Film analysis of
REVENGE OF THE NERDS
© copyright by Rob Ager Jan 2015
The condensed video version of this analysis is only available if ordered from my Film Analysis page
- Commercial and artistic excellence
- Profile of a nerd
- Nerd substitutes
- The jock monsters
- Jocks everywhere
- The super nerds
- Trophy people
- Other stereotypes
- Nerd rule
- They’re ruining our image
- The discrimination cycle
- The comedy tactic
- Nerd buffet
Revenge of the Nerds, for me, is one of the funniest and most intelligent comedy films ever made. This is one of those movies that has universal appeal – I can honestly say that of all the people I’ve discussed the film with I can’t remember a single one who said they didn’t like it or didn’t think it was funny. And, to my knowledge, the film has never been subject to any kind of in-depth film analysis, despite being full of detailed social commentary on the subject of discrimination and negative stereotyping towards nerds and geeks. Those basic themes will be obvious to most who’ve seen the film, but the details are much more clever than the film has been given credit. It’s also a very interesting film in other, much more subtle, ways and not always by intention either. In fact the film often contradicts its own anti- nerd persecution message by promoting negative stereotypes of other social groups. The demonization of the jocks is easy enough to notice, but there are also many other stereotyping complexities in the film. We’ll explore those later in this article, but first let’s first explore the basic commercial and artistic excellence of Revenge of the Nerds.
COMMERCIAL AND ARTISTIC EXCELLENCE
As far as the studios were concerned Revenge of the Nerds was supposed to be akin to movies like Animal House and Porkys, but director Jeff Kanew was a big fan of the more artistic film Risky Business – note that the actor Curtis Armstrong had a supporting role in Risky Business (as the character Miles) and wound up on the cast of Revenge of the Nerds (as the character Booger). And in the DVD commentary Armstrong describes the scene of the Omega Mu’s entering the nerd house as being a homage to a scene of prostitutes entering a house in Risky Business. But the executives were calling the shots financially so, at least on the surface, Kanew had to deliver a sort of screwball teen sex comedy. Revenge of the Nerds was also a low-budget write-off of huge profits that 20th Century Fox had raked in from Return of the Jedi. This Star Wars connection may well have been the inspiration for the Darth Vader styled mask prop, which the characters Gable and Lewis wear in the carnival scenes.
Being that the studio didn’t have a lot riding on Revenge of the Nerds they largely left the film makers to themselves. Most of the film was shot on location at the University of Arizona, which results in less visits from executives thus freeing the crew to make the film the way they see fit. However, there were occasions when executives would show up on set in order to get themselves on screen as an extra, such as the “mopery” guy who exposes himself to blind people and the paranoid Londoner who is played by producer Peter Macgregor Scott.
Director Jeff Kanew consistently allowed the actors and crew to openly put forward their creative ideas, resulting in lots of spontaneously developed scenes and unscripted details such as Booker and Takashi’s comical card game scenes, Ogre eating marsh mellows roasted over his burning house or Jamie Cromwell’s creation of the nerd laugh. And some of the nerds’ costumes were largely creations of the actors themselves. The psychological bonding of the actors in off-set parties further fuelled the creative process, with cast and crew all competing with each other to see who could come up with the funniest bits of adlibbing. And the enthusiasm included the main actors consistently viewing the rushes from each days’ shooting, which nurtured both their confidence in the project and spurred them into finding new ideas for their characters.
Because of these fertile shooting conditions, there’s hardly a dull moment in Revenge of the Nerds. Pretty much every scene has interesting details and the jokes are almost non-stop, save for a handful of intentionally serious drama scenes. For the nerds’ house set the prop master took lists from the actors about what kinds of belongings their characters would fill the living space with. So the props in that set aren’t random – they were chosen thematically. For example, there are copies of science magazines such as Omni and Scientific American and a picture of a ball and chain, which I assume is err ... linked to certain themes of slavery and imprisonment for the nerds, which we’ll get into in more detail later.
Interesting and hilarious little touches can be found all over the film and some of them I hadn’t noticed until I started studying the film shot by shot for this analysis. When the nerds lean before the council you probably noticed Poindexter looking the wrong way because he’s so blind, but did you notice Booger takes the opportunity to quickly pick his nose? In the party scene Wormser dances on a chair to compensate for his twelve year old height. When Takashi is first introduced in the middle of a crowd he has a giant teddy bear with him. And when Poindexter gives Takashi a pill to inhibit the effects of alcohol during a drunken tricyle race he’s so blind he tries to put the pill in Takashi’s eye. Such easy to miss details give Revenge of the Nerds great re-watch value.
Other subtle details are more symbolic.
- Gilbert and Judy switching glasses and finding out they have virtually the same prescription might be an obvious metaphor of them having the same world view, but much less obvious is that they’re also wearing each other’s name tags and when we see them dancing they’re still wearing each other glasses. That’s quite sweet.
- In Gilbert’s bedroom in the opening scene there are hardly any props, but there is an anatomy sculpture on the shelf next to a globe. The globe prop is appropriate being that he’s about to leave his comfort zone and enter the big wide world, but the anatomy figure appears to be female, perhaps suggesting something about his inexperience and curiosity about women.
- Another sort of prop inclusion, which I suspect is deliberate, is that when Lewis’s Dad takes a photo of the key nerd protagonists he stupidly uses the flash on the camera even though it’s broad daylight, and a "Social Sciences" building is in shot right behind him. The film itself is a social study.
- When the Jock’s dormitory is set on fire it unrealistically burns almost completely to the ground, including most of the brickwork and structural beams, but their Alpha Beta fraternity symbol has miraculously survived. Like the Jock’s identity, the sign is only lightly damaged. And that metaphor is reinforced when Ogre and his two women are eating marsh mellows. Another of the Alpha Beta fraternity signs stands unharmed behind them.
Other little touches include simple base humour to pan out otherwise boring dialogue scenes, such as the twang of ropes in as Lewis unties the trunk from the roof of his Dad’s car, and about those opening titles – the computer font obviously was picked in relation to nerds being computer obsessed, but did you ever notice the fonts are awfully big? Is that one of the film’s many jokes about nerds having bad eye sight?
The film also has two important commercial aesthetics which few film makers seem to bother with today. The first is that the cinematography is unobtrusive. What I mean by that is that the shots are chosen specifically for the purpose of telling the story, rather than trying to constantly show off to the audience with unnecessary crane shots, depth of field, tracking movements and so on – the film does have these occasionally, but only where they’re needed. In fact this was how cinematography was done generally back in the 1980’s, the wisdom being that if something interesting was happening in front of the camera then a stationary shot or simple panning shot would be enough.
The other aesthetic quality common in many of the best commercial films of the 1980’s, is that the scenes are efficiently condensed. Hardly a second of screen time is wasted because each scene is scripted, performed and edited to get its message across quickly. For example the nerd house repair could have been shot at normal speed with a few dissolves to show the gradual progression of the refurbishment, but shooting it in high speed is quicker and allows more to be communicated visually. In another example, the nerds have just been accepted by the Tri-Lamb fraternity. Lewis gives a celebratory toast lasting just a few seconds before the flaming nerds sign appears in the garden and then we cut straight to the Greek Council discussion of the matter. Talk about keeping the narrative ball rolling. Less efficient film makers might have given Lewis a long, boring speech in a desperate effort to be dramatic and then have shown all the nerds reacting emotionally to the flaming word, but none of that is needed. Thanks in part to editor Alan Balsam, the film just gets straight on with it and, for the most part, doesn’t insult our intelligence with excessive preaching or having to show us things that are clearly implied anyway. Like with Revenge of the Nerds, many classic movies from the 1980’s came with a run time of about ninety minutes on account of their time efficiency, but today far too many movies are dragged out to over two hours, with a good half hour of the scenes repeating things that have already been established.
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PROFILE OF A NERD
The question of what makes a person a nerd isn’t straightforward, so we’re now going to explore the nerd stereotype in a fair bit of depth before we get into the more philosophical aspects of the movie.
The nerd stereotype covers a range of traits and the film makers went out of their way to catch as many variations as they could. Nerds tend to be short, skinny or flabby – people you wouldn’t be scared to pick a fist fight with. They walk with hunched shoulders and tend to have closed, defensive body language such as keeping their knees and elbows locked together. Because of their general feeling of physical inferiority they perceive non-nerds as being a physical and emotional threat and so they avoid physically strenuous activities, especially sports. So at several points in the film we see reminders of this in the form of people casually doing sporty activities in the background, such as guys in shorts playing with a foot bag or people playing frisby, boxes of sports eqpt being knocked over or military cadets marching. These serve as reminders that the nerds physically don’t fit in.
In terms of face and head shapes nerds usually have any combination of the following: thin necks, big noses, buck teeth, receding foreheads and puny jaw lines – they hardly ever have the square jawed head and face shapes associated with the sporting and military stereotypes.
Then there’s the classic thick-rimmed or thick-lensed glasses, which basically advertises their bad eye sight. This is played on again and again in Revenge of the Nerds, for example Poindexter is almost completely blind. When Gilbert draws Judy and himself on a computer he starts off by drawing their glasses first, and when Lewis and Gilbert shower they’re still wearing their glasses.
Nerds also tend to have weak immune systems. And so Poindexter has allergies and we see Lewis and Gilbert carrying around handkerchiefs in their back pockets.
They also tend to have a particular kind of dress sense, or lack of it. They wear a lot of tight clothes to hide their bodies – for example, having their sleeves rolled all the way down to the wrists and their shirts buttoned all the way up to the neck as if they’re terrified of a bit of sunlight. Their trousers are sometimes pulled up way too high, which shows off their socks and thin ankles. They wear drab colours and tend to have some sort of hair cut that accentuates whatever nerdy facial features they happen to have. And they tend to wear dress shoes instead of trainers (or "sneakers" as you North Americans like to call them). Sneakers are for the physically active type, not nerds. Other bits of stupid dress sense are shown among the nerd brigade when the jocks take their dormitory from them – I especially like the guy with the classic Buddy Holly look. Unusual for a nerd he has some colour in his clothes, but ironically too much colour, so he’s still a nerd. And there’s Wormser with his bowtie, who naturally moves straight toward fellow nerds Lewis and Gilbert when he’s first dropped off in the gym – even a nerd can spot a nerd a mile away.
Other classic nerd variations include curly hair, especially ginger curly hair (Poindexter), gormless looking expressions, and of course there’s the classic nasal voice and car honk laugh.
Ok so that’s most of the base physical traits out the way, so let’s explore a little more about nerd behaviour.
As well as being neither inclined nor capable in the realm of sports nerds are physically inept generally (Lewis and Gilbert tripping over a curb and getting their feet wet while carrying their trunk, poindexter nearly crushing his hand in a blender) and they’re really bad dancers. They just have a lot of trouble with the physical world as if it’s alien to them. Lewis climbs on top of the car to release the trunk when he could have just walked around the other side. And their Dad could have made things easier by parking near the freshman dormitory instead of half way across campus. He can’t even park properly either. And their physical ineptness causes problems for bystanders, such as the collision of people trying to avoid them while they carry their trunk. However, one thing the film doesn’t play on very much is that nerds can’t handle drink or drugs.
Nerds’ physical ineptness makes them over-cautious generally, (all the other cars are speeding past as Mr Skolnick drives Lewis and Gilbert to college, Lamar is afraid of cobwebs and dust during the house renovation, and Dean Ulich covers his ears in fearful anticipation of Coach Harrison firing a gun). This fear of the physical world makes nerds over prepare for everything. Most of the non-nerd freshman arrive with a suitcase or two, but the nerds have a large trunk plus bags and briefcases. Poindexter also brings a clothes rack on wheels with him to the gym.
The nerd attire includes what the cast in the DVD commentary call “problem solving equipment” – pockets full of pens, slide rules and calculators are worn like a uniform. We can also see under Lewis’s Father’s jacket that he’s got a pocket full of pens too. When these nerds encounter an obstacle in life their default response is to work everything out with numbers, whether it’s calculating the drive to college down to the very second or calculating the number o boobs in the college.
Naturally, the desire to reduce physical life to calculus means that computers are a nerd’s best friend. Lewis’s mother, “I was fine when you went away to computer camp”. When Lewis and Gilbert are unpacking their clothes are tossed on the floor and a poster of a computer is pinned up as if it’s the priority item. And it turns out the huge trunk was needed not for clothes, but for their robot. Keeping with the concept of computer nerds, the film’s soundtrack makes use of synth music for the nerd scenes, while more organic music using non-synth instruments is used for the jock scenes. And when a nerd tries to play a real instrument he’s generally useless (Poindexter on violin). Wormser plays a lot of video games and Gilbert is seen reading the book Getting into Computers by Irv Brechner. http://www.amazon.co.uk/Getting-into-Computers-Career-Hottest/dp/0345301722
What seems to link all of these various nerd variations together is the primary trait of physical weakness and the resulting secondary trait of emotional submissiveness. The film doesn’t show us any muscular nerds, with the exception of Lamar’s aerobic physique, but even that is offset by his exaggerated gay femininity.
Now there’s one more aspect of the nerd stereotype which I’ve saved until last because it later becomes a key theme in the film. Nerds are unattractive to women both in physical appearance and because of their general ineptness and shyness with the opposite sex. In the case of Poindexter sex is the terrifying unknown (he is terrified of the domestic robot reaching toward his genitals, he confesses he’s never been out with a girl before, and he appears to get his first hard on or orgasm while watching footage of the jocks’ girlfriends naked. Even when all the other nerds are partying he is hiding in a corner as a femi-geek tries to get to know him. He can only overcome (pun not intended) his fear of sex by getting stoned and drunk, at which point he finally loosens up and gets it on with the Omega Mu girl.
Not only do nerds not get women, but they generally tend to annoy the hell out of them too (Lewis and Gilbert trampling over a girls’ picnic when carrying their trunk). They’re so undesirable that, for many girls, to be asked out by a bumbling nerd is considered an insult (Lewis asks Betty out for coffee, which isn’t exactly rock 'n roll). Again this is all a by-product of their general sense of physical weakness, which in the Greek Games tug of war scene is emphasized by having the puniest of the nerds, Wormser, at the front of the nerd cue. The stereotype nerd physique is not just a sign of weakness, but of pre-pubescence.
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Revenge of the Nerds features a very prominent racial discrimination subtext. The nerds have a black member in their fraternity and they join an exclusively black national fraternity, Lambda Lambda Lambda (the Tri-Lambs). Lewis plays the song Swing Low, Sweet Chariot at the nerd party, thinking the Tri-lamb bosses will appreciate it. The song is historically associated with the civil rights movement for equal rights for black people in the United States. And quite a big deal is made of Michael Jackson. There are posters of him in the nerds’ house, they party to his song Thriller, and Lamar and Wormser wear a sort of Jackson inspired getup for their break dancing stage routine, which involves them doing the moon walk – a dance move culturally associated with Michael Jackson. And when Lewis and Betty get it on they do so in a Moon Walk room. The film was also made one year after the mega-hit Thriller album was released, the biggest selling album of all time and the peak of Jackson’s career – Jackson was black and mega cool.
These racial references are intentional. In the DVD commentary actor Curtis Armstrong reveals that one of the script writers told him that in the Revenge of the Nerds story the word nerd can be substituted for any other group that is discriminated against. And so we find that the nerds’ fraternity includes Lamar, a stereotypically feminine gay man. The director and actors also explain that they were trying to imply a secret gay lover subtext between the outwardly alpha male Coach Harrison and Dean Ulich the nerd teacher he dominates. There’s Takashi who is a stereotypically gullible and endlessly polite and obedient Japanese man easily susceptible to being ripped off for money by westerners. There’s also a Jewish underdog subtext. Lewis’s last name is Skolnick, as seen on his name badge, and there are a couple of non-speaking nerd extras who have sort of stereotypically Jewish long noses and faces. In the script Gilbert’s last name was also Pinki, but was changed because there were too many Jewish nerds already. And another possible anti-semitic discrimination reference is that Lamar’s Javelin throw scene is shot in slow motion, much like the running scenes in the movie Chariots of Fire, and the music of the scene clearly furthers the reference. Chariots of Fire was a film in which an English Jew runs to overcome prejudice. And then we have Booger, who isn’t really a nerd at all. He just seems like a made up social subgroup whose distinguishing features are scruffiness and dirtiness, but according to the cast the script had him down more specifically as a biker.
So a key aspect of the film’s take on nerds is that they allow people from other outsider groups into their own. Actually that point is established in dialogue when Gilbert tells the Tri-Lamb boss UN Jefferson that the nerds won’t discriminate in who they allow to attend their party. So given the openly welcoming nature of the nerds, we find that there’s a Hindu among their group, though he’s just an extra who has no dialogue. Presumably the Buddha-like deity statue in the nerd house belongs to him. Lewis and Gilbert are made fun of regarding their virginity, so that’s another social group who are subject to verbal abuse and ridicule. And during the later stages of the Greek Games Takashi is dressed as a Native American.
The film’s umbrella use of the nerd stereotype even extends to include famous musical groups and movements that have fought against social conventions in the pursuit of change. So there’s a Beatles poster in the nerd kitchen – they served as a sort of voice against the rigid class systems of the 1950’s. There’s the aforementioned Michael Jackson whose musical appeal had its influence on racial boundaries. And in the musical show which the nerds put on Poindexter becomes a punk and Booger becomes Elvis, two more musical movements that had wide social effect, and Lewis and Gilbert represent the arrival of synth music, which showed that computers could actually be cool. And one other reference to a cool outcast is Wormser talking to two women’s breasts and then breaking the fourth wall by looking to the camera and raising his eyebrows a couple of times – that’s undoubtedly a reference to Groucho Marx; the king of verbal put downs and, in physical appearance, a nerd.
There’s also a subtext in the gym scenes of discrimination against refugees. When Wormser is dropped off by his parents he even states that he feels like “a refugee from a war”. The nerds have been kicked out of their dormitory and made homeless and are made to live in unpleasant refugee-like conditions. And a further visual clue is confirmed in the director commentary as intentional. Some of the nerds are seen watching an old black and white movie about prison inmates.
The universality of discrimination is communicated in other ways. For example, when the jocks are shouting “nerds”, after kicking all the freshman out of their dormitory, are they just shouting at Lewis and Gilbert or are they shouting at all the different social and ethnic groups that are represented in the freshman crowd? In another scene Gilbert and Lewis have just been humiliated by the jocks. Gilbert says, “This gym is really getting to me”, but look at how prominent the US flag is in the shot. That’s not accidental. Is it the gym that’s getting to him or the widespread discrimination he perceives in his country?
When Takakshi knocks on the door of a fellow Japanese man, he is rejected and called a nerd, indicating that equivalents of the nerd stereotype also exist under different cultures across the world. Was it the glasses that gave Takashi away? And Poindexter asks this question of his love interest, “Would you rather live in the ascendancy of a civilization or during its decline?” I’m not sure how that relates to the film’s discrimination themes, but it certainly seems to be hinting at a larger social and historical theme generally.
However, the overriding subtext is the discrimination experienced against black people in United States history. We’ve already identified some aspects of this, but there are many more supporting examples. In particular the nerds are subject to a sort of lynch mob mentality. Lewis and Gilbert are effectively kidnapped by the Alpha Betas and held hostage for torture and humiliation and are tarred and feathered, a public form of humiliation used throughout history, though I’m not sure if this was done against a lot of black people in the United States. The “altar of sacrifice” aspect of the humiliation maybe carries a witch hunting historical reference as well.
The film also seems to carry some historical implications regarding the use of bonfires for burning black people who had been lynched by mobs. The word nerds is seen in burning letters with an obvious threat that the nerds themselves will be lynched and burned, and the bonfire seen in the middle of the crowd for the final scene may also have been placed there as a reminder of lynch mob burning brutality. Director Jeff Kanew even mentions the film Missisippi Burning when talking about the scene in which the Jock character Stan Gable smashes the nerds window with a rock.
The character of UN Jefferson, leader of the black Tri-Lamb fraternity, is central to the film’s racial persecution themes. He has on his office wall a very old black and white picture of black guys who no doubt lived under very harsh racial oppression. The concept of a black only fraternity or sorority isn’t even made up for the film. They actually existed due to racial segregation laws and that segregation has in some cases continued until today. For example, a racism scandal emerged in 2013 regarding one sorority’s refusal to let a highly qualified black woman join their ranks. There’s also traditionally Jewish fraternities and sororities as well, such as Sigma Delta Tau. http://www.cw.ua.edu/article/2013/09/the-final-barrier-50-years-later-segregation-still-exists http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Pan-Hellenic_Council
UN Jefferson’s reactions throughout the film are telling. He at first doesn’t like the nerds, but gives his first hint of approval by smiling as Judy sings a song about freedom. There’s also a deleted scene in which the nerds attend the Tri-Lambda national convention, and they’re the only white guys in the room. But the key thing that appears to open UN Jefferson up to the idea of helping the nerds is his clear disapproval of the anti-nerd persecution displayed by the jocks on the night of the nerds’ party. He’s seen this before and he knows how it feels. The next time we see him, he accepts the nerds onto the Tri-Lamb books, even proudly placing a picture of them on his office wall. And it’s he who comes to the rescue to protect the nerds in the finale. Handing Lewis a microphone, “Say what you gotta say”. As Lewis kisses Betty in the centre of the nerd-hugging crowd, UN is stood right behind him and he loves it. And just in case the message was lost on anybody, the credits begin with a series of short clips of the main cast and the very last one to be shown is UN Jefferson, pointing his angry finger at the bigoted coach. The shot freeze frames on him and we eh .... fade to black. Enough said.
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THE JOCK MONSTERS
The portrayal of fitness fanatic jocks in Revenge of the Nerds is one of the harshest and most one-sided movie depictions of a social group that I’ve ever seen. They are cruel, cruel, cruel from beginning to end, sometimes in very obvious ways played up for effective comedy value and sometimes in more underhanded and arguably illogical and insensitive ways.
The most over the top examples of Jock demonization include Ogre dropping a guy off a roof. We’re given no explanation why he’s doing this, not that it would matter. The point is that Ogre does this because he can and because he wants to. The cheering crowd of Alpha Beta fraternity pals and their sorority partners Pi Delta Pi suggests they all share his mentality and is another of the film’s lynch mob motifs. This is the film’s introduction of the Jocks and their cheerleader girlfriends, so immediately their nastiness is established without there being a possibly good side to these people. And the film virtually never lets up in this respect. The guy Ogre drops doesn’t even appear to be dressed like a nerd so it seems that this is how they treat anybody who falls outside their clique.
Even worse is the initiation ceremony, designed to utterly annihilate the already diminished egos of the nerds. Apparently the scene was filmed to be much longer and involving various other forms of torture, but wisely it was edited down. What’s left is interesting. The emphasis is on sexual humiliation. It’s inferred the nerds are going to be made to have sex with sheep and then their virginity, with human women of course, is mocked.
Later, the jocks arrange for pigs to be let loose in the nerds’ party. What is it with these guys and their farm animal motifs? They shout their insults from the truck loud enough for half the neighbourhood to hear then moon the nerds and drive off. Mooning itself is an interesting form of insult – it’s the revelation of a part of the body designed for excretion so is sort of akin to rubbing the recipient’s face in filth, but in this case it might include a mocking of the nerds’ sexuality again.
At no point in the film do we see the jocks engage in serious physical violence against the nerds even though violence is the ultimate expression of hatred between different social groups. Instead they engage in cartoonish violence against inconsequential extras who don’t necessarily fall in the nerd category, such as Ogre throwing a guy off a roof and throwing another guy through a window. We don’t see these falling bodies hit the ground and we don’t see their injuries or hear prolonged screams of agony. These are literally throwaway characters. Instead, the film cleverly keeps its light hearted tone by substituting anti-nerd vandalism for anti-nerd violence, starting with a smashed window and ending with the trashing of the whole house. Like with the initiation scenes, the house trashing was filmed as a longer sequence, but trimmed down for the final cut because it was too nasty. However, the finalized edit still includes a shot of the nerds’ house cleaning robot smashed and broken. The robot had human interaction abilities that went far, far beyond the capabilities of computers in the 1980’s. So is this destruction of a robot imbued with human qualities a metaphor of a lynch mob murdering a human nerd? It probably is.
Physical violence was also cleverly suggested when the jocks threw buckets of water on the nerds. It’s left for us to assume how cold the water is. And the cold water metaphor is used again near the end of the movie (the jocks throwing Gilbert into a fountain pool). These inferences of more serious violence are very well thought out – a watered down depiction of physical torture so as not to cause too much offence for an audience seeking a few simple laughs. And even when I saw the movie when I was eleven years old, I couldn’t help notice that the jocks had smeared the word NERDS above the staircase in some sort of brown substance and I wondered whether they’d used excrement, an even greater form of insult. In the same scene we also see that the Jocks have torn in half a picture of some historical figure who the nerds admire, though I’m not sure who the picture is of. Presumably it’s a famous intellectual.
Contrasting with the film’s general avoidance of showing Jock violence against the nerds, Gilbert responds to Booger, “We can’t resort to violence. That would just bring us down to their level”, but the Jocks haven’t been violent. In fact this is well before their house gets smashed up. Nevertheless it is directly inferred that violence is part of the Jock’s method of dominating others.
Another way in which Jock violence and physical dominance is inferred is that the jocks appear to be stuck permanently in football game mode – after all football is, in part, a game of physical violence. After their house is burned down, Stan Gable and Burke are tossing a football back and forth as they play a lying game to avoid admitting they burned the house down through stupidity. Not only is it totally inappropriate behaviourally to be playing with a football when they’ve just been made homeless, but one of them might have even grabbed the ball on the way out of the burning house – as if it mattered more than any of their other belongings. And the metaphor continues. In their next scene they take the dormitory from the freshmen. Burke is still holding the football and they storm the building as if tackling another football team. And later on they attack the nerds’ house as if it’s an opponent team on a football field. So it’s no surprise they choose a football stadium as the backdrop for their musical show with a scoreboard saying "Jocks 69" (69 being a sexual position) and "Nerds zero". In their mentality, all the world’s a football stadium.
The jocks also seem to consider football itself as being superior to other sports. They throw out the freshmen and among the belongings thrown on the street is a basketball. Another of the ejected occupants is carrying a tennis racket. The basketball factor especially has some interesting facets to it. The nerds are made to live in the gym beneath a sign that says “Smash ‘em Atoms”. The Atoms is the name of the jock’s football team. So the sign serves as a constant reminder of jock over nerd domination; that survival of the strongest applies not just to sports, but to everything else in life. The constant bouncing of basketballs in the gym is a constant reminder of physical competition activities intruding on the more peaceful and intellectual lives of the nerds, yet the jocks aren’t into basketball. And perhaps this is because basketball is traditionally dominated by black men. In the one shot of the film in which we do actually see college students playing basketball there is just one black guy among them. By contrast the football player jocks are ALL white guys, which is unrealistic being that professional football also has a hell of a lot of black players.
So am I getting the message right here? Does Revenge of the Nerds intentionally present the jocks as an exclusively white club in contrast to the all black Tri-Lamb fraternity? It certainly appears so. And who did they cast as UN Jefferson, the leader of the black fraternity? None other than Bernie Casey, a former professional football player turned actor. So, tying in with those lynch mob themes, the jocks seem to double up as white supremacists.
At the base level of physical presentation the jock uniform is basically sneakers, jeans or shorts, a t-shirt and maybe a sweater or a jacket. In contrast to the nerds, they seem to own the physical world and must advertise the fact at every opportunity. As Ogre hangs a guy off a balcony the Alpha Betas (or Alpha Males as we might prefer to call them) hang out the windows like monkeys and are perched up on the roof, many holding large beer glasses easily visible from a distance. Alcohol is both a fuel for their aggression and a display of their manliness – look how much booze I can handle. Yet the boozing and gym freak metaphors also conflict with each other in real life. The idea of someone being drunk and smoking what looks like a joint while at the same time doing press ups with his girlfriend on his back is absurd (we do see this in the Alpha Beta party scene).
The character Ogre represents the underlying neanderthal mentality of the jocks. Occasionally he speaks a few basic words in between his assorted animal grunts and war cries. He eats like a pig (as shown when he steals a pie during the Homecoming Carnival scenes) and he moves like an ape thug. And his lack of empathy for the feelings of others even extends to himself – his brain is incredibly slow to process the pain sensation of liquid heat burning his crotch. The word Ogre refers in legends to a giant who eats people, which is probably why in a gym training scene he says of the nerds, “I’ll eat their ancestors. I’ll kill their parents”. Like the film’s over the top depiction of nerds, Ogre is an extreme depiction of the jock stereotype, including the genetic advantage of brute strength and weight. And a variation on Ogre is the fire spitting guy in the Alpha Beta party who looks more like a dumb farmer. A guy like Ogre also wouldn’t be able to get one woman, let alone the two we see him with in a couple of scenes. And incidentally there might be a sexual joke in his gym training scene – the camera begins with a close up of lead jocks Stan Gable and Ogre. Gable is telling Ogre to “get it up”, a sexual term, but the camera pulls out to reveal he’s actually holding a set of weights.
Stan Gable (who is possibly named after Clarke Gable for his movie star looks) represents the cool as a cucumber external appearance of the jock stereotype – perhaps how they might view themselves. He’s the slick javelin thrower, a George Michael (who turned out to be gay) lookalike lady killer, but beneath his looks and charm he’s just like Ogre. The Darth Vader mask he wears in later scenes may well have been chosen as a base way of presenting Gable as the villain of the story, which would also make Coach Harris the film’s equivalent of Darth Vader’s master The Emperor.
Like The Emperor the coach hovers around behind the scenes, carefully fostering hatred in his jock underlings. He subtly dominates the puny Dean Ulich with little snippits of physical aggression. In a Greek Games announcement he accidentally hits Ulich in the face with the microphone. In other scenes he shouts over him and towers over him physically as Ogre does with everyone else. As an older man he can’t personally get away with persecuting people for being nerds, especially younger people, so he channels his hostility through the jocks, getting them to do his persecution dirty work, and so when the jocks lose the homecoming carnival Coach Harris personally feels insulted by it. Elsewhere he entices them with talk about material profits for physically beating opponents on the football field and, like a brainwashing drill sergeant, he feeds them his winners and losers philosophy, even going so far as to suggest that what he personally expects of them is also expected of them by other authority figures.
Only at the end of the film do we discover that the jocks' habit of screaming the word nerds was picked up directly from Coach Harris. And even the jocks’ preoccupation with beer seems to link back to the coach – note how he relishes the drinking aspect of the tricycle racing game. And he loves seeing the jocks pull other teams in the mud in the tug of war game. He even covers for them when they burn their house down, but nerd Ulich sees right through it.
The coach’s philosophy is clearly depicted in the phrase “Only the strong will survive”, which just happens to be written on the wall right outside his own office. And perhaps therein lies the nature of his motivation. The desire to dominate others is driven by the fear of being dominated. And that fear is reproduced in statements from Stan Gable, “Times are changing Betty. These nerds are a threat to our way of life. ... Then we’ll be up to our necks in nerd shit. ... You let that nerd beat you and you’re nothing!” That destroy or be destroyed outlook must be a lonely state of mind to be in.
Eventually the coach’s mask slips as he is about to turn violent against Gilbert, who Dean Ulich appropriately points out is just a boy. So instead he decides to get aggressive with Ulich himself, who while not being a boy in age is virtually the equivalent of one in terms physical size. At this point the coach is about to do the one thing we’ve not seen any jock do to anybody throughout the movie – throw a punch. And that’s the point at which the Tri-Lamb’s step in and even the playing field.
Coach Harris is played very well by John Goodman and he’s a well written character in terms of the film’s black and white, good vs evil presentation of jocks and nerds, but ultimately he’s a cartoonish bigot stereotype. While the film does give a hint of sympathy toward the jocks by showing the coach as being the likely source of their bigotry, there is no indication that Coach Harris might have ever been anything other than a bigot. Hostility toward particular groups, whether it manifests as racism, anti-semitism or any other well known brand, isn’t simply a matter of people just being evil for the sake of it. Even the Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan were not one hundred percent pure evil. The individuals who comprise such groups are not born that way. Their beliefs emerge through complex social conditioning.
But in Revenge of the Nerds the level of emotional sadism the jocks engage in is so over the top they may as well be rapists and murderers. The general impression is that driving the nerds to suicide wouldn’t bother them in the slightest. So in addition to the Stan Gable as Darth Vader / vampire costume motif, we have lead jock Danny Burke dressed as a thuggish caveman and Ogre dressed as a Viking; a historical group widely perceived as raping and pillaging. Given the extent of this jock demonization it’s understandable that in the DVD commentary it’s claimed that the actors who played the jocks sometimes had even more trouble getting into character than those playing the nerds.
But the film makers were most likely aware of what they were doing in terms of how they misrepresent and demonize jock culture. In the script and in one of the deleted scenes, it’s revealed that Stan Gable has a secret nerd brother. In what is possibly the film’s only moment in which the nerds and jocks are lumped together in one group, Mr Scholnik (Lewis’s father) says “You college guys are all alike.” And oddly, the name of the jocks’ football team is The Atoms, a word associated with science. But for me the real clincher, which is very easy to miss, yet reveals the film makers’ acknowledgement that jocks are not all bad, occurs in the end scene in which crowds of football fans join the nerds in a celebration of acceptance. We see a couple of the Alpha Beta jocks walking off the stage to join the nerd supporting crowd as Ogre pleas with them to stay. We can only assume that throughout all of the examples of nerd persecution depicted throughout the story, some of the jocks internally felt conflicted about what they were doing, but kept up the persecution act among their peers.
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This over the top association between people who taunt or bully nerds as being equivalent to violent and barbaric groups throughout history is taken further by the film’s depiction of non-jocks as being either ambivalent or even taking part in nerd persecution. Virtually no one seems to challenge the jocks’ behaviour toward nerds, not even the law. If a bunch of guys showed up on a suburban street smashing houses up, letting stolen pigs loose, shouting abuse and mooning people from a truck neighbours would call the police and the perpetrators would be arrested and charged. And where did they get that wagon? It says “Adams College” on the door. Surely their taking it for such a purpose would get them kicked out of college. Their behaviour at the Greek Games also would not be accepted in real life. Ogre is seen pushing a guy in front of at least half a dozen witnesses, yet he’s not reported for it. And would he really be allowed to go around drinking beer from a trophy and spitting beer on people? No, the college would kick him out.
The general inference of all this is that not only are the jocks nasty to the nerds and rude in general, but no one cares. One of the strongest suggestions of anti-nerd persecution from non-jocks happens as Lamar prepares and executes his limp wristed javelin throw. Bystanders in the background are laughing at him and mocking his feminine body language. Even a black girl and a fat woman are laughing at him. General bystanders are also heard laughing at Lewis and Gilbert struggling to carry their trunk. Really, no one would even offer to help? And the rejection of the nerds by the Greek Council involves the heads of all the fraternities, not just the Alpha Betas, giving them the thumbs down and laughing at them generally. Then there’s the attitudes of the national fraternities. Gilbert reads out one response, “We’ve gone over your application and it wasn’t even close”. So a national fraternity rejects the nerds with a very nasty letter and sends them back their group photo torn into pieces. The anti-nerd culture is present at the institutional level?
Stan Gable’s stitching up of the nerds in the council meetings is really blatant. He can barely contain his animosity even in a formal setting. Sure it helps make the hostile and manipulative tendencies of his character obvious to the casual viewer who otherwise might not get the point, but the fact that no one objects further supports the notion that everybody else is being complicit or at least ambivalent in the persecution of nerds.
Betty and her cheerleader pals are, in some ways, as evil toward the nerds as the jocks are. Betty's hostility when Lewis invites her to the nerd party is visually punctuated by the closed gate barrier between her and Lewis. She and Suzie, who is Burke’s girlfriend, are also quick to set the nerds up for a night of humiliation at the hands of the jocks. Betty comes up with this plan on the spot, of her own accord, and no doubt entices the jocks to carry out that plan. What a bitch? And then the Pi sorority girls go along with Gable’s plan to make a false offer of cheerleader dates for the nerd party. That’s a lot of effort just to insult some nerds. Betty and Suzie are then seen standing on the truck as the jocks moon the nerds, though they don’t show their own arses of course.
So the film demonizes cheerleaders as it does the jocks. Betty is the stereotypical pretty, but emotionally empty, female ego-maniac who uses her sexuality as a weapon to hurt others. And she and Suzie express not the slightest bit of guilt in the aftermath of ruining the nerd party.
The film’s presentation of widespread acceptance of nerd persecution even extends initially to the Tri-Lambda fraternity, as if they’re effectively black jocks, “You have very little chance of becoming Tri-Lambdas. I mean after all, you’re nerds. ... I’m glad to see you ner, you guys finally fought back”. Though there are several suggestions that UN’s underling secretly likes the nerds and wants to befriend them and help them. Sure, he might be embarrassed by Lamar’s gay wave to him in the party, but he looks like he wants to have a bit of a dance, he’s happy to eat nerd cake and he’s definitely happy to smoke their drugs. And his first line of dialogue involves him confirming that the nerds have a right to a probationary period to become Tri-Lambs.
So all in all it’s not exactly cut and dry as to who is and isn’t a jock. The Alpha Betas are officially the leaders of nerd persecution, but the film carries a broader exaggerated theme of the anti-nerd mentality actually being common to the majority population as a whole. In some instances people who arguably have certain physical characteristics of nerds, such as the skinny stair diving guy with a bad haircut, get away with being identified as jocks purely on the strength of idiotic jock behaviour.
Sure there are anti-nerd persecutors in real life who might be as bad as, if not worse than, the extreme nerd haters seen in Revenge of the Nerds, but they’re a very small minority and not necessarily always the sporting types. As the popularity of the film itself demonstrates, most are willing to occasionally laugh at or insult perceived nerds in jest, but would never go as far as physical violence, vandalism or wholesale social segregation.
THE SUPER NERDS
In parallel with the demonization of jocks and cheerleaders, Revenge of the Nerds exaggerates the intellectual and creative abilities of its nerd protagonists. A strong example of this is Gilbert’s mastery of computers. He and Lewis haven’t been on campus for long, in fact they haven’t even joined a fraternity, yet Gilbert is already wandering about the computer class overseeing other students as they try to learn basic computer programming skills. Now back when this film was made computers were extremely basic and most people didn’t own one. In my school for example (I was living in Canada at the time) we had one computer for our entire elementary school and each of us in the higher grades was assigned just one hour a week to use it. There was no Microsoft Windows. Anything you wanted to do had to be typed in manually on a very annoying screen of command lines. It would take ages just to type in a piece of code that would run a basic game of battleships with extremely simple graphics. Judy describes the computer as “inhuman” so the inhuman Gilbert hammers away some code, which he is making up on the spot, and without even being able to read the code as he writes it he manages to draw a picture of Judy and himself dancing. This is a vast exaggeration of nerd intellect. The same thing occurs again with the character Wormser. He designs a brand new type of javelin, which allows Lamar to defeat the college’s best throwers of normal javelins, not that a javelin redesign would even be allowed in a sports event such as this. In fact I’m not even sure if colleges would accept twelve year old gifted kids for enrolment.
The association of nerds being the source of scientific excellence is also depicted by two instances of space shuttle poster props (Gilbert’s bedroom at his mother’s house, the stairway in the nerd house) and the poster of Albert Einsten accompanied by Michael Jackson’s song Thriller on the soundtrack. The poster also has a partially visible quote, “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.” And Lewis expresses his nerd intellectual-ego by telling UN Jefferson that the nerds will have a greater grade point average than any other Tri-Lamb chapter. If we wanted to play politically correct idiot we could take that as an assumption that black college students aren’t as intelligent as the white nerds.
Some of the ways in which the nerds use their intellect are both clever and funny without being unrealistic, especially their surrender in the tug of war which sort of uses the Judo principle of turning an enemy’s own strength against them. Poindexter also has his first stroke of intellectual usefulness by citing a by-law that guarantees the nerds a shot at joining the Tri-Lamb fraternity. And the mathematical breakdown of house searching among the group is good logical reasoning. But when it comes to the musical stage show, suddenly they’re all good at playing instruments, setting up light shows and mixing different musical genres into a coherent whole. I doubt any band ever performed this well in a first time gig. The same goes for the refurbishment of their house. The place is a wreck and it would take months to repair all the major structural damage, but how long does it take the nerds? A day? A week? And it looks perfect. And about the setting up of those cameras in the Pi’s dormitory – the nerds manage to plan and execute this operation in the space of a few hours. Does the nerds’ teamwork intellect have no bounds? They’re like the A-team. Wisely, the film makers use the theme from Mission Impossible to acknowledge the implausibility of the scenario.
The Homecoming Carnival scenes also feature contradictions. We’re shown just a few events in which the nerds lose to the jocks – trojan horse, tug of war and arm wrestling, which are all brute strength no brainer activities, but the nerds win in all the other events – tricycle race, belching contest (in which Booger has a superhuman ability), javelin throw, charity fund raising booths and the musical show. However the scoreboards throughout the competition show the jocks clearly in the lead. So it seems that the nerds must have been scoring very low in the games where the jocks win, or when the nerds win the jocks are still beating the rest of the competition to come second. Or there may have been other games that the jocks won, but they aren’t shown because it doesn’t fit with the film’s ideological narrative of portraying nerds as inherently superior to jocks. There’s also the issue of Poindexter giving Takashi a pill that will help him win the tricycle race. Trichloromethyline, the drug he gives him, doesn’t exist. It’s been made up for the movie as a means of having the nerds win the race and to push the notion that nerds can solve any problem. It’s also unrealistic that Poindexter would explain the pill and give it to Takashi out in the open for all to see, which would result in disqualification.
Like the jocks, the nerds also seem to have remarkable access to worldly resources. Poindexter complains about the party buffet potentially being expensive, yet they’re in a house which they somehow had the funds to fully refurbish. The costumes, fireworks, lighting and musical equipment used in the stage show would also be expensive. And even more impressive is the filming equipment they install in the Pi’s dormitory so they can see them naked. What have they got - about half a dozen cameras, all individually accessible by remote control from what is probably miles away? As well as being able to focus and zoom the cameras can even pan back and forth. And the girls don’t notice these periscope intrusions sticking out of their bedroom ceilings. And what about going and getting the camera equipment back? The filmmakers weren’t stupid of course. They were taking liberties to make a good, fun story, and so ideas such as a drill with a built in silencer are unrealistic in a funny way, but nevertheless these examples illustrate the artificiality of the film’s supposition that nerds are inherently superior to jocks in terms of intellect and resourcefulness. And perhaps the big giveaway of the nerd abilities being intentionally exaggerated is the choice of having Wormser wear a Superman leotard in one of his aerobic workout scenes.
And then we have the moral integrity of the nerds. On the whole they’re just really, really nice people who wouldn’t hurt a fly. When they’re asked if they’re virgins, one admits he is and the other lies. They both then reverse their position in order to stand by their buddy. Lewis and Gilbert are also very polite and democratic in deciding who has which bunk bed when they arrive on campus, which is contrasted by the coach’s order, “Enough of the social bullshit. Grab a cot. Move it or lose it!” And when the nerds win the Homecoming Carnival they’ve already prepared a nice surprise for their friend Gilbert by selecting him as Greek Council president. It’s all very sweet, but as will become more evident in the rest of this analysis, they have a dark side to them as well and not always in ways that the film makers consciously intended.
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Jock and nerd treatment of women
Now we’re getting into one of Revenge of the Nerds’ most awkward, yet consistent themes, the objectification of women (cheerleaders in particular) by both jocks and nerds. Let’s start with the jocks. Their sorority partners, who all happen to be stereotypically attractive, are called Pi Delta Pi and there’s a running joke regarding this name in reference to the triangular pattern of female public hair; Pi as in slice of pie and the Delta symbol being a triangular pie shape, which Booger and Takashi call, “Hair pie”. So, just by their sorority name, these women are instantly reduced to sexual objects. They may as well be called the pussies or the snatches or the bearded clams.
To the jocks these cheerleader women aren’t much different to their football trophies. They are play things to be won and displayed to the world as evidence of their masculinity and sexual prowess. As Ogre eats marsh mellows he has a trophy woman at either side and he has an actual trophy in front of him. And when the teams run onto the Homecoming Carnival racetrack, the Alpha Betas are carrying their women on their shoulders as if holding sports trophies up for all to see. The nerds don’t do this of course because the Omega Mu’s are too heavy and I think they missed a joke opportunity there – wouldn’t it be funny if the nerds got carried by the Mu’s instead?
The jock treatment of the Pi girls is also suspect in places. Gable tells a horny Betty, “You’re like a goat”. That’s a full on insult. And Gable does something suspect in one of the council meeting scenes. He fondles another female council member by rubbing her shoulders in front of both the whole council and in front of his own girlfriend, Betty. Then he goes back and touches Betty’s face affectionately and she expresses no objection at all to what he just did. Do they have a level of trust and understanding beyond most relationships or is Gable a womaniser in general. And regarding Ogre seemingly having two girlfriends, how many women would be willing to share a boyfriend?
And it’s not just the Alpha Betas either. In the stage shows the Rho Rho Rho fraternity drop a hint of their trophy women giving them blowjobs. As they sit in stage canoes the girls pop their heads up from in their laps. And the jocks' stage play, as previously mentioned, has a score of 69 (a sexual position) on a score board. The Pi girls still look great in the football uniforms and the dance ends with the Alpha’s lifting their women up like trophies, yet the costume reversal also seems to serve a symbolic purpose. In losing to the nerds their masculine pride is hurt and so they’re stuck in the clothes of cheerleaders (Coach Harris, “I wanna see you and the other girls in the locker room now!”) as if femininity is a thing to be ashamed of. And even when they smash the nerds’ house up they’re still wearing skirts and make up. Only after they have reasserted their physical dominance do the jocks wash up and put their usual outfits back on.
So the jocks persecute nerds and disrespect their cheerleader girlfriends, but what about the nerds attitude to women generally? Well, in the opening scenes they’re quite open about viewing college more as an opportunity to bang women than progress their education. As they carry their trunk they pass a guy kissing a woman on the grass – a reminder of their primary motivation for being at college. Lewis and his father stare at a woman’s arse and even as the lead nerds approach the sorority girls for advice a woman in tight shorts is seen in shot in the background.
After the nerds set up their house, they put up posters of sexualized women all over the place – there’s one on the fridge, again the tight shorts / nice arse motif with the woman’s face not even visible. Above the cooker a girl on a phallic banana is accompanied by the tagline “tuck in” and beneath the Beatles poster next to their stove there’s another picture of a sexually objectified woman. By the front door there’s a picture of a sexy woman in roller skates and over in another corner a picture of a big breasted woman’s torso, again her face not visible, and the words "Stud Hard" (you’ll need to see the HD copy to spot this one). There’s also a deleted scene in which Gilbert’s rich uncle offers a couple of belly dancing women to the boys as sexual play things. Is this all any different to how the jocks view women?
And then there’s the nerds’ tactic for winning the charity fund raising booth competition. This is horrendous; they put pictures of the Pi girls, topless, in pie trays for all paying customers to see. Surely that would get them in trouble with the law – defamation, malicious communications, I don’t know, but I’m pretty sure it would be illegal and would get them disqualified from the games. Sure, some men would buy the pies to see the pictures, but female buyers would undoubtedly be offended and report the nerds. And what about kids? Do the nerds have an adults only policy as to who can buy? It also doesn’t sit right as a revenge motif against the Pi girls because the nerds already got even with them earlier with the camera set up routine. And again, surely the jocks would go absolutely ape over this violation of their girlfriends, but they only kick off after losing the stage show finals. But let’s cut the film makers some slack and just say it’s a funny way of having the nerds beat the jocks and Pi’s at their own sex sells kiss for charity game. Though personally, if I was giving my money I’d much rather get a kiss off a babe than just see a photo of one naked.
In contrast to all the early talk about getting lots of women, Gilbert strikes up a relationship with Judy and the film presents it genuinely and maturely – it’s not funny, but at least they got it in there. Though Booger’s assessment is one of my favourite lines in the film.
Booger “Did you get in her pants?”
Gilbert, “She’s not that kind of girl Booger.”
Booger, “Why does she have a penis?”
That’s more like it. In fact that’s more like something the jocks would say.
And then we have Lewis’s attitude to women and this is where the film really stands on shaky ground. He lusts after Betty for no other reason than her stereotypical cheerleader looks. She is really nasty to him, but he just goes into denial about it. He’s intellectually blinded by her having shown a bit of leg and a pretty smile. After the penny drops and he sees her on the wagon while her boyfriend moons him, Lewis takes revenge by reducing her even more to a sexual object. He becomes a pervy peeping tom. Like the pie for charity stunt, he’s definitely breaking a few laws by hiding in her dorm room to catch her naked and would be charged with harassment. Yet none of the Pi’s call the cops. And even the jocks don’t stand up for them. Surely the nerds’ actions of intruding in their girlfriends’ home lives would be more likely to trigger a violent jock backlash than the nerds winning the carnival competition. Nope, the film washes over all this by letting the nerds get away with treating the cheerleaders even worse than the jocks do.
Before the escalation of battles between the nerds and the Pi’s, Lewis loses his virginity to one of the Omega Mu girls. She seems a much nicer person than Betty, but he doesn’t go out with her because she doesn’t represent the top prize trophy that he perceives Betty to be. One of the cast even mentions in the DVD commentary that he thought the film would be better if Lewis had gone out with the dark haired girl instead. And it’s not like the Mu girl even disappeared from Lewis’s life – in the nerd stageshow at the end, she is one of the three women clapping along to the beat. But Revenge of the Nerds isn’t a movie about breaking down the sexual objectification of women. It’s about the rights of male nerds in their fight against jocks and their fight against rejection by trophy cheerleader women.
And so, despite all she has done to him, Lewis pursues Betty to socially prove that physically unattractive male nerds can get the most attractive women, but also it’s a way of punishing and embarrassing lead jock Stan Gable. Betty is a pawn on a chessboard war of social status between male nerds and male jocks. And the manner in which this occurs defies belief.
Lewis puts on Gable’s Darth Vader mask and pretends to be him. By doing this he tricks Betty into a sexual encounter in which he goes down on her, but she still thinks he’s her boyfriend Stan Gable. Ok, now that’s sexual assault just short of actual rape and Lewis would do prison time if Betty had reported him. Although we can’t see his face as Betty leads him to a private room, his sexual stalker glee is perhaps symbolized by a giant grinning face seen through smoke. Actually I’m not even sure what the rooms are meant to be for. Are they for kids to play in? If so Lewis really should have locked the door. And is he really being honest with his line, “All jocks think about is sports. All we ever think about is sex.” No, he spends a ton of time thinking about computers.
By going down on Betty Lewis is “eating a pie for charity” as the nerds put it. He’s performing a sexual act to show us that nerds are great in bed even when they’re sexually inexperienced as Lewis is. His tongue skill are so good that as soon as Betty realizes its Lewis she instantly forgives him and arranges a date with him. Whaaaaaaaatttt????? And although I do find the scene eh distasteful, I love the camera pan up to a wall graphic of a spying martian who is watching over the proceedings like an audience member.
So on the strength of nothing more than Lewis having gone down on her, Betty instantly makes her mind up to meet Lewis behind Stan’s back and she doesn’t tell Stan about it until after the nerds have won the finale of the games. Was she always planning on dumping Gable or did she only decide to do so because the nerds won the carnival and she wants to be with the dog that runs the pack? Or has she really fallen in love with Lewis in just one day? “I’m in love with a nerd”, she announces. Either way she comes off as an idiot – a trophy for Lewis to show off as he kisses her to the cheers of a crowd in the end scene.
Personally I think the film lets itself down in this respect, but perhaps the contradiction between Gilbert’s respectful attitude to women and Lewis’s let’s out-jock the jocks approach is deliberate. It certainly makes for a more interesting film. I also found it quite interesting that in the DVD commentary neither the director or the cast talk about Lewis’s behaviour toward Betty basically amounting to sexual assault. Either they skirted around the issue or they simply didn’t realize how ridiculous the scenario was.
The female nerd stereotype
While the male nerds of the film are defined by a combination of their physical weakness and their counterbalancing mega-intellects, the female nerds seem to have one defining feature – their physical unattractiveness when compared with the cheerleaders. This is depicted both in their non-athletic physiques and their drab choices in clothes. A few of them also have the glasses and face shapes associated with male nerds.
Both Lewis and Gilbert woo these women by showing off their computer skills, Lewis with his robot and Gilbert with his programming skills. As a nerd we’d expect Judy to have some brains, but she’s as useless with computers as the jocks would be. Do these female nerds have no redeeming intellectual features other than, as Judy puts it, “they’re really spontaneous people”? And note that although she plays accordion, she doesn’t play it in the stage show. And in the film's main marketing poster two cheerleaders, Betty and Suzie lookalikes, are drooling over Gilbert and Lewis. Judy isn't even in the picture.
The jocks let a bunch of pigs loose as an insult to both the male and female nerds. The editing is interesting here. The pigs run out the house followed by the male nerds. In the wide shot we see some of the Omega Mu girls come out last and stand on either side of the guys. The pig insult would be devastating for the girls being that it’s primarily their looks that are being mocked, but in the closer shot that pans across the nerd faces to show how pissed off they are, we only see the males and Judy. It’s as if the emotional insult to the rest of the Omega Mu’s simply doesn’t matter. In fact Booger already made a similar insult to the Mu’s earlier, “They’re a bunch of pigs”. He looks deflated at having to let them in the house, but he’s not exactly a looker himself. This is part of the film’s weird attitude to women – the nerds feel that they should be entitled to go out with women who are way out of their league in terms of physical attractiveness.
And about the peeping tom revenge of placing hidden cameras in the Pi dormitory – it might make the nerds feel better, but if the Mu’s saw this it would add injury to insult. In fact the Mu’s seem unfazed by the nerds' house having lots of pictures of stereotypically attractive cheerleader type women, which is virtually an advertisement that the nerds want a different type of woman to those who show up at their party. Even the name of the nerd girls sorority is an insult to them ... the Omega Mu’s. The letter Omega is a sort of circle with feet, like a fat woman, and the letter Mu is obviously a play on the moo sound that cows make.
As I mentioned earlier, Booger letting the girls in is a skit on a scene of attractive high class prostitutes walking into a house in Risky Business. And given Booger’s change in spirits by the time they’ve all walked in, it suggests he’d merely heard they were pigs or had never taken a good look at them. Perhaps the film makers were dropping some sort of hint that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but even that’s a questionable parallel. The girls are presented as being the equivalent of Risky Business’s attractive women who just happen to be prostitutes – sexual objects. Is this the best the film can do to shout out against the social rejection felt by women who simply aren’t conventionally attractive; to recast these women as sexually desirable objects as if it’s doing them a favour (watch Booger groping their buttocks and Wormser talking to two pairs of breasts), yet still present them with little going on in terms of brains or personality? And these girls are happy to have Takashi run around with a camera taking pervy photos of them? Even Wormser gets in there by telling a pack of lies about why he went to college. We know this isn’t true from his introductory scene.
Elsewhere the film degrades unattractive women in other ways. At the charity kissing booth a fat, older woman gleefully steps forward to be insulted by Gable, “Kiss this nerd”. An Omega Mu girl is seen arm wrestling Ogre and nearly beating him, which is funny being that after Ogre wins he’s too exhausted to give his usual victory cry, but it’s also unrealistic considering the size comparison of their arms. So it’s as if great physical strength is a thing to be admired in males, but looked down upon in females.
One factor that we can give the film makers’ leeway on is that, with the exception of Judy, all of the Mu girls were college extras. None of them were professional actresses so they’re given little in the way of dialogue, however it seems that the script was written in the first place to primarily represent the rights of male nerds, not women lacking in conventional good looks.
Jocks as trophies
Another factor that I find fascinating about all this is that as well as the jocks and nerds of the film treating women like trophy sex objects, the jocks also reduce themselves to trophy objects.
The Alpha Beta party begins with a glorious guitar riff and a shot of all their previous year’s trophies, presumably most of them are football related, and a cap is placed on top of the main trophy, as if the trophy is a person. Several of the trophies also have human sculptures on top of them, which is standard being that when people win sporting events and accept trophies they are made to stand on a pedestal and have their physical achievement, and to an extent their winner identity, immortalized on record. A human being can’t live forever, but a statue of them or a first place entry in a historical record can last thousands of years.
Stan Gable is presented as the cool as a cucumber, slick as ice javelin thrower and that identity of his is also symbolically immortalized in the Greek Council meeting room, where Gable is president. Towering behind the nerds is a typically larger than life statue ... of a Greek javelin thrower. So when the nerds take over are they gonna replace it with a guy hunched over a computer?
Ogre also has a self-trophy obsession. In most of his scenes he carries around his huge trophy cup, and it’s definitely his because it happens to have Ogre written on it, not his actual name as read out by Dean Ulich in the belching contest. And he drinks beer from it as if intoxicated on his own pride, drunk from a life-giving holy grail.
There’s also the catalogue model looks factor, in which people are sort of immortalized in the minds of others or on the pages of magazines for their physical attractiveness. Actor Ted McGinley, who I think does a superb job of playing Stan Gable, was selected for the part after the director saw pictures of him modelling in a magazine. He and Betty celebrate their mutual good looks with kisses for display and by effectively prostituting themselves for kisses in the charity competition. So it’s not just a case of the jocks objectifying women as trophies. They consider themselves as trophies and archetypes of sexuality and masculinity.
A last point I want to add here before we move on is that Director Jeff Kanew mentions in the DVD commentary an old Twilight Zone episode called Eye Of The Beholder, which is very good. It tells the story of a woman, whose face is bandaged up, waiting to see the results of her plastic surgery operation. None of the doctors or nurses faces are shown until after the bandages are removed from her face. It turns out they all have pig ugly faces. She is the beautiful one, but believes she is ugly and that the operation failed. So a super handsome guy comes in and takes her away to live in a society of super-attractive “ugly people”. It is a great episode, however the seemingly unfair manner in which men or women are judged and desired based on perceived physical attractiveness, isn’t entirely a social construct. Large breasts are more attractive to a lot of men probably because it’s a feature associated with greater chances of a woman being able to breast feed, while broad hips might be attractive on account of it meaning the woman’s physique might be more suitable for child rearing. And even the issue of facial features is in part a reflection of general physical health. Some scientists have done research indicating that people with allergies and other breathing problems in their childhood and teens tend to become mouth breathers, which in turn effects how their facial bone structure develops. So facial bone structure might be a general indicator of a genetically good or bad immune system. Naturally, attraction to certain face shapes might be driven by that factor. The same could also be true for eye sight. Squinty eyes might be an indicator of light sensitivity, while the wide eyed look, which is typically more attractive, might indicate good eye sight. In other words beauty isn’t entirely in the eye of the beholder.
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In various ways Revenge of the Nerds engages with the stereotyping of other social groups, usually for humorous effect of course.
Takashi in particular is an exaggerated example of the overly polite, ever obedient and incredibly gullible Japanese tourist stereotype unable to figure anything out and so has to have everything explained to him. He has comics on his bed in the gym and runs around taking photos of everybody like he’s on holiday. The stereotype of oriental people being unable to handle alcohol, which apparently is true for some of them because of a genetic variation, is played on by having Takashi be the contestant in the tricycle beer chugging race. The association of Japanese being good chefs is also played on. “It’s like salad”, he says as liquid heat is poured on the jocks’ underwear. And even the stereotype of Japanese guys being martial artists is brought into the mix (Gable asking Takashi if he knows karate before putting his underwear over his head). Even Ulich makes assumptions about Takashi’s cultural habits by offering a bow gesture. And about that song playing during the tricycle race – isn’t that a Japanese version of the song Daisy, which was sung by the first talking IBM computer and by the HAL 9000 computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey?
Although it isn’t made clear who Booger represents in the film, in the script he was a biker. So his character is an exaggeration of the stereotypical biker traits such as poor hygiene, dirty clothes, disgusting eating habits, cannabis smoking, conman card playing and general gross out manners. He’s also the only nerd who manages to give a decent verbal retort to a jock insult, “I thought I was looking at Mother’s old douche bag, but that’s in Ohio”.
Lamar, with his aerobic exercising, is a typical 1980’s exaggeration of the stereotypical homosexual. I love how he gives his love to both the nerds and the Alpha Betas after his limp wristed winning of the javelin competition. And his phallic pink head balloon in the party scene is pretty much a symbol of him being a dickhead, so to speak. Also Lamar wouldn’t get off on seeing the Pi’s naked, but he goes along with the revenge plan anyway.
Despite the film’s strong undertone of shouting out for the rights of black people, it still engages with certain stereotyped black culture traits such as pot smoking (UN Jefferson’s assistant, “This is some good shit.”) and funk music (the intro of the Tri-Lamb musclemen in the film’s ending). Note that early in the party scene Jefferson’s assistant wants to take a joint, but hesitates because he knows UN will disapprove. The issue of black culture stereotypes and racism is also present in the deleted scenes. The nerds show up at a Tri-Lamb national convention wearing the kinds of African costumes that they assume their black comrades will be wearing. So although the nerds don’t like inaccurate assumptions being made about their own group, they make inaccurate assumptions of their own about another group. And that’s an important point about social and racial group relations in general. Is it really discrimination if somebody from one social group makes mistaken assumptions about another group based on their own lack of personal experience of that group’s lifestyle? Personally I don’t think it does, but a lot of people cry bigotry in such situations as if expecting the whole world to be utterly familiar with their own lifestyle habits.
Moving on, Gilbert’s rich Jewish uncle (there’s another stereotype) turns out to be a racist who uses a Jewish derogatory slang term to insult the Tri-Lambs. So the film is addressing another issue that often gets avoided in discussion of discrimination issues – the fact that discrimination doesn’t just come from majority groups. Sometimes minorities are even more bigoted than majorities. For example in pre-colonial Africa, some indigenous black populations valued lighter skin tones over darker ones as a representation of class, being that the wealthy didn’t have to work in the sun and thus ended up with lighter skin. But back to the movie, the director also mentions minority on minority discrimination in the DVD commentary in relation to the Tri-Lambs initially objecting to having nerds in their organisation. Even Gilbert’s citing of racial tolerance to UN is largely ignored. And when Takashi goes house searching, even a fellow Japanese guy rudely rejects him as being a nerd, presumably his glasses and overly polite manner gave him away. Note that the Japanese house owner fits the stereotype of the older, intolerant, and insensitive Japanese business man. A nice samurai sword prop would have went well as a background detail here. And note the hanging baskets and plants of his Japanese garden house exterior.
When the rest of the nerds are seeking accommodation we get a handful of other stereotyped characters – the huge beer drinking, dirty shirted, deep voiced, cowboy hat wearing red neck with a not so nice looking house exterior, the rude and paranoid East Londoner, and I don’t know what the woman who tries to seduce Wormser is supposed to represent – middle aged, sexually frustrated, over weight divorcees so desperate that they’ll even resort to pedophilia? Uggghhhh. I think they made that one up, as they did with the flasher guy in the campus police office.
One of the most fascinating things I find in the world of anti-discrimination campaigns is the tendency of campaigners to contradict their message by initially talking about how bad a particular group behaves toward another group and then proudly advertising that the victim group is as good at doing the bad stuff as the oppressor group. For example, in the push for equal opportunities for women in top management jobs rarely do I hear of the more generally empathic nature of women being promoted as a useful asset in such roles. Instead high climbing women are encouraged to mould themselves into having the ruthless, autocratic traits of stereotypical male board room bosses. The result could be called patriarchy without a penis.
Revenge of the Nerds is a prime example of this contradiction. The film demonizes jock behaviour and mentality, yet shows the nerds effectively transforming themselves into jocks as if it’s a thing to be proud of. The jocks have a wild drunken party and the nerds go one better by having a drunken and stoned party. In the jock party a song with cock rock lyrics called Are You Ready is played and in the opening of the nerd party there’s a similarly themed song called Are You ready for the Sex Girls. I love the wild vs boring juxtaposition between the scenes too. In another parallel Booger has two women like Ogre does. Like the jocks, the nerds start treating women as sex objects and parading their own sexuality (Poindexter dancing and moving his crotch). They sit up all night drinking beer and doing something we’d expect jocks to do – watching porn, which Wormser is under age for. And look at the changes in their usually rigid body language in the same scene – they’ve become the legs wide open lounge cats that the jocks domestically would be, their nerd clothes are gone and they’re boozing and eating junk food. Wormser and Lamar even have army fatigues on – a sign of masculinity. They disregard the law in their pursuit of fun and get away with it as if they’re untouchable. And Takashi breaks his cultural politeness by swearing during the tricycle race, as did his jock competitor at the start of the race.
Booger’s assessment of the nerds’ injured ego predicament after their ruined party is massively ironic, “I say we blow their fucking houses up”. He wants to become physically violent in response to emotional insult, but the jocks haven’t committed any violence against the nerds and this is well before the jocks effectively blow the nerds’ house up. And the revenge they do take on the jocks is pretty nasty – burning their genitals with liquid heat. That’s worse than violence. It’s torture. All this is in direct contradiction to Gilbert’s moral assessment that they shouldn’t drag themselves down to the jocks’ level. They do drag themselves that far down, effectively becoming the thing they claim to despise.
The film includes assorted plot points designed to maintain the black and white assessment that jocks are evil and privileged and nerds are good and discriminated against, but the idea of actual equality of treatment between the two groups isn’t promoted. This is a film about flipping the coin so that the jocks become the despised and the rejected, while the nerds become top dog over everybody else. That message is stated in its title Revenge of the Nerds, not Rescue of the Nerds or Nerd Rights, or Journey of the Nerds or Equality for Nerds.
The notion of nerds effectively gate crashing and ruining the sports based reality of jocks might even have been intentionally foreshadowed when Gilbert and Lewis cause a collision of people as they carry their trunk (Cycling is a sport, there’s a golf caddy involved in the accident and a box of assorted sports balls is knocked over). And if I’m not mistaken isn’t Takashi wearing a Japanese Airforce pilot’s hat during the sorority raid – making him a Kamikaze pilot? For those of you not aware, the Kamikaze were Japanese pilots who flew their planes into US warships, committing suicide in order to destroy the enemy. The tactic was used by the Japanese military being that their national identity and pride was being severely hurt by the fact that they were losing the war. And yes, the Kamikaze metaphor is definitely there. See the bandana Takashi is still wearing as they watch footage of the cheerleaders? That’s called a Hachimake. The Kamikaze pilots wore them with the same lettering on, which translates as Divine Wind. I just find it really interesting that the film makers put the kamikaze reference in because to me it’s a primary historical example of how human beings can often be so hell bent on hurting a perceived oppressor that they actually forget about the primary thing they were originally fighting for – their own wellbeing. Revenge of the Nerds in many ways fits with this mentality of victims of oppression becoming victims of their own jealousy and envy. A sort of “if we’re going down we’re taking you down with us” philosophy.
Often this schizoid victim turning into an oppressor mindset results in revenge being taken not directly against the actual oppressors, but against the social group whom the victim believes is representative of the oppressor. So early on in Revenge of the Nerds there is dialogue outlining that the nerds were persecuted in high school. So basically the Alpha Betas and the Pis are punished as a symbolic revenge against all previous oppressors of the nerds ... past, present and future.
Despite the depiction of jocks being shamefully driven by a survival of the physically strongest mentality, which can be argued as being an issue of genetic advantage, the film ends up embracing that same mentality. As with almost any physical sport, the Greek Games scenes have an emphasis on brute physical strength – a celebration of genetic advantage which, in the context of the Olympic Games, still today flies in the face of all the equality and fairness rhetoric spouted by politicians in western nations. And Gilbert is only really given his chance to announce that nerds are the world biggest victims because the beefy Tri-Lamb’s show up and physically intimidate the jocks, which perhaps also promotes a stereotype of black guys being really physically tough.
The nerds compensate for their physical disadvantage in the Greek Games by using their intellect. In some instances they use their creativity within the rules of the games, but they also cheat in other games such as the tricycle race. However, intellect itself can also be argued to have a genetic advantage element and so if the games had consisted of a series of tests of math and computer skills would it really be any more fair? A high intellect certainly doesn’t guarantee that a person is going to act more fairly in a position of authority. Such a contest for control of the Greek Council presidency would be much better being assessed by a series of interviews with the candidates and assessment of their credentials and history of reliability and moral integrity.
Another form of victim oppressor reversal in the film’s ending is the concept of mob rule. Lewis says, “We have news for the beautiful people. There’s a lot more of us than there are of you.” Throughout Revenge of the Nerds society is depicted largely as being jocks and jock sympathizers. The nerds are a cast as a victim minority fighting an oppressor majority. And so they win their final battle against the jocks by announcing themselves to the football fan crowd as victims to be sympathized with. In a fantasy gesture, the entire crowd are quickly converted from jock sympathizers to nerd sympathizers. It’s all very staged. Most people would just walk away from a situation like this and not take sides. Some would even shout the nerds away for ruining the event they came to see, but the nerds are cheered as if they’ve just won a football game. And the “nerd nerd nerd” chant of the jocks, which basically symbolizes the condensed onslaught of insults felt by nerds over a lifetime, is reversed.
Lewis also uses an important phrase, the “beautiful people”. Some of you may recall that phrase being the title of one of Marilyn Manson’s most popular songs. It was a phrase famously used to refer to the mega rich jetsets of the 1950’s, extremely wealthy people who travelled the world to take part in high society parties. And it’s heard in the lyrics to the theme song in the title sequence of Revenge of the Nerds, “Beautiful people, haven’t you heard? ... The jokes on you, it’s revenge of the nerds ...”. Is the phrase used in the film with some sort of class war association? Could be.
So now the nerds have majority opinion on their side and control of the decision making processes of the Greek Council. The ending song We are the Champions punctuates the nerds proud acquisition of that which they envied the jocks for having – power and privilege. And like the jocks their control of the Greek Council will undoubtedly include a certain amount of bias in their own favour and an ongoing counter-oppression of the jocks, driven by the underlying residue of animosity regarding their own history of victimhood. The original marketing posters for the film make this absolutely clear. The nerds are seen as top dogs with trophy babes literally trampling on the evil jocks. So the film isn’t so much about freeing nerds from persecution as it is about subjecting jocks to persecution.
Essentially the Greek Council is a revolving door of power, which allows the reigning champions of the day to have their moment of special privilege and the right to discriminate against lower groups as they see fit. As a fellow nerd, Dean Ulich will have his own special bias toward Gilbert being Greek Council president.
I noticed while studying the film for this review that above Dean Ulich in the council room is a letter G in a lit circle. For those of you not familiar with Freemasonry, the letter G represents the over-seeing eye of the Great Architect or God. In the DVD commentary the director reveals that the Greek Council scenes were actually shot in a real Masonic lodge and that the ancient usher guy who sees the nerds into the room was a real mason who was happy to be an extra. Now don’t worry I’m not going off on a big conspiratorial rant saying the movie is promoting the Illuminati or anything like that. College fraternities and Freemasonic lodges have a lot in common – Greek symbols, ritualized initiations and so on. So it makes perfect sense that the council in Revenge of the Nerds was shot in a Masonic hall. The director also reveals that the tables in the room are deliberately shaped to form a letter A for Alpha Beta. As I’ve said, the Alpha Betas are essentially alpha males, but the A design was probably also chosen for its visual depiction of a power hierarchy. The various members of the council line the sides with Stan Gable placed at the power apex and Dean Ulich as the behind the scenes higher power behind him. Nobodies who are brought before the council are made to kneel, a classic sign of subordination, below the cross bar of this giant letter A; a barrier blocking them from the upper echelons of this power structure. And there are other references throughout the film regarding pyramid power hierarchies. When we see the Alpha Betas' trophies, the main one tapers upward like a triangle and the baseball cap that hangs on it features the letter A in red, like the council table. Incidentally, the use of the colour red by the Alpha Betas is appropriate, given their nature. Red is a colour associated with physical aggression and sexual vitality. Incidentally, the campus police have a red letter A on their badges for campus A.
Carrying on with these themes of power hierarchy structures, the Tri-Lambs also have their own logo variation on the letter A. The Greek letter Lambda is basically an A without the cross bar and they use that letter three times in their logo, as in the points of a triangle. And so the Tri-Lamb plague seen behind UN Jefferson shows a sort of hierarchy of hierarchies. And the Pi’s have the letter Delta, another triangular symbol, in the middle of their fraternity name. There are only three letters out of the twenty-four letter Greek alphabet that have triangle shaped symbols – Alpha, Delta and Lambda, and all three of those letters are used to symbolize the main college clubs in Revenge of the Nerds.
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THEY'RE RUINING OUR IMAGE
Although it may seem that with this analysis I’m being harshly critical of Revenge of the Nerds and its makers, I do actually hold the film in very high esteem on the whole. The discrepancies and contradictions in the film’s morality I perceive to be more endemic of the often self-defeating nature of equal rights discourse in general. More often than not I find that even people who outwardly talk and campaign on equal rights say and do bigoted things themselves on a regular basis without consciously realizing it. And yes I include myself in that equation too.
With the production of Revenge of the Nerds judgment and discrimination against certain social groups manifested in many ways both in the film and in the attitudes of the cast and crew. In a deleted scene in which the nerds show up unexpectedly at a Tri-Lamb national convention, UN Jefferson tells his underling, “Get rid of these nerds. They’re ruining our image.”
The actors have talked about how they initially were ashamed to be cast as nerds and that many of them took their roles purely for the money without realizing it would become a career high for them. And one story from the DVD commentary that cracked me up is that the extra who plays Lamar’s date was an electrician on the production who wanted to make an appearance in the film. He was given his costume without being told he would be playing the gay boyfriend and then told to dance with Larry B Scott. He wasn’t happy and the crew taunted him to no end while shooting the scene. The actors playing the jocks were also apparently unhappy about having to dress as cheerleaders in one scene.
So the attitude from the cast was akin to UN Jefferson being too proud to let loose and enjoy the nerd party and being uncomfortable with having two gay guys dance in front of him or even with Ogre being ashamed to have his real name announced to a crowd (belching contest scene).
Larry B. Scott, who played Lamar, was a very physically fit actor – watch how he climbs a rope only using his hands when placing cameras on the sorority girls' roof. Among his other roles he played an explosives and tech expert in the ultra violent Walter Hill movie Extreme Prejudice and he was a martial arts contestant in the Karate Kid. Nevertheless Scott talks in the Nerds DVD commentary about having to compensate with masculine behaviour in real life to offset the stigma of being renowned for playing Lamar. That’s a real shame because he was a good actor and it shows just how well he played the part of Lamar.
Timothy Busfield was luckier. Although he played ultra-nerd Poindexter his milk bottle goggles and wild hair essentially disguised his much more normal looking real face and so he didn’t end up being typecast by the role.
It’s also interesting that although the costumes of the nerds are designed to exaggerate certain visual traits of nerdness, most of the actors playing nerds don’t physically fit the nerd stereotype. Anthony Edward for example is a fairly normal looking guy. He played an Airforce pilot alongside Tom Cruise in the movie Top Gun and has gone on to a successful career without carrying nerd associations with him. Perhaps it’s no surprise that he isn’t interviewed in the Revenge of the Nerds special edition DVD extras. Although his acting is very good in Revenge of the Nerds, the role seems to be a sort of tossed aside moment in his filmography. The same goes for John Goodman who is excellent as Coach Harris.
Robert Carradine is made to look very nerd-like, but when you look at his filmography he often played much more masculine roles. He was an outlaw in The Long Riders (alongside Larry B Scott's role in Extreme Prejudice, this is another Walter Hill film) alongside his real life brothers David and Keith Carradine, and he played a wise cracking soldier in the excellent war film The Big Red One.
According to cast interviews, both the jock and nerd cast did pretty well for themselves with the real student girls at the University where most of the film was shot, except Larry B Scott who was just assumed by all the women to really be gay.
This factor of casting fairly normal looking people in the lead nerd roles, while having more physically suitable types in the non-speaking nerd roles, is most likely down to the basic factor of the producers and film makers not wanting their nerds to be too ugly in case the audience lost sympathy with them. And that’s quite an irony considering the film’s apparent pro-nerd message.
A similar thing occurs with the casting of the Omega Mu’s. These girls are supposed to be, as Booger puts it, “a bunch of pigs”. While one or two of them do actually look quite nerdy with their glasses and one or two of them are a fair bit over weight, some of them aren’t that bad looking. The first two who walk into the nerd house are more voluptuous than fat, in fact I think they’ve both got much better racks than bag of bones Betty. And the one who Lewis gets it on with isn’t that bad looking either. She’s not a stunner, but certainly not ugly either. And then we have Judy, who is certainly made to look bland and nerdy with her giant glass, bad hair, spots and excessive clothes, but in public photos the actress who played her (Michelle Meyrink) is seen out on the town in with Tom Cruise and Rob Lowe. She wasn’t bad looking at all. So the film makers didn’t want the nerds or the Mu’s to be too unattractive. And even Gilbert’s mother is a decent looking older woman.
I’ll just round off this chapter with the final irony of “they’re ruining our image” attitude in relation to the film. Apparently the Fox executive responsible for marketing Revenge of the Nerds described the film as “a piece of shit” and stupidly gave it a small release to just four hundred initial theatres. When the other executives realized audiences were queuing up to the see the movie, they fired the incompetent executive and rushed to get new prints out as fast as possible to try and capture some of the profits that were being lost by the small release. Because of this marketing error the film only began to achieve its cult status through Cable TV showings further down the line. So I can’t help wondering, was the incompetent executive really stupid enough to watch Revenge of the Nerds and not realize it was a great comedy with the potential to be a mega-hit? Was he really that lacking in a sense of hunour? Or was he blinded by the feeling that a movie about nerds wouldn’t do much for Fox’s image?
THE DISCRIMINATION CYCLE
Revenge of the Nerds raises many fascinating issues about the nature of discrimination. It’s a strong example of both counter-discrimination, aka reverse-discrimination, (in this case the punishment of jocks) and what I’ll call secondary discrimination (for example, the film makers being so pre-occupied with the plight of the male nerd social group that their depiction of women wasn’t considered important). A line from Gilbert in the final scene exemplifies the tunnel vision mentality of being too fixated on the perceived victimhood of just one social grouping, “No one’s really gonna be free until nerd persecution ends” - as if resolving this one issue will fix the world. Talk about overstatement.
Director Jeff Kanew acknowledges at many points in the DVD commentary and nostalgia documentary that he personally had bad experiences at college that effected his direction of the movie. He talks about having been initially an outcast on campus, being rejected by girls he asked out, not dancing when he went to parties, and even about being tarred and feathered in a fraternal initiation, which he says people went along with on the basis that in the next year they’d be the ones doing it to someone else. So I’d say there was probably an element of anger and personal bias affecting some of his creative choices in making Revenge of the Nerds.
A great example of how cycles of discrimination and counter-discrimination transform over time, is that the social stigma of being a nerd has completely changed. Today we are pretty much all nerds in the respect that we regularly use computers in our professional and personal lives, video games are now mega-popular (actually they were in the 1980’s too but even more so now) and most of us carry our internet connected mobile phones about with us 24 / 7 just as Lewis and Gilbert carry their calculators everywhere, and some people even compare gadgets for social status like they would with clothes. Today, people who aren’t good with computing devices are often at a disadvantage socially and professionally and can be looked down on as being stuck in the past. Haven’t got an account on NerdBook, I mean FaceBook? Then you could be missing out on the latest boring gossip or even not get invited to certain social events that have been arranged using the site. And computer programmers are often very well paid today, being that businesses rely heavily on the software they create.
Today we find that on screen heroes and villains are usually both physically tough and very computer literate. It’s now common to see characters like James Bond, Jason Bourne or Dexter Morgan doing a Gilbert Lowell style display of tech-prowess. Back in the 80’s action stars like Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzennegger, Steven Segal and Jean Claude Van Damme mostly just played muscle-bound dunces more likely to smash up a computer than sit and type a few words. Although those characters may seem stupid now, give it another twenty or thirty years and we might have a counter-revolution in social attitudes where spending time offline and doing intense physical things becomes hip and cool, while the Facebook addicts are seen as wet blanket losers. Hints of this have already been going on in anti-digital revolution movies like The Matrix and Surrogates, and possibly even in the popularity of things like the Lord of the Rings series, which present us with a fantasy world absent of digital technology.
Revenge of the Nerds features another assumption which, in contrast with these cyclic trends, hasn’t changed much. It overestimates the capabilities of computers and computer programmers. Lewis and Gilbert’s robot makes breakfast and brings it to the table, helps dust down and paint the house and it waters the lawn. The Robotrone logo seen on the robot seems to be a made up company or product name. Well, at least I’ve been unable to find any evidence of such a company having existed. This assumption that computer nerds, with their apparently boundless mega-intellects, will soon deliver general purpose robot slaves with the basic full range of human perceptual versatility has been going on for almost a century and we’re still nowhere near achieving it. Yet the poster that Lewis puts up in their first dormitory room shows a computer and the naive phrase, “The sky’s the limit”. If you want to know more about the subject of over-optimistic assumptions about future robots then check out my video Androids & AI: A Modern Myth.
Despite the perceived muscle man vs. nerd social stereotypes in the 1980’s, intellectuals often did have an advantage over muscle-heads at that time, just as they still do now. And so in Revenge of the Nerds, we occasionally see teachers walking about who physically have the standard appearance of a nerd. They are the ones with prestige and well-paying jobs, not the jocks. The pressure to succeed by being a nerd, rather than a jock, is even present in the character of Wormser. His dad is a nerd and both his parents consider his academic development more important than his social development.
Lewis’s father, despite being presented as a nerd, is clearly a happy and confident man and a really nice guy too. Presumably he got the usual nerd treatment when he was young, but succeeded in life anyway. So there’s an ironic element of truth in Stan Gable’s joke about seeing the nerds in twenty years, implying it will take them that long to find a national fraternity that will sponsor them. Yeah, see you in twenty years when you’re too old to play football and the nerds have got the top jobs. He even cracks the “twenty years” joke as he sits beneath the higher authority of classic nerd Dean Ulich, who laughs when the jocks are embarrassed in the Greek Games tug of war scene and, on his own authority, later decides to kick the jocks out of their dormitory so that the nerds can move back in. He even advises that the jocks should rebuild the dormitory they tore down, as if they had the construction knowledge and skills to do so. And Ulich finishes with the line, “You’re jocks, go live in the gym”. That’s a nice one-liner, but would he ever tell the nerds to go live in the computer class?
Another social issue that is almost entirely ignored in the film is the financial class system. Higher education is often a privilege of the middle and upper classes. These guys might be nerds, but they come from decent backgrounds, good homes, good parents, and no poverty. Gilbert and his mother live alone in a large house; lots of space, big driveway ... classic well to do suburbia. Plenty of poor people would gladly trade places and become a nerd.
The film’s supposition that nerds are treated like lepers is also contradicted by the fact that computerized synth music became culturally dominant in the 1980’s – bands like Depeche Mode, Human League, Tears For Fears, The Pet Shop Boys and so on. The film gives a nod to such musical associations by having synth music for scenes involving nerds and rock music associated with the Alpha Betas, but nerds with keyboards were already giving guitar bands a serious run for their money when the film was being made. Even rock bands were bringing synth into their sound to keep up with the times. And although the synth-filtered transformation of Poindexter’s cat screech violin skills into something listenable seems over the top, today it’s commonplace to use musical software to smooth out vocals and make otherwise mundane bits of instrumentation sounds better.
Another contradictory facet of received wisdom on the topic of discrimination is that while most social groupings might object to negative judgments from outsiders, they tend to embrace positive judgments. Gilbert tells the football fan crowd, “Those bastards, they trashed our house. Why? Because we’re smart? Because we look different? Well, we’re not”, yet the nerds have just spent an entire day of Greek Game events convincing everyone that they are smarter and more creative than all the other contestants. They don’t mind being seen as different when it’s to their advantage, but call them a name and suddenly they are oppressed.
Name-calling is today taken far too seriously both socially and by the authorities, as it is during Lewis’s portion of the end speech to the football crowd. Horrific acts of violent discrimination, such as the lynching and appalling torture and murder of seventeen year old black teenager Jesse Washington in Waco 1916 or the more recent occurrence here in Britain of a fifteen year old boy who was kidnapped and murdered just for being white, simply do not compare at all to the comparatively mild emotional offence taken in response to a verbal insult. Offense is in the eye of the beholder and so you can taunt half a dozen people of a certain social group with the same nickname and their emotional responses will vary. Violence on the other hand is in the hand of the perpetrator and so is a much more important issue. Yet today there’s a widespread obsessive assumption among proponents of political correctness that if we can just get people to stop saying the h-word, the f-word, the n-word, the other n-word, this word or that word then our mission to annihilate all forms of discrimination will have been achieved. There are plenty of documented examples in modern society in which people who have been subjected to an incident of mild verbal insult massively over-react with violence, as if they believe they are justified in doing so. The intense scale of response to mere verbal insult masks over other, much more serious, types of discrimination that are falling under the radar.
There is a key grain of truth in Lewis’s appeal to the crowd that they have probably been called names before. Society isn’t split into people who get verbally insulted and people who don’t. Verbal insult is experienced by everybody, but today the political correctness brigade, as opposed to moral correctness, have taken it on themselves to promote a sort of sliding scale hierarchy of which verbal insults they consider acceptable and unacceptable. So it’s ok to call someone “stupid” or an “idiot” even though they might have a low IQ due to genetic disadvantage. At the same time calling someone a “gook”, “honky”, or “faggot” is bad, bad, bad, but not bad enough to substitute the phrase “f-word” when discussing “faggot” as a feature of homophobic language, yet the word “nigger” apparently is so bad that we’re expected to use the phrase “n-word” as if the real word has been legally banned all together. Yet it’s ok that we have the word “nigger” written properly in dictionaries or have the alternatively spelt “nigga” used in rap music or by black people in reference to each other. Or maybe I’m wrong and all these words should be banned. Then we could call the film Revenge of the N-word. Ooops, that wouldn’t work – the phrase “N-word” is already taken.
The much more serious types of discrimination and oppression involving behaviours such as theft, physical threats and actual violence are still widespread in western society today, but as adults we don’t see them so much because they go on in the lives of children. I used to work in mental health and social care and saw time and time again how easy it is for children to be subjected to years of physical or emotional torment in ways that would very rarely happen to an adult. It also amazed me how often the messed up emotional lives of adults can be traced back to school bullying. For so many children the school playground is a sort of concentration camp of potential violence and the walk or bus ride home from school can be even more dangerous. Yet, in our modern, apparently “progressive”, society the issue of violent school bullying, which often leads to emotional problems or even retaliatory violence in adult life, is given very little attention in comparison to verbal insults in the work place among adults, which sometimes result in people being compensated thousands of pounds just for having been called a name.
Of course college and university are transitional grounds between childhood schools and adult life, so the context is suitable for Revenge of the Nerds because it allows for the use of older actors.
Again this chapter may seem like an attack on Revenge of the Nerds and its makers, but it isn’t. I believe both counter discrimination and secondary discrimination are inevitable in most human communication. In many ways Revenge of the Nerds was just going along with the largely accepted social stereotypes of its time and, after all, the producers were expecting a finished film along the lines of Porky’s and Animal House, so the film makers sort of had their hands tied with regard to how they portrayed women. Now that thirty years have passed since its release, changes in social attitudes make it easier to notice the intellectual contradictions. For example the idea that getting stoned fills people with party energy and makes them outgoing is nonsense, yet lots of 80’s teen movies promoted that assumption (Emilio Estevez’ stoned gymnastics in The Breakfast Club are a classic example). In Revenge of the Nerds Poindexter has a toke of a joint and, for the first time in the movie, smiles and laughs, yet Takashi’s first smoke knocks him out and, although it’s exaggerated, is probably more realistic. And the idea that first time smokers of cannabis could get totally stoned and mix it with booze (the nerd party) without just ending up being sick is nonsense.
Given all these contradictions we could assume that 80’s film makers were stupid, but today’s movies and TV shows have just as many intellectual and ideological deficiencies. Give it a few decades and people will be shaking their heads in disbelief again.
I’ll also add that discrimination comes in both positive and negative forms. People aren’t happy when they apply for a job they want and don’t get it because they’ve been discriminated against in favour of an applicant who has demonstrated themselves more capable of doing that job, but it doesn’t mean they’re being oppressed. The same goes for being rejected by someone we’re attracted to. The person we desire might be discriminating against us in favour of someone else who they consider better looking, more physically fit, a better conversationalist, more financially secure or just a nicer person. That’s life. Even choosing to shop at one store as opposed to another is a form of discrimination on behalf of the shopper. Discrimination is an inherent feature of human thought and behaviour and so, billions of us will watch and support our own country’s athletes in the Olympic Games, even though competitive sports involves the discriminatory organising of contestants into hierarchies of often genetically aided superiority and inferiority.
And when it comes to movies, audiences have a generalized preference for simplistically organised stories involving good people getting what they want and evil people being punished. Revenge of the Nerds, like most other movies, meets that psychological demand. And like most equal rights campaigns, the film falls into the revolving door social cycle of discrimination, counter-discrimination and secondary discrimination, in which different groups take their turn being cast as victim and oppressor.
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THE COMEDY TACTIC
Despite its logical and moralistic contradictions, Revenge of the Nerds in many ways deals with the issue of discrimination in very intelligent and effective ways. Movies like Mississipi Burning, Ghandi, Malcolm X or Schindler’s List might appear to be very effective on the surface, but they suffer from a limitation common to many social campaigns for change. They preach to the converted. A Nazi-sympathizer probably wouldn’t watch Schindler’s List and a white supremacist probably won’t watch Mississipi Burning. And even if they do they will probably consider those movies biased and therefore irrelevant. The outcome is that their belief systems are barely affected.
However Revenge of the Nerds does something that might initially seem unethical, but I believe is much more effective. It embraces the nerd persecution mentality with humour. The film openly encourages us to laugh at stereotypical nerds as if we are the equivalent of jocks and it does it incredibly well. I’ve watched Revenge of the Nerds with lots of people from family and friends to work colleagues on night shifts and again and again have seen people laughing aloud at the mere sight of the nerds, especially Poindexter. We could even argue that the film promotes nerd humiliation. Here in the UK “nerd” wasn’t such a common word and I’ve no doubt Revenge of the Nerds helped inject it into British nomenclature, but I think the notion that by popularizing the word the movie promotes persecution of nerds is a eh, short sighted assessment. By exaggerating the stereotypical nerd traits to huge proportions the film has a reverse psychology effect of making real life nerds seem comparatively normal and acceptable.
Laughter also has a cathartic and relaxing effect on the audience, both physically and psychologically. So after nearly ninety minutes of laughing at nerds, the film takes a short break and asks us to reflect a little on what it feels like to be laughed at and perhaps even bullied and persecuted. Being that we’ve had our fill of laughter, we’re much more receptive to the morality message. This is more effective than a film that simply preaches to the already converted from beginning to end. The humorous framing also insures a wide and receptive audience, which no doubt includes the very people who need to hear its message about not taking the humiliation of nerds too far.
Another simple, but clever, feature is that while many anti-discrimination campaigns try to persuade the world not to use certain offensive words, which inevitably fails and ironically gives those words greater negative power, Revenge of the Nerds takes a supposedly derogatory word and transforms its meaning. “I’m a nerd and I’m pretty proud of it,” Gilbert says as he embraces his label and converts it into something positive, which is actually very easy to do being that words are just sound sequences. They only have whatever power of meaning we choose to give them. And while there will no doubt be some among you who disagree with that assessment, history supports my contention. As I’ve already outlined in chapter twelve of this analysis, today “nerd” is hardly considered derogatory at all – its meaning has changed to the point of it almost being a cool label. There was even a recent magazine that proudly called itself Geek. This is the way to handle the issue of derogatory name calling. And, yes it’s even possible that the dreaded “n-word” could also be transformed in such a way. And one of the few film makers who has dared to take on that challenge is Quentin Tarantino. In Pulp Fiction the word “nigger” is used humorously many times, “Do you see a sign on my garage that says dead nigger storage?” (I and hundreds of people laughed aloud at that line when I saw the movie for the first time in a movie theatre), but slipped into the mix is an instance of the character Marcellus Wallace, a black man, referring to his white friend, Vincent Vega, as “My Nigga”. That’s a very similar motif to Lewis’s invitation for everybody to join the nerds and shout their label with a new positive outlook. Once a word has been invented and come into popular usage it cannot be removed, not even by legal coercion, but the meaning can always be transformed.
I’d now like to finish off by listing a selection of details that popped up during the writing of this analysis, but never made it into the previous chapters.
- I was eleven years old when I saw Revenge of the Nerds at a movie theatre in Canada. It had a PG rating, yet I was watching a movie that showed tits, ass, bush and a twelve year old drinking, doing drugs and watching naked women on tv. Not that I’m a big believer in censorship, but it is an interesting contrast with what is considered acceptable in movies and TV today.
- In two scenes a book prop is seen that has the Adams Atoms logo on its front cover, but on the spine there is a title that is only partially readable. It says “Major Social ...” (followed by a word that isn’t visible).The book is seen next to Judy in computer class and on the breakfast table in the nerd house. I suspect the title was intended to communicate something thematically.
- The shared mindset of Lewis and Gilbert after their shower argument about Betty has them mirroring each other both in shot composition and physical movements.
- Stan Gable makes an easy to miss female genitalia joke in relation to the nerds selling pictures of their naked girlfriends, “There’s something fishy about these pies.”
- Coach Harris makes a couple of genitalia innuendos while the jocks crotches are burning with liquid heat, “We can’t sit back on our Laurels. ... We take league, we get a ball bid!”
- Lewis’s comment to Gilbert, while carrying their trunk onto campus, that college is “a whole new ball game” is true in that their persecution will soon escalate and the oppressors will be football players.
- Much to my amusement, when the nerds and the Mu’s are sat opposite each other in their party and everyone is looking miserable, Takashi has a smirk on his face and is tapping his fingers together in anticipation.
- As is mentioned in the DVD commentary, it’s silly that Lewis and Gilbert are both sat in the front seat with their Dad on the way to college.
- Booger’s name Dudley Dawson was apparently chosen as an insult to a head teacher at the University of Arizona who had been frequently complaining about the presence of the Revenge of the Nerds’crew on campus.
- The film makers lied to Tim Busfield that they would dub good music over his violin playing. The result is that Poindexter looks deadly series as he plays music no one would want to hear. Jeff Kanew also privately told a nerd girl to jump on Poindexter and grab his crotch, but didn’t tell the actor.
- When Lewis and Gilbert are travelling to college their trunk is placed on top of the car, but the boot is virtually empty. They could easily have packed their belongings in suitcases or possibly even the trunk itself.
- I never noticed this until recently, but when the jocks moon the nerds they have their names written on their buttocks.
- Poindexter was apparently kept out of the scene in which the nerds pour liquid heat on the Alpha Betas’ jocks. The logic being that Poindexter, with his bad eye sight, “can’t do stealth”.
- According to the actors’ commentary, the robot water sprinkling was a subtle joke of it pissing on the lawn.
- In some scenes the crew had to be very careful with the positioning of Poindexter’s head to prevent his glasses reflecting all the lighting and filming equipment.
- In a deleted scene of Gilbert and Judy becoming more romantically involved the scene has an unusual visual touch of sunlight shimmering on water that is being sprayed on a lawn in the backdrop, giving the scene a romantic visual look. It’s a nice aesthetic touch.
- When the nerds run out to see the Pi’s singing on their lawn, an alternate take was filmed in which they ran out of the house in their underwear.
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