Neither Geek Nor Bro: Ferris Bueller in the Internet Age
Today is the 27th anniversary of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, released on June 11th 1986, and if there’s one film I feel comfortable writing the retrospective for, it’s Ferris Bueller. I’ve seen it roughly 12 thousand times, which I don’t mean as a boast, it was just on cable a lot and I had a boring childhood. How good or bad it is seems almost irrelevant anyway. It’s one of those cultural touchstones that nearly everyone of my generation remembers, like the Fresh Prince theme song, the intro to “Baby Got Back” or “I LEARNED IT FROM WATCHING YOU, DAD!”
Ferris Bueller is such a fond, shared childhood memory, that one of my friends gave out Ferris Bueller DVDs as party favors at his wedding and it made complete sense. Matthew Broderick reprised the role for a Honda CR-V commercial during the Super Bowl and people lost their minds. People liked remembering Ferris Bueller so much they got excited for a goddamned glorified minivan commercial.
Sarah Jessica Parker’s husband driving minivans aside, I totally get it. I look back so fondly at Ferris Bueller, and like all forms of nostalgia, it’s partly out of a Sorkin-esque romanticization of my own adolescence, but also partly because Ferris reminds me of an ideal of cool that seems like it’s been lost. He’s a character I grew up idolizing that I’m not sure could even exist in pop culture anymore. Ferris Bueller was, essentially, defined by his coolness and general likability. “He’s very popular, Ed. The sportos, the motorheads, geeks, sluts, bloods, wastoids, dweebies, dickheads – they all adore him. They think he’s a righteous dude.”
Unlike almost every modern protagonist I can think of, whether it be comedy or drama or superhero movie, Ferris Bueller wasn’t defined by his exclusion. He didn’t wear some dumb label, like “jock,” or “drama geek” or “bro” or “nerd,” he was just himself. He was a little bit of everything, and that’s why people liked him. On his day off, he went to a ball game and an art museum.
After the brief Ferris fever that spawned a Ferris TV show, and Ferris TV shows in everything but name, like Parker Lewis Can’t Lose and Saved by the Bell, the pendulum swung back the other way, with a deluge of awkward, nerdy protagonists who weren’t always awkward or nerdy, but were almost always defined by their outsider status. There’s nothing new about that – think Holden Caufield or, you know, The Outsiders – but the idea of the cool outsider or the put-upon schlub who can’t do anything right but will have his revenge in the end, seems to have metastasized in the internet age and infected everything, to the point that the people can hardly celebrate who they are without implicitly defining who they aren’t. Not a jock, not a rich kid, not a hipster.
Beloved former Star Trek TNG actor Wil Wheaton recently wrote a widely reposted letter to a newborn baby about “what it means to be a nerd,” and why it’s awesome, saying:
….the way that you find other people who love the way you do is what makes you a nerd. The defining characteristic of [being a nerd] is that we love things. …we all love those things SO much that we travel for thousands of miles …we come from all over the world, so that we can be around people who love the things the way that we love them.
Nothing against Wil Wheaton or “nerds” in general… I just don’t know what the hell that means anymore. I’m confused by the aspiring to a label. When you talk about traveling thousands of miles to be around other people who love the things you love… couldn’t you just as easily be talking about college football fans? Or soccer hooligans? Does that make the guys who crowd the Penn State bar down the street from my apartment every Saturday nerds? Or the Europeans who fly in packs into foreign countries to raise hell on match days nerds? And if those guys are nerds, aren’t pretty much everyone nerds? And if everyone is a nerd, doesn’t that basically make the term meaningless and thus no one is a nerd?
I mean, I get it, it feels good to be part of a group. When you say something, it feels more important, like you’re speaking for a whole crowd. And when someone from another group pisses you off, you can tell them to eat shit and it’s not as scary because it feels like you’ve got a bunch of people who have your back, like prison. But it’s so much easier to access that weird mob mentality with just a login password now because of the internet, which can function as a weird echo chamber that both strengthens intra-group bonds and exacerbates inter-group rivalries. Last week I watched Jim Norton and Lindy West, two people I’m a huge fan of, go on Kamau Bell’s show to “argue” about rape jokes. Both seemed to acknowledged that their viewpoints were not mutually exclusive, and for 15 minutes I watched them mostly agree on stuff, only to spend the next week arguing with each other’s most vocal supporter-trolls. Who no one is a fan of. Exhausting, right? I liked the first part, where two intelligent people had a civil discussion.
I get nostalgic about Ferris Bueller because I miss that ideal of cool, when coolness wasn’t wrapped up in a label, and it could happen to you if you were just a clever smooth talker who was nice to people. (Before I go any further, I should probably acknowledge that I’ve opened the door to a rebuttal article here about how Ferris could only have been Ferris because of white privilege. There’s definitely some truth to that, so point conceded, it just doesn’t seem that constructive or interesting). Everything seems to have broken off into warring factions now, and Ferris Bueller harkens back to a time when a hero could be neither “bro” nor “nerd” (though I’m sure both groups would try to claim him).
This is only one manifestation of a phenomenon that I see affecting everything from politics to music, but one of the most nauseating things to me about this moment in culture is that every website thinks it has to be either Geeky Steampunk Anime Nerd-Cosplay Dot Star Wars or Broy Bro Down Popped Collar Boatshoe Fest Dot Rape. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten offers to write a piece for Fratty Ding Dong Dot Chug or to come on some show and be the angry geek stuff fan yelling at chicks for not being nerdy enough. It never pans out, not just because I suck at making money, but because I honestly don’t know what group I belong to, and no one wants a diplomat. I’ve always felt like either the nerdiest guy at the frat party or the frattiest guy at comic con. Mainly I just want to use rational thought and not be some producer’s monkey. I don’t understand everyone’s willingness to pledge allegiance to some label. Are we people or sets of demographics? To invent a new Fight Club line, you are not your f*cking Amazon suggestions.
Now, I say “I don’t understand everyone’s willingness” to self-identify, but that’s not entirely true. The internet has blown wide open what some people have probably always known, that there’s a lot more money to be made in being the vocal, articulate mouthpiece for some ideology than there is in reasoned, rational thought, which often involves compromise, or God forbid, borrowing points from different groups. I saw a DailyDot story the other day profiling “bro” sites like Egotastic and TotalFratMove and Guyism and Brobible, with the requisite quotes from feminist sites like Jezebel and TheFrisky about how bad they are. Which is hilarious to me because I’m not sure those kinds of sites would even exist without each other. It feels like they have a symbiotic relationship, where one becomes popular in proportion to how much its fans hate the other, and that self-identification becomes their rallying cry. There’s an obvious parallel between this and politics and cable news. And keep in mind, those are just the sites that do it well. Once the less-talented people start to notice that outrage can create click-bait, they’re going to ape the format in less and less useful ways until it’s the internet equivalent of a guy on a bike with a boombox shouting “F*ck you!” at a bus full of disabled kids. Or maybe that’s FilmDrunk, I don’t know. I don’t pretend to not be affected by external forces.
I guess what I’m trying to say is, at a time when people feel so pressured to self-identify that girls with ukuleles and Zoe bangs proudly shout “I HEART BEARDS” in their artfully instagrammed OKCupid profiles, what I miss most about Ferris Bueller is the idea that you could belong a little bit to a bunch of different groups – bloods, wastoids, dweebies, bronies, brosephs, feminists, f*cktards, hipsters – and it didn’t ruin your cred with any one of them. Wasn’t that cool? I thought it was pretty f*cking cool.
[banner image via Screencap_Me]