Imagine walking into a Hollywood boardroom in 2018 in hopes of selling a big summer comedy. It’s a classic David versus Goliath story — a crew of nebbish geeks outwits a gang of maniacal, grunting bullies. Your pitch goes well at first, until one of the execs wonders what sort of delightful hijinks ensue when the nerds and jocks face off.
You explain how the underdogs secretly film women naked, adding that they eventually sell “pies” (really just whipped cream) hiding an illegally taken photo of one of these women. The room goes silent and you pull another idea from the script.
“Also, one of the nerds has sex with a woman by wearing her boyfriend’s Halloween costume.”
The execs shift awkwardly in their seats.
“But it’s okay,” you assure everyone, “because it turns out the girl likes it.”
Is that sexual assault-filled movie getting made in 2018? I hope to god not. But thirty-five years ago that exact comedy was greenlit. In fact, it did well enough after its July 20, 1984 release to spawn sequels, a TV show, and plenty of revival talk.
Watch the movie in question — Revenge of the Nerds — today and you’re likely to cringe so hard you miss all the jokes. Having just seen it for this piece, I can say: It feels dated. That’s no surprise, it is dated. It was released the year LeBron James, Prince Harry, and Katy Perry were born. But does that mean you can’t think it’s funny? Should we push aside all the movies, books, and TV that fail to fit with our current societal norms? Do we burn Gone with the Wind and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn?
“I don’t necessarily think we need to dump our problematic past,” says Justina Ireland, a New York Times bestselling author who often speaks, writes, and Tweets about matters of race and gender in America. “I think a lot of times when we sanitize the past we overlook the bad parts and it becomes like ‘the good ol’ days’ ideology. But I do think we need to engage with the past in a way that’s realistic.”
For Ireland, that means thinking critically about art and placing it in a historical context. Though she (like many people starting conversations about creative work that fails our current cultural litmus tests) has been treated like some sort of neo-liberal killjoy, her take on what to do about our “problematic faves” is literally just a call for thoughtfulness.
“You can enjoy something and recognize that it has problems,” she explains. “Like I love buffalo chicken wings. They are not good for me. Buffalo wings are not good for anybody. No one should be eating those. But they’re so delicious, and I wanna eat them. And I wanna recognize when I eat them that they’re not good for me.”
Based on this scale, Revenge of the Nerds is a seriously over-sauced pile of wings. Of all the screwball 80s comedies, the problems are too problematic and the comedy not enduring enough for me to get over. Sometimes things fall by the wayside and for me, this movie has. Especially because I don’t remember loving it as a kid. I watched it, but it wasn’t something I quoted.
That’s not to say that I’m ready to ditch every movie with a cringey moment. There are comedies from the same era, some with similar problems, that I do want to continue enjoying — keeping in mind, as Ireland says, that “movies, they are so much a function of their day, time, year, etcetera. You can’t separate that from the movie itself.”