How the other half of Sydney lives

‘Is Coogee still the eastern suburbs?’ asks Victoria Rees, of a suburb just eight kilometres outside Sydney’s CBD. Is this real life, I am tempted to ask.

Though it’s broadcast on Foxtel, the tendency of Australians to enthusiastically pirate content guarantees that not everyone watching The Real Housewives of Sydney (RHOS) is a paying viewer. The reality show is a fever dream of consumption set in our most user-unfriendly city. It’s best enjoyed with wine or valium in hand to avoid thoughts of growing socioeconomic inequality and to maximise your enjoyment of bitter arguments.

Perhaps reflective of the demographic makeup of Sydney, the cast is a bit more diverse than your average show about rich Anglos, though the women are uniform in their position in the social hierarchy. These characters are on charity boards and they run their own businesses. They espouse vaguely liberal sentiments, too: no body shaming; women should be independent.

Reality entertainment is about as subject to fabrication as narratives that are entirely imagined. Everything we see has been selected and framed carefully, and this is often done to maximise the moneymaking potential of the show. We see the Housewives spruik jewels, medical-grade silicon and anti-ageing pillows; I am seized by the desire to get fillers. For your average viewer, it’s a fantasy akin to being admitted to Hogwarts as a mature-age student: wizards don’t repay HECS debt and neither do Real Housewives.

Crucially, the show is carefully apolitical. These women mostly raise money for cancer initiatives. It’s not that it would be helpful for the housewives to go full vigilante and fight evildoers one-on-one, but as members of the elite they could exercise their influence in the fight for Sydney’s soul if they chose to.

The show’s careful neutrality also works despite the occasional appearance of David Oldfield, a founding member of One Nation. In a fan page for both Sydney and Melbourne iterations of Real Housewives (clocking in at around 2500 members) comments in support of doomsday prepper Lisa Oldfield are not uncommon, and it occurs to me that while we may be watching the same program, we are getting completely different things out of it.

If female-focused entertainment exist on a spectrum, a show like Big Little Lies that depicts domestic violence with nuance sits at the opposite end to RHOS. At a stretch – and any fan of feminine-coded media trying to justify their enjoyment does a lot of stretching – I could insist that shows like Real Housewives draw their appeal from acting as a cipher. In the same way that horoscopes or Sex and the City provide archetypes to identify with, you can use Real Housewives to codify behaviour. Reality shows give us an opportunity to discuss our shared values in a more immediate, though maybe not more meaningful, way than prestige television. Ponder whether implying someone was chubby as a child is worthy of a shouting match. See the cast of The Handmaid’s Tale disavowing the feminist label in favour of telling ‘a human story’ at a recent panel. On some level both are responding to acceptable ways to be a woman.

Shows like Real Housewives don’t question the economic status of their subjects, and further enshrine wealth and its luxuries as aspirational. In one blow-up Victoria tells Athena to get a cleaner and go to work, and Athena implies that Victoria’s money comes from her two divorces. Nicole’s dress gets red wine thrown on it in the crossfire. Though the housewives are business operators, rather than homemakers, we get the impression that it wouldn’t really matter if they didn’t work. The focus is on wealth as the measure of a woman’s success.

Imagine for a moment that you are one of the nation’s third of unemployed youths, unable to afford rent in a capital city, let alone a multi-million dollar home in Double Bay. Does entertainment like this just pacify viewers while we’re priced out of the city, off the property ladder, and into precarious employment? Is it okay to love trash that’s the product of the same systems that are responsible for our broad economic anxiety?

I don’t know how we’ll explain to irradiated and aquatic future generations that while the time for action sailed past we watched the rich raise their Skinny Bitches. (That’s vodka, soda and lime.) They’ll have to take our word that it was very entertaining.


Image: ‘Sydney Harbour Bridge’ / Martin Snicer

Alex Gerrans

Alex Gerrans is a nonfiction writer from Meanjin.

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