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.