Since the beginning of self-isolation, I have developed a nasty habit: watching the TLC reality show 90 Day Fiancé and its spinoff franchises. It was an empty void for my exhausted brain, a place to lay my head while barely paying attention for several hours. The drama was juicy, the stories were unbelievable, TLC had me hooked, and I couldn’t fight it.
But after so many seasons, you begin to realize that what is being called “reality” is simply a dramatized version of real-life that preys on America’s obsession with immigration. It shows those assumed gold diggers who are only coming here for money and a green card. Immigrants in 90 Day Fiancé are guilty until proven innocent, instead of being viewed as complex people with complicated stories. However, there has come a response, if you will, to this increased interest in the issue of immigration.
Isabel Sandoval’s Lingua Franca stars the filmmaker as Olivia, a trans woman from Indonesia who is trying to get her green card so she can live without fear of deportation. She works, undocumented, as the caretaker for Olga, an aging Russian woman. She feeds her, bathes her, and does everything necessary to keep her safe. The money she earns from assisting Olga goes towards two things: paying a man to marry her and helping her family back home pay the bills. Sandoval portrays Olivia’s experience with care and honesty. This is not an exploitative exposé about applying for a green card. It’s a look at the true and lived experiences of immigrants who seek green cards for better opportunities and a better life.
I wanted to draw a comparison between these seemingly opposite pieces of media after watching two marriage scenes in Lingua Franca. The first comes when Olivia goes to get a marriage license with someone who has agreed to be her partner. It is purely transactional: she pays him $5,000 and he’ll get married to her so she can get her green card. This honesty about the process and how normalized it is made stand in stark contrast to constant questioning in 90 Day Fiancé. Olivia has firmly and clearly established what she needs to get what she wants, which illustrates that this is not done to take advantage of American men. She is not tricking him or lying to him about what she needs. There is no faux relationship. This is purely about an exchange that is mutually beneficial for both parties.
The second moment comes when Olivia’s childhood friend, Trixie (Ivory Aquino), is successfully married. As she and her husband recite their vows at the courthouse, the camera cuts to Olivia, who is staring blankly into nothingness. She is not celebrating or smiling — instead, she is reflecting on her own future and whether she will get what she truly wants. Marriage to Olivia is all about survival, not about planning an elaborate wedding in a short amount of time. There is no sugar coating the process in the name of ratings and palatable drama.
The desire for a green card is dangled like a carrot in front of the subjects in 90 Day Fiancé. Family members of their spouse sneer about their immigration status, end-of-season specials ask them over and over again if they’re only in it for the green card, and their intentions are constantly seen as predatory. People yell, “Go back to your country,” and hurl other abusive insults regularly, with the cameras never trying to invoke sympathy for the non-American subjects. Instead, they want to create villains and antagonists that bring viewers back for more.
In Lingua Franca, that villainization is replaced with empathy. Immigration is not constantly scrutinized, joked about, and shamed. Sound bites from the news are played over quiet scenes of Olivia walking home, as she is constantly reminded of what others think of her. But she is never openly abused for her immigration status, as the film wants to show a bigger scope of living in America as a non-citizen. There is more than racist remarks hurled in public — it is a perpetual feeling of loneliness and isolation. Sandoval also speaks about her constant fear of getting arrested and the uncertainty that surrounds how much time she was left in the United States. Lingua Franca shifts the narrative around getting a green card to truly depict a nuanced and complex look at such a disputed issue.
In fact, Olivia’s experience as an immigrant is placed in direct comparison with the more traditional or acceptable experience of the Russian family she works for. They speak of the patriarch’s journey to America and how his family worked hard to get where they are. This particularly whitewashed and cis-heteronormative story is the one many are made to believe makes a “good” immigrant. In short, they are allowed to be here because they proved themselves to be a specific kind of good and successful. Meanwhile, Olivia, a trans and Indonesian woman, actively rejects this narrative in order to live as an Asian woman in the United States, which leaves her in limbo.
Interestingly, the ethos of 90 Day Fiancé lives between these two ideas of immigration. While many non-American partners are scrutinized about their intentions, they are also shown eventually conforming to that idea of the American Dream. Their experiences are either villainized then tamed or they are accepted for their performance as a citizen. They must fit into one box or another, rather than existing in a liminal space like Olivia.
If 90 Day Fiancé is meant to reflect what Americans truly care about in the immigration process — lies, money, drama — then Lingua Franca is meant to reflect the reality of what it means to gain citizenship and the fear that comes with it. Sandoval does not want to just entertain audiences but also educate them on the lived experience of an immigrant in Trump’s America. It is more than screaming matches and uncomfortable marriages. It is about grasping onto your humanity in a system that wants to strip it away.