When Your Favourites are Hugely Problematic - the case of Revenge of the Nerds
I am an 80's baby. I was born at the very tail end of the 60's but I grew up - had my formative teen years in the 1980's. 80's nostalgia is having a huge moment right now because people like me are in their 40's and 50's - they have a lot more money than they did in the 80's, they have more buying power, and they have a lot of influence on what kinds of movies, tv, music is produced. Yes, youngsters, you think you drive pop culture, but we have way more influence than you think.
I am enjoying much of the massive amount of facebook pages, news articles, replays, and reboots that are coming out right now. It reminds of some of the few things that I actually enjoyed about the 80's and my tween and teen years. But there is one thing that I am not enjoying - fully realizing how horribly problematic some of the things I loved when I was young actually are. One of those for me is the movie Revenge of the Nerds.
I've been thinking about this a lot over the last few years. I've written this post in my head many times. But each time I just throw up my hands and think, 'What can I really even say about this that hasn't been said already?' But for some reason today, I got angry about it all over again and I just need to put this down somewhere. I just have to have laid it all out - more for myself than for anyone else.
Revenge of the Nerds used to be one of my favourite movies. I saw it in the theatre when it came out in 1984. I just been through the worst school year of my life and had honestly barely made it out alive. I was mercilessly teased and bullied because I was a very socially awkward kid who had absolutely no friends in my grade and could not understand social conventions to save her life. Most of the bullying was teasing, name-callling, and social ostracizing. A few times it escalated to minor physical incidents. But honestly, the social and psychological stuff was far worse than that. I once pretended to be sick to get out of going to school for an entire week. Grade nine was absolutely no walk in the park for me but grade eight was a literal living hell EVERY SINGLE DAY.
So when I saw Revenge of the Nerds when I was in grade 9, I identified with the nerds. I knew what it was to be bullied. I knew what they were going through. This is all I saw in that movie. I absolutely loved the heartfelt speech at the end and how the nerds finally won.
Then I saw it again about 15 years ago. I thought I would enjoy it as much had then. Instead, I was horrified and heartbroken.
Revenge of the Nerds posits the main characters as victims of bullying and abuse and yet those very same nerds engage in the exact same behaviour towards the women in the movie. These men that we are supposed to see as victimized, as our down trodden heroes also:
- repeatedly use misogynistic sexualized language to describe many of the women on campus
- install cameras in the women's sorority house so they can watch them undress and shower without their permission - and then stage viewing parties of these videos in their frat house
- break into the sorority house, into their rooms, surprise them, chase them, and steal their underwear
- sell nude pictures of them that were taken without their permission
- in one case, sexually assault a woman by pretending to be her boyfriend in order to gain consent
Throughout the movie, all of this behaviour is presented as 'good, clean fun' and 'boys just being boys'. Never do we see how the women who are subjected to this 'fun' actually react or feel about it. The only time we ever see a real reaction is when one of the men gets angry because they took pictures of his girlfriend. The women's experience of all of this 'fun' is completely missing.
All of these acts (except for the first one on the list) are criminal. These are actual crimes committed against these women. These are violations of their space and of their bodies. In real life, acts like these cause long-term stress. They cause women to live in fear, never really feeling safe, never feeling like their bodies or their space or completely their own.
This is not funny. It is horrifying.
It made me so very sad when I realized that something I loved is actually shockingly misogynistic and callous towards women. That it glorifies the abuse of innocent people - placing the fun and amusement of men as being more important than the safety of women. I cannot watch this movie anymore and I cannot listen to people talk about how 'fun' it is. I must point out that it would not have been fun for the female characters who were seriously harmed in those actions - but we never get to see that.
Of course Revenge of the Nerds is not the only movie like this. It just happened to be the one that was a big part of my growing up. There were a ton of movies like this in the 70's, 80's and 90's, many of them huge box office hits. It's shameful that the objectification and psychological torture of women is considered so amusing that it shows up in movies so often.
It's getting better - there are fewer and fewer of these movies around now. But it's not completely gone, we still haven't totally figured it out.
All I can say is that as sad as I am that I did not understand it then and that I actually liked that movie at the time, I'm glad at least that I understand now. I know that it makes me the 'killjoy' when I point it out every single time someone comments on how great Revenge of the Nerds and movies like it are. But I'm happy to be a killjoy if it makes even one person stop and think about that kind of behaviour and how much damage the glorification of it does.
80's nostalgia is great, but sometimes it's super painful. But perhaps it's also great that we take the opportunity to look on these things with new eyes, and call them what they really are. Perhaps its an opportunity to to do better now.