Ever watch clips from one of those old-timey film comedies featuring a Stepin Fetchit-style black stereotype — a bumbling, slow-witted black man drawling lines like “Yaaaas boss!” — and wonder how the people of the time could watch it and NOT be offended?
Sometimes I’ve found myself wondering what it would be like for somebody whose sensibilities changed with the times. Maybe he saw one of those movies in the 1930s and laughed at it, then saw it again in the 1960s and thought: “Damn. How did I not notice how wrong this is?” What would that feel like?
Well, now I know exactly what it feels like. It’s disorienting and more than a little disturbing.
I recently rewatched the 1984 comedy “Revenge of the Nerds.”
I saw that movie in the theater when it first came out. I was in high school at the time. It was no comedy classic, but I enjoyed it.
It was a riff on the “Animal House”-style college comedy. But I thought it had a bit more depth than most, with its message that it’s OK to be a misfit as long as you have friends and you believe in yourself. It was fun and it had heart. I’d never bother renting it. But if I was flipping around the channels and caught it on cable, I’d always watch.
I don’t know when I saw it last, but I’d estimate that it’s been in the neighborhood of 20 years. I guess times have changed, and so have I.
Because when I watched it recently … Holy shit! How did I fail to notice the TOXIC levels of misogyny in this movie? I felt like I needed a shower afterwards!
I don’t need to reiterate the entire plot here. I’ll just give you the basics.
A couple of ostensibly lovable nerds, Lewis and Gilbert, go away to college. There, they befriend a bunch of other ostensibly lovable nerds and outcasts. They end up forming their own fraternity.
But they get picked on by another fraternity made up of bullying jocks. The jocks are abetted by a sorority of their snooty cheerleader girlfriends.
The nerds strike back through a series of pranks, and all kinds of wackiness ensues. It culminates with the nerds using their superior brains to best the jocks at the Greek Games. Then after a final confrontation, the movie ends with a rallying speech for nerd empowerment. Keep in mind this was 1984, before the concept of “nerd empowerment” became pretty much moot.
Anyway, it all sounds pretty harmless, right? Kind of cute in that winning, unironic way of 1980’s comedies?
Except … some pretty ugly stuff happens, the full ugliness of which never struck me until just recently.
To get revenge on the cheerleader sorority for a prank, the nerds stage a panty raid on their house. But that’s just cover to install hidden cameras, from which the nerds watch over closed-circuit TV as the young women undress and shower. Later, the nerds win the fund-raising portion of the Greek Games by surreptitiously selling topless photos of one of the cheerleaders that they got with the hidden camera.
Keep in mind, we’re supposed to be rooting for the guys who do all this. Because, y’know, it’s OK to sexually harass and exploit women. As long as the women being harassed and exploited are snooty bitches. Because then they deserve it.
But the REALLY ugly part comes later. Lewis, the head nerd, lusts after one of the cheerleaders. At the Greek Games, he puts on a costume and fools her into thinking he’s her boyfriend so she’ll have sex with him. Immediately afterward, he shows her who he really is. But by that time, she’s fallen in love with him because the sex was so good.
OK. Let’s clarify something. He raped her.
No, he didn’t use physical force or threats. Rape doesn’t have to involve force or threats. Rape is sex without consent. That’s why sex with unconscious people or children is considered rape, even if there’s no real or implied violence involved.
But hey, according to the movie, a rape victim will forgive you and even fall in love with you if you just give her a good enough f**kin’ that she enjoys the experience.
See what I was saying about the misogyny?
Now some of you may read this and think: “Geez, Tom, it was only a harmless comedy! Lighten up!”
Let me say for the record that I don’t consider any subject to be taboo where comedy is concerned. Comedy is meant to be transgressive.
Off the top of my head, I can think of two jokes about rape that I had no problem with. One was in the sketch comedy show “Snuff Box,” and the other in the British version of “The Office” that was a precursor to the American version.
But there’s a crucial distinction. In those shows, the jokes were meant to be disturbing and provocative. In each case, the context of the joke was predicated on people’s uncomfortable reaction to an inherently ugly subject.
In short — the writers were aware that rape is wrong. They weren’t, like the screenplay writers of “Revenge of the Nerds,” apparently under the illusion that rape can fall within the category of zany highjinks.
And keep in mind that the aforementioned Stepin Fetchit stereotypes were once considered harmless comedy as well. They didn’t turn out to be so harmless after all, did they?