Why our obsession with girl-on-girl fights in reality TV shows like Selling Sunset and Real Housewives is so problematic

The show is set in the cutthroat world of luxury real estate in LA, based in a brokerage run by pocket-sized bachelor twins Jason and Brett Oppenheim and staffed by a coterie of brutally hot female employees who look like a corporate-women cosplay convention from the early noughties.

The Selling Sunset ladies are competitive, glamorous, improbably-shod at all times in precarious stilettos and- of course- ferociously bitchy. Of course they are.

Girl-on-girl fights are the MSG of reality TV, its pulsating, addictive lifeblood. It’s what the entire Real Housewives franchise is predicated upon, it’s what provides a humming baseline to our own homegrown shows, Made In Chelsea, TOWIE and Love Island; the expectation, the hope, that women will not get along.

Madeleine Allbright once said; “there is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.”

Last week I greedily binged the second season of Selling Sunset- the latest Netflix scripted reality show from the creators of the original big hitters; Laguna Beach and The Hills.

If you haven’t watched it, let me break it down for you.

Because what else did you expect from reality TV? More pertinently – isn’t that precisely what you tuned in for?

And here’s where I hit a problematic snag in my viewing pleasures.

What these shows thrive on, what keeps us hooked, is a not entirely favourable portrayal of female relationships. In fact, watching eight straight hours (it was a slow Saturday, OK?) of Selling Sunset’s increasingly toxic workplace was enough to make me never want to be around a group of women again.

By the final episode of the second series, one of the women, Mary, vocalises this herself.

“I’m not doing any of this catty bulls**t anymore.”

She promptly bursts into tears and, quite frankly, I felt the assault of the oppression myself, even as a voyeur.

I wonder why I willingly signed up for this onslaught of snarling snideness in my free time, gleefully lapped it up on my TV, when I abhor it in my real life. Nothing rankles me more than women who behave like this, yet I have known my fair share. Those for whom small talk is deriding mutual friends, judging every move you make and setting impossible, often hypocritical benchmarks for you to always be perceived as falling short against.

It’s playground tactics, straight out of the Regina George playbook and yet it is not confined to the parameters of reality TV and mean high-school movies.

When Christine, an ice-blonde Barbie dominatrix who prides herself on her out-and-out bitchiness quips that Mary has failed to meet her high expectations of friendship, she describes them as thus: “My definition of loyalty is- if I want to bury a bitch, you’ll be there with a shovel.” Mary astutely responds; “I’m not a soldier. I’m a friend.”

That is what this show, and the multitudes like it lay bare about some of the uncomfortable truisms of female friendship. We don’t like to admit this, it hurts the cause of sisterhood to expose the raw and often painful aspects of female group dynamics. But there are Christines in this world and they will also treat your friendship group like a war, with their soldiers in line, their battle strategies laid out and their defences raised.

A lot of this is down to the social framework we exist within. Art and media for centuries have pitted women against women, repeatedly feeding us this old and exhausted narrative that women simply cannot exist peacefully together without some eruption of malicious friction, that we are in perennial competition with one another. Many of us grow up with this idea playing, perhaps subconsciously in the back of our minds when we meet new women or join female work teams. Shows like Selling Sunset support this. They reinforce this concept and, what’s worse, they market their shows based upon it: Come! See the women fight!

Yet to ignore the fact that many women operate as though every day is an episode of Real Housewives, is to do a disservice to the nuances of women. We are not always pleasant, we are not always fair and we are not always loyal to the sisterhood. We have as many fallibilities as men and I defy any woman to watch an episode of Selling Sunset and say they have never been subject to a female takedown like these.

I used to think admitting women I knew were bitchy was somehow letting down feminism. I also simultaneously believed that putting up with behaviour like this, was somehow a rite of passage for a woman. That you get handed a bitchy friend with your first tampon.

Only recently have I shed this mindset, and with it, the toxic entities that plagued my life with judgement in place of kindness, and battle strategy in place of community. Which is why it bothers me that I am still drawn to these shows as entertainment and- crucially- that we as a society still permit the dominating narrative about female group dynamics to be one of backstabbing and unpleasantness.

Let us not ignore the fact that women have their dark sides, that we are capable of emotional cruelty. But let us hope that the defining portrait of female interaction is not this, but instead, the incredible support system women provide one another, the fierce friendships that are tolerant and life affirming.

I hope one day soon, I will spend eight hours straight, bingeing a show about that.

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