Nick Olson

Nick Olson is an associate editor forChrist and Pop Culture at Patheos, where he pens a column on film called “The Moviegoer".His work can be found at Filmwell, Christianity Today, Books & Culture, Think Christian, and Literature & Belief.

Freaks, Geeks, and Subverting the Politics of Fashion

In the opening moments of the first episode of Judd Apatow’s television cult classic, Freaks and Geeks, the camera pans across a high school football field to capture some “jocks” practicing, pauses for a moment of feigned intimacy between a cheerleader and a sidelined football player, and then descends underneath the bleachers to where the “freaks” congregate. The coolest, leather jacket-wearing freak, Daniel Desario, conveys how his mom made him go to church every Sunday, and that he had to “dress up” for the occasion. He tells the story of one Sunday when a Priest refused to let him in the door because he was wearing a crude Molly Hatchet tee shirt. “You can’t wear stuff like that at church man!” his friend laughingly remarks. Daniel, through a somewhat mocking grin, retorts, “Why not, man? It’s church—you’re supposed to forgive people there. So you hate my shirt. Forgive me. Let me come in.” The exchange prepares us for one of the show’s key elements: how we superficially judge who’s “in” and who’s “out,” organizing ourselves on the basis of superficial appearances—the prevalent politics of fashion.

Fashion, of course, is about appearances. How one styles one’s self is explicitly and implicitly—intentionally and unintentionally—an act of self-expression. And so a green army jacket—a garment which becomes a fashion-statement fixture in the series when “mathlete” Lindsay Weir begins wearing the oversized coat regularly—plays a part in this narrative. Lindsay’s jacket is not so much a fashion statement in the sense that it draws attention to the outerwear which is in vogue; rather, her jacket communicates a sense of aloof non-conformity, a growing sense of introspective individuation spurned by the death of her grandfather (from whom the jacket came). Wearing the jacket suggests that Lindsay is looking for yet-undiscovered meaning, looking to define herself in ways that go beyond the contours of the mathlete identity. Ironically, though, Lindsay may just be a burgeoning freak, conforming to the inner circle of non-conformity for non-conformity’s sake. For the duration of the show, Lindsay struggles with appearances. For instance, she still appears to care about getting good grades, for she is a devoted learner; yet, around her new friends, she also worries not to appear to care too much about math and studying.

And this is the inherent problem with the “politics of fashion.” When groups are organized on the basis of superficial appearances, there’s a danger that the deep-seated desire for acceptance will allow one’s self—and one’s standards—to be manipulated by the perception of peers. Apatow’s high school drama is beloved because it persistently undermines the politics of fashion insofar as it is a means of creating alienating, hierarchical distance between individuals, and insofar as it is a means of creating a false identity merely to be accepted or valued (falsely). But the show’s subversive mode is achieved without diminishing the real presence of distinctive interests and gifts which naturally bring people of likeness together. The force of the distinction is to ask whether one’s association with a group is defined primarily by the superiority feelings of inclusion (to the exclusion of other people), or by a genuine love for the uniting interest which organizes the group. The former motivation creates animosity toward outsiders, while the latter allows for diverse, particular sub-communities and cultures without succumbing to unmitigated, locked-from-the-inside tribalism.

A couple of examples of the manipulation of material appearances by both the “geeks” and the “freaks” help reveal how the show exposes characters’ baseline motivation for fulfilling acceptance as ill-fitted within the politics of fashion.

In one memorable episode, Sam—Lindsay’s undersized, endearing, and often-picked-on little brother—decides he wants to impress his longtime crush Cindy by changing his looks. Cindy is attractive and seems nice enough, but she’s also a cheerleader, and on the cusp of breaking into the most “in” of the “in crowd” (for, as we all know, even the in crowd is hierarchically layered). Sam becomes convinced that he must fit the image of cool that Cindy’s prospective boyfriend might project, and even takes his cues from her new love interest from the basketball team. Sam begins mimicking the basketball player by “feathering” his hair to achieve a suave identity.

When Lindsay isn’t impressed with the change, Sam decides to take it a step further by upgrading his wardrobe. But a powder blue disco jumper doesn’t seem to do him any favors, either. Unfortunately for Sam, his perceived upgrades in appearance don’t bring him upward social mobility but, instead, reinforced ridicule. Thankfully, Apatow achieves a delicate balance wherein we agonize with Sam over his plight, while also laughing at his fashion faux pas. But what we’re invited to laugh at is not who Sam is, but, rather, the humorous irony that exists in Sam’s trying to be someone who Sam isn’t—a perspective that’s formally reinforced by the show’s taking place in the 1980s (and the distance we have from 80s fashion with each passing year). Effectively, we are all invited to assume the perspective of the knowing, loving, and inwardly snickering parents, watching their child head to school under the pretense of self-confidence.

While Sam is a geek who transparently longs for a more fulfilling acceptance, Daniel is, on the surface, a self-assured freak who gives off a vibe of “who cares?” cool. But we quickly learn that this appearance is not exactly a true reflection of his emotional state. Daniel’s powder blue disco jumper moment comes about when he becomes attracted to a McKinley dropout who is part of the “punk scene.” But beneath his attraction to the girl is a desperate desire to express the dissatisfaction he feels with himself as the result of his continuing problems with family, with fellow-freak girlfriend Kim, and with his woeful academic failures.

Like so many before him, Daniel looks to the punk rock scene—embraced by his love interest—in order to cope with his growing feeling of inadequacy. His moment in front of the mirror is about spiking his hair with punk-ish flair in a way that mirrors the girl’s wild hairdo. When Daniel realizes that the girl’s response to her own perceived inadequacies is to remain, shall we say, non-committal, he recognizes that the mosh pit has far more problems than the flawed love that Kim gives him. The episode ends with Daniel reuniting in embrace with Kim on her doorstep, part of one of the show’s iconic montages set to Dean Martin’s rendition of “You’re Nobody Till Somebody Loves You.”

Another way that the show consistently subverts superficial appearances is by inviting us into the characters’ lives away from school—a context which is often hidden from sight within the confines of high school interactions. So, for instance, Bill doesn’t just look “different” by mere virtue of his devotion to geekiness; instead, we come to find that Bill—born with fetal alcohol syndrome—lives with his once-troubled, now more-protective single mom. Kim isn’t just insufferably mean-spirited because she takes pleasure in making people’s lives a living hell; instead, we come to find that her home life is the epitome of dysfunction. To the geeks, Neal’s dad seems to be the coolest dad of them all; instead, we come to find that he’s a womanizing cheater—and we see the effects it has on Neal at school. Usually chiding their parents (and their parents’ home—consider Lindsay’s refashioning of the home’s interior for the party she hosts while her parents are away) as potential hindrances to being accepted by their peers, Lindsay and Sam, in view of Kim’s and Neal’s situations in particular, come to see that while their parents appear to be uncool, the sister and brother have much for which to be grateful. For a show that operates comedically, these discoveries are what give it heart. It’s a manner of undressing the characters—not to embarrass them, but to subvert the politics of fashion.

Freaks and Geeks begins with a testimony of being turned away from a church on the basis of appearances and with a green army jacket. And, notably, each episode begins with a credit sequence featuring the kids “posing” for yearbook photos. And, in addition to the instances of fashion-identity politics noted above, one could name countless plot points involving superficial appearances: that Sam can’t break up with Cindy because she’s so attractive and he would look foolish; that Cindy, though nice on the surface, can be selfish, vindictive, and controlling; that Nick Andopolis gives off the appearance of being band-worthy, but doesn’t come close to cutting it at the audition; that when the President visits the school, certain questions must be asked to protect the appearance of the President; that the kids act drunk at Lindsay’s party when they’ve, unbeknownst to them, been served non-alcoholic beer. But does the show, which ended all too soon after 18 episodes, offer an alternative to the politics of fashion, or is it merely an excellent deconstructive use of irony?

In addition to several moments and clues like the Dean Martin montage, the show’s final episode—even if not intended to be the final episode—includes quite a satisfying scene. After being forced to join the Audio/Visual Club, Daniel spends time with the geeks. Initially, the geeks reverse roles and seem to respond to the freak as an intruder of their territory, but better judgment prevails and they invite Daniel to play a game of “Dungeons & Dragons” at one of their homes. They slowly begin to have a great time together, and it’s here—as they play the roles of the game together—that something memorable happens around the table. Daniel, clearly enjoying moments of newfound friendship with the geeks, gets up to get a drink, and Bill wonders aloud to his fellow geeks, “Does Daniel wanting to play ‘Dungeons & Dragons’ mean that he’s turning into a geek or that we’re turning into cool guys?”

Bill’s question, along with the scene—featuring laughter and undermined boundaries—from which it comes, carries with it an implicit suggestion about how surface appearances can be misleading and manipulative, while intimacy with others can overcome the fashion hegemony. This intimacy is a communion which transcends labels without relinquishing the good, distinctive qualities which may have earned those labels. There’s a suggestion that love has qualities that can unite differences, a suggestion that instead of turning people away on the basis of appearances, we can instead choose to clothe ourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience—a wardrobe well-fit to look beyond superficial appearances.