Thursday, July 18, 2024

‘Challengers’: The Tragedy of Cat Zimmerman

Note: This piece contains major plot spoilers for Challengers

The most widely seen shot in Luca Guadagnino’s Challengers is Zendaya on a hotel room bed, flanked by her co-stars Mike Faist and Josh O’Connor. It’s the most talked about part of the movie’s hype cycle, featured in many articles and social media posts for the film. I’ve seen Challengers twice in packed theaters, and you can feel the anticipation for the scene to play out, with the promise of homoeroticism being fulfilled. Yes, the scene on the bed is quite fascinating to behold in its depiction of sexual manipulation and euphoria. For me, however, it’s the previous part of the sequence that holds my interest. And I wonder if it’s the key to understanding the dynamic between Tashi (Zendaya), Art (Faist), and Pat (O’Connor). 

Tashi sits in a triangle on the floor with Art and Pat, probing about their obvious bromance. They play together, went to a tennis academy together, and are rooming together. She asks about their dating life, knowingly teasing out their mutual attraction to her and testing them. Tashi then asks if either of the two of them ever… She gives a look and, at first, Art and Pat staunchly deny anything ever happened between the two of them. But Pat reveals, much to Art’s embarrassment, the time Pat taught Art how to masturbate when they were pre-teens. They were both talking about a girl in their class, Cat Zimmerman. Tashi asks who got to date Cat Zimmerman after. No one, because a week later she got injured and had to quit tennis. It doesn’t matter anyway, because “she sucked.” And so the homoerotic tension between Art and Pat was born. Whatever happened to poor Cat Zimmerman is left a mystery, but one can assume that her tennis career ended there. 

Cat’s unfortunate injury is repeated years later when Tashi suffers what turns out to be a career-ending injury. Right before that fateful match, she and then-boyfriend Pat have a vicious fight. They’re about to have sex; Tashi is talking about tennis and his game, mentioning Art in between their moans. But Pat doesn’t want to talk about tennis, and resists Tashi’s coaching. They stop and fight about their roles in the relationship, with house music blaring so loud you can barely hear the dialogue. Some might read this as Tashi being distracted by their fight enough to lose focus and injure herself. However, I don’t think that’s the whole story. 

Right before that fight scene, you have the churro scene between Pat and Art. They discuss Art inserting himself into Tashi and Pat’s relationship, which he denies. Pat seems amused by the whole thing, essentially proud of Art for showing some kind of passion and self-interest. It makes his relationship hotter, Pat says, knowing that his best friend is pining over his girlfriend. Again we see Art and Pat project their bromance onto a woman they are both attracted to. Their body language is intimate: Pat using his foot to scoot over a stool for Art, or their shared churros. Again, sex is a somewhat shared experience between them, even if vicariously. And again some time later, their shared object of desire is injured on the court. Only this time that woman is Tashi, a tennis prodigy whose entire life revolves around the sport. Tashi, in turn, projects her own relationship to the sport onto the men in her life. We saw this already in that fight scene with Pat and the earlier beach scene. But with Pat rejecting her role, she and Art get closer. Art not only longs for her, he wants her coaching and her approval. 

Is this unresolved queer tension between Art and Pat some kind of curse? One can say, well, athletes injure themselves all the time and you can’t blame anyone for that. Accidents happen, of course. There is something fascinating to me about Cat Zimmerman and her parallel with Tashi. Cat was used as a sexual fantasy then discarded because she couldn’t play as well. Tashi, however, has the boys–and the audience–completely hypnotized both on and off the court. Her injury takes her off the court, but opens her up to coaching. Tashi projects her lost career onto Art as his wife and coach.  And let’s add a third woman to this theme: Anna, Tashi’s opponent when we first see her play. Anna is a racist sore loser, according to Tashi. Later we hear that she’s had a successful pro career. Art and Pat barely were watching her. They had their attention squarely on Tashi. It’s an interesting little detail in the film, a bittersweet “what if” moment. 

In the climactic final section of the movie, Art and Pat’s tension reaches its boiling point. But through their match, they seem to resolve their tension–finally reaching that “true tennis” zenith that Tashi was always chasing. Some have read this ending as the boys getting over their rivalry and Tashi being screwed as now Art knows about her secret dalliances with Pat throughout their marriage. And sure when Pat gives Art the “signal” he used when he dated Tashi and they have their unspoken standoff, Tashi is unaware, for once, of what is happening between them. But I’m not so ready to imagine that her life comes crashing down post-credits. Guadagnino chooses to end the movie on a moment of triumph for her, releasing a guttural “come on!” at their display of raw athleticism. 

Pat and Art need each other; and they need Tashi in a way they didn’t need Cat Zimmerman or Anna or any other coach. These guys became pure tennis players through their fixation on and relationships with Tashi, and she needs them to realize her own vision of tennis. Tennis is a relationship, Tashi says, and through the game Tashi, Art, and Pat can overcome their unspoken jealousies, attractions, and conflict. 

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