The Spectacle of “Selling Sunset”

Still from “Selling Sunset” episode, Season 4, Episode 10, from Netflix

Image description: Real estate agents Chrishell Stause, Heather Rae Young, Emma Hernan, and Mary Fitzegerald wear sparkly cocktail dresses while standing in a circle and celebrating their recent house sales. They stand atop a Hollywood Hills luxury compound overlooking the city of Los Angeles at twilight. 

The Netflix show “Selling Sunset” tracks the business of the Oppenheim Group brokerage located on Sunset Boulevard, which is only a ten minute drive away from UCLA. Most of the brokerage’s employees are affluent, white women who drive sports cars to work, wear couture to coffee shops, and discuss office drama for leisure. “Selling Sunset” satisfies all the symptoms of superficiality, and I have uncharacteristically and eagerly watched all four seasons of the show. Reality television has a sly way of lulling its viewers into submission like a sedative. 

“Selling Sunset” premiered on March 21, 2019, and was picked up for second, third, and fourth seasons throughout 2020 and 2021, better known as the quarantine era. During this time, countless businesses and schools closed their doors, leading the United States head-first into a recession. Nonetheless, the show amassed millions of followers who attentively watched as the women of the brokerage seamlessly sold homes for sport, no less in a time of economic chaos. According to Parrot Analytics, “Selling Sunset” is one of the most popular series in the entire Reality television genre. 

While watching beautiful women show tech moguls around multimillion dollar homes can be visually pleasing and even aspirational, it is important we set aside the spectacle and delve into a conversation about the wealth and privilege disparities the show so effortlessly dodges. 

The first episode, aptly titled “If Looks Could Sell,” opens with all of the Oppenheim agents sitting in a circle, discussing their latest listings. It is casually mentioned that the brokerage sells around 250 millions dollars worth of home per year. We are first introduced to Jason and Brett Oppenheim, the two brothers and founders of their namesake brokerage. We are then introduced to the girls one by one during their respective Hollywood Hills showings, with each of them selling a different brand: sweet, spicy, salty, and let’s not forget, sour. Still, they are a tight-knit family. However, when newbie Chrishell Stause walks in the door, the audience soon comes to find that the office dynamic is quite high-school-esque — it’s aggressive and awkward for everyone involved.

“Selling Sunset” is reminiscent of the 2000s teen drama “Gossip Girl” in many ways. Though the main focus of “Selling Sunset” is the luxury real estate scene in Los Angeles, both series participate in garish displays of wealth serving as a backdrop for an ultimately escapist narrative. 

In a monologue from the final episode of “Gossip Girl”, character Dan Humphrey describes how he feels out of place in his environment:

“The Upper East Side was like something from Fitzgerald or Thackeray. Teenagers acting like adults, adults acting like teenagers. Guarding secrets, spreading gossip, all with the trappings of truly opulent wealth, and membership in this community was so elite, you couldn’t even buy your way in. It was a birthright. A birthright I didn’t have.” 

Unlike himself, Humphrey’s friends belong to an exclusive upper class in the bustling metropolis of Manhattan. Though Humphrey played nice in person, he was an enemy to his friends in the dark because they represented everything he could never have: a life of luxury, an extensive social network, and a limitless supply of cop-outs whenever taking responsibility was just too much for them to bear. 

Although we can categorize teen dramas like “Gossip Girl” as distant fictional worlds, “Selling Sunset” is all too real – well, as real as reality shows can get. The show enunciates the entire premise of American capitalism – there is a socioeconomic hierarchy and thus different privileges afforded to different groups. 

According to Marxism, the market economy is “coordinated through the spontaneous sale and purchase of private property dictated by the laws of supply and demand.” So where does the demand lie?  

It is important to note that the ladies of the brokerage and their clientele come from the same upper class. Chrishell Hartley, one of the Oppenheim agents, even buys a 3.3 million dollar home she was hired to sell in one episode. In short, you have rich people selling homes to even richer people so that they themselves can also get ridiculously rich. All the money stays in one pretty, padded bubble. The consequence? Working and middle classes are relegated to fend for themselves. 

According to a Duke University report titled “The Color of Wealth in Los Angeles,” the larger Los Angeles area – beyond the Hollywood Hills suburbia – suffers striking wealth discrepancies when disaggregated into its multiplicity of ethnic groups and communities. Unlike white households who benefit from generational wealth, Black, Asian, and Latinx (predominantly immigrant) households live in a long-term state of financial vulnerability, which impedes access to simple things like food, transportation, secondary education, and medical care. For every dollar accumulated by a white household, the average Black and Latinx household earns all of one cent.

“Selling Sunset” is only a microcosm of the trend of iterative wealth. The show offers up glimpses of a supposed utopia – of what it might be like to own a 150 foot pool and a six car parking garage – but this polished reality is more like a tragedy in disguise. When you refuse to let the bright sparkles of city views and thousand dollar dresses consume you, you’ll find that these markings of “true success” are nothing more than a euphemism for the access and excess that is afforded by whiteness in a capitalist society. 

For instance, “Selling Sunset” frames two of its featured stars, Mary Fitzgerald and Chrishell Stause, as underdogs who rose to the top by their strong individualistic tendencies to which they owe their monthly six figure commissions. This trope is otherwise known as the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” fallacy, which was coined in the 1800s to describe a physically impossible act. To the contrary, a more modern, politicized interpretation of the phrase proposes the idea that one can rise to the top if they “work hard enough.” However, this theory does not always work in application. Stause says in one episode, that she knows “what it’s like to live with nothing.” For the majority of Los Angeles residents, this reality is not temporary – it is their past, present, and future.

Writer Naomi Fry for the New Yorker says that part of “Selling Sunset’s” appeal is, “to indicate that the system works: fortitude coupled with sharp elbows can buy you success, security, [and] luxury.”  But the truth is there are structural systems in place to keep the winners winning and the losers losing. 

According to public records, the average UCLA graduate ends with $22,000 worth of debt. Unfortunately for some, this is a steep underestimate. UCLA graduate Hailey Dollar claims a whopping total of $34,000 of debt for her two years as a transfer student at UCLA, saying she’s been working ever since she could get a permit (age 14). For reference, the lowest commission shown in a “Selling Sunset” episode is $65,000, enough to cover Hailey’s debt twice over. 

While Netflix tempts you to believe that the world of sunsets and the reality its audience occupies are of disparate universes, they are actually one in the same. The “Selling Sunset” realm is composed of a class which gets to claim immunity to the economic implications of COVID-19 and more broad structural inequalities in place. The realm the rest of us occupy — the one excluded from glamorous scenes of “Selling Sunset” — is composed of the people who don’t have the luxury of playing pretend. 

All in all, “Selling Sunset” and shows of its likeness remind their willing audience that they can look, but not touch. Money promises you safety. Money promises you illusion. And all I am is disillusioned. To echo Dan Humphrey’s critique, it is easy to fall in love with the “trappings of opulent wealth,” right up until the moment you realize the wealth has been promised to someone else.

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