Nene vs. Star: Black Women & The Vulnerability of Anger

9 May

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.

9 Responses to “Nene vs. Star: Black Women & The Vulnerability of Anger”

  1. zenzele May 9, 2011 at 10:24 AM #

    I think the problem is that, when Black women act out in a way that’s seen as aggressive or angry, she gets attacked, by everyone. When a white woman does it, folks reach out to her, and try to figure out what’s wrong. Whenever I see a young Black girl lashing out angrily, I automatically attribute it to some form of depression – we’re not “allowed” to say “hey, I’m hurting,” but it’s perfectly acceptable for us to cuss someone out. Other people might see this same girl, and immediately make plans to throw her behind bars. Putting a negative label on a certain behavior, as though that’s who we are by definition, is both counterproductive, and insulting.

    • Grace May 22, 2011 at 1:51 PM #

      I really like and agree with this response. Behavior goes so much deeper than we recognize on the surface.

  2. makeitplainonline May 11, 2011 at 4:58 PM #

    There is no way that these Celebrity Apprentice women represent all the possibilities in terms of how African American women function. These mainstream portayals help to sustain sterotypes of course. However, some of the issues that surfaced among the women are worthy of note in terms of how we sometimes interact especially if there is a sense of competition.

    This is a thoughtful post and hopefully we can expand the dialogue amongst ourselves about these issues and become more self-aware.

  3. lala May 13, 2011 at 11:07 AM #

    People have to stop taking this nonsense serious there is no REALITY in reality tv. Nene is a diva and a nut. Star has an ego and has a lot to have an ego about. Can’t live your life worried about what white folks think, when white men worry about the Beck’s and Haniity’s making them all look “angry” then I’ll worry.

  4. Keyshie May 13, 2011 at 2:29 PM #

    First of all, nice job on this piece. Before I comment, I will admit that I have never seen an espisode of the Apprentice. I used to think Nene acted like that cause Kim was white and she felt she was in control of that relationship. I now feel she acts the monkey cause she is big as hell and uses it to intimidate others. If she was a 5 footer, she would never act like that. She also confuses “keeping it real” with just plain unnecessary rudeness. Now Star has two elements that make her a trip. First, she is an attorney. Her whole world is making things appear a certain way. Second, she is a sorority girl who spent a lot of time acting better than others and dealing with people would do anything to be a member. Not knocking the sorority thing, but there can be a mean girl mentality at times. And above all, Star isn’t going to let Nene punk her. They both just don’t really seem like very likable people in general.

    • lala May 17, 2011 at 12:26 PM #

      I totally agree with Keyshie on all points.

  5. Amber May 16, 2011 at 10:05 AM #

    “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.”

    YES. You hit the nail on the head. I stopped watching this season of Celebrity Apprentice about halfway through. I admit that the only reason I watched so long was because of the altercation between Nene and Star that they played in the promo at the beginning of the season. I really wanted to know what it was about and how it was handled, but from what you’ve shared here, it doesn’t seem like anything out of the ordinary.:(

    BUT, I do think that NeNe’s insecurities were a lot more visible on this show than on RHOA. Her anger and confrontational nature on Celebrity Apprentice always presented itself at a time when she felt threatened, and she often took an argument or altercation much too far (the spat with LaToya is what immediately comes to mind). It was so evident that she was overcompensating for something. It became hard to watch.

  6. CGE May 22, 2011 at 3:08 PM #

    Appreciate the thinking in this post and agree with much of what has been said. I’d like to add that the society in which we live (racist, sexist, capitalist) can make it nearly impossible for black women to truly see each other as the natural allies that we are. It really isn’t about Star or Nene’s personal limitations, whatever they may be. It’s about a society that seeks to separate people for commodification and that is invested in us consuming this foolishness (reality tv) and believing it. We are confused, duped into seeing each other as enemies. All of these messages of competition, of being unwanted and “unwantable,” of being inferior, not as attractive as, angry, not as smart as, “ghetto,” etc. confuse the hell out of us. And its nearly impossible to NOT internalize these messages and treat each other accordingly. I empathize with both Nene and Star. It’s clear to me that they have bought into this completely unworkable system. A system that is set up for them to play “characters” and fail. It’s up to all of us to remain clear that it is simply not true. That anything that gets in the way of me and another black woman is confusion plain and simple. It is really hard to stay mindful of this but this perspective is one that I work at everyday.

  7. naima June 2, 2011 at 12:25 PM #

    phyliss chesler, “woman’s inhumanity to woman.” i think it’s as much the internalized deficiency of the gender with the white supremacist overlay.

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