Foxcatcher’s Gay Subtext Brings “Rough Trade” to the Movies

(From left) Rough Trade, Letchy Fairy. 

Sony Pictures Classics

This essay contains spoilers. 

To understand the discomfort that many gay viewers are undoubtedly feeling in screenings of Foxcatcher—the dreary bit of Oscar bait just out from director Bennett Miller—you need to understand a few things about gay archetypes and how they have historically functioned. This is important, because I cannot think of another recent movie that so clearly relies on homo-anxious, dog-whistle shorthand for both its characterization and plot; and yet, save for Armond White’s scathing piece in OUT, the film’s largely positive reviews have avoided real examination of the issue.

To be fair, some critics have wondered aloud about the film’s “hints” at homoeroticism, but they have ultimately shied away from going further. They would likely suggest that Foxcatcher is “about” other issues: addiction, mental illness, the mentor-mentee relationship, the excesses of the 1 percent, and possibly some hazy Deep Truths about American culture. Those elements are probably in there somewhere, but it’s the gay subtext—in this case, the age-old story of a wealthy, effete fairy going after rough trade—that feels most central, most necessary for the movie to make whatever narrative sense it does.

Before I unpack the fairy/trade dynamic further, a little necessary background on the film. My colleague Aisha Harris has looked into the accuracy question and found the movie is fairly faithful—at least in terms of bare outline—to the events on which it is based. Channing Tatum’s Mark Schultz and Mark Ruffalo’s David Schultz really were Olympic gold-medal-toting wrestlers (and brothers) in the 1980s, and Steve Carell’s be-schnozzed John du Pont really did launch and recruit for a wrestling training program on his family’s manor near Valley Forge in Pennsylvania, the eventual aim being to take Mark and his “Foxcatcher” team to the 1988 Olympic Games.* And perhaps most important, du Pont really did kill Dave Schultz in cold blood—though about seven years later than the movie’s ambiguous editing implies.

These historical plot points aside, Miller spends most of his film rhapsodizing on the troubled relationship between du Pont and his new toy Mark, an (over)grown man with the injured-yet-credulous soul of an abused puppy. If I made supercuts, I’d make one of the many minutes of tape in which Carell gazes luridly over his prosthetic nose at Tatum’s physique from some darkened corner or couch, and I’d punctuate it with actual lines from the film like “you look good—strong, fit,” and “excellent bed—good mattress, firm.” And if I were forced to spell out the tortured metaphor that Miller insists on advancing throughout the movie, I’d explain that Mark is a fine specimen of man-flesh that du Pont really, really wants to ride. (Mother raises horses; shouldn’t sonny have a thoroughbred of his own?) By Foxcatcher’s logic, the reason du Pont shoots David in the end is essentially because brothers get to nuzzle one another and if-I-can’t-pet-him-no-one-can.

It’s crucial to note that all of this fictionalized material represents a striking departure from most interpretations of the real-world events, both in terms of how observers made sense of them at the time and how Mark himself viewed them in his memoir. Harris hits on two big examples of this in her post:

In the movie, John’s mother (played by Vanessa Redgrave), for instance, is portrayed as the driving force behind his insecurities, while in the book Schultz does not recall her being a significant factor in du Pont’s behavior. Most notably, perhaps, the movie makes no mention of du Pont’s diagnosis with paranoid schizophrenia, which, at his trial, was offered as an explanation for the murder.

I cannot overstate the impact of these divergences. Leaving the mother issue aside for a moment, had Miller presented du Pont as suffering from schizophrenia either through some mode of medical intervention or scenes of truly erratic behavior (for most of the film he just seems eccentric, creepy, weird, or some combination of the three), Foxcatcher would have been a very different movie—certainly a much less ominous one. When mentally ill people act strangely, they do it for a clear, rather boring reason; fictionalized du Pont’s motivations are, on the contrary, flirtatiously subtle.

And the most vexing aspect of this obfuscation is that it was not done due to a lack of compelling biographical material: As Harris notes, there exist many accounts of du Pont’s obviously paranoid episodes (for example, he thought treadmills were time machines), none of which appear in the film. But then, none of these read as crypto-gay either. Schultz writes in his memoir that “I had my suspicions [that du Pont might be gay], but I never observed … anything that would cause me to say he was a homosexual. I never knew of any relationships he had with guys.” Miller and his team had a choice in how they colored du Pont’s psychology—apparently perverse proved a more attractive shade than plain old disturbed.  

Which brings me back to rough trade. If du Pont is the perverted fairy-aristocrat in the dynamic I described earlier, then Mark is the trade. The term will be familiar to many gay readers, but perhaps less so to others, so here’s a quick introduction. Trade is a slang word from Polari, a gay English dialect popular in the 19th and early 20th centuries that’s mostly died out now save for a few expressions. The term generally refers to a masculine-presenting man who is not gay-identified, but who will have sex with gay men for money or social status. Usage varies, but “rough trade” usually carries with it a working-class connotation—dock workers, day laborers, military grunts, and stable boys are all classic examples—as well as a suggestion of brutish threat: The only reward for your investment and services rendered may be an ass-kicking. After Foxcatcher, I think we can safely add “struggling wrestler” to the category.

Even if you didn’t consciously know about the fairy/trade dynamic before, you’ve almost certainly picked it up along the way as a cultural trope, a lazy way of representing gay male relationships as predatory—and therein lies my problem with this movie. It’s not that a trade-based relationship is necessarily off-limits; it’s that in 2014 the most basic version of the dynamic cannot be the motivating force of an entire story (that’s not set in 1890s London). Miller’s John du Pont and Mark Schultz could have had a similar relationship and yet been more than a bad stereotype if either character had any depth at all—the trade dynamic is certainly open to complication. But as Harris points out in her post, Foxcatcher weirdly elides almost all of du Pont’s backstory, and what little we get of Mark’s isn’t all that humanizing.

Indeed, in du Pont’s case, Freud basically makes a cameo in the form of the overbearing, disapproving mother figure who frets over her adult son’s train set and is made dyspeptic by the sight of her boy getting “low” on the mat with other men. Dysfunction was inevitable, obviously, and Carell’s sallow styling and limp-wristed jogging really is masterful—if what you’re after is a two-dimensional portrait of the Victorian invert. Miller’s only real innovation to the archetype is to give us a figure who trades the stable boy for a whole stable (because horses!) of boys.

Meanwhile, Mark—the film’s ostensible tragic figure—may have meat on his bones, but there’s hardly enough flesh on the part to make us care. Tatum performs well as unruly livestock, gamely having his spirit broken by du Pont in a disturbing late-night humping encounter and appearing moments later in booty shorts and inexplicable frosted tips, snorting some blow up his perfectly rugged nose on the veranda. Sure, he might bristle at the bridle from time to time (trade always does), but those $10,000 bonus checks aren’t so bad, right?  

These unimaginative characterizations are disappointing, to be sure. But what really soured Foxcatcher for me (aside from discovering that so much of this stuff arose from artistic choice rather than historical fact) was Miller’s insistence that the true cost of this gay drama was not to du Pont or even Mark, but to the heterosexual family. I would apologize to my theater companions for audibly groaning when the camera drifted, dirge-like, over the word “KIDS” scrawled in ink on David’s hand and past a display of his wedding photo and cake topper as straight wholesomeness—I mean he—bled out on the snow, but I would not be sincere. Message received.

The more I reflect on this movie, the more I feel like it relies on a particularly insidious—and troublingly effective—kind of homophobic suggestion for its allure. Nothing anti-gay is ever presented clearly, and yet, if you’re primed to accept homophobic ideology (or to look for it in media), its presence in Foxcatcher is palpable. Though the specific mechanisms are very different, Whiplash (which I wrote about previously) presents a similar quandary to the attuned viewer. How striking that two of the year’s most praised dramatic releases rely so heavily on a queer threat, veiled and encrypted as it may be, for their thrills, their sexiness. As Oscar season continues, the question of why we’re finding this trope so seductive right now is one, I think, we are going to need to wrestle with—let’s hope we have the intellectual strength to try.

*Correction, Nov. 23, 2014: This post originally misspelled actor Steve Carell’s last name.