Blades of Glory: Gay Panic at the Ice Rink

Josh Gordon, Will Speck
Will Ferrell, Jon Heder, Will Arnett, Amy Poehler, Jenna Fischer, Craig T. Nelson

It seems that one of the effects of "breakthrough" movies such as Brokeback Mountain and TV shows such as Will & Grace is that straight people are now much more comfortable including gays—and gay panic—in their entertainments. While waiting for Blades of Glory to begin I sat through two trailers with prominent gay jokes. One was for Shrek the Third, in which, as a final laugh, a man in drag with a heavy five-o'clock shadow says, in the drony nasal voice that has come to be associated with gays, “I know he’s a jerk and everything, but I gotta admit, that Charming makes me hotter than July,” to which the women behind him say “Ewww!.” And finally, an entire movie full of gay jokes, I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry, which stars Adam Sandler and Kevin James as straight firefighters who must endure a gay marriage or risk financial ruin for some reason. The primary joke, at least as expressed in the trailer, is that they start to have a real emotional connection and start to bicker and care about each other as though they were "really married." This movie, by the way, is directed by Dennis Dugan, who is married to a woman in real life, but played the wildly effeminate lover in Norman, Is That You?

The trailer for Blades of Glory focuses on the gay panic. It would seem that for the majority of straight people, doing something that seems “gay,” or especially someone else THINKING you are gay, causes great anxiety—the kind of anxiety that causes laughter as a manner of release. This anxiety is called 'gay panic,' and it is exploited to get people in to Will Ferrell's current film, Blades of Glory. We are invited to consider how laughably hilarious it is that men dress in bright tights and do something as girly as figure skate. The film uses gay panic as a laugh-getter as we contemplate the indignity of two men having to skate as a male couple, in their bright tights and with all the intimate body contact implied. The spots that have been pulled out for the trailer as the laugh-getters most likely to bring audiences into the theater focus on the men touching each other's crotches, having the other's crotch in their face, and skating in a position that looks as though they could be having anal sex. So audiences showing up for this movie are gearing up for an hour and a half of Will Ferrell gay panic humor.

The movie begins at a skating event and uses sports-coverage devices to deliver exposition on its protagonists. We first cover Jimmy MacElroy, played by Jon Heder with fluffy golden locks that are supposed to appear humorously feminine. We learn that he was an orphan who took to skating at an early age, and see him in a shiny golden lycra bodysuit at around the age of four. A billionaire sees him skating and "buys" him from the orphanage, entering him into a dehumanizing training program to make him a virtual skating machine. We then return to the present, where we see Jimmy skating with an outfit that is supposed to look like a peacock, the joke being that it is humorously feminine, and ridiculous that a man would think something along those lines would be an addition to his performance. The sportscasters say of Jimmy: "Very few women skate with this kind of beauty."

We are then introduced to Will Ferrell as Chazz Michael Michaels, another in his line of clueless buffoon heterosexual men who think they're much more sexually attractive then they are. We are told that Chazz is a sex addict, made a porn film, and had a 35-year-old girlfriend when he was nine. Chazz wears a red cowboy outfit and makes sexual motions of thrusting with his hips and licking his tongue between his fingers. The announcers refer to him as "Surfing a tsunami of swagger" and describe him as "sex on ice."

We are also introduced to Stranz and Fairchild, a brother-sister skating duo who were raised by their parents to be the JonBenet Ramsays of couples figure skating. They have a sister, Katie, who is much less competitive and more sympathetic, who will become Jimmy's love interest—once the movie lets on that Jimmy is not gay.

At this initial competition, Jimmy and Chazz tie for the Gold medal, have a fight, and are banned from the sport. Since he is no longer allowed to skate, Jimmy's father abandons him by the side of the road. We are soon introduced to Hector, a homosexual obsessed with Jimmy, who speaks in a depressed, unctuous voice. Jimmy says "Hector, you know I still have that restraining order against you," to which Hector responds "Oh THAT thing," and goes on to gleefully ignore it. Hector's character is very similar to the character Philip Seymour Hoffman played in Boogie Nights: the depressed, whiny fag desperately in love with a straight character. The dangerous obsession of Hector's particular character is that he tells Jimmy he wants to “cut off your skin and wear it to my birthday.”

So eventually they get the idea [supplied by Hector] that Jimmy and Chazz can continue to compete as a couple. Now all along Jimmy has been dressing in outrageously feminine outfits of pastel blue or green, wearing his fluffy blond hair in a volumous wavy perm [later called the “Jimmy Curl”], and maintaining the demeanor of a sassy, bitchy gay man, and insulting Chazz with such bon mots as “You’re a douche.” This interpretation is confirmed a few minutes later when the two male skaters make a half-serious joke about which will lead when they dance, i.e. which one of them is the woman. Both Chazz and their coach confirm to Jimmy: "You’re the woman," with Chazz saying this is because Jimmy “has a vagina.”

Adding to the characterization of Jimmy as the gay member of the relationship are exchanges such as this one, when the coach first suggests they form a team. Chazz says "This guy couldn't even hold my jock sweat," and Jimmy replies "I can hold it all day long. Why don’t you try me." “Maybe I will,” Chazz says. “Maybe you should,” Jimmy responds.

After a short practice sequence, they are in their first competition. This is the sequence much of the trailer is taken from, where the Chazz holds Jimmy in the air via his crotch. They both hold each other with respective crotches in each other's faces, then with Chazz holding Jimmy in a position that looks as though he is penetrating him anally. The humor is gay panic humor, laughter that expresses what a horrible situation it would be for most men to find their face inches away from another man's crotch, or how “gay” it looks for them to spin together like that. The scene ends with the two skaters sliding forward and slamming their crotches together at high speed. The second time I saw this film, specifically in order to write this article, there were very few people in the audience. They were virtually silent up until this skating scene, but erupted in raucous laughter during this sequence.

An important element of the film occurs here, however, as Jimmy falls and appears disinclined to continue the routine. Chazz offers his hand to help him up, and when Jimmy stands, the on-screen audience erupts in cheers that continue through the end of the routine. It’s important when this happens, as the on-screen audience is essentially telling the movie theater audience how to react to these two men skating together. And it signals the sharp turn the movie is about to take.

After this sequence—exactly halfway through the movie—we have the introduction of Katie as Jimmy's love interest. This is the first time the audience knows that Jimmy is not gay, and it’s somewhat of a shock. Seeing it a second time, it seems that between the outfits and hair and bitchiness the filmmakers definitely led the audience toward the assumption that Jimmy is gay, only to switch at this point and reveal that he is merely sexually undeveloped.

Now that the pair have qualified for the big championship in Montreal, the coach decides that in order for them to become a team, they must live together, sleep together and pee together. They have a discussion of who will be on top of the bunk beds [“I call top,” says Jimmy], a position which Chazz then just takes, in the manner of an older brother. The conception of the two of them as brothers, rather than potential romantic partners, will continue to the end of the movie. During the scene where the two skaters move in together, Jimmy’s wardrobe has taken a dramatic turn toward the more traditionally masculine, with jeans, a dark shirt and denim jacket. Although it is not accomplished all at once, Jimmy’s wardrobe will continue trending away from the flamboyant clothes he chose previously and increasingly toward the more traditionally masculine until the end of the film.

Katie is obviously interested in Jimmy, and soon her brother and sister manipulate her into seducing Jimmy, then sleeping with Chazz, to break the couple up. There is an amusing scene in which Katie is on one end of a phone conversation, being coached by her brother and sister to make outrageously sexual double-entendres, while on the other end Chazz is coaching Jimmy in what to say when trying to talk to girls on the phone.

As the two men continue growing closer together as a team, Chazz seems to be letting go of the need to constantly enforce his rigidly macho exterior. While he earlier said that Jimmy has a “vagina,” he now says that the two of them have “twin dongs.” Then there is a subplot in which Jimmy and Chazz have an acrimonious separation, and Chazz spends the entire night leaving phone messages for Jimmy in the manner of an emotional person at the end of a romantic relationship.

In here we have also introduced a black character, Jesse, who is a choreographer. His demeanor seems gay throughout, but what’s most interesting is a stained glass window in the kitchen of coach’s home that seems to show him and coach, their arms around each other, wearing white T shirts with large red hearts on them, and a number of red hearts floating in the air above them. Are coach and Jesse a gay couple? There isn’t much more in the film to support it, suggesting that there may be some deleted scenes somewhere that delineate these characters’ relationship more clearly. This is actually confirmed by a publicity still showing a scene not in the finished film, a view of Coach's home that contains a large glass rainbow-flag triangle [below].

Eventually the two men perform their big skating set together. Jimmy now has learned to thrust his hips and lick sexually between his fingers like Chazz. Then they perform their big stunt, which, if not done with absolute precision, will decapitate one of the pair. Chazz has always been the lead skater, that is, he would decapitate Jimmy, but an injury forces Jimmy to take the lead, putting Chazz in the submissive position. But Chazz trusts Jimmy now, and the move is executed flawlessly, with Jimmy’s blade coming so close it cuts two small hairs of Chazz's beard.

Afterward, Katie rushes to meet Jimmy, who kisses her like a full-fledged romantic hero. She asks him where he learned to kiss, and he says "Chazz taught me some things." She makes an expression that implies she is wondering if the men actually kissed, then decides she doesn't care. An emotional Chazz tells the press that he never had a father, but he doesn’t care, because now he has a brother. Chazz reveals a tattoo he got of Jimmy, right next to his “Lone wolf” tattoo, saying that now “The lone wolf doesn’t have to be alone any more.” The movie ends with Chazz and Jimmy taking each other's hand and flying into the stratosphere.

Then, during the credits, there is a short sequence in which obsessive gay Hector appears again, playing with Ken-like dolls of Jimmy and Chazz. In his scenario a doll representing him tells asks to speak to Chazz alone. He tells Chazz some of the things that Jimmy likes, and asks him to take care of Jimmy; Hector has given him up and entrusted Jimmy to Chazz’s care.

So the story of Blades of Glory lends itself nicely to an interpretation that includes all of the homoeroticism and themes of brotherhood being alluded to throughout. But let me preface this by stating that I am NOT saying that Will Ferrell and writers Jeff and Craig Cox sat around trying to deliver this underlying story about homosocial fraternity. While surely some of it was intended, I think that in writing a story that seemed funny and placing the elements where they seem to "fit," they happened to construct a subtext that tells a supporting story of its own.

Jimmy has no parents, hence no father figure in his life. He falls into an androgynous persona as a young boy where he dresses in flamboyant clothes and has skill in a sport that requires delicacy and poise, instead of power and strength, like more typical boys' sports. He is adopted by a surrogate father, but this man makes little emotional connection, and trains young Jimmy like an animal, with a stake in his remaining in the feminized anti-sexual state he was in. By the time we see him as an adult he is in an outfit like a peacock [a male animal known for its beauty], and this is immediately followed by the commentator saying the beauty of his skating surpasses that of women.

By contrast, Chazz is placed to the other extreme, a ludicrously macho skater who represents "a tsunami of swagger." He is macho, but his masculinity has an over-emphasized, desperate quality. He skates by a long line of adoring female fans who want HIM, to center on Jimmy and say "I want YOU." Thus a lot of the comedy in the first half is achieved by how very much the male couple is like a heterosexual couple; one male, one "female."

When the two skaters get kicked out of the sport, Jimmy's only father figure abandons him by the side of the road. We then introduce the ridiculous figure of Hector, the homicidal homosexual. Hector is there to focus the homosexuality outside of both Jimmy and Chazz, which allows them to be accepted without discomfort by a straight audience. To straight audiences gays are, like the man in the Shrek trailer and Hector here, absolutely obsessed with straight men. And although Hector is ultimately a likeable and harmless figure, and it's worth noting that the only openly gay character in this movie wants to kill the person he adores and wear his skin… and that this is treated as a harmless way in which he expresses his devotion.

When Jimmy and Chazz team up, they take on the roles of big brother / little brother. They have to live together and sleep in the same room, with big brother Chazz demanding the top bunk. We laugh when they skate with their crotches in each other's faces and slam their crotches together, but they don't seem too uncomfortable with most of it [and are completely comfortable by the end of the film], because their relation is coming to be one of brothers.

During this second half of the movie Chazz teaches Jimmy how to be masculine, and give up the feminized trappings of his youth. He coaches him about what to say on the phone, Jimmy learns to thrust his hips and lick suggestively between his fingers from Chazz, and we find out that Chazz taught him how to kiss. His clothes also become progressively more traditionally masculine. This points to what may be the reason that Jimmy’s character cannot be fully gay, but has to be an effeminized asexual; if he were gay and Chazz taught him to be straight, that would be offensive. Since he is merely effeminate but not openly homosexual, it does not stand out as offensive. But ultimately the movie seems to be making a different point altogether.

One of the ways this relationship is able to succeed is that Chazz is so devoted to Jimmy. There are several occasions when Jimmy is ready to give up and walk away, but Chazz pursues him and wins him over through his devotion. One indication of this is when Chazz offers his hand when Jimmy falls, and another when he expresses his devotion to he and Jimmy as a team at a press conference. The most affecting episode in this vein is the series of late-night phone messages Chazz leaves on Jimmy's machine, which is played as a parody of stereotypical romantic breakup behavior. But this devotion and insistence on holding onto Jimmy is what makes Jimmy's heterosexual re-education work, because Chazz becomes the male figure of veneration that Jimmy, with his absent biological father and unloving surrogate father who abandoned him, never had. We also find out at the end that Chazz never had a father; in mentoring Jimmy he becomes the father figure he never had.

So then what of Chazz’s arc? His is less noticeable than Jimmy's, but nonetheless important. Chazz starts the movie as a parody of the macho male who needs nothing [i.e. no other man] except hot women. Even as he becomes Jimmy's "older brother," he assumes the dominant role [and the top bunk] without discussion. Throughout the movie Chazz becomes more and more attached to Jimmy, eventually going from considering Jimmy as a person with “a vagina” to considering the two of them together as having “twin dongs.” Chazz’s arc is in giving up his dominant position, as well as the rigid trappings of an outwardly macho persona, and becoming more comfortable with caring about another man.

This is symbolized most potently at the end, when Chazz allows Jimmy to take the dominant position during the big skating stunt, trusting Jimmy not to decapitate him. I asked my psychoanalyst friend afterward if decapitation, when reported in dreams, is commonly understood to stand in for castration, and he confirmed that it was. So Chazz has become comfortable in letting himself be the submissive partner, or, as they conceived of it earlier in the film: “The woman.” He is trusting Jimmy to take the dominant position without negating his own masculinity, that is, without being castrated. Thus it fits with the theme that in performing the stunt, Jimmy's blade removes a tiny bit of hair from Chazz's beard: he has reduced Chazz's manhood by a tiny fraction, but not negated it.

No. In fact, ultimately I believe it ingeniously has the effect of drawing in viewers with the promise of laughing at the gays and all the gay panic humor, then translating their reaction into a more inclusive enthusiasm for brotherhood, regardless of how gay someone seems.

After the first 45 minutes of laughing at Jimmy for how very gay he seems, the important change comes when he falls and Chazz skates over to help him up. When the pair begin to skate again and the on-screen audience cheers in wild support, this is kind of a surprise to the movie audience, as most of them expect the on-screen audience to continue in distain. That they don’t—and we are talking about thousands of on-screen audience members—in effect shames the movie audience for their expectation that the idea of two men skating together should continue to be ridiculous. The thousands of people overlooking the ridiculousness of the skating pair and focusing on the skill involved essentially tells the movie audience that this is what they should be concentrating on as well.

The revelation of Jimmy as an asexual straight man also inadvertently has this effect as well. For the first half, the audience is focusing on how very gay Jimmy seems, and is assuming that he is gay. When it is revealed that he is not gay, rather than seeming like a denial of what he is, it has the effect of pointing out to the audience that effeminacy and flamboyant clothes do not necessarily a homosexual make. The coach turning out to be gay would continue this theme, if there were more of it in the movie, as here is a traditionally masculine man who turns out to be gay.

Finally, Chazz, who starts the film with a rigidly-maintained heterosexual persona, represents a lot of the gay panic much of the audience is feeling, and laughing at: he’s more worried is that someone might THINK he’s gay than that something “gay” might happen to him. As he overcomes his revulsion against seeming gay and comes to accept, care for and show intense devotion to his partner—even in front of thousands of people—he offers an excellent example of an admired character looking past the perceived embarrassment of being close to a gay man and on to who they are, and the brotherhood he shares with them.

Is any of this intended by the writers, stars and director? Surely some of it, but ultimately what matters is what made it up there on the screen. Blades of Glory draws viewers in with the promise of a lot of laughter based on gay panic, then expertly switches that out with a message that tells them: “Come on guys, isn’t it time we got past this?”