Reconsidering Revenge: How Revenge Of The Nerds‘ Misogyny Is Evident In Current Nerd Culture
And how guys can be better to geeky ladies.
Thirty years ago, the brothers of the Alpha Beta fraternity at Adams College in Arizona were taught a particularly harsh lesson. The Alpha Betas had been your stereotypical frat guys—athletic, but hard partiers with a sense of arrogance and entitlement that led them to disregard the laws of polite society and torment some of their classmates with name-calling and even vandalism. No doubt, the Alpha Betas were out of control and needed to be brought down a peg.
However, when a group of students they had targeted for ridicule banded together to exact some payback, things went from bad to worse. Although these students’ complaints about the fraternity were completely legitimate, their methods for dealing with their bullies most certainly were not. Realizing they couldn’t really hope to take these guys on in a fight (part of the reason the brothers picked these students to push around was because of their own physical weakness) or even in a war of pranks (again, they likely would have wound up getting their asses kicked), the students concocted a plan to attack the Alpha Betas without engaging them directly.
They took the fight to Pi Delta Pi, the sorority that the Alpha Betas’ girlfriends all belonged to. While one group of guys broke into the house to menace and terrorize the women, another group began to install cameras throughout the sorority house to capture nude images of the women—obviously, without their knowledge or consent. Some of these images later wound up disseminated amongst the student body, and later, at least one of these students sexually assaulted the girlfriend of the president of the Greek Council (an Alpha Beta himself), coercing her into joining him in a secluded area and then raping her while the rest of the school enjoyed a raucous pep rally.
Honestly, this is not how most people remember the plot of 1984’s Revenge of the Nerds, a movie that, according to the Internet Movie Database, grossed $40,900,000 on an $8,000,000 budget and is described by one IMDB user as “An Instant Classic for the Underdog in All of Us.” That’s kind of how I remembered the movie too, until I watched it again a couple years ago, for the first time as an adult, and was immediately struck by the way the film plays sexual exploitation and assault for laughs. It’s true that the nerds stand up to their bullies and empower themselves, but they are only able to do so by victimizing women whose chief crimes are snootiness and bad taste in boyfriends.
Some, of course, will argue that I take these things too seriously; it’s just a dumb campus sex comedy, for crying out loud. But I can’t help but feel that this movie actually has something to tell us about our cultural attitudes surrounding violence, misogyny, and notions of masculinity. We’re all familiar with the dumb jock/ frat boy stereotype with his overly-moussed hair, reeking of Axe Body Spray. We know that that guy’s a misogynist who amuses his bros with rape jokes. But I think, sometimes, we mistakenly assume that the guy wearing a Green Lantern T-shirt who can recite Monty Python and the Holy Grail in its entirety is harmless. He’s scared to talk to women, we reason, so he can’t possibly have the frat boy’s sense of entitlement or privilege. But recent events, I think, should cause us to call that conventional wisdom into question.
I’m a nerd myself. I’ve got a massive comic book collection. There is currently a Gremlins lunchbox on my dining room table. I still play Mortal Kombat II on my Sega Genesis. And, when I was younger, I was pretty sure I was doomed to remain a virgin for the rest of my life. If you had told the 17-year-old me that, one day, I would be madly in love with my brilliant and beautiful wife—as I am now—I would have assumed you were setting up a joke at my expense.
There are certain lies the virginal nerd tells himself in order to cope with his own lack of romantic success. Some of these lies are somewhat harmless: “Girls, by nature, just don’t appreciate superheroes or Star Wars—that’s why they aren’t attracted to fans like me.” That’s the sort of lie I told myself, before I could finally admit that my problems really stemmed from my own shyness. Some of the lies are more troublesome: “Women are all superficial—they can’t see past my acne or weight problem to appreciate the awesome guy I am, deep down.” To be honest, I might have told myself this lie a time or two, when I was a stupid adolescent who, it should be noted, never pursued overweight or pimply girls himself. From there, the lies get even more damaging: “Women are cruel—they’re only interested in jock assholes, and they enjoy abusing any other guy who winds up in their orbit.”
I don’t want to pat myself on the back here, but I never told myself that last lie. But I know plenty of guys who did, and who probably still do. These are the guys who believe “nice guys finish last” and complain about being “friend-zoned” by the women in their lives. These guys truly believe that they are owed something by women—sex, of course, but also devotion and a rather twisted version of love. These guys are lonely and frustrated, and, rather than examine themselves in order to find out why this is, they have concluded that the problem is women.
We saw this psychology in Elliot Rodger, the 22-year-old multiple murderer who explained his motivations in a video posted to YouTube: “For the last eight years of my life, ever since I hit puberty, I’ve been forced to endure an existence of loneliness, rejection and unfulfilled desires all because girls have never been attracted to me. Girls gave their affection, and sex and love to other men but never to me.” We see it in the so-called “Pick-up Artist Community,” where ridiculously-dressed guys who at times seem downright psychopathic instruct socially-awkward guys on the best ways to trick a woman into thinking that they’re interesting. And more and more frequently, we’re seeing this attitude in “geek culture,” among comic book fans, video game players and others who have, historically, been identified as nerds.
Much has already been written about “Gamergate”—an online campaign to degrade and silence women active in the video game industry. The phenomenon began when video game developer Zoe Quinn’s ex-boyfriend alleged that Quinn had had a romantic relationship with a video game journalist that resulted in positive coverage of her game Depression Quest. This claim was quickly proven to be fraudulent, but that didn’t stop a number of deranged video game fans from attacking her on Twitter—revealing personal information as well as threatening rape. Gamergate supporters will tell you that the movement is not, in fact, motivated by misogyny, but is in fact about “ethics in journalism.” These claims are belied by the fact that members of the movement subsequently also targeted feminist media critic Anita Sarkeesian and game developer Brianna Wu, both women, and no men active in gaming culture (not even Nathan Grayson, the journalist alleged to have given Quinn positive coverage as a result of their relationship, got the kind of treatment these women received). The claims are also belied, of course, by the rape threats.
As a movement, Gamergate seems to be dying down. Just a few weeks ago, it was fairly common to see people defending the movement, but at this point almost everyone is in agreement that the argument was less about ethics in journalism and more about whether or not girls should be allowed in the clubhouse. But even if people stop using Gamergate as a hashtag, it’s important that we—and when I say “we,” I’m addressing my fellow nerds here—be mindful of the hatefulness that exists among us.
In many ways, the comic book industry is doing a really good job of marketing itself to women and girls. It seems to me that there are more female creators working on mainstream titles from the major publishers than ever before. Wonder Woman is getting the big screen treatment, as is Captain Marvel (the female one from Marvel Comics, not the kid who turns into a superhero when he says “Shazam”—although, yeah, he is getting a movie too). We’ve recently seen an X-Men team consisting of all female characters. There’s a new woman wielding Thor’s hammer and acting as a thunder goddess. It does seem like we’ve come a long way from the days where Wonder Woman was perpetually the Justice Society of America’s secretary, or even twenty years ago, when comic book writer Gail Simone created her website “Women in Refrigerators,” which chronicled the assaults and deaths of female characters that acted as plot points to motivate the male superheroes.
We still have some work to do, though, as writer and cultural critic Janelle Asselin could probably tell you.
Last April, Asselin wrote a critique of the cover of the then-upcoming Teen Titans #1 for Comic Book Resources. The cover, drawn by artist Kenneth Rocafort, features the character Wonder Girl front-and-center, which is a choice that would be applauded were it not for the fact that this adolescent girl is drawn with comically large, unrealistically round breasts. Seriously, we’re talking bigger-than her head, Pamela Anderson-sized implants. It’s ridiculous, it’s not something any parent is likely to buy for their child, and Asselin said as much in her review.
I don’t imagine anyone is going to stalk me on Twitter over this essay, but Asselin was soon flooded with nasty, abusive comments over her opinions on the bizarre sexual objectification of a child who appears in children’s entertainment. The best of these critiques suggested that she was unqualified to comment on the cover (despite the fact that she has a master’s degree in publishing and has years of editorial experience). Others used the word “feminist” as a pejorative, suggesting that she was pushing a “feminist agenda.” Still others employed the stupid Limbaughism “feminazi” to attack her.
And then, of course, the rape threats started, leading her to eventually write in an essay published in xojane, “Every woman I know who has any sort of online following gets harassed, and most of them get rape threats. It’s become part of doing business if you write online at all.”
I genuinely feel like any moral code I might have owes more to the superhero comic books I read as a kid than it does to the years as an altar boy or Cub Scout. I think other comic fans would probably say the same thing. This is part of the reason why I find these rape threats so shocking. I get that people love their superheroes and don’t like to see them criticized, and I get that this criticism can feel a little personal—“If this material is sexist, doesn’t it follow that I’m a misogynist for liking it?” But threatening sexual assault doesn’t seem like the sort of thing Green Lantern or Mr. Fantastic would really approve of.
I think it would be good for those of us who enjoy popular culture to acknowledge that, at times, the popular culture can be somewhat flawed. Animal House is a very funny movie, but the frat guy “heroes” are kind of repugnant, especially in the ways they treat women. Van Halen was a great band once upon a time, but the video for “Hot for Teacher” is still sexist. And mainstream superhero comic books—long created by and for guys—have not, historically, portrayed women particularly well. There’s really no reason for Wonder Woman to fight crime in a bathing suit, or for the Spider-Woman to present her ass to her enemies. These choices—made for the male gaze—are completely impractical, and ought to be rectified.
I understand the young male nerd’s awkwardness around women. I have experienced the same anxiety that has turned to anger in others. Luckily, I went to college and befriended several feminists who disabused me of the delusions that so many geeky guys have about women. I’m grateful for that.
Now that more women are getting involved in comics, video games, and other forms of geek culture, I think more guys can benefit from hearing their points-of-view, just as I benefited from the friendships I formed in college. I know that change is scary, that reconsidering one’s beliefs can be very difficult. But it’s worth trying. My fellow male nerds, there is no reason to feel threatened by the women and girls who want to gain entrance to the clubhouse. They’re not here to make fun of you or hurt you. They’re here because The Avengers and World of Warcraft are awesome. So let’s put an end to all of this desire for “revenge” when a woman expresses her opinions about these hobbies we all love, and instead trying listening. It’s what Superman would do, after all.
William Bradley‘s work has appeared in The Utne Reader, The Normal School, Brevity, The Missouri Review, Truth-Out and other websites and magazines. His book Fractals—a collection of linked essays about love, illness, and a lifetime of dorky pop culture obsessions—is forthcoming from Lavender Ink.