When I was a younger man, I loved the movie “Revenge of the Nerds.” I was a disenfranchised nerd, so its message of the underdogs overcoming the beautiful people resonated with me.
I was a white, male, straight American, so its casual racism, sexism, and homophobia flitted past me. They bothered me in the way that gnats are bothersome at a summer cookout.
I clearly remember the day that a woman pointed out to me that the movie contained a rape scene. I rejected her position out of hand. I dismissed her argument, because the cognitive dissonance that one of my favorite movies had its main protagonist commit rape was so strong.
I went to YouTube to study the scene. I was looking for any sort of signal that would indicate that her interpretation was wrong. I readied my sanctimonious “Well, actually” rant.
But I couldn’t find any, because there wasn’t any. The facts were plain: Lewis rapes Betty. And he’s rewarded for it.
The main protagonist of the film is Lewis Skolnick, played by Robert Carradine. He and his best friend Gilbert Lowell (Anthony Edwards, who has recently made accusations that he was molested as a boy) are excited to be starting at a technical college.
However, they run up against the alpha males, led by Stan Gable (Ted McGinley). Lewis is sexually attracted to Stan’s girlfriend, Betty Childs (Julia Montgomery). Stan’s Alpha Betas make the lives of Lewis, Gilbert, and the other “nerds” miserable until the nerds take their revenge.
Unfortunately, though, their revenge typically involves humiliating the Pi Delta Pi sorority girls aligned with the Alpha Betas. For instance, the nerds execute a “panty raid” on the Pis, taking the opportunity to install cameras so they can then watch the Pis get undressed.
Throughout the movie, the two sororities (the Pis and the Omega Mus) are used as objects and sexualized weapons between the two groups of men.
Overt sexual objectification of women was sadly typical of the era: It is an evolution from earlier films like “Porky’s” and “National Lampoon’s Animal House.” The main movie poster for “Porky’s” features a man looking through a hole in the women’s shower, while “Animal House” features a character debating whether to have sex with an unconscious minor; when he decides against it, his “devil side” calls him a homo.
TV shows like “Three’s Company,” “Bosom Buddies,” “WKRP in Cincinnati,” and “9 to 5” likewise make light of the sexual objectification of women. The movie “Airplane!” references this during the panic scene by simply having a pair of naked female breasts, completely decontextualized, flash across the scene.
It is perhaps not surprising, in the way that art imitates life, that a star of “That 70s Show,” a send-up of the zeitgeist, has been accused of sexual assault himself.
Most of the men in the shows and movies above are presented as Adorkable Misogynists. Lewis Skolnick is no exception: Culturally speaking, he may even be the King of the Adorkable Misogynists, more so than Animal House’s Larry “Pinto” Cook and The Big Bang Theory’s Leonard Hofstadter.
I’ve already mention the panty raid scene, which is two forms of sexual assault in one: A violent invasion of a physical private space, and then nonconsensual voyeurism. If this were the most problematic scene in the movie, it would still be very problematic.
But then, Lewis rapes Betty.
Here’s the scene. Betty is expecting Stan at the carnival. Stan is wearing a Darth Vader outfit, including a mask. Lewis steals the mask then meets Betty. She tries to take his mask off, but he refuses; she decides he’s trying to be kinky, and goes along with it. They have sex, after which Lewis reveals who he is. Betty realizes she was duped (“You’re that nerd!”) but instantly softens (“God, you were wonderful. Are all nerds as good as you?”).
The scene has been soft-pedalled as being “merely” date rape and a product of the era; even in what are condemnations, the act is made less serious.
This was rape, though, pure and simple: A human being has sex without full, informed consent. There’s no getting around that. Consent after the fact doesn’t matter. Consent under false pretenses doesn’t matter.
I’m not here to debate whether it was rape. It was rape.
I’m here to reflect on why it took me so long to admit to it, and why it took a woman pointing it out to me. I wish I could remember which woman it was, because at the time I shrugged her off and acted like she was stretching. I would love to tell her that she was right, and that I’m sorry for arguing with her.
I didn’t believe her about something that I had seen, repeatedly, multiple times. I didn’t want to believe it. I didn’t want to stop liking a movie that I considered one of my favorite films.
It took months for the dam of cognitive dissonance to break, but once it broke, the water flowed free.
No longer could I ignore the panty raid and the follow-up voyeurism.
No longer could I ignore the lilting gay stereotype of Lamar and his floppy javelin, a thinly-veiled penis joke.
No longer could I ignore the casual racism of the all-black Tri Lambda national administrators being called in as the African-American Boogeyman, a shadowy presence of physical force.
No longer could I ignore the beauty double-standard misogyny that, even among the nerd men who can’t get dates, the Omega Mus are still something to mostly be “settled for.”
The core message of the film is still a valid one: There are more of “us” than there are of “them,” and if we were to band together and step up, we could overcome them. I hate to throw the good out with the bad.
At the same time, though, if we are to evolve, we need to admit to our own blindness. For a long time, I couldn’t see the levels of bigotry that were right in front of me. As a white, middle class, straight American man in Gen X, I had been trained to ignore them. They were so much in the air that I breathed that I didn’t notice them.
A few months ago, GMP’s Gretchen Kelly suggested that I write about how I’d transformed from being an MRA to being who I am now, and I responded that I’d need to write a book. This is one of the chapters.
Women, take heart: Even if you don’t think your attempts to wake men up from our slumber are working, they are.
Men: Wake up.
Photo credit: Getty Images