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The Ultimate in Queer Assimilation Narratives

By Alison Lanier | TV | May 30, 2023 |

By Alison Lanier | TV | May 30, 2023 |

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Netflix’s The Ultimatum: Queer Love will air its next batch of drama-fueled episodes this Wednesday. This iteration of The Ultimatum features lesbian couples in a temptation-island-style challenge: one member of an existing couple, who is ready for marriage, issues the titular “ultimatum” to their partner: go into a trial marriage with another woman to test if the existing couple has a future. Yeah, I will in no way argue this makes sense. In the end, each contestant must leave the show engaged to someone or alone—No middle ground.

I tuned in with the vast optimism that this might be the kind of lightning-in-a-bottle messy queer representation that we got with Are You The One Season 8. What we got with The Ultimatum is much more disappointing and insidious.

The show, as reality TV is wont to do, frames monogamous marriage as the ultimate goal, the be-all-end-all fulfillment that the contestants should aspire to. That’s nothing new with reality TV. Bachelor Nation knows this standard all too well and shared its formula broadly as an early trendsetter in the genre. What makes this teleology toward marriage so strange and strained in this context is its specific grounding as a “queer” experience.

The hesitation around queer/gay assimilation into existing systems and institutions is nothing new: it’s been a fervent debate as long as there’s been talk about resisting assimilation. Back in 2010, Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore, editor of That’s Revolting: Queer Strategies for Resisting Assimilation, told NPR that “the mainstream gay movement at this point, it’s centered around this assimilationist access. The dominant issues have become accessing straight privilege. So marriage, military service, adoption, ordination into the priesthood … And what’s so sad is that instead of the radical roots of gay liberation.”

Namely, conformity and assimilation of long-marginalized people leaves a bad taste in the mouth of a historically radical group of activists.

Now, I write all this as a queer woman with an active-duty military spouse, and who has health insurance through military spousal rights, and was only able to finish grad school because I had access to the GI Bill. Access to rights is a lifeline. There’s no arguing that. The argument is around the systems and ideologies we fit ourselves into — or, as the NPR interviewer paraphrased, “The dominant signs of straight conformity have become the ultimate measures of gay success.”

This is a rabbit hole, no question. It’s a slippery question of ideology at a time when lives are on the line in the queer community. Put more simply, as legendary queer performance artist and filmmaker Jack Smith put it, “Normalcy is the evil side of homosexuality.” And yet normalcy can be, and often is, a necessary safety measure for survival.

This debate has, as I’ve said, been raging for decades. But The Ultimatum feels like the ultimate in assimilationist narratives—we are conditioned to want what you are conditioned to want, says the show. We fit into the comfortable normative shape of engagement and marriage. Queer love fits the same mold that straight narratives have been shaping on reality TV for years. And that feels gross to me in a deep and visceral way, at a gut level that’s hard to articulate. I mean, think of the Ghostbusters remake—you too, women, can be shoehorned into a famous male narrative! Is this feminism yet? Did we do it right?? It feels like less representation and more rebranding, a pre-existing product remodeled for a new audience—audience, here, as a synonym for target consumer—who will pay for it all over again because it has different flavor sprinkled on top. Don’t you feel included?

There’s a very unintentionally telling moment when one contestant, who’s falling for two women at once, makes an off-hand comment about wanting to form a triad with both. Can we do that? she asks. I know it’s not a legal marriage but…(Sidenote: It is legal in Somerville, MA.) The comment is laughed off as a joke, but it’s a perfect showcase of how the contestants are being forced into this hetero-mono-normative shoebox at the expense of being allowed to explore relationship styles that might fit them better. Poly people are under that titular “queer love” umbrella too, Netflix, if we’re talking about queer relationships as relationships that disrupt and deconstruct the “rules” of heteronormative relationships.

There’s also the aspect of the show where the ultimatum-givers and ultimatum-receivers are framed in a binary of “mature and ready to settle down” and “immature and not ready to commit.” But “settling down” isn’t automatically the be-all-end-all in life, obviously. I get that it’s part of the show’s conceit, but there’s a lot of internalized queer resistance to that kind of thinking that makes it particularly bleh in this context. The same kind of internalized resistance that’s fueling this article, probably.

This is all skirting around the truly messy, top-tier reality TV drama that the Queer Love lesbian couples produce on screen. If you like reality TV, it’s super engaging. Also, Vanessa is fully awful. But its premise struck a nerve with me, a reaction I’m still wrestling with as I admittedly await the next episode drop.