? An unrelated scene filmed earlier in which Drascilla ran ahead from the group for a few seconds, followed by Elicia and Deavan reacting as if Drascilla had nearly been hit by a car. Why? Because 90 Day Fiance chose to not put the situation in context, and obviously figured that it would be more dramatic to show Deavan and Elicia "overreacting" than to show the truth. Or, more generally, think about the 90 Day stars who are constantly shown crying or complaining. They are filmed for months to produce just a few hours of footage each season. Editors can make it look like they spend every few minutes in tears if they want to.
90 Day Fiance has done all of this
They hire couples who are power kegs of drama, tweak events with activities and prompts from pruduction to get the scenes that they want, and edit them however they pleace.
The worst behavior gets rewarded
With rare exceptions -- like couples who are facing a lot of adversity from outside forces -- we see the most polarizing stars come back again and again. Not all of them are bad people by any means, but if fans LOVE to hate them or their spouse, they're much more likely to return to the show.
90 Day Fiance goes beyond that
Ever noticed the music that the show likes to play as they show market stalls or walls in need of a fresh coat of paint in other countries? A number of international viewers (particularly in South Africa) have come forward to say that the music choices are downright offensive. And that's just a taste of the subtle hints of xenophobia on the show.
Xenophobia is a funny thing
... because it doesn't always seem to mean that viewers hate the non-American member of a couple. Sometimes, it's much more pernicious -- where ignorance and bias lead American viewers to "scold" the American star on social media for the relationship. This happens especially on 90 Day Fiance: The Other Way, where the star is admonished for even considering moving away from the US.
That one gets xenophobes riled up the most
The deeply xenophobic and often racist "send her back!!!" and "he's just after a green card!!" rhetoric from the other shows is traded away on The Other Way for a new angle. American stars are viewed as self-destructive for even considering living abroad.
It's not always openly hostile
One of the more innocuous examples is fan-favorite couple Kenneth Niedermeier and Armando Rubio from Season 2 of 90 Day Fiance: The Other Way.
They're 90 Day Fiance's first gay couple
Armando was nervous about homophobia from day one, afraid of PDA. He and Kenneth were called a slur one night at dinner. We all watched as they began their uphill battle for a marriage certificate.
They had real concerns about their future ...
This has led to a near-constant social media cacophany of "just move to Florida" as if a pair of husbands moving to the US with a little Mexican girl who doesn't speak English under the Trump administration (when Season 2 was filmed) is easy, safe, or in everyone's best interests. Also as if there isn't homophobia in the US.
See, a lot of viewers already have assumptions
... as if Mexico didn't have extremely gay-friendly cities just like the US, or hadn't had Marriage Equality for about the same length of time. And 90 Day Fiance, the show, does almost nothing to educate viewers. They don't think that it's their job ... and, more to the point, the more outraged and frustrated viewers are at the stars, they more of a splash they make on social media, driving further interest in the show. In this way, the show is actively discouraged from keeping its viewers well-informed. More polarizing stars drive interest. Nuanced, well-informed takes do not.
No amount of "research" can fix bigotry
Kenneth found himself defending his choices to trolls who tried to admonish him for "not doing his research." It's weird, because we all saw the same episodes, where he and Armando confirmed that Marriage Equality is legal specifically where they live, and also nationwide.
Speaking of "research"
That leads us to an even better example: Brittany Banks, another star repeatedly told that she should have "done her research."
All of this scolding from fans came on the heels of her getting chewed out by an angry and verbally abusive boyfriend, Yazan Abo Horira. (Yes, much of Yazan's situation as a young man who wants to live life on his own terms but is entrenched in his conservative family's views is very sympathetic. No, that does not excuse how he spoke to Brittany when he picked her up from the airport. Nothing could)
Xenophobia makes for strange bedfellows
Now you'd normally think that racism, xenophobia, and Islamophobia would form an unholy union to make Yazan the ultimate "villain" in the eyes of viewers. In some cases, that's true. Some 90 Day Fiance fans have said vile, vicious things about Yazan -- talking about his Jordanian features, repeating bigoted claims about his faith, and more. But something interesting has also happened.
Whatever they think of Yazan, they hate Brittany more
A lot of of the people with negative opinions about Islam and Muslim-majority countries don't, for example, think that Yazan is awful -- not from their social media comments, either. Instead, they think that Brittany should have "known better" than to go there.
This is where the "research" line comes up
She brought tequila with her? You can see people on social media scream and stomp their feet about how "research" would have told her to not do this. Except that alcohol is legal in Jordan. There are bars. Some restaurants serve alcohol. Brittany is not legally required to wear a hijab, or to cover up (even if she gets stares and verbal harassment if she wears a low neckline). Everything that Yazan gave Brittany grief for was about his conservative family's expectations, expectations that he did not communicate to Brittany because he was in love with her. Think of it this way: researching life in the US might prepare someone for a move here, but marrying into a deeply conservative US family might be a very different experience. The same thing happens when things are The Other Way.
They think that Jordan is too "other" for any American
But this shaming of Brittany is also a race problem -- by which we mean a race-ISM problem. And a misogyny problem. Brittany is a Black woman who is not afraid to flaunt her body. In the eyes of some reality TV viewers, there is nothing more detestable. Slut-shaming takes on a new form, as American viewers have "warned" that Jordanians will "stone Brittany to death," which shows how little they know or want to know about Jordan.
Brittany is not alone
About the misogyny -- it's not just Brittany. Women who find themselves rushing into a relationship because of pregnancy are shamed, either for having faulty birth-control or for having the audacity to have sex at all. Curiously, the men who knock them up don't seem to get any grief for doing so. 90 Day Fiance didn't create these cultural biases, but the show sure seems to play to these kinds of patriarchal double standards to get a rise out of viewers.
There's even more
Some -- including scholars and educators -- have openly mused about the rise of 90 Day Fiance and how it has coincided with Donald Trump's rise to political power in the US as he ran a campaign and then an administration founded on racism, nativism, white supremacy, and Islamophobia.
Look at how immigrants are portrayed
Mohamed and Danielle are decidedly the stars who "put 90 Day Fiance on the map," and they are also -- let's be honest -- both scammers. 90 Day Fiance loves playing up the idea that a significant portion of international relationships are scams -- an older American being preyed upon by a younger opportunist who wants a green card.
And the infamous "gold digger" accusations
That accusation might work when applied to someone like Anfisa Arkhipchenko Nava, but people have come right out and accused Azan Tefou (real name Hassan M'Raouni) of being a "gold digger." Nicole Nafziger was, until very recently, a Starbucks barista, leading us to ask the obvious question: what gold? But the question and answer do not really matter to anyone who has already decided that Azan is running a scam and that Nicole is a fool ... a fool whom they will then hate.
The rest of the world is shown as poor and dangerous
The reality, as we know very well, is that poverty is a devastating problem in the US, alongside gun violence. Hate crimes have been escalating for the past several years. Meanwhile, many of the countries featured on 90 Day Fiance have wealth and luxuries that the cameras willfully ignore so that they can film a cow wandering beside a dirt road or dead goat parts sitting out in an open market.
It's okay to discuss poverty
Ariela and her family received a lot of hate for acknowledging how low the standard of living in Ethiopia is after centuries of colonial exploitation, but there's nothing wrong with discussing reality. The problem is when almost every country is portrayed the same way.
So ... is 90 Day Fiance racist?
Yeah. But as we have seen, the show has bigger problems with xenophobia and misogyny. TLC and Sharp didn't create the biases and prejudices that exist in the hearts of many viewers or in our culture, but it definitely uses these "preexisting conditions" and encourages them by confirming every ignorant bias with casting, production, and editing.
There's one piece of good news
Between a lot of people having common sense and the ready accessibility of more and more 90 Day Fiance stars on social media, not everyone in the viewing audience falls for the narratives that they're being spoon fed. Some people just know better.