Revisiting Culture Through a New Set of (political) Glasses
In high school, I was definitely a nerd. My friends were nerds. We did things like debate, forensics, band, choir, theater. We were in the middle of Kansas and we were artsy-types. There was, as there always seems to be, a disparity of power — the jocks and cheerleaders had it, the nerds did not.
I’ve told the story of the nerds rising up and nominating one of their own as Homecoming King (You can read it in my newest book, Belief is a Sledgehammer available now on Amazon) but three years earlier, we hadn’t managed that kind of solidarity.
My freshman year was filled with me getting beat up in the parking lot. Beat up in the bathroom. Beat up in the library. Stuffed into lockers only to be let out by teachers who looked at me with disdain at my inability to fend off seniors twice my size. Part of the issue was that I was an incredible smartass (let’s be fair, I never was a smartass, I am and continue to be for my span on Earth.) The other part was that I was one of the bigger (in physical size) nerds. My friends were mostly smaller and so I often was the one the bullying turds had to go through first. I fought back, but not well.
The year before high school, I found my muse. After seeing Meatballs with Bill Murray, I knew how to conduct myself in social situations. The rule breaking wise-ass. The take-nothing-too-seriously sarcastic guy. The cat above it all with the Fuck ’Em attitude.
One of the teachers who seemed to dislike me the most was Coach Strong (No, I’m not changing his name for effect. That was his name.) He exacerbated the animus between the jocks and nerds whenever he could. In gym class, required for all freshmen, it was often a nightmare. Most of the time, he would have us line-up, choose teams and play dodgeball or “touch” football. We nerds generally resigned to take 50 minutes of brutality three times a week.
But then it came time to give us grades. And Strong’s plan was to grade us on our ability to dribble a basketball around 30 orange cones.
“You didn’t teach us how to do that, how can you give us a grade on it?” I asked with my trademarked smirk.
“Get back in line, Hall, and start dribbling.”
I refused. I failed gym.
And it pissed me off.
I went to my debate teacher and asked him what to do. He suggested that I ask to be scheduled for the next school board meeting and make my case. I spent hours typing up the unfairness of basing a grade on a skill not taught in the class and requested either a change in the grades of the full class (including the jocks) or an adequate test to grade us on.
I presented to the school board and they recommended that the entire class receive A’s for the semester with a reprimand to the coach. He quit at the end of the year.
I thought the culture within the school would change. I believed by tearing down the unfairness I experienced, the drama kids and debate kids would gain respect because we had demanded it. That the band geeks would be seen in a different light.
It was a true blue win for the nerds and yet nothing really changed in the culture of the school. I got beat up less but, aside from that, the jocks ruled things and the nerds scattered in the hallways. That’s because the imbalance was not in equal protection or fairness but in power. They had it, we wanted it.
We watched the movies that demonstrated our desire for more. More respect. More dignity. More power.
Either a story about two guys at the end of their ropes in life deciding to join the army and finding themselves in a unit full of other misfits in need of some affirmation and power, and transforming them into a better version of themselves. Taking on the power structure and winning.
A story of two white men gaming the system so they could get laid and using the most harassing techniques to do so.
Either a story of a group of hapless losers taking on a maniacal local tyrant and, through humor and guts, bring him down.
A story of a bunch of rapey creeps spying on women in showers.
Either a story of two lonely geeks using their knowledge of technology to create what they think is the perfect woman who teaches them to stand up for themselves and gain confidence.
A story of two white guys whose only reference to the feminine is porn and they create a synthetic woman to fulfill their intel fantasies.
Revenge of the Nerds
You get the idea.
We were inspired by these stories. Stories that pitted the outcasts against the status quo and won. Did we realize that they were all cultural contributors to the continued stereotyping of minorities and the centuries long marginalization of women? Of course not — we were outcasts looking for heroes. We were white kids in Central Kansas. Yet the jocks at our school stayed in exactly the same place: popular, respected and in control.
The only thing that would change that power dynamic would be if we had managed to erase the sports programs completely from the school. And even then, it would take a long fucking wait before the culture changed. Because we didn’t want to share the power. We wanted it all having been denied it for all of our school careers.
I’m no longer in high school but when I look out to a tiny but vocal minority of those seeking to shift the balance of power from the White Patriarchy, sometimes it feels like I never left.
Part of the method of wresting control of the power to drive decisions in the world is the erasure of culture. The question becomes whether context can eradicate the culture of yesterday and whether it should. Take, for instance, the erasure of Native Americans from history books read by eighth graders: this painting over both their contributions and defense of themselves creates a false impression of who they were and, even worse, eliminates their very vital contribution of our understanding of the world. Men have been doing this for as long as they could.
Is it better to provide context for Eddie Murphy’s retrograde and dismissive take on homosexuals yet still marvel at the performance of a young black comic at his prime or simply erase the existence of RAW altogether?
How about Gone With the Wind? Better to just do away with it, with its racist portrayals and misogynist undertones or watch a film, known to be one of the 100 greatest films ever made, and contextually understand the time period it was filmed in?
Grease? Holy shit...there’s a lyric in Summer Nights that asks, “Did she put up a fight?” Now, my wife would say burn all the copies of every frame because she hates Grease but really?
The transphobic villain in Silence of the Lambs erases Hannibal Lecter?
The crows in Dumbo?
The fact that Rocky Balboa keeps at Adrian until she finally gives in, bordering on what most would call sexual harassment from a much more powerful man?
In listening to a recent pops concert of the music of Lerner and Loewe, it hit me that in a list of musicals that included Paint Your Wagon, Brigadoon, Camelot, Gigi and My Fair Lady, if going by the standards set by #MeToo, we need to torch all of them. Each is a study in patriarchy at work and women reduced to an object.
I’ve come to the conclusion that it is pop culture that changes the culture more than activism. The grudging acceptance of the vast middle for the rights of gay men and women came from Ellen and Philadelphia and Will & Grace — seeing gay men and women, not as a punchline, but as human beings with the same basic problems that they do in their living rooms and streaming online every day. Proximity breeds familiarity and that window we watch is like a window into our backyard. Suddenly people who had never met a gay person before (at least not an out one) felt friendship and closeness to a lesbian with a talk show, felt empathy for a dying gay man, laughed together about the trials of gay men navigating the planet.
It changed their minds in subtle but important ways. It changed the culture.
Back to Circle H.S. for a beat. Over the three years after the victory over Coach Strong, the culture did shift some. We never got rid of the football program but we did manage to pack houses with plays and musicals. The basketball team continued to play but the debate team eventually got state and national titles. The cheerleaders continued choosing looks and thinness over talent but the band and choir racked up accolades throughout the state.
We didn’t take power, we made it for ourselves. We didn’t push anyone out of the way for room, we made more room for ourselves. We endured the backwards teachers and thrived under those with a genuine belief in our right to succeed on our own terms.
When it comes to redefining the culture, it’s relatively easy to cherry pick those moments in cherished songs and films and plays and declare them forbidden due to problematic themes. It’s practically what the internet has been built for. What is harder but ultimately more effective is to ignore the jocks in the place and make room for ourselves. You don’t have to erase the indelibly racist and sexist Revenge of the Nerds in order to create Black Panther. You just have to create Black Panther. Get Out didn’t come around because of activism; it happened because Jordon Peele refused to give up on being excellent as a writer and director and comedian and eventually he had the clout to be nominated for Homecoming King.
Stealing power from those we saw and see as our oppressors is fucking ridiculous. It’s in the view that the guy standing in the doorway, blocking your entrance while talking on his phone, is oppressing you. Sometimes all it takes is to focus on the work you’ve got to do and slide past, take your part of the room and just assume the guy in the doorway was just a rude asshole rather than a Member of a Group Hellbent on Your Oppression.
I’ll confess, with the lens of today, I can’t really watch Breakfast at Tiffany’s anymore. I have a hard time getting past the anti-gay and sexist jokes in Caddyshack. But no one will ever convince me that Stripes isn’t hysterical and that Rocky isn’t a wonderful story of redemption and grit. It’s all OK. Millennials don’t get Seinfeld and I don’t care for the Marx Brothers and that’s how culture works. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.