"Beauty and the Geek" finds Aphrodite's inner Athena

Subverting gender stereotypes one reality show at a time.

Published January 26, 2006 8:58PM (EST)

Why read the financial page when you can be lectured about the importance of Social Security by an affable and sincere beer spokes-model? Produced by possible genius Ashton Kutcher, "Beauty and the Geek," dubbed a "social experiment," pairs eight anatomically impossible females with eight über-nerdy -- think Dungeons & Dragons -- socially terrified men. The couples compete in a series of challenges: The girls are quizzed on subjects like politics and the environment (boy stuff, y'know) and the guys on pop culture, decorating and fashion (girly-girly). This is actually the second season of Kutcher's critically acclaimed show -- Salon's Heather Havrilesky calls it "delectable, laminated fruity convenience" -- but having only stumbled upon it recently, I am an awed virgin to the televisioned celebration of brainy-beauty courtship.

What makes the show so damn watchable and sets it apart from other reality television is not that it features intelligent people, although that's certainly an exciting addition. It's that these babes in brainland actually appear to care about their mission, which ostensibly is to help the guys feel more comfortable while getting a little edification for themselves. Rather than everyone falling into their gendered roles, what seems to be taking place is mutual respect between the sexes, which, if the experiment works, should ultimately lead to greater self-respect.

There have been a few egregiously sexist moments, as when one particularly arrogant geek said of his partner, "I guess she's been having a blond moment her whole life." But it's been a sweet surprise to watch most of the guys reject this attitude. In the first episode the women comforted the painfully nervous men by sharing their own insecurities and anxieties about their looks. (Turns out beautiful people hate their noses, feet and skin, too.) As the show has gone on, I've found the experiment to be less about changing dork and ditz, and more about poking holes in those labels. The most touching moment thus far has been when geek Tyson conquered his fear of public performance, capping off his karaoke song and dance by throwing Rubik's cubes into the adoring crowd. (According to his bio he is a Rubik's cube record holder.)

OK, so clearly the show is a kind of heterosexist hell where dumb girls are equated with sex and smart, geeky guys, though they may be anxious now, will eventually own a tech company and have girls like these on their arms who are half their age. But I have to wonder if Kutcher was merely appealing to the usual gender stereotypes, or if perhaps he knew that Beauty, when paired with the Geek, would prove to be twice as sharp and a hell of a lot more socially adept than a chess master. Who knows. But it is refreshing to watch women and men encourage one another to be themselves.

By Sarah Goldstein

Sarah Goldstein is an editorial fellow at Salon.

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