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Taking Risks: "Geek" Goes For It on Reality Show

By Jody Record, Campus Journal Editor
March 21, 2007

Nate Dern, left, and assistant professor Brent Bell answer questions during Bell’s “Risk and The Human Experience” class.

So, it really is all in the eye of the beholder.

Just ask Nate Dern, the Harvard student and TV reality show contestant who appeared in this season’s “Beauty and the Geek” on the CW.

Dern was on campus last week where he spoke in assistant professor Brent Bell’s class “Risk and The Human Experience.” The two had met previously when Bell led an outdoor program at Harvard; Dern was a student leader.

Bell’s students had been discussing the types of risks people take--physically, cognitively or socially, for example, with stepping out of one’s comfort zone socially perhaps being the greatest risk of all. There was also a lot of talk about categorization and its impact on perception. That is, as Bell put it, “if you think something is, your brain locks on and tries to reinforce it.”

“Beauty and the Geek” matches up eight beautiful women with eight geeky guys who then undertake a series of challenges that test them in areas outside their comfort zone: the beauties have to find books in a library using the Dewey Decimal system, for example, while the geeks try to get women to give them their phone numbers.

Dern’s take on the show—where the winning couple stood to take home $250,000-- was that, initially, it did just that. All of the guys—culled from such known brainiac schools as Harvard and MIT—took one look at the models and aspiring actress they would be paired with and thought “beauty.”

And the girls—well, here’s what Dern looked like before his television makeover: he had a big bushy beard and wild matching hair; his normal “uniform’ was all things plaid. Mismatched plaid, mind you. And he donned one of those spongy high-brimmed long-distance trucker ball caps. He and the other guys reaffirmed the girls’ perception of geeks without even opening their mouths.

Funny thing was, Dern never considered himself one.

“I’m more of a dork,” he said. “Going into the show, I hadn’t ever classified myself as a geek. I thought of myself as different and I liked being different.”

Being on the television show, whose aim was to make people not only step outside their comfort zone but re-think their perceptions of the two labels--gave him the chance to reflect on those kinds of invisible categories, he said. One of his conclusions? Some people take refuge in stereotypes because it allows them to stay within their comfort zones.

And because it was, after all, television, there was a bit of enhancement done to support the beauty or geek persona. Two months of filming were somewhat selectively edited down into eight episodes that left viewers thinking the guys were, as Dern said, all critical thinkers and the girls were all materialistic.

“There was some jockeying with the guys for who was the geekiest—the smartest. And there was pressure on the girls, too,” he said.

No one was instructed to act a certain way but when he was recruited—picked out for his appearance while walking around Harvard one day—he was told it would be “cool if I didn’t shave my beard.”

Before “Beauty and the Geek,” Dern assumed everyone-- regardless of how they appeared--thought the way he did, believing life was about helping people. He thought that even if someone seemed superficial, deep down, they valued the same things.

“After the show, I thought maybe people do value different things,” Dern said. “Heading into the show, I had no idea a purse could cost $5,000. Or that someone would spend that much money on one.”

A reality TV show pushes the social risk boundaries, Dern said, because it means “putting yourself out there and being judged by other people.”

“The task and the challenges were secondary,” he said. “For me and for some of the other guys, it made us question our own identity and what’s important. One way I’ve described the show is, it was kind of like getting the wind knocked out of me and I’m still trying to catch my breath.”

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