The Ultimatum: Queer Love was released in three batches on May 24, May 31, and June 7, and promptly made it onto the top-10 list of shows on Netflix in 23 countries. Ever since reality shows like An American Family and Cops first aired, in 1973 and 1989 respectively, the public has been fascinated by clashing personalities and heavy-handed interpersonal drama, aided by ludicrous situations and choice editing. In the epochal shows of the 90s and early 2000s — Survivor, Big Brother, and Idols — participants battle for ridiculous sums of money as a way for the show to induce high stakes. Meanwhile, the most popular reality shows of today use love to fuel drama. Three out of five of Netflix’s most popular shows concern romantic relationships, according to a ranking system dependent on Netflix’s weekly top-10 list. The first season of The Ultimatum is ranked fourth on this list.
The long-term ramifications of these shows — especially the meddling in the private lives of participants — are rarely acknowledged in the media’s response. The Ultimatum goes further than introducing a love interest to participants’ lives: they manipulate pre-existing romances. In each of the five couples on the show, one person is ready for marriage, while their partner is unsure. After a week of speed-dating, participants pair off into new, temporary relationships, and undergo a three-week “trial marriage.” They then return to their original partners for another three weeks, before they propose to their original partner, propose to their recently made connection, or break up.
Although a trial marriage with a stranger on live television isn’t a healthy choice when it comes to assurance in a relationship, The Ultimatum posits itself as helping participants in their self-growth journey. Netflix writes that participants “date other people in an attempt to figure out what they really want.” Talk about self-discovery, fruitful introspection, and self-love abounds, even as participants are frequently brought to tears by the tense social situations they’re forced into.
By reframing reality TV as an “experience” created for the benefit of participants, we absolve ourselves of the moral ramifications of watching real-life mental breakdowns that are prompted by the structure of the show. In one scene, Aussie Chow sobs and rocks back and forth in distress. In another, Raelyn Chung-Sutton says in a heated argument with her partner, “Do I love myself? Do I deserve to be loved? I’m fucking drowning.” It takes a huge amount of cognitive dissonance to watch these relationships crumble, and then to write the same snappy, frivolous reviews that populate the internet after the release of any reality TV show.
Even disregarding the premise that generates such moments, The Ultimatum infringes on the basic dignity of participants. The show includes clips of participants having sex, and whenever a participant attempts to leave the view of the camera crew, they are followed. In the reunion episode, host Joanna Garcia Swisher says, “I have so much respect for all of you for sharing this journey. It was really a beautiful thing, and why I think this whole story is so compelling.” The thanks might be sincere, but the most dramatic moments of the show often occurred when participants were trying to evade the cameras. Although participants agreed to be on the show, they are still victims to the hounding of the cameramen past a point of decency, as well as the airing of explicit scenes.
There’s a widespread awareness that reality TV is edited into a narrative, but it’s also true that the moments edited together are real. The final reunion episode, set a year after participants either marry or break up, is an example of how The Ultimatum engages with the most dramatic moments to maximize viewer enjoyment, and then dismisses them with facetious questioning and a feel-good conclusion so that no viewer is left sitting with the discomfort of having witnessed these vulnerable and often destructive scenes. This is most evident when, after Mildred Areli Bustillo admits to being arrested for domestic violence, Garcia Swisher follows it up with, “where are you in the healing process?”. While emotionally shocking, the story of domestic violence is unsurprising considering Netflix’s practices of finding participants. According to Bustillo’s ex-partner Tiff Der, Netflix producers said they were looking for couples in a bad place. Finally, after Aussie and Sam say they’re still engaged, Garcia Swisher reacts with, “it’s great to see your happy ending.” The addition of a happy ending onto an incredibly fraught relationship seems disingenuous, especially considering the emotional pain Aussie endured while filming.
Pop-culture magazines buy into the narrative pushed by The Ultimatum that the show is a heartfelt experiment and, consequently, they contort the show to fit their lighthearted tone. In reference to Tiff and Mildred, a Cosmopolitan article writes, “Tiff walked off-set during the reunion as Mildred and them were arguing about rent being paid,” erasing the talk of abuse in the relationship, which prompted Tiff to become overwhelmed. Emma Specter from Vogue writes that she teared up watching Aussie Chau’s journey. Chau’s incredibly vulnerable moments on TV — including a quite violent breakdown — were moving and real but, more importantly, Chau didn’t consent to this vulnerability.
The cruelty of reality TV is the same — if not worse, in the context of social media — but our framing around it has changed. It’s in the best interest of The Ultimatum to label breakdowns as moments of self-discovery, and invasive filming as participants choosing to share their lives. And it’s easier for viewers to believe the therapy-talk of the TV host, and to dismiss reality TV as entirely fictional, rather than to see participants as humans in a vulnerable situation. Until The Ultimatum puts policies into place to actually protect their subjects instead of espousing vague goals of helping couples find love, and until viewers start questioning the feel-good narrative of these shows, this new approach to reality TV will continue to be inauthentic and exploitative.