Q&A: Media Critic Jennifer L. Pozner On How Reality TV Helped Bring Us A Donald Trump Presidency
Media critic Jennifer L. Pozner was comfort-watching Star Trek: The Next Generation (“It’s a very inclusive spaceship … they’re all from different species and they all get along”) when she paused her marathon to talk to MTV News the day after the election. It was an emotionally raw day, but Pozner, the author of Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth About Guilty Pleasure TV, was full of insights: about how Donald Trump equated racism and sexism with corporate success for nearly a decade on The Apprentice and The Celebrity Apprentice, why reality TV’s trashy reputation didn’t really hurt the president-elect, and about her biggest fears for the country going forward. Having written about reality TV and its hidden conservative politics for years, she also discussed how Trump differs from most reality stars and what’s troubling about The Celebrity Apprentice’s new host, Arnold Schwarzenegger, who will debut on the show next year.
Are you surprised by Donald Trump’s ability to transition from reality TV to politics?
Jennifer L. Pozner: We don’t have media literacy in this country in any kind of substantive way. If we did, I think that (A) more of us would’ve recognized the threat that Trump posed from the beginning, and (B) no one would have been surprised at the bigotry that was in the DNA of his campaign. This is a man who was the star of a network reality show that helped to create templates for the abysmally biased way in which women and people of color, in particular women of color, have been treated in reality TV for the last decade and a half.
How do you think that the persona that Trump created for himself on The Apprentice helped him in his presidential campaign?
Pozner: This notion that you hear from his surrogates and his fans throughout the campaign — “Trump tells it like it is; he’s a straight shooter” — that through line comes in large part because this is a man who was welcomed into people’s living rooms every week for nearly a decade. Unlike most reality-show participants — who have to sign nondisclosure agreements, who usually don’t get paid, and who are edited beyond anything that would resemble them in their life — Trump was part of the power team behind the scenes in this show. So everything Trump said and did was framed in a way to flatter him, and more importantly, flatter his worldview.
We’ve seen him be incredibly racist and incredibly misogynistic on The Apprentice. [But ideas and] behaviors that would meet the legal criteria for sexual or racial harassment are [framed by the show as] just good business practice. [Trump’s worldview states] that, for example, women are incompetent as compared to men in business settings. That women in general are intellectually inferior and have to make up for that by using their sexuality to get ahead. That women of color are angry, irrational, lazy, and always ready to get into a fight for no reason. That men in the workplace can say incredibly racist and sexist things, and as long as they make more money than their competitors, the racist and sexist things they say and do are totally acceptable.
Watching the campaign, it’s almost like many people believe there’s something about straight-shooting that’s supposed to be racist and sexist. As in, if you’re an honest person — or so the perception goes — you are a person who says racist and sexist things.
Pozner: On The Apprentice, offensiveness for the sake of offensiveness was framed as frankness. Being discriminatory and having no shame about your sexism and your racism was framed as truth-telling. And even worse, they were framed as necessary to doing business well: Being discriminatory is necessary if you want to make a lot of money. Early in the first season, Trump tells the contestants, “If you work really hard, you can live like me.” And then you see his gold-plated toilet. Donald Trump was not a businessman to be admired, but an example of what’s wrong with discriminatory corporate America.
It’s interesting that Donald Trump has largely managed to avoid the taint of vulgarity that we generally associate with reality TV — at least enough to be elected president. Do you think Trump’s political legitimization makes reality TV a more respected genre?
Pozner: The Apprentice was positioned in the market as a more upscale, brand-friendly reality-TV alternative in terms of which advertisers bought spots. It wasn’t considered vulgar in the way that, for example, Jersey Shore was considered vulgar or Flavor of Love was considered vulgar.
Trump winning the electoral vote — I don’t even want to say he won the election because Hillary won the popular vote — I don’t think legitimizes reality TV, but I think reality TV legitimized Trump.
Can you see other reality stars making a similar transition from reality to politics in the same way we’ve seen actors move into politics?
Pozner: I’m sure that will be the case, but I don’t know who. Some already have on a lower level. There was an early The Real World guy [Congressman Sean Duffy, R-WI].
Do I think reality TV is going to be a path to politics in a significant way? Eh, I don’t know. Trump is a very specific case. It’s really gonna be hard to replicate that. [But] we don’t have to wonder if the reverse is true, because [Arnold] Schwarzenegger is taking over for Fired Donald as the new head of The Celebrity Apprentice.
That’s weird and hilarious about Schwarzenegger.
Pozner: It’s weird and hilarious, but it’s also terrifying because Schwarzenegger is yet another Handsy McGrabsalot. He had the nickname “The Grope-inator” way before he was elected in California. There was a massive trail of women talking about how he groped them. “Let’s replace one sexual predator who’s running for office with another sexual predator who happens to have been in office.”
Can you talk about some of your biggest fears about the next four years?
Pozner: Well, I’ll be really real. I was in shock the whole night as the election results were coming in. Not that America is racist or misogynist — I’ve known that. That’s not a surprise. [But] I didn’t know that we value women that little. I didn’t know that we value people of color that little.
I was feeling sort of numb [on election night]; I didn’t feel it until I tried to fall asleep. My boyfriend was being very nice and trying to comfort me. He was like, “We’ll get through this,” and I just started sobbing because I realized I don’t know how women will feel safe.
I don’t know how I can feel safe with somebody who bragged about sexual assault having the most power of anyone in the country, maybe the world. What does that say to every child, to every person who has been sexually assaulted, to every person in a domestic-violence situation, to anybody who has to report that kind of crime?
What does it say? It says, “Don’t report, it won’t matter, nothing will happen to the person who did this to you, keep quiet, you’re not safe.” And then I start thinking about all of my friends who have immigrant relatives who aren’t naturalized yet — how are they ever gonna feel a moment of peace in the next four years? How are my friends of color gonna feel a moment of peace in the next four years with somebody who wants to bring back stop-and-frisk?
How do we feel safe now that a giant group of very well-armed angry men feels emboldened? I did a bunch of writing this year about how Trump was being used as a recruitment tool for white supremacist groups and how membership numbers are jumping through the roof because of him. How do we feel safe now? What does it mean that rapists and white supremacists feel like their boy got in? It feels humiliating that this is reality.
This interview has been edited and condensed.