Wednesday, March 31, 2021

It Was the 80s: How to Fix Revenge of the Nerds

So it took me a while to figure out how to write about this film, one I've loved for most of my life. A way which would allow me to celebrate the good parts but also discuss what I consider to be two highly problematic scenes and one missed opportunity. Here's what I came up with:

Revenge of the Nerds, 1984 d. Jeff Kanew 

Written by: Tim Metcalfe, Miguel Tejada-Flores, Steve Zacharias, Jeff Buhai (story)

and Steve Zacharias and Jeff Buhai (screenplay)

Summary: At Adams College, a group of bullied outcasts and misfits resolve to fight back for their peace and self-respect (IMDB). 

The Good Things: 

Gilbert (Anthony Edwards), Booger's crass comedy when not aimed toward Lamar or the Omega Mus, Ogre (Donald Gibb) as an effective 45-year-old man-bully, all names of characters in general, the montage sequence of fixing up the yellow house, the loophole into Lambda's provisional chartership, the awkwardness of the party (pre-wonderjoints), the music, the revenge involving liquid heat upon the Alpha Betas, the Greek games, and the winning skit performance

Photo Credit: The New Yorker
Photo Credit: The New Yorker

The Two Seriously Problematic Things

1. The violation of the women in the Pi House: recording their nudity, sharing it among the group and then stamping Betty Childs' (Julie Montgomery) naked likeness onto the pie plate for the charity fundraiser

2. The manipulation of Betty Childs in the moon room that resulted in her engaging in sexual relations with Lewis to which she did not consent because of the Darth Vader mask hiding his identity. 

Now. These two things were definitely what earned the film's R rating and were probably the parts most teenagers wanted to see, but I think it could have been done with more respect and less violating. For instance, have the panty-raid go off as performed, allow Lewis/Gilbert/Poindexter to surprise the respective women in their underwear or topless, then, done. Haha, naked girls funny, now we go home. No taping. No Betty Childs boob stamp. True, it's still a violation of sorts, no one wants to be seen naked by random creeps who have invaded their living quarters, but in the end, it's more of a "we're horny and curious" kind of violation (as in Porky's) and not a precursor to revenge porn one.

The moon room could still work, but somehow have Betty get the mask off forcing Lewis to plead his case to Betty which would allow her to consent. "If I'm not the best lay in all of Adams College . . . " or something like that. She gets to decide. If she says no, whatever, Lewis tried. He still could go on with the rest of the Tri-Lambs to win the festival and take over the Greek council, maybe even hook up with that brunette with the long side pony and pink prom dress from the party again. If she says yes, keep things the same as they were: Lewis is a sexual legend (presumably at items other than fraternity jack-rabbiting ala Stan Gable), Betty falls in love, and everyone lives happily ever after. 

Allowing Lewis, one of the film's heroes, to successfully rape Betty by deception makes him worse than any of the Alpha Betas. As far as we know (and this is a big assumption, I get it) none of them raped anyone by coercion. Although the existence of that sheep for initiation purposes concerns me . . . 

And I know this wasn't on anyone's radar back in 1984, because consent and women's safety were not even afterthoughts and wouldn't be until DECADES later, but they should have been. Even if the entire theme of the film was about bullying and revenge, the idea that nerds deserve to be treated kindly pretty much loses its power if it only applies to men. Take the differences between Betty Childs and Judy (Michelle Meyrink), Gilbert's love interest. 

Betty is aesthetically pleasing, desirable, and leader of her sorority. She is skilled at: 

1. Bad shoulder dancing at the fated Alpha Beta "fireball" party

2. Recording the minutes at the Greek Council meeting as secretary

3. Singing off-key "Old Mac Donald"

4. Snapping fingers and rocking back and forth while cheering "ooh, ahh, Alpha Beta!" at Greek Games

5. Having high sex drive (Stan claims she's "like a goat" at charity fundrasier)

So to summarize, not smart, not talented, but interesting because she's pretty and sexual. It doesn't take a ton of thought to realize that she's the prize to be won, here. 

Judy, on the other hand is not aesthetically pleasing and is good at nothing. She's kind and empathetic, but that gets her very little, value-wise. Her shortcomings:

1. Having no computer skills despite being clearly in the nerd camp

2. Awkward 

3. Not especially memorable or clever in any way

4. (And this is the one that gets me): BAD AT ACCORDION

Make no mistake, I'm not faulting a beginning musician for being bad at their chosen instrument, I'm upset that Judy, as a character, couldn't have ONE thing she was good at. It was a missed opportunity not letting that happen. She matched the physical aesthetic of all the other nerds, so that wasn't a huge deal, and Gilbert seemed to really be into her, allowing her to become desirable, at least to him. In contrasting Judy with Poindexter (also a terrible instrumentalist), we see his intelligence but never hers. She doesn't even get to be clever ala saving the group by a deep dive into the Lambda's by-laws (Poindexter's win) or helping in any way that involves wit unless you count her idea to bring over the Omega Mus, which really paved the way for hella mean comments and provided the focus of the Alpha Beta/Sisters of Pi Old MacDonald mockery with the pigs. Annoying.

If Judy was allowed to be the nerd version of Betty Childs, she should have been smart and capable. If not an equal in the computer lab, she should have been a WIZARD on that fucking accordion. Having Judy be unimpressive and blah might be closer to reality (there are unimpressive, blah people everywhere), but it just seems skewed, giving female viewers little choice between that blah-ness and Betty Childs' existence as an accessory for men to pass around. Looking at the poster for the film, you wouldn't even know Judy exists because she was not given a placement in it. 

Cameron (Obnoxious and Anonymous) and I chatted about the film about a month ago where these and many other concerns were addressed. We both really enjoy the film overall and I think were pretty surprised at how many different directions our discussion ended up going (I only ranted hard once, about right-wing creativity in light of the Alpha Betas "Mr. Touchdown" homecoming skit). Check the video out, below:

And if you're still yearning for more, check out Ian Crouch's piece for The New Yorker on how Revenge of the Nerds culture played into the Brett Kavanaugh situation, which I absolutely love (that this article exists, not that the topic it examines happened). 


jm9k said...

I just rewatched this movie today, after not watching it in 20+ years. Your points are all dead on. Let's hope that Seth MacFarlane's reboot fixes these things while keeping the charm of the original!

Hmmpie said...

"And I know this wasn't on anyone's radar back in 1984, because consent and women's safety were not even afterthoughts and wouldn't be until DECADES later"

This is just rubbish btw. Even when Private School came out a year earlier, and they took polaroids of "Jordan" in the shower, reviewers stated how anti-woman it was. California even had rape by deception laws. The culture did not allow for stuff like this, people knew it was wrong, but it was just a silly comedy.

And why not attack some women that write rape scenes? A comedy came out like 2011 written by Jackie Filgo (a woman), in which a man is raped for laughs (Take Me Home Tonight). I suppose that was fun rape because it is written by a woman? Same with Private School in 1983 btw, also written by a woman, in which girls get clothing pulled off and have pictures taken of them in secret (Suzanne O'Malley).