Generally the term ‘mail-order bride’ is used in popular discourse to describe a woman who, with the help of an international marriage broker, is connected to and corresponds with a man from another country (usually one presumed to be more affluent than her own) and then marries a man from that country.
Note, first, that instead of ‘wife’, the word ‘bride’ is used, as if to deliberately invoke images of a virginal, young, and inexperienced woman and set the stage for male fantasies of domination.
Furthermore, the phrase ‘mail order’ implies a product purchased from a catalogue, thereby suggesting that women are nothing more than passive commodities, when in practice a woman may express agency in choosing to meet a companion in this way.
For these reasons, many women in agency-arranged marriage find the term ‘mail-order bride’ offensive. From this point forward, this article will avoid this phrase and instead refer to this type of union as an agency-facilitated marriage.
Agency Arranged Marriages
We need to distinguish internationally brokered marriage, however, from the far less stigmatized internet dating or web personals services that have become commonplace today.
In agency-arranged marriages, the individuals involved often come from different countries, with the women predictably originating from impoverished countries and the petitioning men from countries such as the US, Canada, and Australia that are deemed ‘advanced’, affluent, or ‘developed’.
The individual circumstances of the men and women involved may not always fit this profile, but the general flow of migration tends to follow a South to North trajectory – suggesting that factors other than romance are at work in commercially aided transnational marriages.
The representation of these women as objects, which occurs most prominently on agency websites, has been covered well (see Constable, 1995; Kuo, 2007; Saroca, 2002). As a general principle, we note that most of the texts under consideration here, like the websites themselves, appear to be aimed at a predominantly white, middle-class audience.
The texts appear to assume that certain racist and sexist ideas will be absorbed without questioning. Many texts seem to assume that the audience will not be offended by Asian women being portrayed as ‘quiet’, ‘meek’ and ‘eager to please’, or by Russian women as ‘villainous’ criminals who are ready to marry anyone to flee the dreariness of Russia.
Stereotyping the Husbands
Although the husbands in these marriages are often equally stereotyped and frequently dismissed as plain-looking, under-confident and socially awkward older men looking for much younger women, compared to the blatantly sexist, colonialist fantasy representations of the women, the men who invariably operate in their own familiar domain tend to appear stronger, more competent and in control of the transaction.
Lastly, it is a given that agency brides are shown to be beautiful and sexually desirable, that is, there are no extended storylines about plain women. The emphasis on women’s sexual desirability and submissiveness is yet another manifestation of an Orientalist discursive strategy that, for centuries, has underpinned Western countries’ policy in relation to ‘the rest’.
As is well-known, the discourse of Orientalism functions primarily to further Western supremacy in the form of economic and political domination, geographic expansion, and intellectual conquest; knowledge circulated about Asian peoples claimed to verify their backwardness, barbarism, heathenism, silence, and inscrutability or mysteriousness.
The work of many scholars, most notably Mohanty and Narayan, have shown that Western representations – even supposedly feminist – ones, often depict women from the developing world as victims, women who need saving or rescuing from their backward setting (Mohanty, 1988; Narayan, 1997).
Foreign Brides Depiction in Film and TV
North American TV and films about mail order brides often show agency-arranged female marriage partners as young, vulnerable, and submissive victim-wives. The women are either being, or about to be, cheated or abused.
Films that work off this image include:
Two Brothers and a Bride (2003)
Mail Order Wife (2004)
To Russia for Love (1999)
Mail Order Bride (2003)
Birthday Girl (2001)
Nesting Dolls episode of the CSI television series (CSI, 2004)
Mail Order Femme Fatal
The final stereotype occupies the opposite end of the power spectrum: evil women who enter these marriages in order to victimize men. A basic extension of the femme fatale plot found in film noir, these overtly sexualized women are noted experts in using their outward charm and sexual availability to deceive and go after their victims’ wealth and resources.
Examples include historical fiction such as Sandra Dallas’ The ChiliQueen(2002), contemporary detective fiction such as Margaret Crittenden’s Deadbeat and Deadly (1998), and a number of films including Robert Capelli’s Mail Order Bride (2003) and Jez Butterworth’s Birthday Girl (2001) with Nicole Kidman.
It is significant that, at least in films, female victimizers are more likely to be from the former SovietUnion. The blatant racist and sexist discourse underpinning representations of women from particular countries is made to seem natural: it is as if a woman’s place of origin can’t help but produce certain devious characteristics in its resident citizens.
The final message of both Mail Order Bride and Birthday Girl seems to be that Russian ‘mail-order brides’ are sexy beauties, but look out, they are also outrageously deceitful. Yet,they can be forgiven if they agree to be yours and are good in bed.
Victimizer imagery seems to function as a warning, policing men who seek out cross-cultural marriage. Betray your country by rejecting a marriage to your own kind and you are asking for (and maybe even deserve) to be cheated, appears to be the covert message.
On the other hand, one might ask if the opposite effect may not be produced – that of whetting the appetite of the confident, self-assured male for risky, kinky adventure in sex and, maybe, ‘love’?
If, in the end, the Western male can turn the wicked deceiver away from her plan and make her submissive, he would appear to prove his traditional male role of conqueror.
One additional pattern recurs: the wife who takes on a stranger in marriage as a brave and virtuous pioneer. In the context of US history, marriage between strangers often occurred as the frontier expanded and as male laborers had families in the home countries send partners to them.
Though the women in these historical fictions (mainly mass market romances) are shown to be plucky, tough and flexible, the gender roles are conservative, enlisting the women as wild men’s Victorian moral guardians.
Since this image occurs mainly in stories set over 80 years ago we chose not to include these representations in our analysis.
Countering hegemonic representations Women involved in contemporary agency-arranged marriages rarely are shown as courageous, despite their bravery in being willing to travel and set up home in an unfamiliar place away from family and friends.
As Constable’s work shows, many times these wives have to find courage to confront their own family’s disapproval of their marrying a ‘stranger’ and/or their in-laws’ suspicion of them as gold diggers or as coming from a culture perceived as ‘backward’ (Constable, 2005).