So, series 9 of The Apprentice has kicked off on BBC 1 and even though we all know the format, it still looks likely to produce “water cooler” TV. The first week gave us the expected “behind the cushion” discomfiture as the candidates gave their usual egotistic self assessments. As the episodes progress we’ll get to know them better, we’ll choose our favourites and our villains, cheering the former’s endeavours and taking delight in the latter’s ineptitude. Still, in the first episode it’s anyone’s to take and so I didn’t really have a view on whether or not Jaz Ampaw should have been fired, but I did notice that she was the only normal looking woman on the show.
By which I mean she looked like she ate regularly and was as susceptible to a bad hair day as the rest of us. The remaining female candidates however look like they have been churned out of the same plastic mould. They all have tiny figures, long hair, suspiciously smooth foreheads, and in some cases surgically enhanced bodies. They wear conspicuous make up and short, tight clothes. Susie Orbach has written about the homogenisation of beauty, to describe the way in which the world seems to be moving towards one, western idealised version of what a woman should look like, and the remaining candidates all fulfil it. (Think about it, when film stars deviate from this homogenised norm, they are praised for their bravery – Anne Hathaway pretty much won her Oscar for literally cutting off her hair on screen.)
I’m curious about why, if the female candidates are serious about wanting a business investment opportunity, they feel the need to maintain such a sexualised appearance? After all, glamour doesn’t correlate to business acumen does it?. Francesca McDuff-Varley (see through leopard skin blouse) thinks she is underestimated because she is a blonde, and Luisa Zissmann (fake breasts and hair extensions) believes people assume she is a “Barbie”, and maybe they feel that this gives them some advantage, that by playing up to a stereotype of “attractive equals dim” they can surprise the opposition. But isn’t it a shame that they don’t feel their skills, experience and knowledge are enough in themselves? And if they don’t believe they are enough, why would anyone else?
I suspect, the female candidates would say that in projecting themselves as attractive, sexual women, they are flaunting the power that feminism fought for; the ability to dress the way they like and still reach the top of their profession. That in the twenty first century “having it all” is no longer about having the job and a baby, it’s about the job, the baby, but also the size 8 dress and long, artfully highlighted hair.
But I’m not so sure. Throughout history women’s bodies have been pinched in, pushed up, slimmed down and generally distorted in a variety of different ways, that has had less to do with how women wanted to look, than with the prevailing mood of the time. Dior’s New Look of the 1950s, was beautiful elegant and feminine but it consigned women who had been ploughing fields and running factories during the war, to little more than mannequins, hobbling along in high heels and the kind of full skirts that made navigating door ways almost impossible. Today it seems we expect women to be successful, but only if their looks conform to the current prevailing stereotype. That women go along with this and diet/exercise/have surgery to achieve the look, says to me less about feminism and more about the power of male expectations and the death of female solidarity. Because, let’s face it, women compete with other women in the arena of appearance every day. And it is making us miserable; I work and have worked with women from different sectors – business, health, education, and the self employed. That these funny, clever, successful women can all overlook their achievements against what they see as their failure to achieve a certain weight, dress size or look, fills me with sorrow and despair. And please don’t try to tell me that the internet photographs of Luisa Zissman’s breasts and of her, entwined with and kissing another woman are anything other than an appeal to a basic male fantasy.
Come on ladies, have some self respect, believe in your whole selves enough to step away from this deceit of what it is to be a successful woman, and make it on your own terms.