As her home country of Romania continues to work toward proving itself worthy of its newly awarded membership to the European Union, struggling to accommodate the socio-economic effects of global capitalism within this post-communist nation, Nadia Comaneci is similarly (and at once so very differently and maybe even ironically) struggling to prove her worth to one of the most notorious and successful icons of capitalism in the world. Or at least she was until she was eliminated in the second week of NBC’s new reality television series The Celebrity Apprentice. I don’t really watch too much TV, but I am conscientious enough to know that reality shows have been on the rise since the first airings of Big Brother and Survivor. So, give everyone a chance to be a star, to “live out loud” or at least on the air so that even though everything you say and do gets edited and then portrayed the way producers think is the most commercially viable, people get the sense that they are seeing the “real” thing—hence reality TV. The use of celebrities and athletes in particular is ingenious on the part of the producers in this instance, for now we have the draw of seeing not just any reality, but the reality of iconic stars.
In 1976 Nadia achieved worldwide acclaim for Romania and notoriety for herself with her unprecedented gymnastics performance at the Olympics in Montreal. In 2008, no longer with Team Romania, Nadia has joined the forces of Team Empresario. Her tenure with the latter team, however, was not even long enough to allow her to get chalked up, being the second apprentice out of a cadre of fifteen to be “fired”. In her abbreviated time with the show, she was able to execute her role perfectly for Team NBC and its head captain and corporate sponsor Mr. Global Capitalism in showing that women, no matter how great their achievements elsewhere, have no business trying to compete in the mega-macho world of business.
The Celebrity Apprentice makes great use of the tactic of “inconspicuous conspicuous” production (to borrow from—and slightly reappropriate—a concept discussed in detail by sociologist George Ritzer in his analyses on consumption), to expand the male-female divide that has already been so deeply ingrained in the public imaginary. In other words, men demonstrating stereotypical macho characteristics placed in direct opposition to women with stereotypical feminine traits (personality- and body-wise) is purposefully orchestrated to make it seem as if this is the “natural” or “real” outcome of placing women and men in competitive situations. Throwing male and female athletes in the mix makes it all the more convincing, especially with the selection of hyper-feminine female athletes and hyper-masculine male athletes. Pitting the alpha-(all-) male Team Hydra, with such contestants as actor Stephen Baldwin, the crass Kiss rocker Gene Simmons, Sopranos star Vinnie Pastore, heavyweight-boxing champion Lennox Lewis, and the “Huntington Beach Bad Boy” of the Ultimate Fighting Championships Tito Ortiz, against the all-female Team Empresario comprised of such stars as actress Marilu Henner, supermodel Carol Alt, reality TV personality Omarosa, producer Nely Galan, softball superstar Jennie Finch, and until last week the world famous gymnast Nadia Comaneci (and the week before that, Playboy Playmate Tiffany Fallon), turns the show into a social caricature of the battle between men and women.
The competition (week two) entailed producing a thirty second commercial for the Pedigree Adoption Drive that raises awareness for the approximately two million dogs in U.S. shelters that are unable to find homes each year. While the women were preparing to take on their project with deep breathing exercises while holding hands and meditating, the men were moving full steam ahead, even forgoing any consultation or advice from the Pedigree representative. Team Empresario, as Marilu Henner explained, “decided to take a very emotional approach to the storytelling.” Later in the show, Marilu added, “I think we’re gonna beat the guys because we went after heart and women are usually better at that than men.” But are they? Despite frequent allusions to the “battlefield of the boardroom,” unabashed use of the “F-bomb”, and even an allusion to Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, the men successfully worked with their theme “It takes a big heart to be a champ,” to produce their commercial that starred a gentle giant in Lennox Lewis. In the end, Team Hydra (men’s team) beat out Team Empresario, demonstrating their superiority not only in the realms of production and task execution, but also in showing heart and producing emotion (!).
The women’s team, having lost the competition, was subject to the final judgment in the boardroom where the “weakest link” is eliminated from the competition. Nadia, who simply was not up to the task (of producing a dog adoption commercial), and resolved early on to just “order food…just be there, supporting the team,” did not make the boardroom cut with Mr. Trump. Although the big boss was quick to recognize the outstanding athletic achievements of Nadia, commending her for being an “amazing leader of [her]self,” a veritable “winner” in a world where “most people are losers,” Nadia was inevitably the next in a long line of apprentices to have those dreaded words fall upon her ears: “You’re fired!” (although this declaration was uncharacteristically, and contrary to Trump-style, softened by preceding it with a heartfelt “I love you but…”)
In The Celebrity Apprentice, the battle of the sexes is playing itself out in the service of businesses and high powered executives who continue to raise the question of—and indeed dictate an answer to—whether women belong in the boardroom, a space representative of any traditionally male-dominated social arena. In this highly regulated context, how much freedom did Nadia have to prove her worth and let her competitive nature shine? Most likely, no more than her native Romania has in its struggle to reform and prove its worth to the European Community, since the tensions there are continually complicated by the same forces of global capitalism fueling the fortune and fame of Nadia’s gracious former employer.