How Revenge Of The Nerds Ruined My Life

If you think your only two choices are to be a nerd or a jock, writes Noah Brand, you are doomed from the start.

Previously published at No Seriously What About Teh Menz.

I first saw Revenge Of The Nerds on home video, back when you could rent a VHS player in a big plastic case to watch your movie on. It came with instructions on how to hook this strange device up to your television. I was about seven or eight years old. I loved it. I adored it. It was inspirational and wonderful and funny and sexy and true and I imprinted on it like a baby duckling. I did not watch it again until a couple months ago.

Please note the title of this post.

For those who haven’t seen this film, an adequate synopsis is here. For those who have, just roll with me for a bit.

First, the defense of the film. It legitimately is funny in many places, especially the second-act party scene where a lame party suddenly comes to life when Booger pulls out his weed stash. That has a fast string of killer bits, including Timothy Busfield suddenly discovering he can dance:

And an understated sight gag that may be my favorite boob joke ever:

 

Also, the inspiring speech at the end legitimately works. When you’re a skinny eight-year-old who gets picked on every day at school, it’s hard to overstate how badly you need to hear that speech. It’s wonderful.

Then, too, it has American pop culture’s first and so far only positive portrayal of a gay rapper:

Okay, that’s it for the good stuff. Now on to how this movie ruined my life.

Two minor points first off: Number one, this is a movie about college, about nerds, in which nobody ever goes to class or studies. Seriously, there is not a single frame of this film in which anyone attends a class or cracks a textbook. Not for one twenty-fourth of a second. I’m not saying this movie is the reason my class attendance in college was so poor, but it’s an eerie coincidence. Number two, this movie is hella racist. The Japanese character has the accent Mickey Rooney used in Breakfast At Tiffany’s and his job is annoyingly taking photos of everything. The black characters, apart from the aforementioned gay rapper, appear at the end, where their narrative role is to scare the piss outta white folks. This is aided by the fact that they naturally secrete funk music.

Do not start me on the gay character. I mean, at least he’s in the movie, but good lord.

♦◊♦

These, however, are mere quibbles compared to the two largest sins of Revenge Of The Nerds: rape culture and Cartesian dualism.

Let me be clear. Revenge Of The Nerds has so much rape culture, you could use it to make rape yogurt. The women in the film are entirely represented as objects, and their sexual consent or lack thereof is explicitly portrayed as irrelevant. The heroes and the villains are theoretically competing for Adams College’s version of Hogwarts’ House Cup, but in point of fact the prize they’re competing for is the blonde cheerleader, Betty. At the start of the movie, she is the property of Stan Gable, the villain, but in the end, the hero, Lewis Skolnick, triumphs by claiming her as his own via rape.

I’m not kidding, that’s actually what happens. The hero’s big triumphant payoff moment is when he rapes the villain’s girlfriend. And she falls in love with him as a result.

Incidentally, while he’s raping her, his fraternity is having another heroic triumph at the fundraising event, selling nude photographs of Betty that they obtained without her knowledge or consent by planting cameras in her house. (Huge 80s cameras, too. Very difficult to conceal.) Again, this is explicitly presented as a heroic, cool action. When the villain finds out what they’re doing, his reaction isn’t “Holy shit that’s like ten kinds of illegal” it’s “Hey! That’s my pie!”

At this point, I’m wondering who the hell thought this was a good movie to show to an eight-year-old.

♦◊♦

The deepest damage wrought by this film, however, wasn’t in how it made me view women (though fucking hell, it did not help). It was in how it made me view myself.

I walked away from the movie with a certain knowledge that I remember quite clearly as a big influence on my thinking growing up: you can be a nerd, or you can be a jock, and jocks are bad. I literally got up from the living room floor where I first watched the movie and triumphantly declared “I’m a nerd!”

Holy shit, has that done a number on me over the years.

I was already, at eight years old, the “smart kid”, and this movie confirmed for me that I was in the right tribe. You could either be smart or athletic, I was assured, and it was time (third grade) to choose. I chose smart because Lewis and Gilbert were the good guys. For years I wanted glasses, not because my vision was bad but because they were the universally-acknowledged symbol of my chosen tribe.

I hated sports, not because I had any real reason to but because they were the symbol of the enemy tribe. Did I know anything about sports? No, not really. I didn’t need to; they were the enemy and that was plenty. I carried this stupid tribal notion around long after I should have outgrown it, and in a lot of ways I still carry it.

Thing is, I’m a strong, physically capable guy. Always have been. I’m fast and graceful and I build muscle easily, but I never developed my body. When I was forced by schools to play sports, I picked up the physical skills easily, but refused to play more than the minimum required. I could throw the ball to any position, sure, but damned if I’d let them make me. Because I was a nerd, not a jock. (Not that I studied. See above.) To this goddamn day, in my mid-goddamn-thirties, I have to overcome a reluctance to exercise, because I still feel like I’m not on the team that exercises. I declared allegiance to the other team during the Reagan administration, after all, and how can I go back on that?

Yeah, it wasn’t just Revenge Of The Nerds that taught that nerd/jock dichotomy, that told all the little boys that they had to choose between their body and their mind. That line runs through a lot of the culture. But that movie was pretty distinctly what taught me that bullshit false choice, and that hasn’t been good for me. It hasn’t been good for a lot of other men I know, either, guys who learned that good grades were for the other team, that they had to run faster or lift more or throw harder than the other boys instead of getting an education. All of us damaged boys, trying to be either all mind or all body, buying into René Descartes’ lousy dualism centuries after it should have gone out of style.

I can’t say whether this false dichotomy has damaged your own life, reader, in one way or the other. I can’t say what your own experiences with trying to be a nerd or a jock have been, or what your regrets might be. I can only speak from my own experience, the lies I now realize I should never have believed, the doors I closed for the wrong reasons.

In the end, all I can say is this: Fuck you, Lewis Skolnick, you rapist bastard.

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About Noah Brand

Noah Brand is an Editor-at-Large at Good Men Project, and possibly also a cartoon character from the 1930s. His life, when it is written, will read better than it lived. He is usually found in Portland, Oregon, directly underneath a very nice hat.

Comments

  1. Tom Matlack says:

    Noah another just AWESOME piece. Thank you.

  2. Oh, wait. Did Lewis Skolnick twist your arm to make you a “nerd”? Yeah, well Annette Funicello seduced me into becoming a Mousketter too. Right?

    I tried to be one of those students who *did* study in college. I didn’t quite make Cum Laude, but I did get to grad school. I didn’t make it to my PhD, but I earned two masters degrees, then I got to work on the Hubble Space Telescope (okay, that’s a minor feat. 10s of thousands did).

    I’m not an athelete. I am small – 125 lbs. But I also got a black belt in Tae Kwon Do. Then a 2nd Dan. Now , near 60 years old, I run 5 miles two or three times a week, weather and arthritis permitting.

    That’s nothing all that special. What’s harder is getting out of bed every day. It’s merely perseverance, sometimes dogged. The rewards are subtle and damn elusive at times, but you see them when you take the time to look back.

    Look. By the time we’re in college we should all be mature enough to make our own decisions about whom we choose to be, because guaranteed, we are the biggest thing standing in our way. I don’t think we can rightfully blame some mysterious cultural influences or “the patriarchy”, mommy and daddy or Lewis Skolnick at that point.

  3. Stopped reading after Rape Culture….

    • Ditto. Once a buzzword comes along, the author’s credibility drops to zero and there’s no point in continuing.

      • Really? Any buzzword at all? And the author loses ALL credibility? Dosen’t that seem an extreme reaction?

        After all, buzzwords are just handy terms used to encapsulate complex ideas so we don’t have to flesh them out in full every time we mention them. They’re really convenient, like, 99% of the time.

    • wet_suit_one says:

      That’s too bad. He points out how truly effed-up Revenge of the Nerds is with respect to Rape. I do remember the seduction of the feminine trophy object and even I found it disturbing or a pile of BS way back when that there was seduction by fraud. That was not cool.

      That said I was ok with the video taping of women in the shower and partially undressed at that time.

      These days, I realize that women should be PAID to appear in a state of nudity (thank god for strip clubs and porn) and only be viewed au naturel when they want to be viewed that way. That’s called RESPECT, which Revenge of the Nerds certainly did not teach with regards to women and sexuality.

      I wonder how many men with hidden camera, and up skirt cameras and so on, got the idea from Revenge of the Nerds? It’s damned good thing that no similar films are made today. That movie had WORSE ideas than the vast majority of pornographic videos that I ever saw.

      Anyways….

      • It’s a strange notion to suggest that something like ROTN was TEACHING anything.

        • wet_suit_one says:

          You’re quite right. However, we do learn a whole lot just by osmosis. That’s the reason that some films are G and others are R. Regardless of whether the intention is to teach, something is imparted all the same.

    • To be honest the 1st time I watched Revenge  of The Nerds was on public television so I wasn’t exposed to the harshness of the subject matter. I didn’t see it uncut until I was well into my mid twenties where I could better compartmentalize reality….The Women were treated badly in the movie.

      Still…

      What rational human being would be dumb enough to pull life affirming wisdom from an 80′s wild comedy? 

    • Too bad, you deprived yourself of a good read.

  4. Jamie Reidy says:

    So, why did your parents let you watch an R-rated movie in third grade???!!!

    I’d forgotten that Betty has sex with him under false pretenses. That reminds me that Farmer Ted scores the hottie in SIXTEEN CANDLES thanks to drunken mis-identification, too. Wow.

  5. I think you should be looking at your parents when you are thinking who ruined your life. Seriously who lets an 8 year old kid watch an R rated movie. I begged my parents to let me watch this movie but they never relented.

    I own the movie and have never thought about this way before, it really should be banned.

  6. So, I have several issues with this article, but before we get to that, I just want to acknowledge that the line “Revenge Of The Nerds has so much rape culture, you could use it to make rape yogurt.” is glorious and you deserve some respect on that fact alone. However, the rest of this article is just… I’m not even sure what category of wrong to place it in. So let’s go step by step shall we?

    (Actually, just very quickly, I will amend that statement slightly. Your article is 7 kinds of wrong AFTER you get past your gripes with the issues of rape, sexism & racism. These are somewhat era appropriate, but none the less, worth recognizing as troubling aspects of the film.)

    Firstly… “At this point, I’m wondering who the hell thought this was a good movie to show to an eight-year-old.” I’m really hoping this is a jab at the specific individual (I’m guessing your parents?) who sat you down in front of it. It’s certainly not AIMED at 8 year olds. It is in fact rated R in the US, and should not have been shown to an impressionable mind at all honestly.

    Beyond that, I go on to take GREAT issue with how you go on to systematically blame this film for your inability to realize that there is not a social dichotomy of Nerds & Jocks. Now, an 8 year old forming this strong belief, wanting to emulate his nerdy heroes on screen? Yeah, I’ll buy that in spades. I wanted to be just like many heroic figures I saw in movies and television. But you then go on to act like this was a prevalent thing, well into your later years of life. Even going as far as to BLAME THIS MOVIE for your continued inability to find motivation to exorcise.

    Really? You’re going to sit there and tell me “I’m not lazy. A movie I watched as an 8 year old damaged me so physiologically that I can’t distinguish between my own wants and the imagined necessities as a nerd tribesman”? Thank GOD you didn’t watch Natural Born killers or you might have shaved your head and tried to teach society of it’s wrongs by killing everybody you meet!

    I’d also like to point out that complaining about a movie about wacky college hijinks in the 80′s not showing the characters studying/attending class (even a film about geeks) isn’t something to burn the film for. It’s not about that. It’s about their attempts to create a fraternity and all the crazy stuff that comes out of that. Classroom/study scenes are irrelevant to the plot, so they’re skimmed over. And yet you still manage to put at least partial blame on the film’s lack of such scenes for your own poor attendance! My lord man. The way you write, I question if you were not in fact the most impressionable child on the planet!

    Now, is it worth discussing the problematic portrayal of school social paradigms in American film and television as a whole, and how pop culture glamorizes and encourages the furthermore of these stereotypes? Sure! I’d love to read that article! But you can’t blame one movie you saw once when you were 8 years old for your own laziness. It just doesn’t reflect very well on you at all.

  7. Randy Steinberg says:

    Darnit, why wasn’t Revenge of the Nerds full of boring, classroom scenes where Poindexter challenges professors on complex points about computer science???????????

  8. I saw the movie as a kid and found it to be hilarious.
    The only thing I saw was that being fit in mind and body meant that you could excel all around.
    But I can see how a lot of guys did receive a skewed perception of reality from this film and ones like it.
    Not to mention all the other college films out there which focused on partying and getting the girls.

  9. The movie didn’t do anything to you–you did. Maybe your parents should have stopped you from watching this. I watched it around the same age as you did though. I certainly didn’t base my worldview on it. Why the hell would you? And even assuming that you could base your life on it, why blame the movie instead of yourself? We all watch crappy shows at a young age. We also have filters in our minds that can call something BS if need be. If your filter didn’t call BS on this movie, you have some serious problems.

  10. John Anderson says:

    I saw the movie and thought that it was hilarious. I’ve also seen Porky’s, Animal House, etc. It’s just the genre. It’s not intended to be taken seriously. I was a book worm in school and was never good at sports or so I thought. In high school I took up weight lifting and kick boxing. I found out it was team sports that I wasn’t good at. I wouldn’t say that I was one of the cool kids, but I was no longer classified as a nerd or at least no one would say so to my face. I found that people learn better when it’s something that they’re interested in. I probably learned to read by reading comic books, but could read better than most my age. Find something you’re interested in and I’m sure it will come a lot easier.

  11. The oral sex scene where the king of the nerds has sex with the cheerleader while wearing the vader mask (and fooling her into thinking he was the jock) was problematic.

    I think another problem I see with the movie is that the leading girl was so obviously a status seeker, and shared in the humiliation of the nerds.
    In the real world, quite frankly the lead girl wasn’t deserving of any1′s affections as she was just as bad as about any of the male characters.

    This movies was bad in a number of ways, but sometimes you at least you can put the symbology aside if you’re not in that mood.

    Take a look at the Euro Trip safe word rape scene and tell me which one you think is worse.
    Also, in Road Trip there is the scene in which a girlfriend beats her bf with a baseball bat for cheating. The humurous part?

    He wasn’t really cheating. Isn’t that funny? While I agree with the problems you have with this movie, it’s 35 years old. When you look at depictions in popular culture, the vast majority of dehumanization (and violence as humor) is depicted against males.

    We’ve come a long way since the only way a tv show could have a leading lady (instead of leading man) was by putting 3 young woman into bikini’s (charlies angels). It definitely seems to me the pendulum has swung too far.

  12. Dude, it’s a movie. Get over it.

  13. I love this post and it is so funny yet true! I love the nerd and the jock. I find them both sexy for separate reasons. But there is NOTHING SEXIER than a nerd disguised as a jock or vice versa. That is like being with a centaur but instead of half horse, half man you get half nerd, half jock. The half nerd composes the upper body i.e. the brain, heart, sentiments etc. The half jock composes the lower body i.e. all the below the waist essentials plus he can be an ass at times. Asses aren’t bad in extremely small doses. All jokes aside, this is a dream man hands down. You get the best of both worlds. I applaud the nerd because he doesn’t care what other people think. He flicks off society and doesn’t worry if he gets ridiculed for liking Star Trek. Nonetheless nerds still get placed in a cage and must always comply with the nerd role. Our society separates us by putting a label on everything: democrat, republican, black, white, man, woman, jock, nerd, and so on. The problem is I am not a product to be labeled nor do I want to be defined by one quality solely. Women face the being pretty and being pretty smart dichotomy. Beauty over brains was indirectly forced upon me by my mother. I recall in the fifth grade being asked to represent the school by writing an essay for a competition. Upon receiving the essay, they decided to judge it in the seventh grade category because it was too advanced to fit into the fifth grade category. I still won the competition and was very proud. On the day of my award ceremony, my mother was causing us to run behind because she was busy putting on her makeup. I asked her to hurry and she stated she just wouldn’t go if I kept complaining. In high school, she convinced me to enter a beauty pageant by telling me it was still academic since the award was a scholarship. In the middle of the pageant, I cried backstage smearing my makeup because it was so not me nor did I want strangers to judge my beauty. I won third runner, not even first place, but she was still proud of me and very supportive. I have a picture with her wrapping one arm around my waist, the other holding my award, while I look miserable trying hard not to crush the bouquet of flowers in my hand. I suppose that jocks probably face the same dilemma. If having to choose beauty over brains, I would choose to remain a nerd and be happy with that decision. External beauty is accidental and temporary while brains are permanent. However, I would prefer to be both plus much more. I think our society needs to give people wiggle room to simply be. We are complex beings and to force us into one role is to kill the other gifts we could offer.

  14. The problem that I have with the wornout Jock/Nerd paradym is I have had several friends that were both. When I was in High School our star quarter back was also third in academic standing. Your thinking yeah and they had twenty in the class. Nope our senior class was 1,046 students. Charlie Brown (I kid you not, good Cherokee name) was an unstoppable quarterback and an inredable scholar. Often he was the only person that could understand what I was talking about. I was 87 but my English teacher was flunking me because I refused to play football. Charlie felt sorry for me being a non-violent person in a small southern town. Charlie didn’t get an athletic scholarship hw was a Rhodes Scholar to Duke became a CPA. Me I ended up walking down the middle of eight lane streets blindfolded.

  15. I’d say that it wasn’t an accurate portrayal of college life but I think it might be a stretch to say it ruined your life.

  16. I love your style, Noah. I can’t wait to hear how Revenge of the Nerds 2 saved your life.

    Maybe it’s just me misreading this, but I didn’t get the feeling the author was presenting a somber analysis of how ROTN deeply impacted him from age 8 to a couple months before writing the piece. I saw it as a writer taking artistic license, and turning a boring premise (ROTN had bad messages) into an entertaining piece about an impressionable 8 yr. old and why these messages are bad. It’s not hard to believe it contributed to his ideas of jock/nerd duality and women, but I’d be amazed if the author really believed it was all and only because of ROTN, even if the article makes it sound that way. Given his apparent intelligence, I’d give him the benefit of the doubt and consider “ruined my life” hyperbole, not a grown man blaming an 80′s comedy for wrecking him. If I’m mistaken, then I it’s really too bad ROTN single-handedly rotted his brain lo these many years, but I’m relieved he appears to have come out the other side a decent guy, and a helluva writer. Rape yogurt. It’s only a matter of time before I find a way to work a culture/yogurt joke like that in somewhere.

  17. Henry Vandenburgh says:

    Gee, maybe I missed something, but I don’t remember any rape in Revenge of the Nerds. I grew up fairly nerdy, but I do have a track letter from high school, and did six years in the Army. Fighting was mandatory in my neighborhood, and I was good enough at it that I beat up the star end on our high school football team when he tried to bully me. I did six years of aikido and karate after I got my PhD at age 51. I liked RON because it got at one of the embarrassing features of high school (which we don’t want to admit): bullying by meat-headed elites. I didn’t see any of this in college, but that was the late sixties, when meathead culture went away temporarily. It’s back now, BTW.

  18. Huh. See, my problem with movies like this (such as Superbad) isn’t really the nerd-jock dichotomy. It’s the idea that having sex with beautiful (often perfect) women “makes up” for all your other “undesirable” qualities, like being a geek or a fatso.

    Not only does this objectify women as some kind of trophy, it also objectifies men and essentially implies that not getting laid is what makes you a loser–not whether you’re a nerd or a jock.

    It’s saying, “Don’t worry, it’s cool to be a nerd as long as you screw just as many chicks as the jocks do.”

  19. Rick S. says:

    Um, I was never a jock, but didn’t really regard myself as a “nerd” either, though others might have but I didn’t care. This movie came out while I was in college, and it struck me as an “Animal House” rip-off without that better movie’s smarter social and political humor. Sorry something so frivolous screwed up your life.

  20. The rape yogurt line made me laugh very hard.

  21. John D. says:

    WOOWWWWWWWWW. So much beta maling, white knighting and putting women on pedastals in here. Seriously the movie is R rated for a reason kid. To the dude above that the cheerleader woman didn’t deserve anyone’s affection? Really dude? Misogynistic much brah?

    Stop putting women on a pedestal as sweet little perfect angels and treat them like HUMAN BEINGS!!! No, don’t be disrespectful and still be a gentleman but they are just like you’re guy friends except attractive, different plumbing and usually smell a lot better. Nothing more, nothing less.

    This movie wasn’t objectifying women, it was a spoof movie having fun. This wasn’t a serious cultural evaluation in the 80s. It was just having harmless stereotypes thrown out and exaggerating them to generate laughs. Most nerds aren’t like that, most jocks I knew were really chill guys and VERY VERY few bullied kids. Most cheerleaders at my school weren’t cutthroat b****es and most were really smart and sometimes more respectful than non cheerleaders.

    This article should be renamed “Why R rated movies should not be shown to 8 year old children.”

    • So, no bullying takes place in mandatory boys’ P.E. classes? Is that what you’re saying? Oh, please …

    • Please don’t be so arrogant. Your experiences haven’t necessarily been shared by everyone else. In fact, I know they haven’t. Clearly some guys were bullied by jocks in high school — not that you would care.

      • Michael Rowe says:

        It would do certain men a world of good to shut up every once in awhile and perhaps learn a thing or two about other men’s experiences instead of immediately going for the jugular in time-honoured high school “pack” tradition and dismissing them as “beta males.” It takes a great deal more courage an integrity for a man to expose oneself in an essay like than it does to great-beat like a jackass at that mans expense.

    • “beta”? “Alpha”? If you still thing your gonads work like wolf packs work (according to dicsovery channel, that is), you need a good neutering vet!

  22. I saw this movie at about the same age (and short thereafter I saw Childsplay). I guess I didn’t get much entertainment out of this movie because I hardly remember any of it by the time I made it to highschool. And even in HS these things didn’t come up much because when you have a class full of 20 people there is going to be some overlapping in stereotypes. We had ample nerd/jocks. I took on the nerd/stoner role. There was no one that could fit into one group or another because there just weren’t enough of us to populate groups that way. Maybe that’s what needs to happen. Small class sizes mean people can watch Revenge of the Nerds because the movie reality will never apply to them anyhow.

  23. I loved this article. I can’t even begin to tell you how many times this exact same thing has happened to me. Last year, in my (first college semester) anthropology class, we watched a documentary about the Kalahari bushmen. In the documentary, it shows how westerners came and the destruction it had on their society. The part that resonated the most was when the camera crew for The Gods Must Be Crazy asked N!xau to be in the film. The tribe endured much hatred, fighting and jealousy they had not yet experienced until that point.
    Everything I had felt about that movie was pulled from underneath me, as it should have been. The movie is completely and grotesquely racist, and after learning about the negative side effects from it, I couldn’t help but question every other nostalgic bit of entertainment from my childhood.

    About 90% of the movies I once cherished and endlessly quoted were chalk-full of misogyny and rape culture. As a 26 year old woman, it’s painfully obvious just how damaging the majority of television and movies truly are for people. Now, I notice many things I used to overlook- overtly racist, prejudice, sexist, and violent glorification drenched in entertainment.

    I don’t even care to identify as a ‘nerd’ or even ‘gamer’ because of how troubling the things we love ACTUALLY are….

    Again, thank you for this post, and I’ll be sure to read future articles you write, as well.

  24. It’s interesting how different people can have completely different takeaways from a movie. I’m definitely more aware that the cameras, pies, and the moon walk scene were wrong now than I was when I first saw the movie, but my takeaways were much more positive.

    I saw that it was OK to exercise, even if you weren’t a jock. (Wermser and Lamar exercise a lot, and very few of the nerds were soft and doughy. I saw that it was possible to be nice to jocks, even if they weren’t nice to you (while not strictly a nerd, I had lots of jock friends). And I learned that you didn’t have to be the big man on campus to “get” a beautiful woman, you just needed to be attentive to her needs and (ironically) be yourself.

  25. Confanity says:

    An interesting take. I agree that the attitude toward women is a bit iffy, but I have to say I really don’t see the dualism you talk about with regard to sports. I mean, doesn’t the competition involve sports-related events? I too saw the movie as a relatively young kid, and the image that sticks most in my mind is the aerodynamic javelin.

    I too am a lifelong proudly self-proclaimed nerd, but I ran on the track and cross-country teams without thinking anything of it and enjoyed soccer and other physical activities. The only sport I felt active antipathy for was football, and that’s because it’s so obviously bad for the player (and so many football players were entitled-acting asshats). While I won’t say the movie didn’t have any effect on you, I think you’d have a hard time showing that 1. you wouldn’t have rejected sports the way you did without seeing the movie, and 2. that it has the same effect on a meaningful proportion of its viewers.

    Speaking of asshats, what’s with all the vituperative comments on here? Sheesh.

Trackbacks

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