[Like many universities, Fitchburg State cancelled Spring Break for this academic year. But that doesn’t mean we can’t jet off to Daytona Beach in our imaginations, with the help of the Spring Break films I’ll AmericanStudy this week. Share your own Spring Break texts or contexts for a crowd-sourced weekend post that’ll have a little umbrella in its drink!]
On American anti-intellectualism, and the worse and better ways to challenge it.
As I noted in this post on my friend Aaron Lecklider’s great book Inventing the Egghead: The Battle over Brainpower in American Culture (2013), published exactly 50 years after Richard Hofstadter’s influential Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1963), the precise origins of anti-intellectual attitudes and narratives in American society are a bit unclear and contested. But whether those national narratives are foundational (as Hofstadter argues) or more the product of Cold War anxieties (as Lecklider does), I would say that there can be no argument at all that by the end of the 20th and beginning of the 21st century these anti-intellectual threads have become dominant ones in our cultural pattern. And, more exactly and crucially, that the development and deepening of those narratives throughout the 50 years or so between Hofstadter’s book and the 2016 election helped bring us to the presidency of Donald Trump, a culmination of these anti-intellectual trends as of so many of the worst and most divisive impulses of American politics and culture.
Which brings us, obviously, to the Revenge of the Nerds film series. Beginning with the 1984 original film, and featuring three sequels over the next decade (including 1987’s Spring Break-set Revenge of the Nerds II: Nerds in Paradise, the ostensible focus of this post but, like yesterday’s subject From Justin to Kelly, not a film that needs an entire blog post on its own terms I assure you), the nerdy protagonists of this series challenged the Reagan era’s deepening anti-intellectual sentiments, triumphing time and again over their popular jock adversaries. The first film has in recent years received a good deal of justified criticism for the fact that its triumphant sex scene would actually have to be classified as a rape scene (nerdy hero Lewis has sex with his crush while pretending to be her boyfriend), among quite a few other problematic moments. And in truth, those specific problems illustrate a more fundamental issue with all the Revenge films: their mostly unlikable heroes don’t triumph through meaningful use of their intelligence, but rather through things like sexual deception and violence (in Nerds in Paradise the climactic victory involves a tank and a punch). The message seems generally to be that nerds can be just as awful as the rest of society.
Fortunately, the Revenge of the Nerds films were not the only 1980s cinematic challenge to anti-intellectualism. The heroes of 1985’s cult classic film Real Genius are also nerds, brilliant and eccentric students at the fictional Pacific Technical University [SPOILERS in what follows, although the undeniable pleasures of Real Genius aren’t in its plot surprises]. These nerds likewise find themselves pitted against Reagan era tropes, this time Cold War militarization and the use of science and technology for dastardly and destructive ends (aided and abetted by their villainous Professor Jerry Hathaway, William Atherton’s second deliciously evil character in two years). But in this case the heroes’ climactic triumph is entirely due to their intellectual prowess, which they use to outwit Hathaway and his military allies and to turn weapons of mass destruction into, well, popcorn. Score one for a more thoughtful and inspiring American intellectualism!
Last Spring Break film tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Responses to this film or other Spring Break texts you’d share?