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neither /nor 90 day fiancé and america’s current reality

by ashley ray-harris


AY FIANCÉ / NEITHER / NOR / 90 D / NOR / 90 DAY FIANCÉ / NEITHER DAY FIANCÉ / NEITHER / NOR / 90 R / NOR / 90 DAY FIANCÉ / NEITHE AY FIANCÉ / NEITHER / NOR / 90 D ITHER / NOR / 90 DAY FIANCÉ / N 90 DAY FIANCÉ / NEITHER / NOR / THER / NOR / 90 DAY FIANCÉ / NEI


NEITHER /NOR

’ 90 DAY FIANCE AND AMERICA’S CURRENT REALITY

BY ASHLEY RAY-HARRIS


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ABOUT ASHLEY RAY-HARRIS

Ashley Ray-Harris is a Los Angeles-based writer, comedian, and culture critic by way of Rockford, IL (and Chicago). Across mediums, Ray’s writing explores the intimacies of race, gender, queerness, and sexuality. Her writing has appeared in The A.V. Club, The Guardian, Cosmopolitan, Elle, Variety, Bitch Media, Vice, Jezebel, The Chicago Reader and Vulture. A frequent Tweeter (before she was suspended) and podcast guest, Ray’s comedy has been covered in The New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, Vulture, and VoyageLA. Her newsletter TV I Say was named by Marie Claire as “One of the Best 2020 Newsletters to Subscribe to That Will Keep You Informed and Entertained.” Her podcast of the same name features guests like Seth Rogen, Roxane Gay, and Nicole Byer dissecting everything that makes television great.


9 0 DAY F I A N C É A N D A M E R I CA’S C U R R E N T R E AL I T Y

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FOREWORD WHEN TRUE/FALSE

began in 2004 you’d get laughed at for suggesting that reality TV should be taken seriously. I should know — it happened to me. But reality TV has always contained some of the essence of what we love about nonfiction cinema: moments, often fleeting, that feel completely unguarded; moments that open a window on the deeper truths of the human condition. Even more, surrounding those moments we can see the complex scaffolding of “realness” — that potent mix of construction, encouragement, manipulation and fantasy that encases these shows. It’s this material that mediates any potential honesty in the content, and offers a readymade opportunity to actively explore the in-between space — the slash in True/False that continues to be the soul of our fest. Enter Ashley Ray-Harris. Ashley is not only one of the funniest writers on pop culture and television out there, but she’s also one of the most perceptive. This effortless mix of humor and critical inquiry felt exactly right for our annual Neither/Nor series, which asks

critics to explore the murky outer reaches of nonfiction cinema. Ashley’s deep knowledge of the form was invaluable in allowing her to leap past defensive pedantry and situate shows like 90 Day Fiancé in the larger Nonfiction Cinematic Universe. In doing so, she encourages us to engage fully as active readers. To consider how form and milieu affect nonfiction storytelling, and, most excitingly, where the restrictions of the form become opportunities for reality TV to chart new territory. And, like all great guides, the path Ashley blazes may not be one we would have arrived at on our own, but once you’ve gone on the journey, her take on why you shouldn’t take reality TV for granted seems, well, obvious. We’re grateful for her wit and vision. There’s much more to unpack in the world of reality television, but this essay (and the accompanying episodes) go a long way towards making the case for the documentary world to take reality shows seriously. It’s about time. ■

— D AV I D W I L S O N , A R T I S T I C D I R E C T O R

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90 DAY FIANCÉ AND AMERICA’S CURRENT REALITY

BY ASHLEY RAY-HARRIS

W I T H T H E E L E C T I O N of Donald Trump to the presidency in 2016, the impact of reality TV could no longer be contained to the world of television and entertainment. Trump rose from a particular brand of reality TV that defined American culture for much of the early-2000s. Debuting in 2004, The Apprentice was contemporaries with staples such as America’s Next Top Model, Laguna Beach and The Simple Life. These “reality” shows didn’t focus on anything that was actually real.

While Tyra Banks managed to convince a generation that balancing a tarantula on your face was a necessary skill for every model, the only thing about America’s Next Top Model that reflected the real modeling industry was its brazen racism and transphobia. These shows weren’t meant to be faithful depictions of the American experience. They were meant to be escapes from that experience. While it’s often hard to look back on these shows and see the blatant issues with them, at the time, they sat within a clear

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cultural context: this isn’t actually reality, this is the reality of our fantasies. A reality where Paris Hilton can be your best friend while you explore The Hills and you can smize your way into a modeling contract just by following Tyra Banks’ advice. Sure, most of us knew that’s not how things really worked, but why couldn’t we believe in an alternate reality where Donald Trump could make you a millionaire overnight? It was the early-2000s, what could go wrong? Well, with the help of social media, the context of these shows started to change. For a new generation of viewers, the fantasy became a reality. By the time Keeping Up With The Kardashians premiered in 2007, there was no longer the expectation that these people

“took off” their Kardashian characters when the camera was off. The same Kardashians you saw on E! were now the same Kardashians you saw on Twitter and later, Instagram. Look at Khloe Kardashian’s recent attempts to have a perfectly fine photo her grandmother took of her scrubbed from the internet. Why? The candid image didn’t match the processed, filtered vision we’ve come to associate with her brand and lifestyle. For the Kardashians, the fantasy moved away from TV entertainment and became the entire reality. The intimacy of social media further blurs this line, with followers believing and attempting to mimic the fantasy too. And honestly, “fake it til’ you make it” could’ve been the mantra for a generation if

WHY COULDN’T WE BELIEVE IN AN ALTERNATE REALITY WHERE DONALD TRUMP COULD MAKE YOU A MILLIONAIRE OVERNIGHT? IT WAS THE EARLY-2000S? WHAT COULD GO WRONG?


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LOREN & ALEXEI a shady businessman-turned-reality TV star hadn’t made his way into the White House. Over the course of Trump’s presidency, the image of celebrity started to tarnish. If these figures no longer worked as symbols of fantasy, the superficiality of the words was only more clear under the harsh light of our current reality. What good did Trump’s catchphrases do in the face of rampant poverty and the violent consequences of his policies? And with the onset of COVID-19, even celebrities who rarely stepped into the political arena became targets. Most of us were trapped at home watching reality stars like the Kardashians access privileges we’ll

never know or understand. As much of the world grappled with loss, Kim was able to fly her entire family to a private island for her birthday during a global pandemic. Many people, given her level of wealth, would probably do the same, but it was just another example of the divide between fantasy and reality. Audiences started to end their love affair with this dominant strain of pop culture media. By the time Trump would be voted out, the final season of Keeping Up With the Kardashians was announced. Similar franchises like The Real Housewives continue to have strong ratings; there’s no longer any pretense that this is a look at “real” people,


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but people who have become celebrities because they were on reality television. In a world where TikTok and Instagram stars can easily access that same fame, it’s hard to imagine this aspect of the early-2000s happening now. In fact, most reality TV stars today will admit they go on shows in the hopes of increasing their social media following since that’s where more lucrative opportunities lie. Is it sad to imagine a future where television can’t produce the likes of a NeNe Leakes or a Kylie Jenner? Is it bad that we’re transferring the attention of the celebrity machine to social media where the masses can benefit from the current confusing definition of “famous”? Probably not. Wealth, fantasy and celebrity will always be media commodities. In our current reality, fame doesn’t require the nepotism of the Kardashian clan or the producer-driven antics of reality TV fights. There’s no need to rely on PR machines or paparazzi when a viral video can get you invited to do late night talk show interviews. Now, a 16-year old on TikTok has just as much of a right to “celebrity” and stardom as a pop singer’s sibling in the early 2000s. What’s more interesting is how audiences and television networks have responded to

this cultural shift. While the “documentary style” reality show format is the oldest form of the genre, it rarely made “must watch” TV. Unlike the flashy manufactured, structured drama of early reality shows like The Real World or Big Brother, documentary-style shows of the early-2000s lacked a fantastical element. MTV’s Teen Mom and early TLC and A&E programming such as Hoarders and Intervention are the best examples: they didn’t want to exploit their subjects for fame, they sought to educate the public, with entertainment as a secondary motive. If you wanted to learn about life as a Mormon polygamist or what it’s like to live in a house with 4,000 dead mice, the genre had always been there. And yes, these shows were absolutely exploitative in their early iterations. It is not hard to understand that producers fail to intervene in situations because they want engaging footage. But with the media finally reckoning with its role in the perpetuation of rape culture, misogyny and victimization, the genre has been refined over the course the last decade. For example, docu-series such as STARZ’ Seduced or iD’s Evil Lives Here center the stories of victims in the true crime genre; a shift from the previous gory focus on male serial killers and their deeds. With viewers now


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LOREN & ALEXEI


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understanding the intersection of the media they watch and movements like Black Lives Matter and #MeToo, it’s harder for networks and producers to avoid accountability when it comes to how their subjects are treated. It also doesn’t hurt that it’s now easier than ever for your subject to go on social media and speak up for themselves if they aren’t treated fairly. But as we entered a new dawn of reality entertainment under an incredibly unentertaining president, there was one show that seemed to anticipate this trend. Debuting in 2014 on TLC, 90 Day Fiancé was an instant success and would soon become a reality TV empire. With TLC living up to its name of being...well, something like a “learning” channel, 90 Day Fiancé originally debuted with the purpose of educating people on the K1 visa process. By the end of the series’ first season, the show would become television’s best examination of nearly every system that supports and constricts the American dream. Among adult women under 50, the TLC series outdrew shows such as America’s Got Talent, Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, and Below Deck in 2020. If reality TV was once synonymous with rich housewives and semicelebrity sex tape empires, 90 Day Fiancé proved that was no longer the case.

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WHEN MOST PEOPLE

hear about 90 Day Fiancé, they think it sounds like a datingconcept show. Something like The Bachelor, Married at First Sight or Love is Blind, where contestants participate in an experiment or contest for romance over the course of 90 days. That’s not the case. The show looks at real, already-existing long distance couples as they finally decide to get married, requiring one of the fiancés to make the permanent move to America. If the producers’ vetting is to be believed, these are people who would be doing this whether cameras were around or not. The show also doesn’t offer even enough compensation to support most of them through the application fees of the K1 visa process. This allows 90 Day Fiancé to paint with a wide brush when it comes to the selection of its participants. They all have their own reasons for being on the show. Yes, of course, some of them just want more Instagram followers. But most of the time the opportunity available to them is about more than that: for some it’s actual love and romance, for others it’s the promise of citizenship or financial stability. The show itself refuses to favor one dominant narrative.

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THERE ARE FEW UNCOMFORTABLE TRUTHS 90 DAY FIANCÉ HASN’T HAD ON DISPLAY FOR YEARS NOW.

IF AMERICA IS REALLY A MELTING POT, 90 DAY FIANCÉ CATCHES IT AT ITS BOILING POINT. 14

Americans and foreigners switch between hero and villain from couple to couple. In fact, the franchise even plays it pretty loose with the concepts of “fiancé” and “90” days with spin-offs looking at the time periods both before and after the 90 days, participants who move to foreign countries, and even single participants. The expansive franchise can be so confusing that I even wrote a guide to keep the journeys of each couple straight. Overall, 90 Day Fiancé, rather than being an escapist presentation of the reality star dream, puts a microscope over the traditional American Dream: a spouse, two kids, and a home in the Land of Plenty. But what pulls me in are the lies Americans tell themselves to remain firm believers in this illusion. Even when couples are struggling to find housing and employment in rural parts of the country,

they still try to convince their foreign partner that they’re better off here than they were back home. There is no “fake it til’ you make it,” these are just people who think they’ve got it made due to xenophobia and a good ol’ love of the red, white and blue. Romance and marriage also require openness, honesty and intimacy forcing uncomfortable situations and conversations onto the screen. Of course, even network president Howard Lee admits the show is a soap opera, but it’s hard to watch 90 Day Fiancé and not see the intersections of gender, race and class dynamics in a country that often seems so incapable of looking at those factors all at once. From the hypersexualization of women of color, women as gold diggers to the fetishization of black men by wealthy cougars, there are few uncomfortable truths 90 Day


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Fiancé hasn’t had on display for years now. If America is really a melting pot, 90 Day Fiancé catches it at its boiling point. Even as the franchise turns to new spin-offs based on individual participants, the series managed to maintain a sense of “family” rather than endorsing celebrity. There’s no sense that being on 90 Day Fiancé requires participation in the show’s other ventures, with many couples coming and going as they

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please (or, at TLC’s request if they break their contracts). Unlike more exploitative documentary-style shows like Teen Mom, you don’t have to wonder what kind of long term impact having every moment of their life recorded is going to have on teens or their babies. Not that the series is free from pushing these boundaries. Most viewers agree that season two’s Danielle and Mohamed reached the high mark for uncomfortable exploitation

MOHAMED & DANIELLE

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PAUL & KARINE

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on the series. Even in this case though, it was hard to neatly pinpoint a “victim.” Danielle, a 41-year old from Ohio, lured the 26-year old Mohamed to America with employment opportunities and the promise that he would be treated like a prince. For his part, Mohamed tried to convince Danielle he actually loved her, but it culminated in an awkward wedding ceremony where he wouldn’t even kiss her. Accusations of abuse flew on both sides with Mohamed claiming he was locked in their small trailer with no heat or electricity. Danielle accused Mohamed of using her for money and citizenship. In the spin-off Happily Ever After, the series followed Danielle as she chased Mohamed across the country to get him deported. Viewers couldn’t stomach watching Danielle, a white woman, chase a brown man across the country, threatening to call the police and ICE along the way. The show mostly pivoted from these uncomfortable stories, but there it is, one unmistakeable glimpse of white womanhood under Trump. In my opinion, the couple that best explores this dynamic is Paul and Karine. Introduced on 2017’s Before the 90 Days, the show followed Paul as he left his small town in Kentucky to visit his girlfriend deep in the jungles of Brazil

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to propose. Paul and Karine have only spoken over the phone and on video chat, relying on translators to communicate. There’s also a 12-year age difference between them. Paul travels to Brazil with crates full of gifts for Karine and her family, giving the illusion of wealth. Paul ends up revealing he’s actually a convicted arsonist which prevents him from getting a job or visa status in Brazil. Even though Paul can’t really provide for his new family, the two still end up getting married (long story short). Eventually, Paul convinces Karine to take their baby and leave her family so they can move to America. Paul doesn’t have a job or a place to live. He’s a convicted felon in America who refuses to engage with the reality of what that means: it’s going to be very hard for him to get a job or a place to live. He convinces Karine to move merely on the promise of what America is and what he says America can do. When she says he needs to find a job or she’ll go back home, he takes her to a water treatment plant and tells her she should be grateful to be in the United States. It’s delusional. Then, there’s perhaps my favorite 90 Day Fiancé participant of all time: Anfisa. Anfisa moved to America to marry Jorge, her long-

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time boyfriend. Many tried to paint Anfisa as a gold digger taking advantage of Jorge’s wealth, but the thing was … Jorge didn’t actually have any money. Anfisa was also absolutely honest about her intentions from the start and told Jorge exactly what she expected from him. Jorge, however, seemed to think getting Anfisa to America was enough. Eventually, Anfisa would learn Jorge couldn’t get a job or an apartment because he also had a criminal record due to marijuana charges and he’d lied to her for years. He ended up going back to prison and Anfisa ended up being able to live the life she wanted in America without him. It’s an empowering twist on the gold digger narrative. It’s even better that after appearing on the series, Anfisa seems to have left it entirely to live the life she wants. These are only a few of the show’s most interesting stories, but they represent a cross-section of the American experience that’s often erased in favor of fantasies of gender equality and racial harmony. These are complicated stories about real people who are treated with empathy. There’s no manufactured drama or villain. 90 Day Fiancé represents a future where reality TV is redefined. Those who were previously exploited by the system of reality TV

stereotypes and ratings are more empowered to find audiences and careers through their own channels and platforms.

90 DAY FIANCÉ ’S

influence is a reason to care about its impact on reality TV and documentary narratives. Beyond ratings, the show and its contestants have become memes, part of the cultural language we share through gifs and reaction images. Perhaps the most famous of those is Big Ed, who’s known across the world, even by people who’ve never seen 90 Day Fiancé in their lives. He’s gained fame for his reactions and short stature. Despite his popularity as a meme, when you watch his story it can’t be separated from its dark reality. Ed and Rose’s relationship is filled with issues beyond their personal problems. Ed mocks the extreme poverty of Rose’s conditions and hounds her with questions about STD testing. True to the show’s reluctance to pick sides, Ed isn’t treated as an aspirational or entirely sympathetic character. 90 Day Fiancé asks us to engage with subjects like Big Ed in the grey area they exist in. It’s a practice that hopefully creates a more empathetic and educated reality TV show audience; one more aligned with the practices of docu-series on primetime


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PAUL & KARINE TV rather than the “fake it til’ you make it” manufactured drama of the past. While far from a perfect show, 90 Day Fiancé represents reality TV as an extension of the documentary in the future, rather than aspirational storytelling amongst semicelebrities. This shifting viewpoint offers the ability to tell more diverse stories on television

with more care. Reality TV makes up some of the most consumed content in our culture, yet it’s rarely examined with any sort of seriousness. It’s only after the fact, when we look back at the damage done that people acknowledge it. Take America’s Next Top Model, which draws criticism every year from a new crop of viewers who discover the show’s old episodes full of


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racism and transphobia. Tyra Banks had girls doing blackface for fun. It’s easy to say that’s obviously harmful now, but even when those episodes were airing, they drew criticism. At the time, there was simply a reluctance by the dominant culture to hold networks accountable for engaging in these tropes. These days, intent can no longer be separated from impact. We’re in a moment where social media has isolated pockets of this country from each other. “Reality” TV allows us to break down these walls, but that’s useless

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if it’s unwilling to engage with the political and societal narratives of their stories. This requires projects to meaningfully engage with who is telling the story and how the story is being told. At a time when there’s a lower barrier for entry when it comes to content creation and audiences crave deeper exploration of the topics they engage with, 90 Day Fiancé’s method results in success. Like most viewers, I’ve been pulled in by years of watching. I follow the participants as they announce children, divorces and other moves. There’s an element of humanization at


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“REALITY” TV ALLOWS US TO BREAK DOWN THESE WALLS,

BUT THAT’S USELESS IF IT’S UNWILLING TO ENGAGE WITH THE POLITICAL AND SOCIETAL NARRATIVES OF THEIR STORIES. the center of 90 Day Fiancé that escapes other reality franchises. When couples do join the show for instant celebrity, they usually fail to become fan favorites. While it may seem obvious enough to say viewers want humanized stories, this is revolutionary for the reality TV genre, where for so long the stories of the elite or rich dominated while those stories of “regular” everyday people were seen as odd anomalies to be gawked at. The glamour of Old Reality TV is fading and its been replaced with a desire for unflinching truths and intimacy. How reality TV is made is suddenly just as important as why it’s being made—and for what audiences. 90 Day Fiancé proves the modern reality show can work as a successful long-term documentary series, but the show

needs to be viewed as more than simple entertainment for this to become an industry standard. What reality TV will look like under Biden (or if Biden will have any impact on entertainment at all) remains to be seen. Perhaps stories on immigration issues, race and international marriage will fall in popularity as public interest swings back to brunch mimosas and the idea that things are “normal” again. Like the Trump administration, under which the franchise hit some of its biggest ratings, nothing about 90 Day Fiancé’s success is normal, but it’s difficult to imagine a return to the days of glamorized, fake reality TV. Even new shows like Selling Sunset and Bling Empire try to merge manufactured drama with deeper perspectives on career, sexism and race. ■

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The Neither/Nor program is made possible with a FilmWatch grant provided by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

EPISODE GUIDE

1 : 90 Day Fiancé — Season 2, Episode 2 — “I’m Home America” — Discovery+ 22

2 : 90 Day: The Single Life — Season 1, Episode 2 — “Slay as a Divorcee” — Discovery+ 3 : 90 Day Fiancé — Season 8, Episode 17 — “First Comes Love” 4 : 90 Day Fiancé: Before the 90 Days — Season 1, Episode 9 — “Red Flags” — Discovery+ 5 : 90 Day Fiancé: Happily Ever After — Season 4, Episode 11 — “Kicked to the Curb” — Discovery+ L I V E W AT C H : Happily Ever After — Season 6, Episode 1 — “Be Careful What You Wish For”

W O R D S , I N T E R V I E W S   Ashley Ray-Harris E D I T O R   Angela Catalano A R T I S T I C D I R E C T O R   David Wilson R A G TA G F I L M S O C I E T Y C O - C U S T O D I A N S   Barbie Banks, Camellia Cosgray, Arin Liberman © 2021 Ashley Ray-Harris and Ragtag Film Society. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form, except brief excerpts for the purpose of review, without written permission of the publishers.


DAY FIANCÉ / NEITHER / NOR / 90 R / NOR / 90 DAY FIANCÉ / NEITHE 0 DAY FIANCÉ / NEITHER / NOR / 9 ER / NOR / 90 DAY FIANCÉ / NEITH DAY FIANCÉ / NEITHER / NOR / 90 NEITHER / NOR / 90 DAY FIANCÉ / / 90 DAY FIANCÉ / NEITHER / NOR ITHER / NOR / 90 DAY FIANCÉ / NE


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