I had always caught bits and pieces of Revenge of the Nerds on Comedy Central here and there growing up, but I don’t think I had ever really sat down and watched it or considered it with any real thought. It was background noise, something to have on during a Wednesday afternoon when I was home sick from school. It was pleasant enough to me, I suppose. In the context of an afternoon flick on Comedy Central it wasn’t really all that funny, but I blamed that on my numbness to “old-fashioned” humor when later that same evening I could flip back to Comedy Central and see what Trey Parker and Matt Stone had come up with that week on South Park. It wasn’t until I caught Revenge of the Nerds on television years later, as an adult that I realized just how “old-fashioned” it was. The 1984 film comes at a time, post-Animal House, where the “masculine” ideal of power as conveyed through the ‘50s and ‘60s archetypes of the dominant Sean Connery and Clint Eastwood types had been balled up into anger at rejection by the males who suffered socially at the hands of those types, and we were presented with characters who, since they couldn’t get what they wanted through their own means, decided to simply take them. It worked for James Bond, after all. Throw on a Darth Vader mask and do some raping; mask that sexual brutality with something innocent, a symbol for geeky weakness.
This isn’t an exaggeration, either. The film’s penultimate moments feature protagonist Lewis (Robert Carradine) don a Darth Vader mask to pretend to be Betty Childs’ (Julia Montgomery) boyfriend in order to have sex with her. Instead of being revolted at the fact that she was just raped by Lizzie McGuire’s dad, she melts into his arms and the film asks the viewers to believe that he has now won her over.
As I said, Revenge of the Nerds comes in the wake of Animal House’s success in 1978, a film which started the trend of fraternity buffoonery as some sort of rallying cry of underdog heroes in film, and that might be fine, had that film not been grossly overt in its acceptance of rape. It’s more than likely that Animal House set society back decades with its treatment of its “heroes” and their relationships to women; John Landis’ film places rape firmly in the position of punch-line, whether it’s Blutarsky (John Belushi) bringing a ladder (a ladder!) to a sorority house to do some spying while they undress (because everyone knows sororities strictly adhere to group undressing rules) or Pinto (Tom Hulce) taking advantage of a drunk and prostrate teenage girl at a party, only to have the call-back later in the film where she simply jokes as she introduces Pinto to her father as “the boy who molested me,” nothing about Animal House asks its viewers to wonder at the vileness of its characters’ actions. Instead, the viewers are asked – and expected to – laugh at them.
In fact, in the case of Pinto and Animal House, it might be interpreted that he doesn't go through with the date rape (though it leaves the question a bit more ambiguous than I'd care for), but he goes through an existential crisis as to whether to take advantage of her or not. He has an angel on one shoulder telling him not to and a devil on the other telling him he's a "pussy" if he doesn't. We’re asked to applaud when Lambda Lambda Lambda takes down Alpha Beta in Revenge of the Nerds and when Delta Tau Chi takes down Omega Theta Pi in Animal House, both just minutes after watching key members of the fraternities committing rape or otherwise disgusting acts towards women.
For the most part, we do cheer, and I think that’s really the key to the problem here. Revenge of the Nerds is still getting play on Comedy Central, thirty years later. Animal House is heralded as a comedy classic, even though nothing about it is funny. Worst of all, these films become examples, not only for filmmakers going forward, looking to capture something about what it means to be a young man full of pent-up sexual frustration, but what it means to actually be a young man full of pent-up sexual frustration. Do we really want these films as examples?
Of course, this is nothing new. The elements of rape in Revenge of the Nerds and Animal House in particular have been explored at length, and the real-world implications that the glorification – or at the very least, acceptance – of rape in those films have. Look no further than just last week when a woman was gang-raped on the beach in Panama City, Florida during Spring Break, and hundreds of onlookers did nothing to stop it. This isn’t some inherent rejection of the heinous nature of rape. It’s a culturally-instilled acceptance at the hands of films like these, where, oh, it’s just boys being boys. Make sure to laugh.
What’s interesting is how “party” films, even today, continue to either avoid the subject of date rape or still attempt to look for the humor in it. Last year’s Neighbors has a character delivering a joke with the punchline, the literal punchline, being simply the word “rape.” Even Superbad, which is one of the greater “party” films for millennials, deals with the subject of date rape in a dicey way. The character of Evan (Michael Cera), another rejected, “nerdy” male character, finally has the chance to make the move on the object of his sexual desire after four years of blue balls, and it’s only as a result of her having gotten so drunk that he has the opportunity. Of course, she got just a little too drunk to go through with it, which shows some sense of moral responsibility, but he stops reluctantly, and the entire film is framed as if these two characters, Evan and Seth (Jonah Hill) are banking on the girls being inebriated enough to sleep with them.
Of course, there are some filmmakers who are making attempts to reverse this trend in the “party” film genre.
What makes Richard Linklater such an innovator in film isn’t just his keen ability to make life happen on the screen in such a vivid way, but the way that he is still able to address the things that might make life uncomfortable without glorifying them. In Dazed and Confused, which is for all intents and purposes a “party film,” he makes the same pent-up male frustration one of the key themes running through the experience that the upcoming seniors have in establishing their place and dominance over the upcoming freshmen, but there is zero glorification. If there is one character in the film that could be called a “villain,” it would be Fred O’Bannion (Ben Affleck), the second-time senior who is most eager to take out his frustrations on the freshmen with his cricket bat decorated with the phrase “Fah Q.” Every scene that Linklater films of the seniors exacting their power on the freshmen through physical force and violence takes place in a plainly public place, meant to highlight the fact that these boys committing these actions should be ashamed of it, they shouldn’t get away with it in the privacy of a frat house or the recesses of a haunted house. He even films one of the more climactic scenes in the “hazing” arc in a way that makes it hard to look at this violence in any other terms than a metaphor for sexual violation.
O’Bannion has Mitch Kramer (Wiley Wiggins) bent over a car on the hill above the baseball field while Alice Cooper’s “No More Mr. Nice Guy” plays atop the scene. It’s not a scene we’re asked to root for. It’s a scene we’re asked to revile, but Linklater makes us watch with painful clarity. In a lot of ways, the scene with Mitch being beaten is meant to be framed as a rape scene in the middle of this relatively light film, a choice that Linklater boldly makes, perhaps as an attempt to subvert norms in films of this type. There’s nothing to glorify in the character of O’Bannion and those that follow him to exert their power over feeble smaller boys throughout the film, and this can easily be seen as a metaphor for all of the men before them, from Animal House to Revenge of the Nerds, who exerted their own power at the cost of women’s basic freedoms.