90-Day Fiancé and the Shaming of 'Mail Order Brides'

We all need to recognize that the term mail order bride is incredibly offensive and stigmatizing for any couple involved in an international relationship, regardless of the way in which they met.
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The new TLC (The Learning Channel) show 90-Day Fiancé "offers a never
before seen look into the world of international dating and
matrimony." The show follows five American men that have filed for K-1
visas, also known as 90-day fiancé visas, for their potential foreign
spouses from Russia, the Philippines, Colombia, Ukraine and Brazil.
These visas allow potential foreign spouses to spend ninety days in
the U.S. In that ninety days, the couple must get married or the non
U.S. citizen must return to their country. This show provides an
important look into the cultural negotiations that accompany
international dating, but still reproduces negative stereotypes
surrounding so called "mail order brides."

What is a mail order bride? In the past, the term referred to women
that met their American husbands through international pen pal
catalogs based in Southeast Asia. Today, 'mail order bride' implies
that the woman met the American husband through an international
online dating site or on a romance tour. I argue that the term 'mail
order bride' is a demeaning way to characterize women who met their
American partners online or through an introduction agency. By using
the term 'mail order bride', people are making it seem as though men
are able to purchase women in other countries and bring them home as
wives; that they can literally look online and choose a wife to be
delivered to his door, according to his desired specifications.

Throughout the first three episodes of the show, the families and
friends of each American man question the nature of their
relationships. Louis's ex-wife asks him if his fiancé from the
Philippines, Aya, is a mail order bride. Louis gets defensive and
claims the website they met through is not 'an international marriage
broker'. While that may be true, since Louis and Aya's relationship
began online, it resembles many relationships that are started through
international marriage brokers. Mike's family worries that his fiancé
Aziza is using him for a green card and an opportunity to leave
Russia, since she was denied for a work visa. The common concerns most
people express regarding international relationships are that either
the woman is a victimized mail order bride, purchased by a potentially
abusive American husband, or that the foreign spouse is a scammer,
only interested in securing a green card.

However, both forms of narratives surrounding the international dating
industry and 'mail order brides' are just plain false. I observed an
international marriage broker and the romance tours they provided in
Colombia, Ukraine, and the Philippines. I can tell you firsthand that
none of the women I interviewed in my two years observing romance
tours are forced to participate in this industry, and there is
definitely no 'price' on any of the women. Issues of trafficking and
slavery seem very distant from the social parties and sightseeing
trips that the introduction agency provides. Far from being victims,
the women I spoke to in all three countries have strong preferences
and opinions regarding the types of American men they desire to meet
through the agency. These women are often educated, a large number
speak English, and many of them are not desperate to leave their home
countries. In fact, most of the women I met involved in the romance
tours and websites reminded me of Paola on 90-Day Fiancé: confident
and educated. Paola certainly does not seem like a victim, and neither
did any of my interviewees.

We need to stop using the term 'mail order bride,' since it makes
these women sound like purchased sexual slaves. While cases of
trafficking and abuse do occur, most of the relationships developed
through the online dating industry are very similar to the ones
showcased on 90-Day Fiancé. People may argue that I happened to choose
the one legitimate introduction company in the industry to observe for
my research, and that trafficking and abuse are indeed the norm for
these marriages. However, no legitimate American introduction agency
can actually sell you a wife. Period. Relationships conducted online
are increasingly the norm, and why not expand that internet search
beyond American borders? We all need to recognize that the term mail
order bride is incredibly offensive and stigmatizing for any couple
involved in an international relationship, regardless of the way in
which they met.

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