This essay explores the styles of lesbian representation on display in the Netflix reality series, The Ultimatum: Queer Love. From its inclusion of masculine, non-binary cast members, to its in-jokes about instantaneous lesbian intimacy and attachment, the series offers what Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick wished for twenty years ago: a narrative plentitude that succeeds in capturing the quotidian messiness of lesbian desire and commitment.

Ultimatums are the death knell of relationships. Wrapping desperation into a demand, they all too often run counter to their desired effects. By insisting that a person “choose me, pick me, love me” (as Meredith Grey famously implored in the first season of Grey’s Anatomy), you’ll more likely be cut loose.

Netflix banked on this emotional and psychological chaos when it unleashed its Ultimatum series to its streaming masses. Created by Chris Coelen in 2022, The Ultimatum differs from the other high-stakes reality dating shows produced by Coelen’s company Kinetic Content: Love Is Blind (Netflix, 2020–), Perfect Match (Netflix, 2023–), and Married at First Sight (Lifetime, 2014–). Whereas these shows focus on the first blush of courtship, The Ultimatum applies pressure to couples who are years, or at least a good number of months, into their relationships, and thus presumably in the zone of marriage.

In its first season, subtitled Marry or Move On, viewers are introduced to what the series describes as a “social experiment” in which a half dozen committed couples (all straight in this season) are assembled at the same midlevel condotel to determine which among them will “finally” get married. These marriage plots are activated, however, only after one member of each pair issues an ultimatum to the other that must be answered by the end of their eight-week residencies. The subtitle says it all: each pair must decide to “marry or move on,” or, in much crasser terms, the recipients of these marriage ultimatums must “shit or get off the pot.”

The experimental dimension of this relatively familiar set of demands faced by couples in standard arrangements is what happens during the precarious pairs’ eight weeks together. In week 1, the couples have to “break up” and reenter the dating pool, albeit one limited to the loose remnants of the other couples who’ve also agreed to the experiment. After this first week of reshuffling, the contestants must then move in with their new partner for three weeks of a “trial marriage” to see if any desires, loves, or lessons are activated by playing house with whoever caught their eye during the initial period of enforced, manic dating among the participants. At the end of the three weeks with their trial spouses, the original couples must then “reattach” (to invoke the title of Lee Wallace’s provocative book Reattachment Theory) for yet another three weeks to repair, rebuild, and perhaps even reawaken each other’s appreciation for the person and the relationship they arrived with.1 By week 8, the marriage ultimatum must be answered. Will the ultimatum giver (as the show calls them) end up receiving a marriage proposal on “ultimatum day”? Will someone abscond with the trial spouse they cohabitated with for the first three weeks? Or will each participant end up alone, the experience having widened preexisting rifts within these couples to an unbridgeable impasse?

In the mere act of describing the show’s format, I’ve had to restrain myself from editorializing about how The Ultimatum’s structure is, at once, perniciously normative yet deeply lesbionic. As the old joke goes: “Q: What do gay men bring on their second date? A: What second date? Q: What do lesbians bring on their second date? A: A U-Haul.” The urge to merge, in other words, is famously perceived to be a lesbian condition, even among other queers. U-Hauling, or moving in together after only one week of dating, is enough to hoist a battery of red flags for anyone. For cis straight couples, the accelerated tempo of intimacy The Ultimatum demands manifests itself as a disruption in the order of things—sometimes welcome, at other times overwhelming. This is the case even if marriage—the telos of all conventional couplings, straight or gay—remains the desired outcome.

In season 2 of The Ultimatum, subtitled Queer Love and featuring lesbian, queer, and nonbinary contestants, it almost feels like the conceit of the show’s instant domesticity is endemic to the assortment of femmes, thems, and mascs gathered for the series’s queer turn. In other words, the question of marriage—the very centerpiece of The Ultimatum’s premise—ends up taking a back seat to the styles of cohabitation, intimacy, and coupling unfolding under the banner of “queer love.” It’s striking that lesbians and thembians are enlisted for the inaugural season of queer love, insofar as lesbians are more generally perceived to be “the marrying kind” than, say, cis gay men. Whereas the social experiment of the first season of The Ultimatum was to unsettle the typical timelines and emotional limits of straight cohabitation in order to shock couples into “making the right choice,” the queer ultimatum’s fascination for viewers lies in letting queers do recognizably queer, but also specifically lesbian, things across the broad spectrum of emotional and physical entanglements. The Ultimatum’s very format speaks to the familiar conventions of lesbian lives and desires—specifically, in the cast’s readiness to explore intimacy through instant cohabitation, not in the service of its eventuality.

For the contestants and viewers alike, The Ultimatum creates a container for the messiness and diversity of lesbian and queer intimacy that lies (mostly) beyond the expectations and restrictions posed by these couples’ families and friend groups. Indeed, I hardly think the series would’ve caused such a stir or kept my own group texts and social-media feeds ablaze with endless chatter were it not for the surprisingly diverse cast, who embody a range of gender presentations and racial identifications. Five couples ranging in age from their midtwenties to early forties commingle on Queer Love. The femme-on-femme-presenting Lexi and Rae are the youngest of the lot at twenty-five and twenty-seven, respectively. Lexi, whose ample bosom is the focus of some attention and several salacious remarks in the first two episodes, acts as the ultimatum giver, while the quieter and more subdued Rae, a hapa former college-basketball player from UC Irvine, is the ultimatum receiver. Despite taking a back seat to Lexi’s gregariousness, Rae becomes a pivotal character in the series, albeit primarily as a transactional object in a power-femme showdown between Lexi and her rival, Vanessa.

Mal (thirty-six, she/they/them) and Yoly (thirty-four, she/her), are a butch-femme couple of color who met at Chicago Pride but who moved in together in the Pacific Northwest. Yoly, the self-identified brown Leo femme of the pair, “is confident in their rock-solid romance and is ready for Mal [a Virgo Black dandy butch] to pop the question,” according to Netflix’s advertorial about the cast. (The digital profiles provide everyone’s astrological sun signs, as well as some of their rising and moon placements).2

On the opposite end of the spectrum from Mal’s and Yoly’s cool, placid exteriors are Mildred (thirty-three, she/her) and Tiff (thirty-two, they/them). Mildred, a Latinx femme with a special-needs teenage son, is ready to settle down with Tiff, an extremely tan, hotheaded masc who connected with Mildred after searching the Instagram hashtag #lesbianlatina and slipping into her DMs. Their belligerent dispositions move to the foreground and become recurring themes—and a matter of genuine concern—as the series progresses, building to a dramatic set of revelations in the reunion episode.

The cast of The Ultimatum: Queer Love. Courtesy of Netflix.

The cast of The Ultimatum: Queer Love. Courtesy of Netflix.

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Sam (thirty-one, she/her) and Aussie (forty-two, who lists their pronoun in the advertorial as “Aussie”) are both of Asian descent, with Sam identifying as Asian American, and Aussie, of the cheeky pronoun and constantly repeated chosen name, showing an obvious overinvestment in Aussie’s Australianness. The younger Sam pushes Aussie, the oldest member of the cast, to put a ring on it, while Aussie wonders why marriage is necessary if the two can just keep living together. The two also seem like the most subdued and reasonable of the duos, until Aussie’s underlying layer of aggression reveals itself during the “trial spouse” period, thus shattering stereotypes about Asian docility, doing them no favors in winning viewers’ hearts in the process.

Rounding out the cast are the only white couple: Vanessa (she/her) and Xander (she/her/they), who live in Hawaii. Both are thirty-year-olds who met back in high school when their boyfriends were BFFs. Vanessa and Xander have been together for four years and “have never spent more than three days apart.” This detail leaves little wonder as to why Vanessa, the pansexual femme of the duo, worries her freedom might be extinguished altogether if the two marry and “start a family,” as Xander wishes. The trial-spouse period confounds these expectations, while exposing the flimsiness of Xander’s ardency and uxorious façade.

Among the four butch-femme-presenting pairs, all but one of the femmes are the ultimatum givers, thus reinforcing gendered stereotypes about the skittishness of masculine subjects when marriage enters the picture. Xander and Vanessa are the outliers in this case, with Xander trying to “lock it down,” while Vanessa champs at the bit to begin dating the other cast members, going so far as to joke about having a “polyamorous orgy” at their first meet-and-greet. Indeed, Vanessa’s bold proclamations during the mingling phase of their residencies are predominantly met with suspicion and awkward giggles from the rest of the group. While Xander sits mortified, mooning after Vanessa during the original couples’ “break-ups” and dating sessions with the other cast members, Vanessa gleefully admits, “I’m very excited to be dating new people. People fall in love with me very easily.”

Sam and Aussie in their cast photo.

Sam and Aussie in their cast photo.

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The group-dating scenes in the first couple of episodes further present conundrums for all five of the queer couples. The structure of the show plods on with the assumption that everyone is open to dating everyone else because they’re all “of the same sex,” with little regard to the role gender plays in stoking their individual attractions. Visible discomfort emerges between a few of the mascs when they are made to go on “dates” together against type, or at least against their expressed desire for more-feminine-presenting women. During their masc-on-masc “date,” Mal reassures Tiff that “traditionally I don’t date mascs, but I’m also like, ‘Eh fuck it we’re here, I’m grown. I may have way more in common with you than anybody else so I’m, like, fine. We’ll figure out who tops and who bottoms at another time.’” (Nervous laughter ensues.)

On the femme side of things, one of the series’s most salient and enduring dramas unfolds between Lexi and Vanessa. The two begin intrigued and aroused by each other until Lexi chafes at Vanessa’s errant libido, which eventually becomes laser-focused on Lexi’s “ex,” Rae. (Another lesbionic flourish baked into the parlance of the show is that everyone becomes “exes” while dating within and among a small, closed community.) The rivalry intensifies when Vanessa ends up choosing Rae to be her trial spouse, and sexual hijinks occur during their three weeks of cohabitation. This bears the unfortunate consequence of the word “fingering” being used excessively throughout the series’ second half.

Mal and Tiff on a “date.”

Mal and Tiff on a “date.”

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As the cast members negotiate gender and sexual roles and in-group taxonomies of queer desire, the queerness of the “queer love” showcased in this season of The Ultimatum exceeds the fixed format of reality shows about love and marriage. Viewers usually know what they’re getting into when bachelors and bachelorettes, golden or in paradise, are thrown together for time-bound segments of polyamory before such diversions are absorbed into marriage plot resolutions. But it’s in Queer Love’s sprawling moments of processing emotional boundaries, astrological (in)compatibilities, and relationship deal-breakers—Tiff declares their deal-breaker to be someone eating a “raw fucking steak”—that The Ultimatum yields the greatest representational delight for its queer, and explicitly lesbian-identified, viewers. My own group chats were most abuzz when we reanimated the show’s taxonomical play in our own contexts and worlds—are you a Mal or a Mildred?—while doling out our amateur (or in some cases even professional) psychological and astrological assessments about the cast based on our personal histories of dating, coupling, and breaking up.

That four out of the five couples on The Ultimatum: Queer Love present as butch-femme without any deeper acknowledgment or analysis of these aesthetic presentations and gendered identifications throughout the series felt novel to my viewing coterie of late Gen Xers and elder millennials. The lack of discussion or framing beyond the contestants’ dialogue didn’t come across to me or the group chat as a lost opportunity to “edutain” about lesbian and queer gender roles in relationships. Presenting these configurations as they were and without further commentary felt refreshing, especially after decades of scripted television à la The L Word’s original run, which relied on femme eye candy and masc aversion to appeal to a “broader”—that is, presumptively straight—viewership.3

As the queer theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick once wrote about her greatest hope for The L Word, “the quantitative effect of a merely additive change—dramatizing more than one lesbian plot at a time—makes a qualitative difference in viewers’ encounter with social reality. The sense of the lesbian individual, isolated or coupled, scandalous, scrutinized, staggering under her representational burden, gives way to the vastly livelier potential of a lesbian ecology.”4 Ironically, it’s The Ultimatum’s artificial, opaque-cupped, and unscripted environs, as well as its eight-week format of cross-pollinating couples, that yield this lively lesbian ecology for Netflix’s international viewership.5

Generically, reality trumps realism in achieving this breadth of “lesbian representation” in which scripted melodrama simply cannot compete with the actual messiness of lesbian/queer coupling and uncoupling, especially with accelerated and amplified stakes. Sure, the cast members are aware of their own mediation as they perform certain roles for the cameras, egged on by veteran reality-TV producers. And yes, some of them are further motivated by whatever personal investments they may have in growing their social-media followings for their businesses, acting careers, or even future dating prospects. But the self-consciousness in the cast’s self-representations might also be in the service of a gay representational agenda. For example, in the first episode, Tiff and Mildred offer the cameras a steamy, if obviously choreographed and highly stylized, sex scene, presented partially in night vision to give it that enhanced-reality effect. While stylized lesbian sex is nothing new on screens small and large, it is too often written for the straight male gaze. The butch-them-plus-femme choreography of erotic desire has been less available to the viewing masses, especially in a format as ubiquitous and popular as reality television, and on a platform as global as Netflix.

Meanwhile, the cast’s frequent metadiscussions about what marriage and coupling mean to them also perform queer cultural work, insofar as very few of the participants—including their friends and family—take for granted that queer couples must ever choose marriage. Mal clarifies, for example, that as the ultimatum receiver, she is less concerned about commitment itself, or even the technicalities of their financial situation (her initial excuse for balking at marriage), than she is about the specificity of Yoly’s attachment to her. Mal depicts Yoly as a serial monogamist who has the capacity to “fall in love with anyone.” She wants to understand and believe in why she, Mal, has specifically been chosen by Yoly as her matrimonial object. Mal’s doubts ring true as prophecy when, as trial spouses, Yoly and Xander—yes, the same steadfast Xander who issued the marriage ultimatum to unruly Vanessa—form an amorous and sexual bond during their three weeks together, one that casts extreme doubt on the strength and sincerity of their original relationships.

During the many conversations about starting families, audiences are also privy to several intersectional moments reflecting on race and class in addition to gender, sexuality, and the privileges inherent in pursuing in vitro fertilization. Even in the highly curated multiculturalism of The Ultimatum: Queer Love, awkward discussions surface about interracial and interethnic dating. Before their spousal trial period, Mal asks Lexi whether she’d ever dated anyone like her—that is, a Black person—in response to which Lexi admits she at first thought Mal was asking her about whether she’d ever dated mascs. Lexi admits she had never dated a Black person before, then follows up by asking whether Mal had “dated Jewish.” (Mal had not.)

As the pairs remix and reconfigure, the producers arrange visits with some of the cast’s friends and family members, piercing the contained environs of their living situations. Several of the parents, including Lexi’s and Vanessa’s, express concern about their young offspring succumbing to social pressures to marry too soon. Aussie’s brother also does nothing to help Sam’s matrimonial efforts when he suggests that marriage as an institution is too limiting to one’s autonomy and therefore undesirable. Similar points about knowing when to fold ’em and walk away instead of holding on to a toxic relationship are raised by other visitors, some of whom, like Tiff’s friend Natasha, gained their own fans in the process. (Viewers began calling for Natasha, a queer masc, to host the series instead of JoAnna Garcia Swisher, the literal “straight woman” foil to the gaggle of queer lovers.6) That these visitors are less focused on enforcing fidelity within the original duos, and more critical of and reflective about marriage, than the show’s participants provide an internal critique of both the show’s core premise and preconceptions about queer love. The Ultimatum: Queer Love’s alternate reality reveals how the couples’ communities, who have traditionally been tasked with reinforcing norms, are less worried about preserving the couple form, and focused instead on reminding their loved ones to remain individuated and sane.

For a show with such convoluted rules, and only ten episodes, The Ultimatum: Queer Love nonetheless offers queer viewers the kind of narrative abundance that fueled Sedgwick’s optimism when she reviewed The L Word twenty years ago. She wrote, “A visible world in which lesbians exist, go on existing, exist in forms beyond the solitary and the couple, sustain and develop relations among themselves of difference and commonality—that seems, in a way, such an obvious and modest representational need that it should not be a novelty when it is met.”7 Could it be that The Ultimatum: Queer Love has met this modest representational need with its chaos and excess, despite coming to us in a highly formulaic reality format?

The Ultimatum: Queer Love has exceeded its televisual framework by entering our group chats and generating paratextual discussions about everything from discovering Sam and Aussie’s tarot business on Instagram, to spotting Vanessa at Dyke Day L.A., to hearing from a club promoter friend about the exorbitant fee one of the contestants tried to extract for an appearance during L.A. Pride. Perhaps it’s only through the prism of representational plenitude, tacky as that reality may be, that an ultimatum is capable of generating a beginning, and not simply an end.


Lee Wallace, Reattachment Theory: Queer Cinema of Remarriage (Durham, NC: Duke University Press), 2020. One of the central claims Wallace makes that’s relevant to the first two seasons of The Ultimatum is that gay marriage, far from being the downfall of “traditional marriage” (as so many conservatives have argued) actually does the work of reinforcing the significance of the marriage bond by reinventing it, and allowing even straight people to reimagine what intimacy might look like. In many respects, The Ultimatum, as chaotic as it is, also invites people to “reattach” not only to each other, but to the “specialness” of marriage itself, an idea is reinforced by some of the queer contestants on season 2.


Cole Delbyck, “Meet the Five Couples Risking It All in the ‘Ultimatum: Queer Love’ Cast,” Tudum by Netflix, June 1, 2023,


Sarah Kessler, “The Binge Watch: Lesbian Drama,” Public Books, January 18, 2019, As Kessler writes about The L Word’s treatment of Max, “That is not to say … that The L Word never tried, however ham-fistedly, to move beyond the narrow comfort zone of its predominantly white, cis, and femme central ensemble. At the beginning of Season 3, for example, Jenny brings home Moira, a Midwestern butch whose masculine identification alone is enough to stymie the show’s core friend group—including Shane! Moira’s imminent transition to Max elicits both ambivalence and hostility, illuminating the painful vicissitudes of lesbian transphobia.”


Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, “‘The L Word’: Novelty in Normalcy,” Chronicle of Higher Education, January 16, 2004, p. B10.


For continuity purposes (to facilitate editing together footage shot across a long night of processing over cocktails, for example), The Ultimatum series uses silver opaque cups and goblets, while Coelen’s other dating series, Love is Blind, uses gold drinking vessels. The opaque stemware has become the source of fascination to legions of viewers. See Elena Nicolaou, “The Metallic Wine Goblets from ‘Love Is Blind’ Are Back in ‘The Ultimatum,’” Y! News, April 13, 2022,


Lydia Venn, “The Ultimatum: Queer Love Fans Are Saying the Same Thing about Tiff’s Friend: There’s a Lot of Love for Natasha,” Cosmopolitan, June 2, 2023,


Sedgwick, “‘The L Word’: Novelty in Normalcy,” p. B10.