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Don't Trust Vanessa's Villain Edit in The Ultimatum: Queer Love

Vanessa may be the loudest of the bunch, but she's no worse than the rest of The Ultimatum cast.
  • Vanessa Papa in The Ultimatum: Queer Love (Photo: Netflix)
    Vanessa Papa in The Ultimatum: Queer Love (Photo: Netflix)

    It's easy to mistake Vanessa for The Ultimatum: Queer Love's villain. In the first four episodes (which dropped Wednesday on Netflix), Vanessa, a 30-year-old woman who identifies as pansexual, finds herself at the center of the drama over and over again: She makes an enemy of Yoly, who ends up matched with Vanessa's longtime partner Xander; gets into a heated confrontation with Lexi; and suggests the group turn their first cocktail party into a "polyamorous orgy," a joke that does not play well among her marriage-minded co-stars. Lexi even goes so far as to call Vanessa an "atomic bomb" who's determined to ruin the experience of everyone around her.

    Vanessa is immature, selfish, and by no means ready for marriage — something she freely admits in this first batch of episodes — but does she deserve such contempt? From the moment she makes the ill-advised orgy joke, The Ultimatum saddles Vanessa with the villain edit, but upon closer inspection, it becomes apparent that she's being unfairly maligned by her fellow participants and the show's producers.

    To be sure, Vanessa has all the makings of a reality TV villain. She's naturally outgoing and loud, with an inflated sense of self and a habit of making things about her own journey. ("People fall in love with me pretty easily," she says in one of her first talking head interviews. "It's like, 'Game on.'") Unlike the others, who are deliberate with their words, Vanessa has no filter and is unconcerned with what everyone else thinks of her. She shamelessly flirts with Mal when they first meet, toasting to their "trial marriage" in front of the group, and gets her nipples pierced for Netflix's 230 million global subscribers to see. Anyone this colorful is bound to ruffle feathers — especially when surrounded by a group of people so bland, like Rae, Vanessa's eventual trial marriage partner and Lexi's girlfriend, who has all the personality of a cardboard box.

    But just because Vanessa stands out from the group doesn't mean her demonization is fair. As tends to be the case with dating shows, the biggest knock on Vanessa is that she's "here for the wrong reasons," as Lexi tells everyone who will listen. Lexi and Vanessa are initially attracted to each other, but when Vanessa expresses her worries about getting married (whether to Xander, Lexi, or anyone else), Lexi accuses her of being "shut off to this process" of finding lasting love via the show's experiment. "Vanessa's a fake person," Lexi says in an interview filmed immediately after their disastrous date. "I don't even want to say her name anymore. She's like Voldemort to me."

    Lexi's dramatic reaction creates a false impression that she was blindsided by Vanessa's concerns about marriage, when in reality, Vanessa has been open about her monogamy-related anxieties since Day 1. She says as much in her first interview with Xander: "I don't want permanency, and I don't want stability. I want freedom. And that's not really what marriage consists of." The subject also comes up on their previous dates as Vanessa explains why Xander felt compelled to issue an ultimatum in the first place. The problem here isn't that Vanessa has been hiding her emotional hang-ups or purposely avoiding the topic of marriage, but that Lexi either hasn't been listening or incorrectly believed she would be able to mold this woman into her ideal partner.

    Furthermore, Vanessa's fears about long-term relationships aren't any different than the worries expressed by the other ultimatum-receivers. Both Tiff and Aussie explain they need time to figure out what they really want, while Rae admits she doesn't know if a "picturesque" romance "exists for [her]." Vanessa may not express it as eloquently (which is ultimately what causes the issue with Lexi) but underneath her blunt delivery lie the same insecurities.

    Even some of the bad behavior that Lexi and Yoly latch onto as evidence of Vanessa's true nature appears elsewhere. At the choice ceremony, Xander makes an offhand remark about a past partner Vanessa didn't know about, and Vanessa responds to the slight by mouthing "f*ck off" at Xander from across the table. The others call out Vanessa for being childish — "You've been telling Xander to f*ck off, and it's hurting all of us but you," Mildred says — but no one bats an eye when Mal does the same thing, whispering "I don't know about that" as Xander praises Yoly's unselfishness.

    And while Vanessa is excoriated during a group night out for having sex with Rae, Rae is entirely let off the hook for her role in their tryst. Lexi's line of questioning, about who kissed who and whether Vanessa "accidentally had [her] fingers inside of somebody," suggests that Vanessa purposely misled or preyed upon Rae, despite the fact that we know their sexual encounter was consensual. It's plain as day that Lexi and Rae have issues to work out (why else would they be on this show?), but blaming Vanessa is much easier than addressing those problems head-on, like adults. (For what it's worth, Yoly, who seems to delight in ganging up on Vanessa, is having a sexual relationship of her own with Xander, so perhaps the pot shouldn't be so quick to call the kettle black.)

    As Lexi poisons the well, The Ultimatum producers lean into her characterization of Vanessa. They give Lexi space to unload on her rival and add fuel to the fire with cherry-picked moments: Right as Lexi says she doesn't trust Vanessa because she's "fake," the episode cuts to Vanessa telling Aussie that she's "an Instagram influencer" who "gets paid to do content." You don't have to be a genius to figure out that Vanessa is most likely kidding — one week before the premiere, she had 872 followers on Instagram — but it's presented as if she's entirely serious. It's one of many instances in which Vanessa's awkwardness and sense of humor are played against her, as when she jokingly compares the trial marriage process to Rumspringa, or as she calls it, "Rothspringer."

    Lexi claims that Vanessa has "power in her hands" to destroy relationships new and old, but if anything, it's Lexi who's flexing her muscle over her co-stars and the final edit. With six more episodes to go, including what's sure to be a doozy of a reunion, it will be interesting to see whether The Ultimatum: Queer Love continues follow Lexi's lead in vilifying Vanessa, or whether a more deserving heel will emerge.

    The Ultimatum: Queer Love Episodes 5-8 drop next Wednesday, May 31 on Netflix, followed by the finale and reunion on June 7. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.

    Claire Spellberg Lustig is the Senior Editor at Primetimer and a scholar of The View. Follow her on Twitter at @c_spellberg.

    TOPICS: The Ultimatum: Queer Love, Netflix, Vanessa Papa