90 Day Fiancé And The White Saviors Of Reality TV

Photo: TLC / 90 Day Fiancé
two contestants from 90 day Fiancé stand in a desert setting
Contributor

After eight seasons on TLC, 90 Day Fiancé (and its many spinoffs) is practically a reality show empire.

The original show follows couples who are going through the K-1 visa process. The fiancés arrive from another country come to the US and have 90 days to get married.

While some of the couples featured in the show know a great deal about their partners, the show often casts couples who hardly know their fiancés and some partners seem downright shifty. They may have proposed through love at first sight, or the relationship is seemingly superficial and it's meant to look like one of the fiancés is scamming the other. 

One of the most interesting features of 90 Day Fiancé is the blinding ignorance the American fiances have about their foreign lover’s needs and sacrifices. Often, the American fiancé is footing the bill for the costs of the visa process and relocation.

But that doesn’t excuse the terrible treatment of their fiancé and the sense of entitlement they have over them because they are Americans, and it doesn't excuse the problematic nature of reality TV exploiting these relationships for our entertainment.

This show has a lot of white savior behavior, where the American fiancé makes comments and acts helpful to their fiancé, but then uses that as a way to manipulate and control them and is likely partially successful because of white saviorism. Add that to the fact that many couples who appear on reality TV face increased challenges in their relationship, and 90 Day Fiancé's treatment of these relationships becomes uncomfortable.

Is this the beginning of a whole white savior reality TV genre? 

RELATED: What I Learned About White Savior Complex After A Birth Mother Changed Her Mind On Our Adoption

What does it mean to be a "white savior"?

According to a helpful article by Faima Bakar, "The phrase refers to a white person who acts to help non-white people, but in a context which can be perceived as self-serving." The author notes that this term is often used for white celebrities who go to Africa to pose with children who seem to be living in poverty. 

"Some feel that this one depiction of these places facilitates one-dimensional views of people from there, proven by the countless stories of people who face ignorant questions about these places, whether they hail from there or not."

There is also an entire genre of white savior films, where a white person steps in and helps a Black person or an entire underserved community. Think of The Green Book, The Help, or Dangerous Minds. People in their everyday lives can also embody white savior complexes.

With 90 Day Fiancé, we see a how the white savior complex plays out in reality TV, and while we don't expect reality TV to show us the healthiest relationships, it also should strive to call out racism when it occurs, rather than exploiting it.

Here are a few examples of white saviors in 90 Day Fiancé:

Rosemarie and Ed

54-year-old Ed, from Richmond California, and 23-year-old Rosemarie, from the Philippines, made their debut on Before The 90 Days season 4.

When we met Ed, self-proclaimed "Big Ed," we learn he is a photographer and hasn't been in a relationship in a long time. He is going to the Philippines to meet his girlfriend Rosemarie.

He likes to spoil her, having sent many gifts that mysteriously never make it.  On the surface he seems like an okay guy. When he arrived in the Philippines he came prepared with items like toothpaste, lollipops, and items for safer sex.

Ed implies heavily throughout his season that Rose is dirty. He rudely requests that she should get an std check but then refuses to take one himself. He explains what a toothbrush is to her as if she had never used one. He tells her that her “mouth is not pretty,” and even when revealed that her bad breath is due to a medical issue he is still inconsiderate.

He has no respect for her life in the Philippines, he often makes remarks about pitying her and how hard life seems there. And there are times when he forces American beauty standards on her, such as shaving her legs or wearing lingerie. Ed tries to use his gifts and sense of entitlement to control Rose. When she stands up for herself, he gaslights her and makes comments like, “I don’t believe in love,” or blames her for the relationship taking a bad turn. 

RELATED: Why White Privileged Men Brand Angry Anti-Racist Women “Hysterical”

Ryan and Stephanie 

Stephanie is a 52-year-old self-proclaimed cougar. She is engaged to a 27-year-old man named Ryan who is from Belize on 90 Day Fiancé,

Stephanie is a wealthy woman who buys Ryan discount watches and designer clothes. She supports him financially with and without his knowledge. She convinced her friend who owns a resort to hire Ryan, but she pays his wages.

During the episodes, she often discusses just how much she spends on Ryan. When Ryan does something wrong, she throws it in his face. Ryan’s family was hit hard by the pandemic and so Stephanie offered money to his family many times.

One particular occasion they forgot to say thank you and she asked for it back. Stephanie uses money and gifts to try to control Ryan, and because of her financial support, she mostly succeeds. Ryan believes he has control over his own life, but if Stephanie wanted to, she could cut him off. It seems very much like she wants to own him.

In a recent episode, Stephanie recounts a sexual encounter with Ryan. Stephanie was not aware he was not using a condom even though she expressed that she was not comfortable having unprotected sex. She was violated, and she is valid in her feelings about that. 

Regardless of their history, this commentary on their relationship as portrayed on TV is looking at Stephanie’s actions of manipulation and control. She is wrong to engage in that behavior. And Ryan is wrong in his actions. 

RELATED: I'm A Black Girl Who Loves One Direction And Wears Converse — That Doesn't Make Me "White"

Subscribe to our newsletter.

Join now for YourTango's trending articles, top expert advice and personal horoscopes delivered straight to your inbox each morning.

Juliana and Michael 

On season 4 of 90 Day Fiancé, Michael is a 43-year-old white man from Connecticut. He is divorced with two children whom he loving refers to as “big commitments.” His fiancé, Juliana, is a 23-year-old model from Brazil. He often brings up their age difference in gross ways, particularly when he intentionally bought her champagne from her birth year, 1996.

He emphasizes that she is poor and showers her with expensive gifts. At one point he says, “You're a poor Brazilian girl when I'm not here with you. Then you're a rich American when I am.” This is even more bizarre when we consider that we don't even know of Juliana's financial status.  

When she was having her visa interview, it was implied that she was a prostitute.

Michael could only say that since she was a poor girl from Brazil with a lot of stamps on her passport, it must look suspicious. Michael just wants to save Juliana, but that's based on his desires only and has little to nothing to do with Juliana herself.

He has created a narrative in his head that she is a poor girl from Brazil who needs him. But that isn’t what Juliana says. In fact, she says, paraphrased, “Men do not control me,” and expressed strong interest in financial independence. 

If that's not a reality show version of white saviorism, I don't know what would be.

TLC has had their fair share of controversial couples on 90 Day Fiancé.

But the fact that they keep casting partners where one person emotionally manipulates the other is tiring and cringe-worthy.

But that's reality TV for you, I guess.

It gives the viewer a look at how the “white savior” is a destructive mindset to have. For every instance of this pattern occurring on the show, the savior fiance is using love bombing to control their loved one, like they see the relationship as a transaction and not a partnership. 

RELATED: White People: Being A Good Ally To The Black Community Doesn't Mean Always Trying To Relate To Us