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Reality TV perpetuates airhead chic

Celebutaunte airheads Nicole Richie, left, and Paris Hilton fuel Fox's
Celebutaunte airheads Nicole Richie, left, and Paris Hilton fuel Fox's "The Simple Life" with their ditzy antics. (Knight Ridder / The Spokesman-Review)
Heidi Stevens Chicago Tribune

Ashton Kutcher has apparently been watching a lot of reality TV lately. That or attending conferences with Harvard University President Lawrence Summers. Where else would he get the idea for his new show, “Beauty and the Geek”?

The WB show promises to pair seven brainy nerd-type guys with seven “dim beauties” and watch the hilarity ensue. The couples will reportedly go camping, take dance lessons and work together at a deli, where the nerds will help the beauties make change. (Barbie, you’ll recall, warned us years ago that “math is hard!”).

The show is the latest in a line of reality shows offering us a glimpse into the world of vapid women and the chance to laugh at their stupidity.

This is entertainment?

On Episode 1 of this season’s “Bachelorette,” Jen Schefft’s friend Abby expressed delight that Jen soon would be traveling to New York — because now she will get to see the Eiffel Tower!

In “The Simple Life: Interns,” Nicole Richie reportedly asks, “Is Jersey a city or a state?”

Jessica Simpson once boasted on “Newlyweds: Nick and Jessica” that when asked to name all the continents, she answered: “A, E, I, O, U and sometimes Y.”

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to deduce that plenty of women are willing to pass their ignorance off as an asset if it gets them on TV. Hence, “Beauty and the Geek.”

And let’s not forget “Laguna Beach,” “Joe Millionaire,” “For Love or Money,” “Real World,” “The Anna Nicole Show”: No genre has worked harder than reality TV to portray women as empty-headed hotties whose only redeeming quality is their ability to make us feel better about ourselves. (Heck, I might not be able to find Azerbaijan on a map, but I know the Eiffel Tower ain’t in New York!)

Jennifer Brier, assistant professor of gender and women’s studies and history at the University of Illinois at Chicago, finds it ironic that so many reality shows delight in pairing airheaded women with hunky guys in a time when there’s talk of constitutionally protecting heterosexual marriage.

“You put geeks together with dim beauties and hope neither will notice?” she says. “You need money to tempt you into this union? Marriage on one hand is supposed to be this institution that needs to be protected from the onslaught of gay marriage; an institution that’s supposed to be so ingrained in us. But it’s not looking so good.”

“Do you ever think that you learn heterosexuality?” she continues. “That’s what some of these shows do. They instruct us on what heterosexuality is supposed to look like. It’s this perverse marriage manual.”

But is anyone really stupid enough to get relationship tips from a reality show?

“It’s not about what we should do, it’s not a recipe,” Brier says. “But it mirrors heterosexuality back to us. It suggests to us that women need men so much, they would go through this ridiculousness.”

“Newlyweds” has re-upped for its third season. “Simple Life: Interns” is the third incarnation of a series following Paris Hilton and pal Richie. “Real World” is on Season 15.

So Networks must think this stuff is resonating with someone. But with whom?

The highly coveted 18-to-34-year- old viewers who tend to watch reality shows, for starters. And while many of us admittedly tune in for the train-wreck factor (“It’s a sick fascination,” Brier says with a laugh. “Please. I watch them. I’m not going to deny it.”), there are doubtless a fair number of viewers whose opinions are being shaped at least somewhat by these images.

Obviously ditzy women on TV are nothing new. Lucille Ball, Suzanne Somers, Justine Bateman, Lisa Kudrow and a host of others have ridden that gravy train into sitcom history. The lovable ditz (Lucy Ricardo, Phoebe Buffay) is a character who is given heart and warmth and a certain amount of depth, often revealing herself to be savvier than people give her credit for.

The reality show airhead is a one-dimensional caricature. Many of these shows’ casts change every season, so we never get to know the women long enough to discover their other traits. One exception is “Newlyweds,” which for three seasons has followed Simpson, showing the pop star doing everything from laundry to recording her latest single. And allowed to fill more roles than just punch line, Simpson actually comes across as likable. Then again, all three “Simple Life” seasons follow the same two women around, but their routine is always the same — stick out like brainless sore thumbs in various locales — so it’s tough to find them endearing.

There’s just something sinister about women portraying themselves, not their scripted characters, as laughably stupid. Besides, it’s 2005. Didn’t we recently watch Senate confirmation hearings for a female secretary of state? Didn’t some of the toughest grilling come from a female senator from California?

When is the boy-are-chicks-stupid shtick going to stop sticking?

I guess when women are smart enough to start turning down the shows that networks are stupid enough to keep pitching.

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