Selling Sunset. (Illustration by Eri Iguchi, Minneapolis College of Art and Design)
"Selling Sunset" provides its viewers with a unique opportunity to examine a number of social issues. (Illustration by Eri Iguchi, Minneapolis College of Art and Design)

What Is ‘Selling Sunset’ Really Selling?

This Netflix reality TV show focuses on the lives of West Coast real estate agents, but the social issues buried within it are anything but glamorous.

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Selling Sunset. (Illustration by Eri Iguchi, Minneapolis College of Art and Design)

This Netflix reality TV show focuses on the lives of West Coast real estate agents, but the social issues buried within it are anything but glamorous.

From the first glimpse of its flashy name to its glamorous scenes filled with luxurious high-end houses, “Selling Sunset” is a mesmerizing reality show that presents the lives of a group of ambitious real estate agents in LA from a variety of perspectives. It hones in on many minute details of these real estate agents, including their private lives, friendships, romantic relationships and even how they were raised, while presenting the outward glamor of their industry.

There are several critical lenses through which we can examine “Selling Sunset,” which will allow us to observe some of the most controversial social tensions that are both topical and fundamentally ingrained in the sociocultural landscape of the U.S. Some of these subjects include the impacts of unbridled capitalism, shows of masculinity and the objectification of women. Here are my thoughts:

Celebrities

Many facets of the show satisfy the curiosity of the audience and validate the assumptions of our current era. First and foremost, when someone thinks about Hollywood and Los Angeles, what will they normally imagine? Celebrities, glamor and passion.

One of the attractions that make LA and Hollywood famous is celebrities. Acquiring an impressive house is definitely one of the most important pursuits for the rich and famous. Because fans have already formed obsessions with their favorite celebrities, the psychological demand of the general public for information about their behind-the-scenes lives — and specifically for a show like “Selling Sunset” — already exists.

Thus, the opportunity for “regular folks” to see inside some of the most luxurious real estate in LA is a great way for people to get an intimate glimpse of the lives of these celebrities, tech giants, self-made millionaires/billionaires and more. Since real estate can be a highly lucrative industry with a relatively low barrier to entry compared with its unlimited financial potential, multitudes of people are attracted to it.

Capitalism

The show heavily embraces capitalism. From the excitement exuded by a real estate agent when speaking about how lucrative their profession can be, to how much the company leverages monetary incentives to motivate their sales agents, we cannot discuss “Selling Sunset” without discussing capitalism.

The show gives validity to one of the biggest motivating factors in U.S. society, and this validation is likely mirrored in the minds of the audience. It amplifies the importance assigned to material pursuits. Housing, along with one’s name and professional occupation, is one of the most prominent symbols of social status and power.

Toxic Masculinity

Toxic masculinity also plays a part in “Selling Sunset,” which can be observed even in the pilot episode. When a potential male buyer asks about the former owner of the house he is touring, the sales agent excitedly responds that it was a “playboy.” Why might the primary identifying characteristic be “playboy”? Why did the agent not provide the previous owner’s professional occupation or family background instead?

Arguably, this chosen identifier satisfies the psychological demand of masculinity in this potential buyer’s mind. When we buy something, we are conceding that the value of the product is at least generally in line with our values in order to avoid cognitive dissonance — the psychological stress that we experience when our actions, thoughts, beliefs, etc. are in conflict. The prospective buyer is not just identifying with the previous owner in terms of homeownership — he wants to identify with the implied ownership of women associated with the term “playboy.”

This desire to be seen as masculine is the reason why people are obsessed with possessions such as Porsches, which convey a sense of power and speed. It confirms the outward image some men desire to cultivate, and thus they buy the car to reinforce or amplify this identity.

Not surprisingly, potential male buyers in this particular episode of “Selling Sunset” begin to act vulgarly and some ask the female sales agent out for a drink. Later in the storyline, the aforementioned prospective buyer meets with the agent and expresses that everything about the house and the real estate team is decent, but also asks, “Can we hang out … before I make a decision so we can get to know each other?”

This request takes place even after the female sales agent repeatedly rebuffs his advances and explicitly states that she already has a husband. This plot line also indicates to the audience that the expectations buyers have for salespeople may go beyond just being a professional sales agent: There could be an extra invisible price tag calculated in their high-commission fee.

Social Roles

Another dynamic that stands out in “Selling Sunset” is the interaction between different roles in the office hierarchy. The team is composed of two male bosses at the top, with the rest of the sales staff being female.

The exchanges between the female sales agents explicitly and implicitly reflect the power dynamics attached to the different roles in the office; sometimes personalities collide. The dialogue between the sales agents and clients adds another element of personality to the individuals on the show. It amplifies the multifaceted nature of humans, and this extra layer of dramatic effect makes the show even more enjoyable to watch.

Authenticity

The final element of “Selling Sunset” that may mesmerize the audience — especially during this time of social isolation — is the authenticity of the people featured in the show. There are plenty of scenes that its audience will find relatable. The genuine sharing of the thoughts in these agents’ heads makes viewers feel connected to them immediately.

Since we are human beings that crave interaction with others, this link felt by the audience is important to sustain their interest. The female sales agents, whether you agree with them or not, seem to express authentic reactions and verbal expressions. Who doesn’t like the person who shares her story of rising from a “smelly kid who couldn’t access the running water and lived in an impoverished environment” to “a successful real estate salesperson?” — if this person is genuine?

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