“The Ultimatum: Queer Love” has become a bonafide cultural zeitgeist — partly because We the People are basically starving for queer drama, and we will take what we can get, even when what we get is overproduced and underwhelming. But the weird thing is that even when it’s cheesy, “The Ultimatum” is really making me think about how important it is to protect queer culture — and queer time.
For those who aren’t familiar with the concept of queer time (or queer temporality, as it’s sometimes referred to in more academic settings), it’s the notion that the lives of queer people tend to follow a less standardized timeline because we don’t have all the usual rites of passage as our cishet counterparts. Instead of straightforward highway systems that transport us directly from youth to adulthood via family, college, jobs, marriage and kids, what many queer people often find instead are sparse paths composed of the footprints of those who came before us. We take our time — sometimes a lot of it — creating ourselves and coming into our own.
To be fair, many straight people want off the white heteronormativity highway. Maybe that’s why so many people who don’t actually want to have gay sex identify as queer. For many lovers of queer theory, the fact that we don’t live in the same “time zone” as everyone else is a critical and beautiful mark of our resistance to the white cis-hetero capitalist patriarchy.
Beloved queer literary icon bell hooks (born Gloria Jean Watkins) once defined queerness like this: “‘Queer’ not as being about who you’re having sex with (that can be a dimension of it); but ‘queer’ as being about the self that is at odds with everything around it and that has to invent and create and find a place to speak and to thrive and to live.” I would add that a self at odds, as hooks describes, needs time to do the work of invention and creation.
So how is something as cringe as “The Ultimatum” an invitation to ponder queer theory?
Well, actually, the cringe factor is part of it. This is one of the first times we’ve watched queer people reading the proscribed cis-heteronormative relationship script of “marriage or else” within the context of unscripted drama. Basically, what we’re watching is a group of people locked in the struggle of queerly resisting and embodying normative cultural programming at the same time.
Yeah, but doesn’t all reality TV do that? Sure it does, and as we’ve seen, even cishet young people balk at “to death do us part” ultimatums. But “The Ultimatum: Queer Love” is different in that the people involved are sometimes intermittently aware when they’re playing into cis-hetero patriarchal norms. The (often emotionally violent) slippage when they veer off the cishet script is the real drama. AFAB (assigned female at birth) people who may seem hysterical to straight viewers read more sympathetically to queers like me — they have real trauma, and they don’t always know how to deal with it.
No one should be forced into prematurely making lifelong commitments, but it seems an especially cruel thing to ask of those who are already living in a world that’s stacked against them. All of the young people on the show appear to be struggling with both internalized homophobia, and many of them are dubious about gender. At least one person on the show isn’t out to her family and you want her to choose a partner for life on TV? It’s absurd, sadistic theater.
Take, for example, the moment when Xander is asked to choose Yoly over Vanessa in Episode 7. I won’t spoil too much, but I will say that Xander’s inability to choose anyone but herself in that moment is inherently queer — and a total subversion to the cishet status quo. I’d argue that choosing between femmes is the building block on which all heterosexual romance is built. Xander’s refusal is a small act of resistance that reframes the whole premise — I do or I don’t — into the uncertainty of queer time.
Xander’s “I don’t know” is the secret third thing everyone is always talking about. It’s the queer thing, the nonbinary option. But when Xander claims her right not to know, the timeline explodes. Everyone is mad. How dare Xander not choose the obviously hot, totally extra babe in black leather over the basic bitch with bad intentions? No one can move forward until she chooses.
Except that we can. And the show, indeed, does go on. Sex! Drama! Processing! What will happen next? Will she ever choose?
Reckoning with indeterminacy is one of the hallmarks of queer life and we should protect it. Yes, it does create delays on the timeline and those delays are not always welcome or convenient — but they can be productive. Sure, it may have taken some of us (hi, it’s me) an extra decade or so to get to college, but when I did, I was ready. And maybe I will never have a life partner, but if I do, it will be an agreement between grown-ass people who know what they mean when they say, “I choose you” — not a coerced enforcement of the status quo.
Honestly, at this point in my life, I have little patience with indecision — my own or other people’s. I just don’t have time for the loose soil of “maybe” when it comes to the foundations of my life — precisely because I take my role as a future queer elder seriously.
I want to create enough ground in my life that it is possible for me to take a stand. That’s not prescribed. I am honored by the responsibility of protecting queer temporality and indeterminacy for young bucks like Xander. She should not have to choose, and I will fight for her right to resist “The Ultimatum.”