Netflix’s new reality TV series “The Ultimatum: Queer Love” delivers explosive, sapphic representation, yet its pitfalls illustrate a misunderstanding of the queer community. While producer Chris Coelen deserves some recognition for his desire to highlight queer stories and depart from the rigid confines of a genre that has nearly exclusively explored heterosexual relationships, the show often neglects the needs of the community it strives to uplift.
The series’s premise is quite simple, but it leaves a lot to unpack: In each of the five couples that have signed up to participate in the “experiment,” one party is anxious to tie the knot while the other is more reluctant, resulting in the former’s decision to issue an ultimatum. Viewers are granted access to a multitude of discordant emotions and complex relationship dynamics.
In an attempt to discover whether marriage is the right call, the couples temporarily split up and rearrange. Each participant moves in with their “trial wife” for three weeks, spends an additional three weeks moved in with their original partner, then decides between three options — get engaged, leave single or develop a new relationship with someone else on the show.
In previous seasons, this “experiment” revolved around heterosexual couples. By opting to initially focus the series on heterosexual romance before including a queer cast, the production of the show perpetuates the notion that heterosexuality is the default form of romantic and sexual expression. Queerness is consequently portrayed as a deviation from the typicality of heterosexuality.
Ironically, the premise of the series seems, in many ways, more applicable to sapphic couples. For example, “U-Hauling” — moving in or progressing extremely quickly within a relationship — is a comedic lesbian stereotype. Additionally, the process of breaking up, rearranging and dating an ex’s ex is another commonly joked about stereotype pertaining to queer women. “The L Word” — one of the most mainstream television shows regarding lesbianism — centered its plot around this very phenomenon.
While Coelen claims that he always had queer couples in mind when the concept for “The Ultimatum” was conceived, it was still an active decision to begin the series with straight couples despite the structure of the “experiment” conforming so quintessentially to lesbian culture.
In terms of production, “The Ultimatum: Queer Love” has its glaring faults. None of the contestants have an opportunity to share their preferred pronouns — an especially poor oversight considering that the cast includes several gender non-binary individuals. This creates an environment conducive toward misgendering, both within the circle of contestants and in the audience’s discussion of the series.
The producer also opted to hire JoAnna Garcia Swisher as a host despite her identity as a heterosexual woman. While Swisher’s sexual orientation does not necessarily preclude her from hosting effectively, she still comes across as an odd choice to fulfill the position. It may have been easier for a queer host to mesh and identify with the contestants. Swisher’s position as host isn’t offensive, but it’s an ill-fitting misstep.
While it is exciting to see a batch of queer women and non-binary people form friendships, challenge their romantic relationships and divulge their life experiences, this representation is unfortunately accompanied with exploitation. Sexual intimacy is often an important component to relationships, so it is reasonable that it would be a topic of discussion and exploration within the series. A central conflict between Rae Cheung-Sutton and Lexi Goldberg highlights the ambiguity of how sex is even defined within queer spaces, bolstering a fascinating and important conversation to the public view.
However, the excessive footage of several of the contestants having sex feels invasive, especially considering the history of fetishization and oversexualization of lesbian relationships. Several scenes of undressing and the amplification of moaning sounds borders on taking advantage of a population that’s already vulnerable due to its sexual orientation.
Reality television, in many ways, is intrinsically exploitative, as it’s contingent on a distant audience’s voyeuristic interest in the chaos of others’ lives. However, “The Ultimatum: Queer Love” appears exceptionally exploitative, as its emphasis and portrayal of the sexual activity of its talent borders on softcore porn.
The producers also seem to prioritize the dramatic value that the contestants offer over their physical safety and well-being. In the series’s finale, a reunion episode, Mildred Bustillo reveals that she threw a dog gate at her former fiance, Tiff Der, and was arrested for engaging in physical violence. A verbal fight ensues between the two, causing Der to storm out in tears with no return. It is reprehensible that the producers would allow someone with domestic assault allegations to attend the reunion episode, especially since the survivor of the abuse was in attendance. Even after publicly confessing to the violence, Bustillo is not asked to leave.
While viewers can delight in finally getting to see queer stories broadcasted, ‘The Ultimatum: Queer Love’ is at best disappointing and at worst detrimental.