During the first few episodes, before any transformation occurs among the contestants, the beauties appear to have more power than the geeks. The women on the show have high self-confidence and are outspoken; the men are insecure and are intimidated by such beauty, thereby allowing the women to be dominant and more controlling. Some of the beauties decided (on several occasions in various episodes) to sleep or lounge by the pool instead of studying their given materials, while the geeks were consistently willing to do whatever it took to win the challenges. Viewers saw numerous geeks attempting to get their partners to read and study, but some beauties chose not to listen. The women did what they pleased (which sometimes meant studying, but not in all cases) while the men begged them to put their efforts toward the competition, illustrating the women’s dominance and power.
While the women have power because of their strong personalities and high self-esteem, stemming largely from their good looks, their looks alone also empower them. Jennylee realized this, saying, “Usually I’m getting by based on my looks…I never really thought about that. I never really would admit that.” Being beautiful and feminine gains these women much attention and power, so much so that it is unnecessary for them to be intelligent or even nice. In a piece discussing image-based culture, Sut Jhally writes, "Sexuality provides a resource that can be used to get attention and communicate instantly" (253). Though Jhally is referring to sexuality in advertisements, it can also be used as an attention-grabbing tool in real life, as evidenced by the women on the show. They are able to use their looks and sexuality to manipulate men, especially the geeks, and get whatever they want, like Jennylee admitted. The message Beauty and the Geek tries to send, though, is that it is not right for these women to think that simply because they are beautiful, they are entitled to get what they want and think they deserve. The men are there to teach them (and viewers/society) that beauty is only skin deep and looks certainly are not everything, which is an empowering message for the men on the show and anyone who can relate to them.
Another empowering image in the show is the fostering relationship between a beauty and a geek. Throughout the third season, Jennylee and Nate grow closer and eventually have a somewhat romantic relationship; relationships emerged in the first two seasons as well. The women all talked about how unlikely the matches were, and Jennylee said she never imagined she would fall for a geek, especially on the show. However, after becoming friends with him, she said she realized how great Nate was and how it was a refreshing change for her to date a “nice guy.” Watching a relationship grow between a beauty and a geek sent important messages to both the women and men. The women saw that the geeks were worth getting to know and were worth their time, even though the men were not on the same level of superficial attractiveness as them. The men saw that they did have a chance with beautiful women; obviously, not all beauties are willing to look past outward attractiveness, but the men learned that they should not think so lowly of themselves because there are good-looking women who could be attracted to them.
On the other hand, one particular episode, titled “Pimp Your Geek,” sends a not-so-empowering message to the audience and contestants. This episode aired about halfway through the season and featured the geeks getting made over with new hairstyles and new wardrobes, and some of them traded their glasses for contacts. Trying to make the geeks more attractive seems to somewhat defeat the purpose of the show. Part of the show’s goal is to make the men more confident in themselves, and feeling more attractive on the outside can certainly increase self-esteem, so the makeover idea does have some merit. However, the men are supposed to be teaching the women that looks are not everything and they should not value appearances as highly as they do. By making the men more attractive as part of a challenge, this message is sadly overridden.
Beauty and the Geek contains both empowering and overpowering images, thereby sending contradicting messages to the contestants and viewers. After analyzing the show all semester and especially after looking at images of power, I have come to see the show as contradictory in itself overall. As a “social experiment,” it aims to break hegemonic norms and stereotypes about masculinity and femininity. It does so by sending empowering messages about not placing so much value on appearances and about learning to have confidence in oneself. Nevertheless, certain norms and stereotypes are reinforced rather than discredited, including the value of beauty in our society. The show tries to teach the beauties not to be superficial, yet meanwhile changes the geeks’ appearances in order to make them more attractive to women. Power and empowerment are ambiguous concepts in this show because power continually changes hands throughout the episodes. All in all, the goal of Beauty and the Geek is admirable and worthwhile, but it could be attained in a more effective way.
Jhally, Sut. "Image-Based Culture: Advertising and Popular Culture." Gender, Race, and Class in Media. Eds. Gail Dines and Jean M. Humez. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, 2003. 249-257.