Nov 13, 2012

Gay Nerds of the 1980s

Many movies during the 1980s featured a teen nerd, a handsome, intelligent, likable, and wealthy high schooler who for some reason is ostracized by the other students,  except for his flamboyantly feminine best friend.  He is in love with a cheerleader, but she ignores him to hang on the arm of a jock so boorish, violent, possessive, and disagreeable that one can't imagine anyone able to stand him for more than 30 seconds.  You know how it ends: the teen wins the respect of his peers, whereupon the cheerleader melts into his arms, or he settles for the girl next door who supported him all along.  (The formula has been used many times since, notably in The Hard Times of RJ Berger).

There might be a few minor changes, but the major players were always identifiable, reenacting a 1980s morality play about dismissing the homoerotic other.

Why is the teen nerd ostracized?  His intelligence, lack of athletic prowess, or some other despicable trait signify that he is gay.  In Lucas (1986), the locker room jocks assume that Lucas (Corey Haim) is gay because he has a small penis, so he turns the tables: "I don't get semi-erect among other males like some of you fellows can tell the fags in a warm shower by who has the longest dong."

They punish him by smearing Ben Gay on his dong -- but of course, to do that they have to touch his dong.

In Three O'Clock High (1987), teen nerd Jerry (Casey Siemaszko) is assigned to interview transfer student Buddy (Richard Tyson, left) for the school paper.  He says "hello" while they're both at the urinals, and Buddy shrinks back in horror: "You're a fag!"  Jerry immediately protests that he is straight, but Tyson is not convinced, and schedules him for an after school bashing.  Jerry tries to hire school bully Bruce (Scott Tiler) to protect him, but Tiler misunderstands the proposition: "If you're a fag..."

Heterosexual desire, however ardent, cannot redeem the teen nerd's gayness.  In Sixteen Candles (1984), Ted the Geek (Anthony Michael Hall, right) asks Sam (Molly Ringwald) for a date, but she refuses because "You're totally a fag." Lucas dates a girl in full view of the jocks, but is derided as a fag anyhow.

Since the teen nerd is constantly accused of being gay, he must constantly police his arguably romantic relationship with his flamboyantly feminine best buddy.  In Better Off Dead (1985), nerd Lane (John Cusack) and buddy Charles (Curtis Armstrong) are sitting together at a dance, when a jock jokes, "You've got my vote for the cutest couple."  Charles starts laughing hysterically; in the next scene, later that night, he is still laughing.  Then he vanishes from the movie.  Clearly the jock has hit a sensitive nerve.

One Crazy Summer (1986) is a rare example of a positive gay-coded character. Visiting Nantucket for the summer, Hoops (John Cusack) meets  Ack Ack (Curtis Armstrong), a sensitive, poetic, nonviolent boy who can't abide the militaristic career his father and brothers have planned for him.  They become friends, but not best friends; instead, they form a buddy quartet with twin brothers, Egg (Bobcat Goldthwait) and Clay (gay actor Tom Villard).

Romantic potential thus defused, Ack Ack can be oblivious to girls and like boys as much as he wants.  When his father kicks him out of the house for being too sissified, he seeks comforting (and a place to stay) with Egg, who wraps an arm around him and says "I understand."  Ack Ack lays his head on Egg's shoulder.  One expects them to kiss at any moment.

See also: 12 Forgotten Beefcake Boys of the 1980s