I normally write for blog called Grindhouse theology, which deals almost exclusively with ‘the intersection of Christian faith and horror Cinema’. On paper, Revenge of the Nerds is a comedy, which means I’m outside my comfort zone. It is a comedy, I guess, maybe in the Twilight Zone, or some other dystopian nightmare world where affluent young men run amok in the streets, hunting for food and flesh – any flesh – to douse the fire that travels their veins.
It’s a comedy for old Rome, perhaps. Juvenal would have eaten it up. The sordid tale of a motley crew of randy young misfits who get even at the frat boy troglodytes who slighted them – and their sorority girlfriends. There’s potential in a setup like that. And it hearkens back to the classic works of Petronius, or the Priapus poems, one of which goes like this:
Hey you, who can’t keep your looting hands off the garden that’s been entrusted to me:
The magistrate’s randy sidekick will go in and out of you until your gate’s permanently wider.
Two more will be waiting at your side, who’ve enriched themselves with a pretty pair of pricks from the public purse.
They’ll delve in you painfully as you lie there.
Then a bawdy donkey no less well-supplied with a dong will take his turn.
So if a criminal has any sense, he’ll watch out, since he knows how many dicks are waiting for him.
Those were difficult times, at least for anyone who wasn’t male, virile, and noble-born. Actually, they were difficult for everyone. The male, virile, and noble-born were under extraordinary pressure to remain virile and remarkably ignoble, lest they be unmasked -by their peers as ‘weak-willed’ or ‘womanly’. Such indiscretions were punished harshly in the court of public opinion, usually by rape, since the only thing an ‘effeminate’ man was good for in the old Roman imagination was to function as a fetish-toy for a brawnier chap, whose appetites could never be satiated by his wife alone, or the household slaves, or the neighbor boy. There was a finely-tuned ecosystem whereby the bullied stayed bullied and the bullies stayed bullies, lest their distaste from bullying land them under the thumb somebody stronger and crueler.
In that universe, perhaps Revenge of the Nerds would be a light comedy, perfect for a rainy Sunday afternoon. In the one we inhabit, however, it’s about as terrifying as the newest Stephen King adaptation. Not least because the final act features a rather grim sexual assault played for laughs.
One of the nerds, Lewis, disguises himself as Stan, a frat-boy bully, and sleeps with Betty, Stan’s girlfriend. I remember being thirteen and laughing uproariously with my pals as Lewis dons the costume Stan had worn and Betty invites him to bed. It was funny, you see, because he was a guy, and we identified with him, because we were misfits too, and we were guys, so we identified with him, but she was a girl, you see, and and she was ‘stuck up’, you see, and we didn’t identify with her, we identified with him. So it was funny, you see, because he got her in the end, because he got the sex out of her even though she didn’t give it to him. It’s funny, get it? It’s funny because he didn’t have to ask for sex to get it.
I’m not sure in what universe that’s funny, but it was whichever universe my friends and I lived in when we were thirteen and terrible. And we didn’t live in old Rome.
We lived in approximately the same universe we live in now. The universe in which Revenge of the Nerds was a smash hit, taking in $60 million on a $6 million budget. In which men and women flocked to the theaters to see a movie where some misfits get revenge on some ‘stuck-up’ college girls by having sex with them against their will. We live in the universe where people laughed, in the theater, and in the upstairs room of my childhood home. And people still laugh, because it’s funny, apparently.
Which is to say, we live in the Twilight Zone, or something worse than the Twilight Zone. We’re inhabitants of a nightmare world, but not the one we read about EC Comics and penny dreadfuls. It isn’t yesterday’s nightmare world, like old Rome was. We live in today’s nightmare world. And we must, because we live in whatever world it is in which Revenge of the Nerds is a comedy.
I’m tempted to say that it hearkens back to a time in which women were simply collateral amidst the push-and-shove of a male-dominated culture. And that’s half-right. My degree is in religion, and the religious texts produced in antiquity are almost ubiquitously haunted by collateral rape, wartime rape, rape as a tactic employed in ‘total war’ against an enemy tribe or nation. There is no excusing this, no letting the Ancient Near East off the hook for their monstrosities. But it’s common practice, when reading such texts, to make note of these horrific features, remind oneself of its ubiquity in ancient literature, and then seek to contextualize them within the narratives that we find them in order to understand the authorial intent, the ‘message of the texts’. But while it may be appropriate to do so for ancient texts, the same privileges probably shouldn’t be afforded to screwball comedies released in 1984 as are afforded to the Epic of Gilgamesh.
Not because the principal doesn’t carry over, but because it does. Revenge of the Nerds does hearken back to a male-dominated culture in which women were collateral damage amassed in male-oriented affairs. That’s an important piece of context. The makers of Revenge of the Nerds were not uniquely rapey. They were approximately as rapey as the culture from which they emerged.
And it wasn’t just yesterday, either. Another, funnier film, Pirate Radio, which was released in 2009, features a subplot in which a teenager named Carl admits to his friends that he’s a virgin. Naturally, a virgin is the worst thing that a young man can be, so his friends vow to use all of the resources at their disposal to see to it that he becomes unvirgin before their time together comes to an end.
The most valiant of them all, Dave, concocts a foolproof plan: one night, when he has a woman over, they begin to have sex, before he declares that he has to step out for a moment. While he is out, they send in young Carl to finish the job while the lights are off. “She’ll never know the difference,” Dave says, and pats him on the back, and the theater in which I saw the movie laughed riotously, and I laughed riotously, as recently as 2009. It’s easy to forget how recently we were all basically cool with things like ‘groping’ and, apparently, even ‘rape-by-deception’.
I say that we were all basically cool with it, but we weren’t. Or some of us weren’t. But I wasn’t one of them, and you probably weren’t either. In 2009, I wasn’t a Women’s Studies professor, or a feminist theologian, and I wasn’t one of the people who valued their input. You probably weren’t either. It’s easy, now, to hammer out snarky tweets about ‘rape culture’, forgetting that we were part of the problem, like, 10 minutes ago, and blind to the fact that we’re probably part of the problem now.
We’re in the midst of Hollywood shakedown that should have come ages sooner, but didn’t, because most folks are like you and me, and didn’t know, or didn’t care what was going on, and wouldn’t have said or done anything if we did know. We watched Revenge of the Nerds and Pirate Radio and other classic comedies that would be ghastly horror pictures in a universe with a conscience. And we laughed, because we lived in a nightmare world and we were used to it. Because we built it, because worlds are built out of the people that inhabit them. Even nightmare worlds, and we were the nightmare.