overthinking the idiot box

May 31, 2005

The Apprentice: Still Hitting the Glass Ceiling

by Erin O'Brien

We've just concluded the third season of a formerly great show, and critics are saying the season went out with a whimper, even though something unprecedented has happened: Donald Trump's new apprentice is a woman.

We should have noticed that right off the bat, in the brilliant first season, when the teams were divided into girls versus boys as if they were fourth-graders instead of successful adults.
Yeah, yeah, I know. Saying that Donald Trump might be sexist is like saying the sky might be blue. We should have noticed that right off the bat, in the brilliant first season, when the teams were divided into girls versus boys as if they were fourth-graders instead of successful adults.

And we may hearken back to that first season, because it really was brilliant. I can't explain why exactly, but all of the pieces just came together to form something truly awesome, a show you could both mock and get wrapped up in. Given that the first season was Trump's ticket back into the mainstream, when it started, he still had some kitsch value, and it was kind of neat to see him on TV again. Because, you know, he wasn't on the screen every 10 seconds like he is now. (When he's not spouting superlatives about his show or his properties, he's stumping for Visa or Domino's Pizza, or he's lobbying to have the Twin Towers rebuilt … plus one floor, of course. They'll be yooge!) Add to that some explosive personalities — Omarosa and Heidi — and some people you could really root for — Amy, Bill, Troy, and Kwame — plus challenges that used contestants' brains rather than their pretty bodies, and you've got television gold, as far as I'm concerned.

Trump loves militaristic
So what went wrong? Well, the aforementioned ubiquity of Mr. Trump, for one, but some blame rests on the contestants as well. Season 2 brought us a few brief moments of brilliance — underappreciated Pamela, quirky bow-tie-wearing Raj — but otherwise… meh. By the time the season finale rolled around and Jen and Kelly were passive-aggressively duking it out, I was kind of wondering if Trump really had to hire either, because I certainly would not have. Jen was prissy and overeducated and could present herself well, sure, but never actually did anything, whereas Kelly was a militaristic sexist blowhard.

Season 3 started out much worse. It seemed like we really just got the bottom of the barrel here, as if these folks were just Season 2's leftovers (including another guy with bow ties). We finally got rid of the boys vs. girls thing, so I thought we were making some progress. And Book Smarts vs. Street Smarts did seem like an interesting premise — the first 80 times it was mentioned, anyway. But then, why not get actually brilliant people? We've had Harvard and Yale and Wharton graduates, people with MBAs even, on previous seasons. There was not a single Ivy League diploma among the Book Smarts team, which — and I'm not being elitist here, because my degree is from a Big State University — seems like it wouldn't really prove the point. I mean, why didn't we do this in Season 2 with people like Jen M., who had, like, 16 degrees?

But I've strayed far from the point, which is basically that we finally get to the place where we're not so focused on pitting gender against gender, and yet the premise is still just as artificial. Tana, the great hero of the Street Smarts team, was a mere 28 credits short of her degree. This is hardly a pure experiment.

But, so, the sexism. As the show has degraded in quality, the sexism has become subtler, so I guess that's progress. But let's consider:

The inherent sexism of the candidates, though, is not really the show's problem so much as it is the contestants', and we continue to see it because it makes for good television, allegedly.

What's really problematic is Trump's sexism, and nowhere is it more obvious than in the recent finale.

Smart, talented, pretty,
and kind of awesome.
First, though, I think we need to address the Carolyn Conundrum. Here we have a smart businesswoman who "plays" one of the Donald's consultants on the candidates. Something's not right, though. For starters, the other sidekick, George, misses every other episode due to business travel, but Carolyn is always available (aside from an episode this season). Is this because Carolyn's job, as head of one of Trump's golf courses, is perhaps less important than George's (he's a lawyer)? I don't mean to demean Carolyn, because I personally think she's great, and a much-needed antidote to an otherwise unending parade of corporate masculinity, but there's something odd about her being the poster child for the successful businesswoman: She's smart, she's talented, and she's pretty! The whole package! (Because, and no offense George, but you won't be one of People's Most Beautiful People anytime soon. Yet your inherent beauty, or lack thereof, is never mentioned in relation to your success. See where I'm going there?)

So that's bad enough. Now we're down to Tana and Kendra, right, so Trump has to pick a woman. The men on the show this season were a special brand of appalling (and they all kind of looked the same; I had trouble telling them apart), so that's really as it should be. We'll forget that Kendra — of the now legendary Pontiac task victory, and the final task that was so successful hardly any of it was shown on TV — is the clear victor over Tana, whose leadership strategy was to mock her team openly rather than actually lead them. That's kind of irrelevant at this point, because we've all known for at least the last two weeks that the winner of The Apprentice would be a woman.

So thanks, Donald, for bringing us to the blue and pink aisles at Toys "R" Us. I'm kind of surprised it wasn't the finale's corporate sponsor.
So let's consider previous prizes. Bill got a construction project. Kelly got a construction project. These ladies get offered the Miss Universe Pageant or what basically amounts to redecorating a house on the beach. Lesson — Boys : Big Machines :: Girls : Pretty Things. So thanks, Donald, for bringing us to the blue and pink aisles at Toys "R" Us. I'm kind of surprised it wasn't the finale's corporate sponsor.

But wherefore art thou, sexism? Despite his penchant for pink ties, there's something very Good Ol' Boy about Mr. Trump. His reign in the '80s implied a macho, Gordon Gekko brand of business savvy. Women arrive in the workplace with big shoulder pads and neck scarves, and the equation changes, but not really, because if I learned anything from Melanie Griffith, it's that the only reason to succeed in business is to nail Harrison Ford. Um, anyway. So '80s movies don't really teach us much about how the corporate world actually works, especially not now, but I think they kind of reflect our perceptions of what working in that sort of environment would be like. That perception is again reflected on The Apprentice, glass ceiling and all, even with a female winner.

So what happens when you introduce successful women who defy the odds? We'll find out when the Martha Stewart version of the show comes on the air. I don't have high hopes, though, because apparently for women, defying the odds means staying in the box. Yes, Ms. Stewart has built an empire (and spent some time in jail - which makes her tougher, right?), but what is she known for? Turkeys and tea cozies. That's right, ladies; you, too, can succeed in business if you build a business around, you know, "women's work".

Professional women don't behave that way. Then again, professional women also don't audition for reality TV shows.
I also wonder if the producers and casting people intentionally pick a cast that conforms to some of these ideas about gender in the workplace. There's a disproportionate number of pretty people, for one thing. That would probably be true of any TV show, though, because society is shallow, so moving on. I'm sure the casting folks know which kinds of personalities clash, and TV people sure think we all enjoy a good catfight. I guess we're supposed to conclude that if you put a bunch of strong-willed women in a room together, the claws will come out. Please. Professional women don't behave that way. Then again, professional women also don't audition for reality TV shows.

It prompts the question, though: Would an Apprentice sans sexism, with people chosen solely for their resumes, still make for compelling TV? I think yes, because one of the things that I like about this show that I dislike about other reality TV is that the tasks are based on skill sets that require the use of one's brain over brute strength or beauty (theoretically). And yet, we face the same paradox every successful reality TV show faces: the problem with casting for later seasons of a successful show is that would-be contestants know what they're in for, so only certain types will audition. And the types of people who audition are probably the self-made folk who still have visions of Dolly Parton or whoever in their minds when they think of women in an office building.

What have we learned? Well, if The Apprentice is a microcosm of Corporate America — and I don't really think it is, but for the sake of argument — then we've got problems, folks. And they say there's no need for feminism anymore.

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