Breast for Success

What’s really behind the sex-sells antics on The Apprentice.

In The Donald's world, women rule
In The Donald’s world, women rule

Donald Trump’s reality show, The Apprentice, has lots to tell us about lots of things. Business schools are using it as a teaching tool, and feminist commentators are at war over whether women’s sexuality represents power or slavery. The show, styled as “the ultimate job interview,” pits eight beautiful young women against eight moderately attractive young men, all competing for a job in the Trump organization at a starting salary of $250,000. (Each contestant has a solid business background.) The big shocker, after five episodes, is meant to be that the women’s team shamelessly use their hooters to score business wins. They have hit the streets of Manhattan and peddled warm lemonade, sweetened with kisses and their phone numbers. They have bumped and grinded to bargain for gold. They have donned toddler-sized T-shirts to induce Planet Hollywood patrons to do shots with them. The men’s team has lost for four weeks running, with one man “fired” at the end of each show. The men were in fact pummeled so badly that Trump was forced into a corporate “reshuffle” this week—mixing the genders to give the four remaining men a fighting chance.

No one disputes that the women’s conduct is effective: The show mostly just proves that prostitution really is the world’s oldest and most lucrative profession. But debate rages over whether it’s appropriate in today’s business world. A Nexis search including the terms “Trump, Apprentice, and sex” reveals that 206 articles on the subject have been written. The breakdown generally goes like this: Male reviewers find the whorish conduct sad but entertaining, older women find it shameful and degrading, and younger women, particularly the cute ones, find it liberating and thrilling. One letter to the New York Times crows: “Sex is power!” Which echoes the sentiments of the show’s female contestants who say things like: “If being attractive is wrong, then what we do is wrong.”

All this discussion, interesting as it may be, misses the real point of The Apprentice. The gender conflict is a side issue, a distraction. The truly interesting anxiety at work in this show is generational: These women and men are revealing the massive gap between the way young men and women, and older men and older women, think about sex.

Who is having a great time on the set of The Apprentice? The Donald, for one. Trump is having the time of his life because these hot young foxes are falling all over themselves to please him—and doing so in the wee-est of garments. Now, that is good business for him and for his powerful associates—a generation of moguls who can mouth platitudes about equality but still date only preteen models. In one episode Donny Deutsch—the head of an advertising agency—lauds the women’s team’s efforts to launch an ad campaign—the ads they come up with are so phallic they get named “the testicle ad.” As Deutsch hands them the win he cackles delightedly that their presentation (in stewardess costumes) had “set the women’s movement back 70 years.” This week sees Trump stepping into an elevator with one co-ed team and leering at one of the men: “Nice to have these girls with ya, huh?” Moments later, as the group crowds into George Steinbrenner’s office, Steinbrenner greets Trump with a hug and crows lechily, “I knew there would be pretty girls!”

Who else is having a blast on The Apprentice? The girls! They are kicking the men’s butts by celebrating their own. They’ve stolen Ally McBeal’s résumé but lost the self-doubt. Their de rigueur business uniform: tight low-rise jeans, belly-button shirts, and stiletto boots. Their giggly delight is about their power, and one hesitates to begrudge them. Sure, they have a moment’s misgiving when they meet Trump’s Slovenian supermodel girlfriend. * You can see it in their eyes: Why fight to work for Trump, when you can get him to work for you? But overall, the sex for power bargain is working for them. They are on their way up. There is a perfect synergy between what the young women want and what the old men have, and all the show’s sparks comes from that truth.

Who isn’t having fun on The Apprentice? Well, Trump’s hench-person, Carolyn Kepcher, for one. Wan and exhausted, she looks ready to expire at any time. Kepcher, who’s worked for Trump for almost 10 years, sits by his side and advises him about whom to fire. Trump mostly ignores her. It can’t help that she dresses like Nancy Reagan—this week’s outfit, all buttons and power-scarf, practically screams “breast-free zone.” The only moment in five weeks in which she has exhumed a spirit was when Trump lambasted the women last week: “You’re coming a little close to crossing the line, relying on your sexuality to win,” he intoned. “That won’t get you the job here!” Kepcher exclaimed, showing real enthusiasm for the first time. Since then she’s returned to her sullen bewilderment: She is obviously as confounded by what happened to the women’s movement as the rest of us.

But the least fun to be had on the show is among the young men, all of whom seem to be adhering to some 1950s code of business success: They wear suits. They call Trump “Sir.” (Some of the women have taken to calling him “Donald.”) They are respectful, if terrified, around the women. They have clearly grown up in an era of political correctness; if the ladies’ hooker-gear offends them, they never mention it. Does it bother them that they could not have done to their female waitresses what the women did to themselves last week—dressed up in tiny “shooters girls” (a play on Hooters girls) T-shirts and insisted that Planet Hollywood patrons do shots with them? If the guys had asked women to do it they’d have been sued for harassment. Since when is sex a game only women can play? Does it madden the men? Who knows? They never say. They just trudge stolidly along, with their business plans and their management principles, getting their butts kicked and trying to take it manfully. These guys have nothing—not power, not sex. The currency that once counted for them—their MBAs and the ability to sink a 3-pointer—jingles like loose pennies in their pockets.

Whether these women should be tarting it up to get ahead is one question. I leave it to the traditional feminists and their lipstick counterparts to work that out. The more interesting question is whether their daughters will have to (or want to) “breast for success” when their turn comes. Oddly, that will turn somewhat on how these poor, broken young men view women and sexuality after a generation of being so confounded by it. One can only hope that by the time they are Donald’s age, they will have figured out how to act it.

Correction, Feb. 12, 2004: An earlier version of this article referred to Trump’s girlfriend, Melania Knauss, as Italian.  Return to the corrected sentence.