If Revenge of the Nerds is on TV, I often watch it. Not the whole thing, but a little section, here and there. It was a movie that I loved as a kid. But it was crap back then (despite some decent performances, including John Goodman as the mean coach), and it’s aged badly.
Revenge of the Nerds is vilely sexist; forget that none of the female nerds get much screen time or personality. The hero nerds are peeping toms who distribute nude photos of the cheerleaders to the general public without consent. One of the protagonists rapes a cheerleader by disguising himself as her boyfriend (the movie makes it clear that she never would have consented to kiss him, let alone fuck him, had she known his real identity).1
The one black nerd isn’t depicted in a racist fashion; instead, they made him gay so he could be depicted in a homophobic fashion.2 The one Asian nerd is nothing but a pile of racist anti-Asian cliches.
So, anyway. Vile movie. It got to me anyway, when I was a kid, because its message — that degrading treatment of nerds is wrong, does matter, and that bullies should be punished — was a message I wanted to hear.
On to Hairspray. The new version, not the John Waters version. Fun movie, good music, good performances. Much better than Revenge of the Nerds.
I saw it with my sister and niece and nephew. I liked it. It’s message, which is that degrading treatment of fat people is wrong and does matter, and that racist anti-fat snobs should be punished — is one I approve of. Picky person that I am, I still had complaints. There were plenty of cruel anti-fat jokes for the audience to enjoy; virtually all of these jokes were aimed at a fat character played by John Travolta wearing a fat suit.3
And then there was the peculiar strategy employed in both movies. Both movies focused on a discriminated-against group — nerds in one case, fat people in another — whose complaints about discrimination are not usually seen as legitimate or important. So how did the screenwriters decide to make these causes seem legitimate? By having nerd rights and fat rights (respectively) piggyback onto black civil rights.
In Revenge of the Nerds, the nerds join a (previously) all-black national fraternity; the head of the fraternity organization becomes sympathetic to the nerds when he witnesses anti-nerd discrimination (the jocks drive pigs through the nerd’s house). The subtext is that Black people are our experts on discrimination, so if a Black character recognizes something as discrimination — even if the incident has nothing to do with race — the presumably mostly White audience should accept that it’s discrimination, too. (In the end, the nerds defeat John Goodman and the jocks because the nerds’ Scary Black Frat Friends come and physically protect the nerds, intimidating the white jocks.)
In Hairspray, which is set in the 60s, the main character learns to fight for fat rights by joining the fight for civil rights for Blacks4. The idea is that the fight for racial equality is, inherently, a fight for the dignity of all people, including fat people. This is much more agreeable than how Revenge of the Nerds uses Black people, but I still find it interesting that both movies try to validate the idea that the rights of nerds/fat people matter by using the “see! Black characters agree!” strategy. It’s a symptom, I think, of how The Struggle For Black Civil Rights is the iconic struggle for rights in US culture, and so everything must be analogized to racial discrimination in order to be understood as discrimination at all, at least in pop culture.
It’s unfortunate, I think, both because it puts an unfair burden on Black history to have it be treated as the Iconic Form Of Civil Rights Struggles, and because it tends to make it hard to conceptualize the struggles of other oppressed groups where they don’t resemble the struggles of American Blacks.
- The movie tries to make this okay by having the cheerleader fall in love with her rapist once he unmasks himself, because he was that great at sex. No, really, that’s what’s in the movie. I’m not making this up. [↩]
- It’s possible to do a flaming gay male character and still do the character intelligently and with respect in a comedy. But that ain’t what happened in Revenge of the Nerds. [↩]
- I call this strategy “The Absent Fatso“; having a fake fatso, who the audiences know isn’t really fat, lets the audience and producers enjoy cruel jokes without having to confront the cruelty. [↩]
- Which reminds me a bit of how many of the second-wave feminists learned to be activists in the 1960s civil rights movement before becoming feminists. [↩]