Shh! Don’t tell, but I’m addicted to Selling Sunset

Is it acceptable for a feminist with a PhD to enjoy the Netflix hit series? Julia Wagner thinks it is


I f there’s one thing we’ve all had in common during lockdown, it’s screen time. Work, school, birthday parties, brit milah, weddings, shivas have all gone online, and the screen is still what many of us turn to for relaxation in the evenings.

Like most parents of young children, I’ve been grappling with my children’s viewing habits, while my own TV diet has changed. I’ve missed out on the usual daytime Holocaust-and-subtitled-documentary fare that my working week used to involve and in my exhausted evenings I’ve no appetite for serious stuff.

I’ve devoured Selling Sunset, the hit Netflix series showcasing multi-million dollar Los Angeles homes. It centres on the Oppenheim Group real estate brokerage run by twins Brett and Jason Oppenheim, their team of stunning sales agents and even more stunning properties. It is a cross between a Real Housewives series, A Place in the Sun, Grand Designs and Behind the Scenes at Martyn Gerrard (don’t get too excited, this doesn’t exist — yet — but remember that episode with Mary Portas in 2011?).

I was persuaded to give Selling Sunset a go after I saw a Facebook post by a friend — also a PhD-holding, Jewish feminist: “OK so who else is secretly and guiltily obsessed with Selling Sunset?” I asked if I should watch and she enthusiastically replied “Yes! Then we can discuss whether it’s a feminist show!”

How could I resist such an invitation? A few days and several episodes later, I was in the middle of delivering a lecture via Zoom to the JCC Staten Island, about Jewish American Princesses in Hollywood movies, when my mobile phone buzzed. I dared to glance from one screen to the other while a clip from Private Benjamin was running — it was a message from a shul friend, so short that I could sense its furtiveness: “Please tell me you are secretly addicted to Selling Sunset”. I swiftly responded, to allay her guilt: “obvs”.

Why the guilt and secrecy? Because of the risk we will be judged for our viewing choices. This is clear from the language used to describe how we watch television programmes which are often aimed at, and consumed by, women: “binge-watching”, “TV junkie”, “trash TV”, “telly addict”, “obsessed”, “guilt”, “secret pleasure”. The language of sin. When men enjoy Selling Sunset I doubt that they worry that their choices are judged by others as tasteless or unhealthy. There is perhaps another kind of unease for Jewish viewers of Selling Sunset, a series which teases our sensitive Jewish-radars. When I began watching, I sat coiled in anticipation of cringeworthy moments of flashiness from the Jewish participants, but on further viewing it became clear that the most obviously Jewish cast members, the Oppenheim twins and Israeli property agent Maya are the more subdued cast members. All the agents, buyers and sellers equally enjoy money, luxury and ostentation. The extravagance on display is unashamed, and the cast are not embarrassed by the shows of wealth, their plastic surgery or their outfits which sometimes — as the women joyfully admit — make them look “like a ho”.

The coincidence of lecturing about the Jewish American Princess — a character which has evolved from a negative stereotype to a lovable heroine — and my friends’ reactions to Selling Sunset highlights the legacy of fear of judgement in our culture. The female cast of Selling Sunset delight in their appearance as well as their professional success, a breath of fresh air for British Jewish women who are too often inclined to feel guilty.

Selling Sunset shamelessly focuses our attention on what money can buy. The stilettos and Botox are merely window dressing for the real stars — the houses themselves. The staged in-fights and crises are the least interesting elements of the series. The houses, palaces with more bathrooms than bedrooms, and wrap-around infinity pools, are what I watch for.

One rainy British summer’s day I tried to take my children swimming at a re-opened outdoor pool. My son refused to go in the water, lamenting, “it just doesn’t feel right, going swimming in the pouring rain and cold”. Selling Sunset is an antidote to real life. Just soak up the sun and enjoy it, guilt-free.

Julia Wagner is is a lecturer and writer specialising in film and television

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