Beauty and the Geek has been called a number of things, including: sexist, reality trash and a ratings success. The Australian version of the US series created by Ashton Kutcher is all of those things. But it's more than clever car-crash television. The reason that I find it so fascinating is the genuine care and affection that the two very different groups of people develop for each other as the season progresses.
It's easy to get caught up on the dumb things the Beauties say. I couldn't believe it either when one of the girls thought Gallipoli was in China. Or when another said that 'house' was a four-letter word. Like many watching from the comfort of their sofas I too laughed when one girl was asked what she knew about the Global Financial Crisis and her answer mentioned something about coal and green things.
And then there's the awkward things the Geeks say and do. None of them have been kissed by a girl. The episode where one of the Beauties gave them advice about what constitutes "too much tongue" was particularly uncomfortable to watch. And the love letters that one Geek wrote to a Beauty generated a few laughs in my house.
It may be unfortunate that viewers prefer to see female Beauties and male Geeks rather than the opposite. When a female Geek and male Beauty was introduced in a previous season the chemistry between Beauty and Geek wasn't as strong in my view. He was far too interested in his own good looks to care about her, and she wasn't at all impressed by his appearance. So the producers have stuck with the combination that delivers ratings. The concept is compelling because we know that under virtually no other circumstance would the paths of these two groups ever cross. And if they did then they would likely ignore each other.
The Beauties may not be smart but they appear to have an incredible amount of care for their Geek. Initially the affection from Beauty to Geek is puppy-like with typical comments like "he is so cute" and "that was adorable". As the weeks went by, the Beauties began using language like "he just needs more confidence" and "he really needs to be here". During the makeover episode last week the Beauties were clearly "proud" of how far their Geeks had come. A few of them got teary when they saw how happy it made their Geek.
The enthusiasm that the glamorous girls express for their smart partners is why the guys are eventually able to step outside their shell. A couple of the Geeks get their first kiss during the series. From episode one, The Geeks can't believe that such beautiful girls would ever choose them as a partner. That is so adorable (the Beauties were right). Beauty and The Geek is a game show, after all, but the minute the Geeks spot the Beauties they seem to lose their minds. Maybe that makes them men, not just Geeks. The Geeks are kind. When the Beauties say mind-numbingly stupid things, they resist laughing at them or mocking them. They too show an extreme amount of tolerance for their tv partners. They appear to take a deep breath and then click into teacher mode to try to give their Beauties some smarts.
If we can look past the dumb women, smart men stereotype for a second, the true value to me of this show is that it's a social experiment focused on self-confidence and tolerance. With every episode the level of understanding for a perspective so vastly different to their own grows for each Beauty and Geek. The young women and men who have bravely signed up for this start to see beyond the veneer of the others' overdone make-up and goggle glasses. It's clear that they actually begin to like each other, the result of needing to find common ground as they are forced into a shared living environment.
Unlike other social experiment-style reality shows such as Survivor and Big Brother the object of the game is to win as a team. Teams who don't appear to be helping each other improve get chosen for possible eviction so positive behaviour is rewarded. A few episodes ago, the couples who won the challenges were given the option of not evicting a couple that evening. Both couples chose not to evict. I contrast that with a recent series of Survivor where a group requested they go to tribal council to vote out someone they couldn't stand, even though it wasn't their turn to evict someone.
The casting for this show is focused on the extreme. In the beginning the Beauties and Geeks seemed very one-dimensional, hence the accusations of sexism. But I like the way Beauty and the Geek evolves. I am heartened by a situation that eventually allows young women to be celebrated for qualities other than their looks and causes young men to feel confident enough to step out from behind their Bunsen burners and engage in social chat with women. Those women will never be brain surgeons or necessarily be part of the pipeline of future female leaders, but not everyone can be or wants to be. We should respect that these women have interests that are different to ours. The men will never be asked to join a boy band or pose for a pin-up, but they're not seeking that big a change in their life either.
When they leave the house the Beauties and Geeks are less likely to judge others by their grooming. They depart with the gift of tolerance. And we could all do with a bit more of that.
Do you agree that tolerance is the winner here? Should we try this with groups of old-school Board chairs and the pipeline of next-generation female leaders?
Marina Go is GM of Hearst-Bauer, publisher of Harper's Bazaar, ELLE and Cosmopolitan. She is also chair of the Wests Tigers, a director of Odyssey House McGrath Foundation and a member of the advisory boards of the Walkley Foundation, The Remarkables Group and Women's Agenda. She has an MBA from The AGSM and is a member of the AICD. Her new book is Break Through: 20 Success Strategies for Female Leaders.