An interesting thing happened on a recent episode of The Apprentice (NBC). The reality series starring Donald Trump featured two teams, men vs. women, vying for a job in the Trump organization (this week, the teams merged into one). The latest challenge had the teams running a Times Square Planet Hollywood. The goal was to surpass last year's sales and beat the opposing team. Borrowing from the Hooters manual and emboldened from previous victories, the women pranced about in tight T-shirts, selling trays of shooters to progressively drunker male patrons. The women used one of the strongest tools in their arsenal, their sex appeal. They won the challenge by a comfortable margin. But as they were about to enjoy their reward (a round of golf at the Trump National Golf Club), they were pulled aside by Carolyn Kepcher, a Trump chief operating officer and observer of the women at work. Her message was stern and clear: You may have won, but don't expect "those tactics" to get you a job in the Trump organization.
Shame on her.
I don't know how things work in the Trump organization, but for Kepcher to say that sexiness and sex appeal will get a woman nowhere is disingenuous. There is a line that shouldn't be crossed. The problem is the line is always moving. The challenge for women is that they rarely decide when and how far it moves.
Which brings me to Janet Jackson. By now, you've heard the details of Super Bowl 38-B. But the thing that's been the most amazing to observe is the flatulent response. FCC Chairman Michael Powell called the stunt a "classless, crass, and deplorable stunt" worthy of a "full investigation." So that's what Powell needs to prompt concern for what's happening to the public airwaves? The decline of localism due to big media consolidation; CBS censorship of material offensive to conservative sensibilities (the Reagan TV movie; "Child's Pay," the MoveOn ad that artfully questions President Bush's fiscal decisions) that's not worthy of investigation. But one embellished boob revealed by a fading pop star? Break out the torches.
The NFL had a more imperious response. Not only did they proclaim they would no longer do business with MTV, but to ensure the "wholesome" image of football, they strong-armed ESPN into canceling Playmakers. The critically received series offered a candid view of football culture: drug use, female assault, deal-making all of it. Those aspects were unseemly, and the NFL demanded the show's cancellation. And it was; the NFL is a client ESPN does not want to lose. This came in tandem with cutting JC Chasez's performance at the NFL Pro Bowl, also aired on ESPN. Guilt by association, it seems. Chasez was a former 'N Sync bandmate of Justin Timberlake, whose role in the Jackson stunt, by the way, went by with barely a slap on the hand. Jackson, on the other hand, was branded the shameless hussy. No matter that she offered a swift, painfully contrite apology which received far less airtime than the recurrent image of Timberlake ripping her bodice to expose the offending breast. No, CBS demanded that she deliver an apology at the Grammys as well. She refused, but Timberlake gave his mea culpa as instructed as he accepted a Grammy for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance. And then there's the ridiculous. Terri Carlin of Knoxville, Tenn., has filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of viewers suffering "serious injury" from watching the NFL halftime show.
Sure, Jackson's stunt was regrettable, but please. Can we have a little perspective? Is a bare breast more offensive than a multimillion-dollar industry built on a violent sport that celebrates domination, greed, and recreational drinking as scantily clad (and woefully underpaid) cheerleaders prance about?
It's easy to demonize Janet Jackson for her transgression, but what, exactly, did she transgress? A "wholesome" football game or the blind spot many American viewers have when it comes to their complicity in accepting questionable, pervasive images? CSI, a very popular CBS drama, regularly gravitates around the flicker of lurid situations (a plot involving the rape of a corpse comes to mind). But since we didn't see the corpse's breasts, all is fine by the morality police.
The fact that Janet Jackson neglected to see "the line" is unfortunate, but not entirely surprising. After years of seeing how sex garnishes professional sports, music, and other areas of popular culture, how could she go wrong? Unfortunately for Jackson, the stunt went very wrong. If only she'd consulted with The Apprentice's Kepcher to get some perspective.