I was in a meeting with some business friends early this year when we started to discuss the troubling nature of how films from the past seem horrifying when viewed through the prism of today’s more woke culture. In fact, that conversation is exactly when I decided to take our podcast and turn it into this blog.
The movie we were discussing? Revenge of the Nerds.
Best friends and nerds Lewis Skolnick (Robert Carradine, son of “skinny Dracula” John Carradine and brother of David Carradine) and Gilbert Lowe (Anthony Edwards) are excited to attend Adams College, but are instantly kicked out of their dorm by the Alpha Betas, who have burned their house down. Sleeping on cots in the gym, they find other like-minded misfits and decide to create their own fraternity.
The film follows the 80’s comedy blueprint: a simple premise is stated, then hijinks ensue. Here, it is: “Nerds go to school and fight jocks, then hijinks ensue.”
Battling Alpha Betas Stan (Ted McGinley, he who has caused many a TV show to “Jump the Shark”), Burke (Matt Salinger, son of J.D. and star of 1990’s Captain America) and Ogre (Donald Gibb, Ray Jackson from Bloodsport), our Nerds overcome adversity and become a probationary Tri-Lamb fraternity. Ironically, Lambda Lambda Lambda has always been an all-black frat. And the boys only have one black member, the stereotypically gay Lamar.
That means that Tri-Lamb president U.N. Jefferson (Bernie Casey from Gargoyles!) has to come visit the boys. They throw a party that is boring until Booger’s (Curtis Armstrong) drugs get involved — welcome to the 80’s — and everyone loses their inhibitions. However, the jocks disrupt their party, leading to Jefferson coming around to the guys as he senses discrimination.
The Nerds take their titular revenge by conducting a panty raid and putting liquid heat into the jock straps of the football team, leading to Jefferson making them a real frat. However, the harassment can never stop while Stan is the President of the Greek Council. So the Nerds need to win the Greek Games during homecoming so that they get a vote — which they do so via a combination of their intelligence, more drugs and some questionable decisions (more on those in a bit). Oh yeah — and there’s also an 80’s synth music number.
The jocks trash the Nerds house, but Gilbert decides to speak up at a pep rally. The dean, U.N. Jefferson and a group of big black Tri-Lambs stand up for him and the Nerds ask all the disenfranchised in the audience to join them. The dean tells the jocks that they have to give up their house until the damage to the Tri-Lambs house is fixed, saying, “You’re jocks, go live in the gym.” Everyone celebrates. The end.
Except, well, there are some troubling moments.
What bonds the Nerds and brings them together? A panty raid, as the boys descend on the Pi Delta Pi sorority house, stealing panties, chasing women and placing video cameras, through which the boys watch the women while they go about their daily lives. In the 80’s, this was considered a prank. Today, we’d call it rape. But it gets worse. Much worse.
In the Greek Games, a pie-selling contest determines much of the final score. The Nerds win by using nude photos of Betty (Julia Montgomery, The Kindred) under the crust of their pies. Again, this is abhorrent behavior. But it gets worse.
There’s also a kissing booth, where Lewis attempts to make his move on Betty. She is replaced with a large, unattractive woman, showing that even the Nerds place an emphasis on physical versus internal beauty, no matter what hardships that very same prejudice has put them through. Then, Lewis steals Stan’s costume and tricks Betty into having sex with him. Yes, the hero of this movie knowingly ignores consent to have sex. This is pure and simple rape. This isn’t a snowflake looking back on a fun remnant of our pop culture past. This scene has bothered me since I first watching this film on VHS. Even worse, Betty falls instantly in love with her rapist, asking him if all Nerds are this good in bed.
I haven’t even gotten into the racism of the film, which posits all Japanese as horny photograph taking morons through the Takashi character. That said, Brian Tochi, the actor who played Takashi, is credited “for breaking the barriers and opening doors for East Asian people in entertainment in the U.S., and advancing the perception that Oriental actors have the ability to portray more mainstream roles.” Those mainstream roles also include Cadet Tomoko “Elvis” Nogata in the Police Academy films, who acts just as ridiculous as Takashi (but doesn’t have his own corny Asian theme song). Or just how stereotypically gay Lamar is.
But to me, the worst sin of the film is that when the Nerds win, instead of treating their opponents with the care that they never received and teaching everyone an important lesson, they instead relegate the jocks back to the fate they had once suffered. No one learns anything. The cycle repeats and now the jocks become the Nerds who have become the jocks. This reminds me of how insular societies — wrestling fans, comic book lovers — can be more hate-filled and clique obsessed than their worst perceived enemies.
Over the past few weeks, we’ve seen the bottom fall out in Hollywood’s male-driven world. I wonder, how much influence did pop culture have? When someone who is put upon like the Nerds in this film, how life-affirming does it feel knowing that if you just get a hot girl to have sex with you — no matter how it happens — they’ll realize just how much worth you have and love you? For someone going through the pangs of teenage loneliness — the closing scene in Stranger Things 2 when Dustin realizes that he’s the only one who doesn’t have a partner at the dance reduced me to sobbing remembrances — this sexual reward seems like a panacea. But at what cost? It’s horrifying that this film presents this type of behavior as one worth rewarding. And frightening that generations of men have seen this film and silently acknowledged it. But hey — what can you expect from a DVD that is subtitled The Panty Raid Edition?
Note — Check back later today, as I’m happy to present a companion article “Revenge of the Nerds is a Rape Liturgy” by Ryan Ellington from Grindhouse Theology.