Revenge of the Nerds, Hairspray, And Using Black People To Legitimize Causes

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

revengeofthenerds.jpgAnd 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.)

hairspray.jpgIn 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.

  1. 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. []
  2. 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. []
  3. 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. []
  4. 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. []
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25 Responses to Revenge of the Nerds, Hairspray, And Using Black People To Legitimize Causes

  1. 1
    Decnavda says:

    Kudos all around for this post. I felt exactly the same way about Revenge of the Nerds the first time I saw as young straight white nerd myself, and later began to realize some of the sexism in the film. (Originally I noticed this at the sort shrift the female nerds got in the film, because of my personal sympathies for female nerds.) I haven’t thought about the film in looooooong time, but now, yeah, everything you point out is entirely correct.

    As for Hairspray, I saw and loved the original, but haven’t had a chance to see the new musical version yet. Just about everything you said applies to the original as well, though. The main, relevant difference beng that Travolta’s charcter was originally portrayed by an actual fat drag queen. And I believe there was also the same combination of (anti-)fat jokes and big message about fat acceptance. Does this change your “Absent Fasto” critique? Orignallythere was a real Fatso. Does that mean the character should always be played by an actual fat person? Is it just as bad, or worse, in a different way, when the character is played by a real fat person? Is it okay for thin actors to portray fat characters, or are fat suits as inheriently problamatic as blackface?

    I don’t have a problem with fatsuits myself, altough if the movie does not require the same character to be both fat and thin at different times, I have to wonder if there really is such a shortage of talented fat actors that using a fat suit is the simplist solution. Perhaps all of the fat actors are just too busy playing all of the many other fat characters on movies and television?

  2. 2
    Ampersand says:

    Thanks for your response. :-)

    And I believe there was also the same combination of (anti-)fat jokes and big message about fat acceptance. Does this change your “Absent Fasto” critique?

    It doesn’t change my “absent fatso” critique of the 2007 film, but maybe it means the same critique couldn’t be applied to the original film.

    I haven’t seen the original Hairspray, but I’ve seen other Waters films, and my guess is that in Waters’ version the audience was meant to feel a bit uncomfortable, or at least to feel that the film was being crude. So using an actual fat actor fit in with Waters’ general crude, make-the-audience-a-bit-uncomfortable aesthetic. The 2007 Hairspray is, I’m pretty sure, a much more mainstream creature.

    In theory, I don’t have anything against fat suits used in a respectful, intelligent fashion, in roles where the same actor has to portray a character as both fat and thin.

    I do think that fat actors often end up being less seasoned and used as leads because of the prejudice against casting fat actors; so it’s true that there’s a shortage of fat actors who are also experienced stars, but that is a fact created and sustained by anti-fat prejudice, in my opinion.

  3. 3
    jfpbookworm says:

    Revenge of the Nerds is one of those movies that suffers from the “Yunioshi Effect”: things that seemed perfectly unremarkable to much of the audience at the time render the movie unwatchable now. (Other examples that come to mind include Sixteen Candles and, of course, Breakfast at Tiffany’s.)

    Haven’t seen either version of Hairspray.

  4. 4
    Silenced is foo. says:

    My memory is a little rusty, but I have been thinking about this movie, since it does come up often as an internet joke (oddly enough, a lot of internet nerds have seen this movie. Shocking, I know).

    Idunno, even when I was a kid and it was current, Revenge of the Nerds did seem to mentally cross some lines…. but yes, a lot of it, particularly the racism and gay things, were just a product of it’s time.

    Oddly, the scene that, in hindsight, was obviously rape didn’t phase me… mostly because she _enjoyed_ it. That’s probably how the writers justified it to themselves, too. It was more the business with the panty-raid that bugged me. And the fact that they kind of forgot about the “Omega Mu” thing – they just disappeared from view. The fat sorority just vanished.

    I think the reason that female nerds were underrepresented was simply because female nerds were practically unheard-of in pop-culture. Revenge of the Nerds was about turning frat-movies on their heads… and nerds may be exploited or annoying in frat movies, but never female.

    I think the big thing about the movie was that it was a “Revenge” film. And the hot-chick-sorority (whose name I forget) was included in that revenge. So the “nudie pictures in the pie plates” thing was part of that. That scene made a helluvalot more sense to me than the panty-raid. Sure, it was a nasty and sexualized attack – but the whole movie was about an endless volley of nasty and sexualized attacks. However, what bugged me was more how the attack was thought of as an attack against the jocks by proxy – it was the jocks who discovered the plate, and who freaked out about it. The plate thing wasn’t “Haw haw, we’re gonna sell nudie pictures of the chicks to get even with them for the crap they helped the jocks pull on us”, it was “haw haw, we’re gonna get even with the jocks by selling nudie pics of their girlfriends”.

    I do have to say that I loved Hairspray. My wife took me to see it… I went expecting some tired, neon version of Grease, and ended up having a great time. However, you are quite right about the “Absent Fatso” thing – it was pretty vicious.

    Although I kept having one nasty little thought, which my wife said she was thinking the same thing – I kept thinking “how is that hyperactive, energetic girl staying that fat? She must burn a thousand calories just walking down the stairs.” Seriously, she was like mercury on a frying pan.

    As for the absurd gay character, I think the movie started something bizarre there – it kind of led us into embracing gay characters, but only as a hilarious sidekick. I think right now we’re just finally moving out of that concept in TV. I mean, the way gay characters are treated on TV in modern days reminds me of the way that blacks, Japanese, or natives were treated back then, in white films – their race is like a super-power. Always playing the wise, spiritual sidekick (if native), or the cool, street-wise sidekick (if black) or the wise, spiritual, submissive martial-artist (if asian). TV Gays just have different “super-powers” – impeccable taste, and whining.

    30 years ago, would we have “black eye for the white guy” in which six black dudes teach a white guy how to dress, about good music, and how to dance? I’d bet we would, if reality TV had been popular then as it is now.

  5. 5
    DaisyDeadhead says:

    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.

    Did you post separately on this? Linky no worky!

    I would like to read it, if you did!

  6. 6
    Ampersand says:

    Sorry about that, Daisy. Here’s the link, which I also fixed in the post.

    Is “linky no worky” a racial joke? If so, it would be better not to make those kind of jokes here. But it may also be a reference to something I don’t get that’s not racial.

  7. 7
    Silenced is foo. says:

    @Amp

    To the best of my knowledge, “linky no worky” is just an old internet meme. I doubt it has any racist origins. Surprised you’ve never seen it before.

  8. 8
    Ampersand says:

    Oh, okay. Thanks for clarifying that.

  9. 9
    Matt Bors says:

    Revenge of the Nerds is terrible as far as women, asians, gays, and blacks are potrayed. I still love the part where they do the song.

  10. 10
    Thene says:

    I’ve not seen either of these films, but this is a great post about a surprisingly common problem. It even crops up in anti-sexism articles more than is at all healthy.

  11. 11
    Doug S. says:

    Would it be better to use Jews as the example? o_O

  12. 12
    Dave says:

    I saw the original Hairspray. If you see this movie you should realize that it is part of the progressive taming of John Water’s subject matter. The early stuff was really garish and funny but the jokes would wear thin and by the end of the movie you couldn’t wait until the thing was over. Hairspray had more of a plot and was primarily an antiracist movie. In the original movie the fact that some of the characters were fat was not too strongly dwelt upon. Fat or thin was not a John Waters issue. In early John Waters movies everyone was ridiculous and everyone yelled at each other all the time. Life was ridiculous.
    In Hairspray there was a good natured social massage. The original Hairspray was more about the comeuppance of racist parents who were against integration and wanted to prevent white kids from enjoying black music and culture. Now we don’t want integration. I don’t know what we want except maybe to go back to the way things were in the original John Waters movies where everyone is ridiculous and yells at each other.

  13. 13
    Rich B. says:

    I think there’s a contrapositive to the “black legimization” that is often used by opponents of various rights causes, and goes something like this:

    “Black people are the perfect prejudice-detectors. If black people aren’t offended, then it must be okay. So, for example, prohibitions of gay marriage are okay — and not like prohibitions of inter-racial marriage — because numerous polls show that black people are against it.”

    I think it’s the same as “Nerds”, but with an alternate ending. If the black frat brothers had proceeded to tease the nerds, it would teach us the lesson that its okay to tease nerds.

  14. 14
    Katie says:

    1. “Linky no worky” may be an old internet meme – doesn’t mean it didn’t also originate from a racist joke. In addition, it is indistinguishable from the racist mimicking of Asians and Asian Americans. I’d love for that meme to die a quick death on this site, now – if only to spare myself the full-body recoil as I read it and felt like I was 12 in junior high all over again.

    2. Hairspray also does that thing where a dramatic story line involving primarily white people, with white protagonists, is set against the backdrop of people of color in struggle (see every Hollywood movie ever made about Africa). Just on that sort of macro level, I’m pretty down on it.

  15. 15
    Ampersand says:

    Katie makes sense to me. People may not use it intending to be offensive (and I’m absolutely positive Daisy didn’t intend to offend!), or even realize it has racial connotations, but intent isn’t everything.

    Next time I see someone use the phrase on “Alas,” I’ll probably edit it out.

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  17. 16
    Katie says:

    Hi Amp – thanks for the support re: racist internet meme.

    I’m concerned, though, at your use of “racial connotiations” rather than “racIST connotations.” I think it’s pretty clearly the latter.

    In addition, the language nerd in me screams that “racial connotations” simply means that a phrase is implying something – anything – about race, rather than something negative about race.

    I don’t mean to derail the thread, but it bugged me.

  18. 17
    Ampersand says:

    I’m concerned, though, at your use of “racial connotiations” rather than “racIST connotations.” I think it’s pretty clearly the latter.

    Point well taken. I’ll try to remember that next time.

  19. 18
    Bonnie says:

    In light of the immediate discussion, I noticed that in Joss Whedon’s Sugarshock, part I, the blonde drummer tells the band’s groupie, “Groupie no speakie.”

    I myself am not quite sure what to make of Whedon’s use of the phrase. As in, is he making a point about the character? Is he unaware of racist connotations such a linguistic construct carries? ___ ?

  20. 19
    Djiril says:

    I don’t really agree that hairspray has fat rights “piggyback” onto black civil rights, because black civil rights is presented as the bigger issue.

    After all, all the main character needs to overcome the stigma of being fat is some dance moves she learned from the black kids. She then gets to be on the show almost every day, while the black dancers still only get one day a month. The black people in the movie are portrayed as having a much bigger struggle for equality, which the main character almost loses everything she’s gained by joining. In the end I think it’s really more about them than it is about her.

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  22. 20
    belledame222 says:

    totally with you on RoTN, except i never liked it in the first place. and yet for some reason it’s one of those stupid movies i ended up watching whenever it popped up on cable, or bits of it at a time, at least. the sequels too for that matter. and, yeah. The black effeminate guy was sort of…for the time, I guess, in terms of homophobia, I’ve seen worse. lots of hardehar gags about his limp wrists and so forth, and of course he’s completely sexless, like so many other comic relief clowns like that–actually, the combination of black and femmey’s done pretty often in that sort of movie; there was that godawful flick “Mannequin,” for instance. either way there’s a long tradition of “neutering” gay men and black men who get to be the “colorful,” wacky, flamboyant sidekick: comic relief while the hero and heroine do their romantic/adventurous heroish/heroinely things.

    but, back to the RotN character, he was one of the guys, at least, and there was one bit in one of the movies where the bad guy calls him an “effeminiate little pansy” and wossname stands up for him (“Hey!”, I believe he says, angrily). yes well.

    the sexism though, at least in the first one, was especially foul. “Betty” was bait, and frankly I’d call that scene with wossname dressed in the Darth Vader having sex with her and -then- telling her who he was, rape. and the panty raids and the naked pics of her passed around, all as revenge on the Bad Guy who’s her boyfriend. fuck off. and of course she falls for the nerd, because who wouldn’t with a set-up like that?

    at least I seem to remember the sequel tried to give the requisite Love Interest a brain and a bit of a personality. but, yeah, of course she’s gorgeous and falls for the geek, because, well, it’s a male fantasy, with no concessions to uhh female nerd subjectivity?

  23. 21
    belledame222 says:

    and jfpbookworm: oh hell YES on Sixteen candles. John Hughes is Satan, really. gah.

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