The Ultimatum: Queer Love is far from the first dating show to feature queer people in its cast. But as the only one on Netflix to have a season focused exclusively on queer couples, it marks a first for the streamer. The second season of the Love Is Blind sister show once again brings together a group of couples questioning their futures—and this time, the cast is made up entirely of women and nonbinary people.
The season also departs from the general straight and cis-ness of the couples in the Love Is Blind cinematic universe. Compared with The Ultimatum’s first season cast—a group of six straight couples that often espoused traditional-bordering-on-conservative views concerning marriage and gender roles—this season’s participants vary more in their ideas about what a partnership should entail. The cast’s disagreements about responsibility for things like cooking and cleaning break down along personal lines instead of starkly gendered ones, and the show explores varying opinions on whether, when, and how to have children.
The couples are endearing and infuriating, and it’s a solid watch—but ultimately, Queer Love does not reach the magnitude of mess we expect from reality television and, frankly, know queer people to be capable of.
The season’s storyline follows The Ultimatum’s original premise. There are five couples in which one partner wants to get married, but the other isn’t prepared to commit. Lexi, 24, is so certain that she’s ready for marriage and children in the near future that she issued the ultimatum to her girlfriend, Rae. Aussie, who received the ultimatum from partner Sam, isn’t sure marriage is part of Aussie’s future at all. Mal, whose girlfriend Yoly issued their ultimatum, actually looks forward to marriage—but just wants to make sure they’re financially and emotionally set up for it, first. Meanwhile Vanessa, who got the ultimatum from her partner Xander, wants to consider whether monogamy is right for her as a lifestyle, longterm. Mildred, who has been married before and has a son, issued the ultimatum to partner Tiff, who worries their relationship is too fragile from past breakups and ongoing communication issues for marriage.
Over 10 episodes, they split up, and choose someone else from within the cast to live with for three weeks in a “trial marriage.” After that, they rejoin their original partners for another three-week trial marriage. At the end of the show, they face three choices: get engaged to their trial partners, get engaged to their original partners, or walk away single.
The drama takes a while to spark, but ignites quickly once it does. The participants agree that one of them, Vanessa, is—what else?—not there for the right reasons. We don’t get too deep into what the wrong reasons are, but Vanessa is viewed by the others as self-centered and attention-seeking. Considering that you can definitely date multiple people and question your readiness for marriage without television coverage, it follows that pretty much everyone on Queer Love is interested in a side of attention with their relationship exploration–the cast members flirt, fight, cry, and kiss, making the season an eyebrow-raising, eye-rolling, and overall genuinely worthwhile experience. But these mostly lovely people are just not as dramatic or irrational as the genre in which they’ve found themselves. In reality, it’s great. In reality television, it’s a bit of a let down.
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Where are the tumblr-pilled tenderqueers, the “u up?” f-ckboi lesbians, the allegedly enlightened androgynous astrologists, and the bisexual girls still ensnared in the gender expectations of their past relationships with straight, cis men? Where are the poly people and “ethical sluts” who would throw the show’s entire premise into riveting question? And on a show drawing from the San Diego queer community, where is the participant who’s already, at one time or another, slept with, dated, or been engaged to everyone else there (and their ex-girlfriends, too)? Are these stereotypes and oversimplifications? You bet—did you come to reality television looking for nuance?
Maybe Queer Love’s decision to forgo the mercilessly efficient leveraging of stereotypes and manipulation of situations that gives dating shows their spark was deliberate. Perhaps the show was chasing the ever-elusive specter of positive representation. Even at their most immature, and in the heat of their worst conflicts, the participants all had relatable issues with communication and commitment. They may not have been right for one another, but they tried to treat each other with compassion. Watching the show, I developed real affection for them.
And in this moment of intense cultural and legislative violence towards the LGBTQ+ community, especially trans and nonbinary people, humanizing queer people and our issues for straight, cis viewers isn’t the worst idea. But if that was the goal of The Ultimatum: Queer Love, too much was left out. “Queer,” an umbrella term, implies a certain diversity of perspective and experience—and a certain degree of revolution. As Black feminist theorist, writer, and author bell hooks once reflected, she saw being queer “not as being about who you are having sex with” but “as being about the self that is at odds with everything around it and has to invent and create and find a place to speak and to thrive and to live.” How can you bring together queer couples to talk about marriage, family, children, and the future without acknowledging the current endangerment of the rights undergirding every single one of those topics? Sure, these couples are gay. But by hooks’ definition, this show is far from queer.
Dating shows, of course, are not typically a place of radical theory. But whether it stems from its casting, direction, editing, or all of the above, Queer Love frustratingly plays out with little more than cursory discussion of the distinct and divisive significance of marriage for queer people. (To be clear, I am not down on the show for casting queers who want to get married—I’m a queer who wants to get married!) And queer people deserve to be the stars of their own monsoon of mess, without a constant need to marinate in politics and tragedy. This season of The Ultimatum, however, ends up being more of a brief summer storm.
As trans people’s existence is criminalized and their access to health care is stripped away, and attempts at erasing discussion of LGBTQ+ identity from public spaces gain momentum, even the most trivial missed opportunity feels significant. If a show declines to give viewers the incandescent chaos it should be capable of, in favor of delivering a message, it should say something meaningful. By failing to full-throatedly pursue either goal, The Ultimatum: Queer Love hits as afraid to commit.
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