Football, Class and Sexuality in America
Even though it had received critical praise, when I first read about Big Fan, I seriously doubted that I would be interested in seeing it because of its focus on football. As a general rule, I’m not interested in sports movies, and football is on the very bottom of the list of sports for which I have even a modicum of tolerance. But then I saw the trailer for the movie, and I was stunned by its documentary-style realism. The movie looked like it is more about class and identity than about football. So I saw the movie, and I was right. Sure, Big Fan focuses on a New York Giants fan, Paul Aufiero of Staten Island, and it does provide a kind of anthropological look at the culture of football within the New York working class, but it also pushes football into a more abstract realm and uses the sport to look at masculinity and class in America. In telling Paul’s story, Big Fan is an incredibly tender, painful, and tragic look at the state of masculine identity, social pressures of masculinity, and how masculinity relates to homophobia and class in America via the seemingly heteronormative industry of pro football.
Written by Robert Siegel who also wrote The Wrestler, Big Fan grapples with some of the same issues – carving out an individual identity within the confines of class that tends to homogenize masculinity. Like The Wrestler, Big Fan is very much grounded in the everyday reality of class and the desire to create some sense of individual identity within the confines and expectations of class, yet in Big Fan this identity conflict is pushed into the realm of repressed homosexuality played against the heterosexual background of pro football. It is not too hard to read the narrative as a sad tale of repressed homosexuality. Paul is an infantilized male, a 35 year old attendant at a parking garage who still lives with his mother, sleeps in NFL sheets, and keeps his room plastered with New York Giants posters. His fetish object — New York Giants quarterback Quantrell Bishop – hangs enormous and almost life-sized above his bed. Paul is constantly framed within the matrix of his conflicted identity. He and his best friend Sal are clearly in love yet they project their love onto their mutual adoration of the New York Giants (a nice safe heterosexual repository for their desire). Paul sits bored picking at birthday cake while his sister in-law’s giant tits dominate and almost suffocate a family gathering. He argues with his emasculating and coddling mother about his obsessive masturbation. When Paul and Sal follow Quantrell Bishop into a strip club in Manhattan, the two men stare obsessively and lovingly at Quantrell and are completely oblivious to the bare asses and tits that literally surround them.
Paul’s class reality is clearly delineated by an almost anthropological focus on his environment. Filmed on location in Staten Island and New York, watching this movie is like stepping inside the real world of Paul Aufiero. Meticulously composed mise-en-scène firmly situate Paul within the confines of his class. The house Paul shares with his mother is loaded with the stuff of real life– the cheesy painting with the Christmas lights embedded in it, the electric cord dangling on the wall, the tawdry porcelain doll always sitting on the worn sofa, the small cluttered kitchen, his mother’s collection of Chinese condiments in baggies, the NFL sheets, the radio in his room, the stacks of magazines, the closet crammed with NFL sweatshirts. It is important to note that the location – Staten Island – is critical to understanding how Paul’s conflict relates to his class. Paul is not just a repressed homosexual, but the object of his desire is a black man. These factors are two strikes against him in the racist and homophobic working class environment of a place like Staten Island. Placing Paul within the working class reality of white Staten Island puts him within the heart of racist heteronormativity in America and shows how he uses the acceptable hetero fetish object – pro football – to attempt to manage his sexual repression and create a safe identity within a culture of intolerance.
The plot of the movie hinges on an incident when Paul and Sal follow Quantrell Bishop to a Manhattan strip club, and Quantrell beats Paul unconscious. As Paul and Sal sit in the nightclub surrounded by naked women, ignoring the previously mentioned tits and ass, we can feel their vulnerability. Within the milieu of the strip club, Paul and Sal are inside the belly of the beast – the center of hetero-masculinity, so it’s no surprise that Paul gets beaten up by the heterosexual object of his desire while there. Suffering minor brain damage, his whole identity and love of his life pulled out from under him, Paul refuses to give into pressures to press charges against Quantrell and file a lawsuit. Paul maintains his loyalty to Bishop and his team because it is the sole source of his identity and because he is in love. Paul projects his entire identity and "queerness" onto the safe hetero ground of football, yet when he finds that it isn’t safe ground at all and is beaten within a fraction of his life by the object of his desire, he refuses to relinquish his loyalty because without football he would have no identity. This is the sad and tender tragedy in Paul’s life. Like a woman who returns to her abuser, Paul refuses to press charges against Bishop and returns to his lover (pro football). Indeed, Paul relates to football in the film much like women relate to men which makes sense because he is both infantilized and feminized by his situation (living with his mother, refusing to partake in the “responsible” lifestyle of marriage, family and career). Indeed, Paul outwardly cries that he doesn’t want that life, but given his class demographics, the only alternative life that he can find for himself is channeling all of his identity into being a New York Giants fan.
Watching Paul perform his identity and then struggle to reclaim it after getting beaten is a tender and heart-rending thing. Paul’s main outlet for “being someone” is the identity he has created by calling into late night sports talk radio shows. He has created an almost fictional representation of himself – Paul from Staten Island. He painstakingly scripts what he’s going to say by writing it all down in a spiral notebook while he is at work in his booth at the parking garage. Then he reads his script on the air as his best friend (a.k.a. “repressed lover”) and the world listen enthusiastically. Normally invisible, sitting in the parking lot of Giants Stadium watching the games on TV, Paul suddenly rises up and has a voice. He is “someone.” However, the solidity of his create identity is constantly compromised by his mother’s intrusions from the other room asking him to be quiet. After Paul is beaten by Bishop, he struggles to get his voice and fictional identity back, but can never quite achieve his previous identity. It’s like the veneer of fiction has been stripped away from him, and all he has is the reality he lives in. That reality is hammered home when his arch rival Philadelphia Phil outs him on the radio as being the secret fan who Quantrell beat and when his mother picks up the phone and henpecks Paul on live radio. At this point, the last remaining threads of Paul’s constructed identity come tumbling down, and he stands in his room the repressed homosexual boy/man that he is.
Paul’s internal conflict culminates when he takes a trip to Phildelphia to find Philadelphia Phil. In a scene that sets us up for violence, Paul dons the make-up of the Eagles and hunts down Phil in a sports bar. The tension between Paul’s repressed homosexuality and the extreme heterosexuality of football plays out as the Eagles beat the Giants on the television, and Phil and other Eagles fans in the bar shout, “Giants suck cock. Giants suck balls.” Paul digests this brazen homophobic display targeted at him (the repressed homosexual Giants fan), then follows Phil to the restroom and shoots him repeatedly in the bathroom stall. We watch as Paul shoots bullet after bullet into Phil’s body. But something is wrong. Phil isn’t dying. “You shouldn’t have been so mean,” Paul cries to the stunned Phil. “You didn’t have to be mean.” At that point, Phil lifts his hands, and they’re covered with red and blue paint, the colors of the New York Giants. Paul shot Phil with a paint gun, and in doing so maintained his “non-violent” outsider relation to the sport of football and the violence of hetero-masculinity. Where we expected violence, we just got a sad sense of injustice, hurt, and desperation.
The odd tension that plays out in that restroom stall underscores what is most interesting to me about the movie, how the conflicts within Paul are mirrored by the film’s construction. The main conflict in the film is how Paul uses the extremely hetero veneer of pro-football and fandom to play two sides at once. He uses it to carve out an identity for himself both within and without the system of heteronormative masculinity. The film itself also plays two sides. On one level, it is an anthropological study of class and football in America, but on another it is a poetic exercise in symbol and sexuality; it is both realistic and specific and universal and poetic. To some, the eroticization of football and its connection to repressed homosexuality and the violence of heteronormativity may seem obvious, but if that’s the case why don’t any of the reviews of this movie note the sexual component? If the message of the movie is so obvious, why isn’t anyone talking about it? Is it because talking about football and homosexuality is a taboo subject? It seems to me that the very fact that no one is talking about the movie within the matrix of sexuality, hetero or homo, is reason enough to see this movie and think about these things. The reason we are left with such a tender place in our hearts for Paul, even though he is supposedly just an obsessed football fan, isn’t because he was betrayed by his football team but because he is betrayed by the whole system of heteronormativity. Paul has no choice but to operate within that system and find a place for himself even as it kicks him in the head.
KIM NICOLINI is an artist, poet and cultural critic. She lives in Tucson, Arizona with her daughter and a menagerie of beasts. Her work has appeared in Punk Planet, Berkeley Poetry Review, Bad Subjects, and Bullhorn. She is currently finishing a book-length essayistic memoir about being a teenage runaway in 1970s San Francisco. She can be reached at: email@example.com