I recently decided to rewatch Revenge of the Nerds. Like many films of the 1980s, RoN is misogynist, racist, homophobic, etc. At one point a character actually says, “Step aside mama, I want to see some of that muff.” This is right before the nerds go on a “panty raid,” install hidden cameras in a woman’s dorm room and stay up all night watching unsuspecting, half-naked women.[i] That is, everyone except Lamar, the film’s queer-nerd. So, it is not necessarily that Lamar is the only nerd with anything passing as morals (although he does seem like he would be the nicest in real life), it is just that he is not interested in “muff.” Also, one of the nerds, Takashi, is a Japanese student who seems to only know the words “hair” and “pie.” Oh, and one of the nerds designs a javelin designed for Lamar’s “limp-wristed throwing style.” So, it’s offensive. At times, shockingly so. Now, my experience of this movie is that when I was young enough to actually want to watch it, my parents wouldn’t let me re. the whole misogynist, racist, homophobic, etc. thing. Watching it now, I can safely say they were in the right. By the time I was old enough to see it, I didn’t really care to. RoN is one of the those movies that most of us have only seen on TV, heavily edited, clicking around, having missed the beginning and left before the ending. However, we have done this enough that we have probably seen most of the movie at one time or another. The only reason I decided to watch this movie today is because it is on Netflix, I have Netflix and I thought I might have something to say about it.
The movie is about a group of mostly American nerds going to college for the first time. They arrive on the campus of Adams College, nervous to be entering such an exciting phase in their young lives. Because their residence burns down the nerds are forced[ii] to form a fraternity chapter so they have somewhere to live. This leads them into conflict with the Alpha Betas lead by jock Stan Gable. The Alpha Betas are jocks and since jocks hate nerds the Apha Betas hate the film’s protagonists. This is one of the many syllogisms the narrative presents. Now, despite what we are sometimes led to believe, the Alpha Betas are not cool. But then again, when you watch movies, especially ones from the 1980s, the cool kids are rarely, if ever, cool kids. Mostly they’re just jerks who play sports and date blonde women who end up leaving them ten minutes before the end of the movie. One of the Alpha Betas, Donald Gibb’s “Ogre,” goes on to play a more prominent role in RoN’s sequel Revenge of the Nerds II: Nerds in Paradise. Ogre is very stupid which is maybe why the first time Donald Gibb played Ogre he was thirty. Stan Gable returns in two of the three sequels.
A major subplot of the film is Lewis’s pursuit of Betty, a woman who attends a nearby sorority. He expresses his “love” for her by placing hidden cameras in her bedroom, selling naked photographs of her at a carnival (hidden underneath pies which are actually just whipped cream sprayed into pie plates—the film really gets its money’s worth using the double-entendre of the word “pie”) and tricking her into having sex with him by dressing in disguise as another man—this convention is often referred to as the “bed trick” but, in plain language, is rape. The ramifications of all this? She leaves her boyfriend soon after and announces her love for Lewis owing, mostly, to her perception of his sexual prowess. As Lewis explains, because nerds don’t think about sports, and as sports and sex are the only two things that men think about, they get to spend twice as much time thinking about sex. See, there are many “thoughtful” syllogisms in the film. There are several things I find shocking about this. First, the movie is glorifying rape. In fact, in later installments of the series Betty is married to Lewis. Lewis’ behavior is not only not punished within the narrative, it is rewarded. He specifically gets what he wants because of his extended abuse of Betty culminating in a rape. The movie is not making the point that many women are married to their abusers, it is simply glorifying the sexual abuse of women. The second thing I find shocking is that this is not an exceptional 1980s movie in this regard, although it is probably one of the more extreme examples. Although teenagers became a demographic that movie producers began capitalizing on in the 1960s, not until the 1980s were teenagers a driving force at the box-office. And part of this trend was the so-called sex comedy. Although the abuse of women onscreen was/is nothing new, in the 1980s it seemed to reach new lows. Unlike earlier films depicting the abuse of women, these were films for youth. Sixteen Candles, still adored by many, has a date rape scene. Weird Science shows two teenagers literally creating their dream girl/slave out of, in part, a Barbie doll—the metaphor is no longer a metaphor. Mannequin stars a young Kim Cattrall as a mannequin who only comes alive for one man and reverts to an immobile statue when he is busy doing other things in his life. My memory of St. Elmo’s Fire is that Emilio Estevez stalks a woman. Although a film like RoN, for instance, received an R rating in the United States, given its immature content it was clearly targeted towards young adults and teenagers.[iii] These films were made for young people still forming ideas about who men and women are and leaning how they are supposed to interact with each other.
Nonetheless, maybe the most shocking thing to me is that most of these movies from the 1980s didn’t burn themselves into my mind. I am more shocked by what I don’t remember rather than what I do (the one exception to me not remembering the offensive content in any detailed way in these movies is the date rape in Sixteen Candles). Now it could be that most of these movies aren’t very good, which is the case, and, being so formulaic, which is also the case, are easy to forget, but that seems too simplistic. Although I am pretty confident that many of these movies (Porky’s, the Police Academy films, anything with Rodney Dangerfield in it, most of the John Hughes films) are incredibly offensive, I can’t recall the specifics. These films, especially the John Hughes ones, such as Sixteen Candles, are rarely acknowledged for the attitudes they are espousing and, when they are, they are often forgiven as being a part of their time. However, rather than looking at these offensive movies as part of the time why not look at them contributing to the time. In other words, Hughes was creating what he saw in suburban Chicago as much as he was observing it. This is especially problematic as the 1980s continues to be a decade nostalgized by young people.[iv] Many young women, it seems, love Sixteen Candles. Now, I might recall that Long Duk Dong is one of the most offensive depictions of any racial group but I don’t remember the details. I think that maybe when I first saw these images as a youth I wasn’t bothered by them. Part of this is I am sure I just didn’t know any better. I still remember my fourth grade teacher, upon catching two students looking the word “condom” up in a dictionary, becoming very angry and telling the whole class she could bring one of her husband’s condoms to show us if we were that curious. I found this very troubling as a child because I thought “condom” was another word for “penis.” For the next few days I remember being terrified that she was going to pull a jar out of her purse with a penis preserved in formaldehyde. Anyway, I don’t think it is just because I was too young to know better, but because these things are so normalized within my culture they are made invisible. When I think of the strong female characters that did appear in films from the 1980s, many of them are victims of sexual or physical violence such as Jodie Foster in The Accused, Meryl Streep in Sophie’s Choice and Sigourney Weaver in Gorillas in the Mist.
[i] Actually, the DVD is available in a “Panty Raid Edition.”
[ii] I use the word “forced” lightly. I am sure they could have come up with another solution but the movie’s narrative presents this as their only recourse.
[iii] The sequel to RoN even begins with a Star Wars crawl explaining the events of the first film.
[iv] This, despite the existence of the 1970s.