First, a story.
So, my first semester of my freshman year of college, I took this Intro to Women’s Studies class. The class met for five hours a week, one two hour session and one three hour session, and the breakdown of students was what I eventually discovered to be the typical…
Everyone should go read that essay.
All right. If you’re done (or if you’re not going to do it), let’s talk about the flip side of this.
Let’s talk about Revenge of the Nerds.
I’m sure all of you know this movie, and some of you already know where I’m going, but it was a fairly standard 80s narrative about a bunch of underdog guys going to college and getting picked on the way that they all were in high school—and in a way that, as far as I can tell, doesn’t actually happen in college. It’s a movie squarely aimed at high school and younger kids. Boys. Aimed at boys, not at kids.
It’s an escapist movie that tells boys that, while they may not be the biggest in their school, eventually smarts will win out. No one cares who was the best football player. The end is also especially good, as it emphasizes the fact that all of these things are felt by almost everyone, and people who coast through life are a tiny minority with no real power if the rest of us come together.
It also teaches the standard boys’ movie lessons: women are to be competed over, their autonomy doesn’t matter, and rape is okay. Literally, in every single case.
The “nerds” get back at the “jocks” over and over by victimizing women, not through direct conflict. The whole narrative is an expression of male power over each other based on what they can get or force women to do.
One of the first “triumphs” of the nerds is when they stage a panty raid (which is bad enough as a trope, treating sexualized theft as a harmless prank) which is just a smoke screen for installing cameras all over the place while the women are distracted, which they then use to spy on said women in the showers. This is clearly played as a way of getting back at the men that those women are dating. The only person who complains even a little about this is the resident camp gay.
That pales in comparison to the moon walk scene, though. You may remember this as the moment when the protagonist finally “got the girl”, but here’s what actually happens: he dresses up like her boyfriend, explicitly refuses to reveal his identity, and has sex with her while she still thinks he’s someone else. It is hard to come up with a more clear-cut case of a rape scene that a movie treats as perfectly acceptable; in fact, he’s somehow so good at rape that she decides she loves him.
But here’s the really, truly awful thing about this movie; without critical media skills, when I watched this as a child, I lapped it up. I took it exactly as presented, thought the theft/voyeurism scene was harmless fun, and didn’t think anything of the rape scene beyond a childish fascination with sex and being happy the guy got the girl.
I watched a rape scene, and I was rooting for the rapist. Not only that, but I was an adult before I even realized it was rape.
This is what can be so hard about acknowledging rape culture as a man. Imagine if I’d never come to my current understanding, as is perfectly possible. Imagine if I’d never learned to look past my cultural bias. Imagine what I’d be capable of. Me.
Feminism, as a man, is difficult not only because you’re breaking out of other kinds of programming. It’s difficult because you have to look in the mirror and face the monster. I won’t say that I forgive the guys who can’t do it, but I understand.
There but for the grace of several fantastic women in my life go not only I. It’s possible that if I had reached sexual maturity without being broken of this sort of thinking, there’d be more victims of sexual assault in the world.