I don’t think anyone has brought so much joy and amusement to my days in quarantine than 23-year-old Filipina Rosemarie Vega of 90 Day Fiancé fame. While the show’s premise in itself is already an incubator for odd pairings struggling with cultural barriers—Rose was in an online relationship with the neckless but audacious Big Ed, a divorcee from California 30 years her senior—it was Rose’s blunt expressions that were catnip to an insatiable internet, a welcome addition to the ever-growing meme dialect.
What prompted her now-iconic facial expressions were her then-fiancé’s borderline insolent requests, from asking her to take an STD test despite not wanting to take one himself to asking that she shave her legs because he finds it “gross” (“If it’s one thing men always have, it’s the fucking audacity,” declared one tweet). Rose broke things off when she found out Ed lied about wanting children, triggering another slew of viral tweets.
While the memes were fun, Rose and Ed’s relationship was a microcosm of a sinister, mostly overlooked truth: white men actively seek out younger women from the Global South to marry. While Ed and Rose met organically through Facebook, this phenomenon has been commodified by the mail-order bride industry, in which American men pay agencies to be connected with women from developing countries. Human contact becomes the product to be sold, the line between intimacy and economy blurred.
The industry got its start in the 19th century at the American frontier, where American and Asian men from across the U.S. gathered, all successful but unmarried. Because of the scarcity of women in the area, they wrote letters to churches and published personal ads in local papers, attempting to endorse themselves to potential future wives. Interested women would answer the ads by writing back and sending photos of themselves. Courtship would ensue exclusively through letter; an ancient dating app fit for the times.
Asian men who worked alongside Americans faced more challenges in finding wives due to legal policy and cultural perceptions. This, paired with the influx of bachelors, caused demand to rise, so immigrant women soon found themselves in the pool of potential brides. This time it was the women who endorsed themselves, at first only as “picture brides” due to distance and strict immigration laws. By 1907, the Gentlemen’s Agreement between the U.S. and Japan allowed Japanese men already living in the U.S. to fly their picture brides over. The only way Japanese women could enter the U.S. at the time was through marriage to someone already in the country; Japanese men continued to scout for Japanese brides to ease the cultural dissonance they felt living on the other side of the world.
This system wavered as the West became more populated. But when the Women’s Movement in the U.S. started gaining more traction in the ‘70s, the American demand for overseas wives resurfaced—men across the country were frustrated at women losing “family values” and being “ruined” by feminism.
Today, the mail-order bride industry thrives online, but the clientele remains largely the same, with similar motivations. The majority of its American customers today are middle-class, blue-collar men who feel disenfranchised from family life and find it increasingly difficult to meet partners, as blue-collar women continue to find better employment, higher wages, and more opportunities. These women are starting to see other blue-collar men as liabilities; the men frustrated at women’s increased position in society.
It’s no wonder, then, that these men flock to intimate industries, in which women’s intimacy isn’t consensually given but purchased. Through introduction agencies, “picture brides” are now cataloged, and men can pay to talk to them, tipping extra for services like calls, gifts, and English lessons for the women they are “dating.” In larger agencies, romance tours are available: for $5,000 they can fly overseas—usually to countries in the Global South—to meet 60-100 women. Because of these men’s often conservative politics, they have traditional, essentialist views, particularly on family and gender roles. They believe women in “less progressive” countries will be more accustomed to patriarchy, and therefore more subservient; more likely to proudly provide reproductive labor to their husbands. This reaffirms the masculinity these men perceive to be losing in their own countries, the women mere devices for them to live out their misogynistic fantasies at a time when they are no longer allowed to be overtly sexist.
There are many factors that make these women enticing to white men, but almost all of them are informed by a racist, misogynistic reduction of women from the Global South as docile, silent, loyal, and sexually dutiful objects. Men with a preference for virgin women and a self-aggrandized view of their own penises scour the relatively conservative Global South for “pure” brides. Some men engage in an elaborate self-delusion that frames them as their wives’ saviors. In fact, agencies recognize and capitalize on these stereotypical images of women of color to cater to the needs of their market. Of course there are others who use the service because of a genuine desire for companionship, struggling with ineligibility because of social status or steep competition, but it cannot be denied that the mail-order bride industry is structured by inequalities in gender, race, and class, primarily benefiting only white men from developed countries.
Customers tend to be significantly older; after all, availing of the service requires an ample amount of money, and very few young men have the financial capability and/or desperation. With this, many of them, including 90 Day Fiancé’s Big Ed, are suspicious of the women they choose to “date,” thinking they will only be used to bring the women’s families to the States. When Ed visited Rose’s home in the Philippines and was horrified by her living conditions—he slept on the floor during what he called the “worst night of his life”—he began to wonder if he was just Rose’s meal ticket.
Many of the women join the agencies because of the American dream, and at first glance interracial marriage seems like a means to an economic end for them. But this idolization of Western (particularly white) culture is clearly a manifestation of an internalized neocolonial mentality, a product of centuries of Western colonization and imperialism.
But one of the easiest and most problematic assumptions to make about these women is that they are a monolithic group of oppressed victims who are trafficked and need to be rescued. Because their correspondence with Western clientele now occurs online, both parties are able to express initiative and make choices. While scamming and catfishing really do occur in the industry (inasmuch as they occur in any other online matchmaking scenario), women in it are often looking for genuine love, especially since marriage and family are highly valued in their cultures.
In the case of Ed and Rose, it was ultimately Ed’s behavior that caused the end of their relationship. “You think I want your money, not you. You made me feel little; I think you don’t love me,” Rose told Ed in their now viral confrontation. Before that she called him out for the way he acted in her home in the Philippines (the same visit that made him question Rose’s intentions with him), embarrassing her by gifting her mouthwash and a toothbrush and asking her to shave her legs, and excluding her from decisions about children. These racial microaggressions made it clear Ed thought less of his then-fiancé; Rose, a woman he fawned over and infantilized.
While Ed and Rose didn’t push through with marriage, most couples who meet through the mail-order bride industry do. It’s common for some of these women to feel indebted to their spouses for “saving” them from their previous socioeconomic conditions, which highlights the class (and power) imbalance in a relationship where it shouldn’t exist in the first place. This can result in abusive situations where the wives are left powerless, especially under the constant threat of deportation. Even in seemingly “successful” marriages, it cannot be denied that the industry creates a collage of economic, sexual, and racial hegemony that champions white, capitalist patriarchy, while painting the colonized woman from the Global South as an Oriental doll—silky smooth, untainted, a product.
By Andrea Panaligan