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Back to the books for Beauty and the Geek

Unpacking Beauty and the Geek's sexist stereotypes and trashy tropes.

Image credit: 9Now

Beauty and the Geek has returned to Australian screens on Channel Nine to an astounding lack of criticism, despite the sexist tropes it perpetuates. The show caricatures intelligent yet socially awkward men attempting to find love with women reduced to one dimension — their beauty. It should be blatantly clear from even the fifteen-second advertisements how questionable this reality show is. One young male contestant laments that he’s undateable because he lives with his parents and regularly plays video games. How is he any different from your run-of-the-mill USyd ‘gamer’ boy? Today, video games don’t represent the socially awkward few, but are a multi-trillion dollar industry enjoyed by the majority of millennials and Gen Z.  And are modern audiences really expected to consider saving money by living at home ‘dorky’ in the Sydney housing market? 

While marketing itself as a “social experiment”, with its blatant sexism Beauty and the Geek is anything but experimental. The genre’s trashy tropes and techniques construct a false reality of stereotyped women and men, yet its advertising claims that the show is a faithful reflection of our own society. Challenges within the show that test the contestants on their skill sets are petty and promote traditional gender roles. In particular, the academic quizzes are intentionally designed to exemplify the ‘Beauties’ lack of intellect. By shaming contestants for not knowing the last American President, producers imply that conventional attractiveness and intelligence cannot co-exist when we know this is certainly not the case. 

These challenges don’t help the contestants learn anything meaningful from each other- despite what the show may promote. They don’t encourage the self-reflection or genuine personal growth that the show brands itself on. 

The perpetuation of outdated stereotypes in Beauty and the Geek is confusing, especially considering the efforts of other shows such as The Bachelor/ette, and Netflix’s Queer Eye or The Circle in recent years. These shows are beginning to focus on real human experiences and interactions, instead of pigeonholing contestants before they have even arrived on set. With a 97% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, Queer Eye doesn’t place contestants in a zoo-like microcosm to perform for the cameras. Instead, they create authentic relationships with the Fab Five and receive personal life ‘makeovers’ that result in emotional catharsis. In Beauty and the Geek, on the other hand, challenges superficially manipulate the audience, and elaborate editing creates tension, drama, and entire stereotype-riddled identities for each contestant, increasing its ratings at the expense of any accurate representation of reality.

Despite the show claiming that, at its core, it conveys the cliche truism that we should never judge a book by its cover, there is an intrinsic fixation laid upon the appearances of its contestants. This obsession with looks is embedded into the show’s structure through its quintessential “makeover episodes”, where the male contestants are given trendy looks to demonstrate their newfound adherence to social norms, under the guise of improving self-confidence. There is nothing objectively wrong with how the ‘Geeks’ on the show dress, however, their graphic tees are posed as the bane of all attempts to look attractive. Fun or even outlandish choices are replaced with khaki jeans and a button-up. As the Geeks receive makeovers, they look less and less like individuals, but more and more like each other. Contestants have previously remarked that they can’t even recognise themselves. This doesn’t improve their self-esteem, so much as it allows them to put on a mask. Much like the ‘taking off the glasses’ moments in teen romance movies, the intention is to ‘suddenly’ reveal that the contestants have been attractive all along. 

On the New Zealand version of the show, ‘Geek’ contestant and university student Zac Klavs later told The New Northern Advocate that he was depicted as a ‘young historian’ by producers. He would not have found issue with the portrayal, had producers of the show not completely re-dressed him. They gave him large 70’s style frames and told him to forego haircuts for 3 months prior to filming. Klavs recalls “When the so-called ‘makeover’ part of the program came they just handed me back the clothes that I had packed and I had to look so happy to be wearing my own clothes again.” Problematically, it is often after this point in the season that the ‘Beauties’ begin falling for the ‘Geeks’ now that they fit their own unachievable standards of beauty. For many ‘Geeks’, this means that their first kisses are recorded and broadcast around the country. 

This leads on to another critique of the show: despite improved diversity, the cast still fits into a very narrow, eurocentric definition of attractiveness. Every woman is young — aged 25 or under, thin, and perfectly TV manicured at all times. This move is in no way unique to the show, but by classifying such a narrow range of individuals as ‘beautiful’, unrealistic beauty standards are being perpetuated. The average size for women in Australia is 14-16, and there is certainly no representation of that here.

Beauty and the Geek missed the mark based on its engagement with this poor, senseless trope alone. However, hopefully in the future, TV shows with outdated premises and poor execution, such as this one, can be replaced with programs that serve to represent genuine human experiences.