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Selling Sexism: How This Reality TV Show Promotes A Tokenized Feminism That Thrives Under Capitalism

By Caroline Hug

We love to read and speculate over the trivialities of celebrities’ lives, looking to magazines, celebrity products, and social media for answers. In return, we’re offered a carefully constructed glimpse into their private lives, and we’re deceived into thinking they’re people who — to use the popular tabloid phrase — are just like us.

Celebrity bodies are commodified — by marketers, by producers, and by audiences. And the more we begin to emotionally relate to these stars, the more we begin to financially invest into the products they promote and replicate the dominant social narratives they reinforce.

The truth is, stars are fashioned to reproduce hegemonic social views on gender, race, and class, among others. Selling Sunset is a great example of a TV show that uses celebrities to reinforce capitalism and perpetuate gender norms. The series revolves around Hollywood-based real estate brokerage, The Oppenheim Group, and their seven female — predominantly white and blonde — real estate agents.

Throughout the series, these seven real estate agents walk through extravagant, open houses in the Beverly Hills area in absurdly over-the-top outfits, high heels, and perfectly blow-dried hair.

Their empowerment comes from their bodies; their pricey outfits show off their entrepreneurial attitude to life, convincing women that to achieve gender equality, they must simply join the labour force and work hard.

“Put your hopes into a home — not a man.”

The whole premise of the series revolves around girlboss feminism. In other words, a feminism that’s informed by capitalism, production, and consumption. The women continually discuss their empowerment in the season, perpetuating ‘women in business’ stereotypes that not-so-subtly patronise women.

In the opening scenes, Christine rocks up to an $8 million LA mansion in her yellow Lamborghini, on the lookout for a new house for herself and her husband. In the following scene, Chrishell is also looking to buy a house, confiding to her fellow cast member and friend, Mary, that the key to happiness is to put your hopes into a home — not a man.

Are these scenes truly empowering? Women making ‘deals in heels’ is tied to a highly tokenised version of feminism — a feminism that’s appropriated to fit the neoliberal capitalist agenda.

Suddenly, girl power is linked to consumer power. Forget structural inequality — with a positive mental attitude, you can reach equality by working hard and becoming a leader of your own enterprise!

It also neatly places these women into appropriate conventions of femininity. Women can feel empowered, but only within the confines of excessive femininity, where appearance is prioritised over personal value. Western beauty ideals are perpetuated, where women must adhere to unattainable standards to feel empowered — investing in makeup, plastic surgery, and fashionable clothing to try to reach a constantly shifting optimised image.

Girlboss feminism ultimately benefits capitalism and the state. If the responsibility to feel empowered is linked to women’s choices as consumers, then as long as their empowerment can contribute to the economy, this image of the free, entrepreneurial woman continues to be marketable and moves the political focus away from the struggle for gender equality.

“Just had a baby, and I’m back in my stripper heels.”

It’s worth mentioning that when Christine rocks up to the LA mansion, she’s nine months pregnant. Throughout the entire series, Christine defies the lines of motherhood — consistent remarks are made by other members of the Oppenheim Group about her appearance, and particularly her body, after her pregnancy.

At nine months pregnant, Christine is still working and planning her extravagant baby shower, consisting of wild parrots, half-dressed staff in green body paint, and a sloth.

Just a few days after giving birth to her son, Christian, she continues filming and dips back into real estate. In another scene, Davina visits Christine during her yoga session. The new mother practices her headstands while flexing her undeniably impressive body.

Christine perfectly encapsulates the neoliberal mompreneur of today. Her maternity is increasingly commodified to fit a tokenised feminist agenda. The show highlights how working mothers really can do it all! — they can work and have a child, all while looking glamorous.

Having a child seems so easy, that we forget that Christine is part of a very tiny group of very rich mothers. We forget about the lack of childcare services for women, we forget about the penalty new mothers take on in the workplace, we forget about the persisting gender pay gap, and most importantly, we forget that each of these issues are compounded by intersecting power structures of gender, race, and class.

Through this harmful portrayal of the momboss, the responsibility is shifted away from the welfare state and towards the mother as an individual. Of course, the state champions the image of the working mother; female labour power is important to keep capitalism running.

“Ready to dive in and take her down”

One of the (most troubling) reasons we like watching Selling Sunset is because we love watching the toxic femininity that pervades the show. In other words, we love women stomping on other women to get to where they want to be.

This is something that’s been instilled in women throughout the media, from Angus, Thongs, and Perfect Snogging’s Slaggy Lindsay to Mean Girls’ notorious Regina George — we love watching a woman’s downfall. And usually, the downfall revolves around competition for a man’s attention.

Perhaps the most obvious drama of the show is Christine’s feud with Emma. Christine claims that her ex-boyfriend cheated on her with her not-so-fellow castmate. And to make matters worse, Emma is hired to join the Oppenheim Group, taking Christine’s place during her maternity leave. Here begins the onslaught of name-calling, fake politeness, anonymous text messages and a final dramatic confrontation.

Oh, the drama of a female-heavy cast! Vanessa, a recent member of the brokerage, confesses her apprehension over working with a group of women, claiming that women do not support each other in the workplace.

With the uncontrollably petty nature of a predominantly female office, the show emphasizes the need for the chaos to be mediated and controlled by none other than two men, Brett and Jason (pictured). The twin brother duo call the shots in the brokerage, creating a weird Hugh Heffner/playboy bunny dynamic in the office.

Again, the show promotes a neoliberal perspective that focuses on a woman’s individual rise to the top, moving away from the communal struggle for equality. Ultimately, women are the most undermined by toxic femininity — and the men on the show are perceived as ‘beyond the drama’, able to mediate their female employees’ behaviour.

Believe it or not, I quite like Selling Sunset. But I go into the show with an awareness that the events are staged, the female real estate agents are fashioned by TV producers, and most importantly, that the underlying message of the show is not one I wish to replicate.

It’s funny to laugh at the absurdity of these stars’ lives, to gawk at the extremity of LA wealth, and to admire Christine’s crazy outfits as she parades through houses worth millions of dollars.

But there is something anxiety-inducing about a series that uses generically eye-rolling tropes for their female cast — I’m tired of watching shows that promote toxic femininity, a neoliberal agenda, and a westernised, whitewashed version of feminism.

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