Talk about awful timing: In a media moment where even straight-arrow political reporter Bob Schieffer is calling his statements about the president racist, reality TV star and possible presidential candidate Donald Trump presided over an episode of Celebrity Apprentice Sunday in which all three black women still on the show were fired in two hours.
And the last ejection shown Sunday, of manipulative attorney/TV host Star Jones, left little doubt how Trump's dismissive attitude towards women affects his decisions on the NBC show.
This is nothing new for Trump. The Apprentice franchise has always been criticized for its willingness to portray black women as crazy/angry/violent villains, beginning back in 2004 with reality TV's queen of mean, Omarosa Manigault-Stallworth, and stretching up to current contestants NeNe Leakes and Jones. It's a trope reality TV often mines for entertainment, but it is particularly striking on The Apprentice, where participants are supposed to be in a buttoned-down business environment. (Here's my take on The Apprentice and race from nearly seven years ago.)
Such stereotyping also shows up starkly because, unlike other competition shows where the audience or fellow competitors choose who must be ejected, Trump makes the decisions himself. Which means he -- and the show's army of unseen, unacknowledged producers -- make the decisions entirely for their own reasons, likely for who would make the best television.
That is how the show aired a boardroom ejection scene like viewers witnessed Sunday, in which Jones seemed to get kicked off the program for objecting to rock star Meat Loaf calling her "sweetie" during an argument.
Here's the scenario: Jones, Meat Loaf and actress Marlee Matlin worked together on making a commercial to promote a new version of the vehicle emergency assistance technology On Star. Meat Loaf essentially hijacked the direction of the video, coming up with a loopy storyline involving a cop, a driver and the On Star dispatcher meeting up at a doughnut shop. He resisted scripting the piece and pushed the two women to follow his lead (Matlin compared his style to "a tornado on crack.")
When the company executives saw the video, they criticized it severely. They didn't like the doughnut shop storyline, the lampooning of police officers (immediate connection to effective law enforcement is a big selling point for On Star), and the lack of emphasis on the main reason for the commercial -- On Star is now available as a product for purchase at Best Buy. Basically, they completely missed the purpose of the ad.
So under the typical rules of The Apprentice, Matlin and Mr. Loaf would be in trouble, because the Meat-man came up with the storyline and visual look of the spot, while Matlin basically let him take control of the process. Jones figured she was safe, because she was technically in charge of "branding," an amorphous term that typically would allow her to avoid blame for any specific decisions.
Then came the fight over "sweetie." That's the word Meat Loaf used while bickering with Jones, after it was obvious that one of the two of them was going home. Any male who hasn't been locked in a bubble of rock 'n' roll and celebrity for the last 20 years, knows using a term like that with a professional woman in an emotional argument will be taken as nothing less than trying to diminish and disregard her using sexist language (in fact, country star John Rich nearly punched Gary Busey for calling him "boy" in a similar situation earlier in the show)
But when Jones complained about that reference to Trump back in the boardroom ("If...you're going to diminish me by calling me honey, sweetie or baby, I'm going to call you on it."), the boss was downright dismissive of her arguments.
"You can't get along with NeNe, and now you can't get along (with Meat Loaf)," he told Jones, while assuring her she'd probably been called worse names. "You shouldn't be overly crazy about Meat Loaf."
Hmmm. She can't get along with others. She's "overly crazy." Sounds a lot like a certain black female stereotype The Apprentice loves to foster.
By the time Jones realized she had let her emotion push her into Trump's red zone, it was over and she was fired, technically for failing to ensure On Star's branding was adequately reflected in the ad. Even though almost all of the company's specific criticisms were directed at Meat Loaf's ideas and Matlin was the project manager who let him implement them all.
But here's the secret calculus. Jones not only lost because she criticized Meat Loaf for doing something Trump probably does all the time. She lost because she suddenly wasn't good television anymore.
You see, NeNe Leakes, the Real Housewives alum whose argument with Jones provided most of the fireworks from the previous week's show, apparently quit the program before taping for this week's episode, too angry with her teammate to stay in the game. In the same week where Leakes went off on Jones, Trump made the "unprecedented" decision to bring back LaToya Jackson, who had been fired from the show earlier. Clearly, their hope was to play the three black women off each other for more fireworks, a plan which fell apart when Leakes refused to play along (Trump fired her in absentia, saying Jones "kicked your ass." I'm wondering: Why wasn't Leakes' departure on videotape anywhere?).
So, when Jones' team lost the challenge, Trump had three choices: fire the last bombshell left on the show (Matlin), kick off the volatile rock star who cries at every opportunity (Meat Loaf) or eject the proud, manipulative female who rarely loses her cool and has no other black women left to fight with.
Whether Jones knew it or not, when Leakes left the show, she was going to be gone soon after, mostly for declining to play the trash-talking spitfire role that Apprentice so craves from black women on the show.
Along the way, the whole, sad situation mostly confirms what we already knew about Trump: that he's a clueless, casual sexist too wrapped up in his own egoism and prejudices to acknowledge any problem with his own behavior.
Thank you so much, NBC, for giving this guy a national platform.
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