Netflix’s reality series The Ultimatum: Marry Me or Move On is its newest dating hate-watch, but its gimmick is familiar. Alongside Put a Ring On It and Marry Me Now, The Ultimatum blatantly frames women as desperate caricatures demanding their partners propose. (It’s also extremely entertaining, for exactly this reason.)
On The Ultimatum, the premise works like this: Six couples sign up to swap partners in order to test their compatibility with their significant others. At the end of the eight-week experiment, each contestant has three options: an engagement with their partner, a new relationship with their “trial husband or wife,” or a breakup with both people.
This framework may not be any more bizarre than proposing to someone sight unseen (Love Is Blind) or forcing an island of attractive people to remain celibate (Too Hot Too Handle), but The Ultimatum, and other shows like it, are far more reliant on enforcing gendered stereotypes that are increasingly fading from reality. Not even 50 years ago, American women couldn’t get a credit card without being married. Now, considering millennial women are getting married and starting families later than previous generations, who does it serve to present female contestants as shrews, dragging men to the altar kicking and screaming?
From the start, The Ultimatum perpetuates a warped and outdated version of marriage as a trap laid by hopeful and cunning would-be brides. Of the six couples on The Ultimatum, four of the ultimatums are issued by women: April, Shanique, Alexis, and Rae. We learn that their definitions of marriage all include cooking and cleaning for their husbands: When the producers ask Rae, who is 24, why she’s ready to be married, her answer is, “I stay in the gym, I have a degree, I cook, I clean, and I know how to fuck.” Yet she can’t name a single quality proving what makes her boyfriend, Zay, the person she thinks is the one. As a recent graduate, she’s planned her life down to the detail, and marriage is next on the agenda. “Isn’t that how it goes—college, then proposal, then babies?” she asks.
Another contestant, April, confesses that she simply wants a ring and a kid. There’s nothing wrong with that, but the show portrays her motivations as selfish and empty. When April’s boyfriend, Jake, admits that he’s made a connection with Rae, viewers are treated to a lesson about how little Jake himself actually factors into April’s plans. “You want a kid now, a house now, you want marriage now,” he says. “Not once have you asked what I want in this whole fucking relationship.” Viewers are cued that April’s wanting this future is shallow and wrong, while poor Jake has absolutely no agency here.
April and the rest of her female castmates, it’s clear, are the villains here; their versions of marriage are designed without their partners in mind. The show sets out to prove that the men they’re dating are treated more as placeholders and breadwinners than true soulmates. But watching women put themselves in a situation where they’re trying to convince someone of their value asks the viewer, too, to judge their worth: Do they want too much? Do they want it in the right ways?
If this were just one series with a stupid premise, well, fine. But The Ultimatum isn’t the only recent show that puts women in a position to beg for the love, and partnerships, that they think they deserve, and the playbook it draws from is sinister in terms of race, too. Two Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN) original series, Put a Ring On It and Marry Me Now, function in a similar way: Frustrated women air their grievances about their relationships, while simultaneously demanding commitment within those relationships. Both are, like The Ultimatum, extremely grim. Given that these shows air on OWN, a channel that the Wall Street Journal reported was “the highest-rated cable network among African American women” in 2016, their cast and audience demographics further reveal how reality television makes dysfunction a prerequisite for Black brides especially.
Put a Ring On It, which premiered in 2020 with an all-Black cast, is the blueprint for The Ultimatum. In Put a Ring On It, three couples switch partners throughout the show to determine whether they should commit or split. The drama is cranked all the way up: On a recent episode of Put a Ring On It, a fight breaks out when one couple, Shay and Alfonzo, go on dates with other people at the same restaurant. Shay gets jealous and starts yelling at the other woman—she’s literally ready to fight over a man who never introduced her to his family in three years.
Marry Me Now, which aired in March, feels like a nod to the original women-are-marriage-crazed reality TV hit, Bridezillas, in which women adopt a my-way-or-the-highway attitude on the days leading up to their weddings. On a new episode of Marry Me Now each week, a woman not only plans the wedding of her dreams in three days, but also ambushes her partner with a surprise wedding. OWN markets Marry Me Now as a chance for women to “take charge of their own fate.” But, as on other dating reality shows, Black women become the show’s punching bags. Racism and sexism team up to draw on stereotypes of Black women as both aggressive and unwanted.
According to a 2020 study by Pew Research Center, Black millennials are less likely to be married than other racial groups, and 67 percent of Black millennial mothers are more likely to be unmarried. Put a Ring On It and Marry Me Now prey on the fears that some Black women may feel about partnership, turning the dismal data into fodder for televised drama. As a woman inching closer to her 30s who hopes to be married one day despite the odds for Black women, these shows reinforce that women of my age and race should settle for the bare minimum.
But, then again, why would I sign up for a shitshow like this? If I’m being honest, I’ll probably watch season two of The Ultimatum—not because I agree with its premise, but simply because it’s entertaining: None of the first season’s contestants are over 30 (although one of them, Lauren, says that Netflix lied about her age), and, when you do the math, none of the relationships had much of a history outside of the pandemic. Those factors alone are the making of trainwreck reality television, and that’s what makes the show feel so delicious in its approach to commitment, too: If this is marriage, maybe you’re better off single after all.
Kristin Corry is a senior staff writer at VICE.