On the newest episode of The Reindeer Club, I reference an article written by Willie Osterwell for Real Life Mag. The article is entitled "What Was The Nerd?: The myth of the bullied white outcast loner is helping fuel a fascist resurgence".
I certainly grew up connecting with the message that I as a "non-athlete type" would regularly be persecuted in life for not being manly enough. It certainly rang true. What I never realized at the time was that, at least for me, this sense of oppression absolutely paled in comparison to the way other marginalized groups are treated.
I was blinded to this reality because of a trope in popular culture.
By either removing minorities from films entirely, or by utilizing them to signal solidarity with oppressed white nerds, Hollywood films helped an entire generation of white men grow up without a comprehension of their racial privilege.
This article lays out a clear picture of a film that became a major touchstone for this trope.
The entire article is well worth a read, but what follows is the specific passage that I reference on the podcast.
Central to this program of making social conflict disappear, oddly enough, is the nerd. And no film shows this as clearly as the fraternity comedy which inaugurated the nerd as hero: Revenge of the Nerds. The plot of this 1984 film follows two computer-science freshman at fictional Adams College. After they are kicked out of their dorms and forced to live in the gym by a group of displaced frat boys, they assemble a gang of assorted oddballs and rent a big house off-campus, living in a happy imitation of campus frat life. The frat guys hate this, so they prank and bully the nerds relentlessly. The nerds discover that the only way they can have the frat boys disciplined by an official university body is to be in a frat themselves and appeal to a fraternal council.
Looking around for a national frat that doesn’t yet have a chapter at Adams, they find Lamda Lamda Lamda, an all-black fraternity. When they visit the president of the fraternity, he refuses to give them accreditation. Surveying the room of (mostly) white boys, he says, “I must tell you gentlemen, you have very little chance of becoming Tri-Lambs. I’m in a difficult situation here. I mean after all, you’re nerds.” The joke is that he didn’t say “white.”
In the imaginary of the film, being a nerd replaces race as the key deciding factor for social inclusion, while black fraternities are situated as the purveyors of exclusion and bias — despite the fact that black fraternities (though often participating in the same patriarchal gender politics as white frats) have historically been a force of solidarity and safety at otherwise hostile universities.
Nonetheless, one of the nerds looks over the bylaws and sees that Lamda Lamda Lamda has to accept all new chapters on a trial basis. So the nerds now have a frat. On Adams’s campus, this sparks a prank war between the nerd frat and the prestigious frat that includes a panty raid on a sorority, the distribution of nude photos of a woman (made fair game by her association with one of the jock frat brothers), and a straight-up rape (played as comic), in which one of the nerds uses a costume to impersonate a sorority sister’s boyfriend and sleeps with her while wearing it. All these horrific acts toward women are “justified” by the bullying the nerds have ostensibly received for being nerds, and by the fact that the women aren’t interested in them — or at least, at first. Eventually the nerds’ rapey insouciance and smarts win their hearts, and they steal the jocks’ girlfriends.
In the film’s final climactic scene, at a college-wide pep rally, the main nerd tries to speak about the bullying he faces but gets beaten down by the jocks. Just as all looks lost, black Tri-Lamb brothers from other colleges march in and line up in formation, arms crossed in front of the speaker platform in a clear echo of images of Black Panther rallies. The white college jocks thus held back, the national president of Lamda Lamda Lamda hands the nerd back the microphone, who in what amounts to an awful parody of Black Power speeches, announces, “I just wanted to say that I’m a nerd. And I’m here tonight to stand up for the rights of other nerds. All our lives we’ve been laughed at and made to feel inferior … Why? Because we’re smart? Because we look different. Well, we’re not. I’m a nerd, and I’m pretty proud of it.”
Then, with the black fraternity president over his shoulder and the militant black frat brothers bordering the frame, the other nerd protagonist declares, “We have news for the beautiful people: There’s a lot more of us than there are of you.” It is the film’s emotional climax. And thus these rapists appropriate the accouterments of black power in the name of nerd liberation.
This epitomizes the key ideological gesture in all the films named here: the replacement of actual categories of social struggle and oppression with the concept of the jock-nerd struggle. The jock is forever cool, the nerd perennially oppressed. And revenge is always on the table and always justified. In the nerd’s very DNA is a mystification of black, queer, and feminist struggle: As a social character, the nerd exists to deny the significance (if not the existence) of race, class, and gender oppression.
The rise of the internet economy and the rise of nerdy cultural obsessiveness, collecting, and comics —not to mention the rise to power of the kids raised on Revenge of the Nerds and its 1980s ilk — means that the nerd is now fully ascendant. But perpetually aggrieved, these “nerds” believe other oppressed people should shut the fuck up and stop complaining, because they themselves didn’t complain! They got jobs! They got engineering degrees! They earned what they have and deserve what they take.