The first season of The Apprentice brought with it an impressive black woman (Omarosa Manigault) who deconstructed her brilliance to pacify an audience that seeks (if not requires) black women to fit a particular prototype on television. Omarosa embodied what Patricia Hill Collins would designate the black lady, a black woman whose intellect and success make her difficult to like and love. I find it fascinating that no matter what a black woman does and who she is (smart, beautiful, independent, etc.) —she is ultimately made to feel undesirable and unwanted–even and sometimes especially from people (who look) like her.
I was seduced to this season of The Celebrity Apprentice (though I loathe Donald Trump for various reasons, which I will not detail here) because of my intellectual and personal interest (read curiosity) of black women’s representations on reality television. The unprecedented inclusion of four black women on a reality television show on network television lured me in, especially because I was interested to see how they would be depicted, how they would interact (having such vastly different backgrounds and demeanors) and what roles they would play with each other. The season started with Dionne Warwick, LaToya Jackson, Star Jones, and Nene Leakes. As weeks went on I was repeatedly surprised that the black women were surviving because reality competition shows, like horror movies, may start with black bodies but they are generally the first to go. Nine weeks in, three of the four black women remained in the competition. Perhaps it was their charm or ability to play the game, or more realistically their entertainment value and lure of black audiences, but the black women held it down, on the same team (until they were ultimately separated, first LaToya who came back to work with the men’s team, and later Nene being switched with a male player following an altercation between her and Star), week after week. The complications, however, began immediately. These women were angry and/or vulnerable characters.
Dionne Warwick was often portrayed as bossy and overbearing, giving out attitude but not allowing rebuttal because of her age. Star Jones, the consummate professional, masked her anger and deception behind articulate interviews and rolled eyes. Nene Leakes…well, she is famous for being the aggressive, angry black woman on RHOA, which is undoubtedly why she was cast on the show. Her anger, however, has seemed to be so much a part of her personality that she can turn it on and off like a faucet, cursing you out one minute and hugging you the next. LaToya Jackson, soft-spoken but determined (having persuaded Donald Trump to re-hire her on the other team after being fired), did not represented the angry black woman but rather the victim. She never seemed able to fully defend herself, speak (up) for herself, or take a leadership position (it was heartening when she returned this week, ever so briefly, to do just that). LaToya’s emotions were mostly reactionary and non-threatening. It is difficult to categorize her as “angry” in comparison to representations that are so utterly distinctive and destructive, but her representation was problematic nonetheless.
While Dionne and LaToya were both targets (Dionne because of her age, and LaToya because of her perceived lack of skill), the last several episodes focused on the animosity between Nene and Star. Nene and Star were perhaps the most popular and controversial characters on the show given their well publicized beefs with other women, Nene on RHOA and Star from her abrupt departure from The View.
Still, interestingly, while continually battling each other verbally, the women also came to each other’s defense occasionally. Their on-again, off-again black woman friendship reminded me of Audre Lorde’s essay Eye to Eye, which discusses the problematic relationship black women often have with each other, resenting and needing one another equally.
It is ironic that at the end of Sunday night’s episode, both Nene and Star (and LaToya) were absent. Nene quit, a exaggerated response to hurt feelings (because Star did not want to be her friend), while LaToya and Star were both fired. Somehow, in one felt swoop and three hour episode, all of the black women were gone!
I find it interesting that the only one of the three that left the show with dignity and integrity was LaToya. She negotiated her way back for a chance at redemption, and while her team did not win, she did not play herself while playing the game. With Nene and Star, however, they both fell into stereotypical scripts on their way out of the door, reinforcing, it seems, the inability for black women to “just get along.”
I believe that Nene’s façade of being the “big bad bitch” is simply a front. She seems to use her bullying and aggression to hide her insecurities. Many of her rants, which were odd given her behavior, seemed to be about her desire for friendship (with Star, with Dionne, with LaToya) and forgiveness with/from black women. Nene seemed sincerely disappointed and hurt that Star was not willing to forgive and forget the reprehensible and threatening things she had said and done to her previously. She was also clearly emotionally distraught when Dionne Warwick confronted her and she seemed to genuinely embrace LaToya, the most impressionable of the group, luring her into a faux friendship after saying deeply hurtful things to and about her.
I believe Star’s façade of being the “professional black lady” is also a disguise. While her credentials are impressive, she oftentimes used her intellect to manipulate others and limit their potential. Her unwillingness to lose shaped her character as one that was vindictive, uncaring, and unemotional. She relished, however, in the praise and accolades of other contestants. Perhaps she has become so invested in what other people think about her, and being the most impressive black woman in the room, that she can’t help but sabotage or resent another black woman’s potential.
Nene and Star’s characters remind me of so many black girls and women I have known in my lifetime. Those who used the angry black woman façade to keep people at arm’s length. Those who refuse to acknowledge another black woman’s (beauty/strength/potential) worth in fear that it will outshine her own. Women who use anger and disdain to cover their need for friendship, love, acceptance.
Nene and Star’s departure, I believe, represents a much larger issue that feels just below the surface of the episodes that have featured their dysfunctional relationship. Their anger (and ability to anger each other) led to their downfall. Anger, while it may feel enabling in the moment, is really disempowering. Their anger made them vulnerable. And perhaps the anger was never about their issues with each other, but about their issues with themselves. Perhaps what they saw in each other reminded them of their own flaws and faults. Perhaps Nene saw her own lost potential in Star’s success. Perhaps Star saw the potential to be cast stereotypically in Nene’s behavior. They were afraid of each other because of what the other represented—another black woman–or simply themselves.
I wonder how many times black women misunderstand each other. How many times we miscommunicate or miss communication with each other. It is impossible to be guarded and open at once, but we are essentially and undeniably sometimes vulnerable and angry at the same time.