From Hot Dogs to Bananas to Churros, Challengers Is Chock-Full of Phallic Cuisine

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Amazon MGM Studios

You don’t need a master’s in film theory to understand what all the phallic foods in Challengers are supposed to signify. For a film with very little actual sex, Art Donaldson (Mike Faist) and Patrick Zweig (Josh O’Connor) sure do spend a lot of time chowing down on hot dogs, bananas, and churros. The churro scene, in particular, is a treat to watch: as college-age Art and Patrick unpack their feelings about the mutual object of their affection, rising tennis superstar Tashi Duncan (Zendaya), they chomp down on sticks of fried dough from the Stanford cafeteria, occasionally taking bites out of each other’s hands, and getting covered in cinnamon sugar. The meaning is obvious: their erotic competition for Tashi is also a vehicle for their own attraction to each other — a theme that pervades the time-jumping threesome movie.

That scene in particular immediately captured the imagination of anyone who saw the film opening weekend. The stars of the movie are already being asked to talk all things choux pastry, with O’Connor confessing that it was his “first churro” and Zendaya pointing out that director Luda Guadagnino — who turned the humble peach into a sex symbol with Call Me by Your Name — added the food to the script. “What we see is basically, a sort of like, a game of revelry, a sparkling between these two young boys, over Tashi, but at the same time, a jealousy that ignites the relationship. Also, because probably, these two guys are also jealous of one another, not only of Tashi,” the director told the New York Times of the scene.

But we’re not done unpacking the churro just yet. To discuss all things Challengers, senior news editor Sally Tamarkin and editorial business manager Juan Velasquez joined me for a conversation about cylindrical cuisine, Y2K aesthetics, and the film’s rousing techno score. — Samantha Allen

Samantha Allen: In the history of Them roundtable discussions, I’m not sure we’ve ever assembled a more important brain trust than this: We are gathered together today to discuss the ubiquitousness of phallic foods in Luca Guadagnino’s Challengers.

Immediately after the movie ended, I wanted to talk with somebody about the churros scene. Maybe we’d touch on the banana moment, but the churros were obviously the centerpiece, right? But then Sally, you reminded me that there was also a scene in which Art and Patrick eat hot dogs together. So my first, very important question is: What is your ranking of the erotic phallic food sequences in this tennis threesome movie?

Juan Velasquez: I think since I forgot the hot dogs, that would be my least favorite, followed by the banana and the winner is the churros, for sure. The Foley work on those crunchy cinnamon dough sticks was ASMR gold.

Sally Tamarkin: I think we have to give it to the churros. Of all the times Art and Patrick eat phallic foods with and around each other, I think the chemistry — honestly, “sexual tension” does a disservice to what’s happening with these two — between Josh O’Connor and Mike Faist is at its most potent in the churro scene. The way they hold eye contact while Patrick holds the churro up to Art’s mouth, who — without breaking eye contact — smirks and opens up to take a bite…. well, move over, Call Me by Your Name peach.

I do want to shout out Art eating a packet of sports gel, pulling on the container with his teeth until the goo comes out (sorry), which happens alongside Patrick’s banana-eating. I just can’t not point this out.

S.A.: Right? That was such a smart contrast between Art, the supplement-swilling cuck, and Patrick, the fruit-eating Chad. Not to mention the pink hydration elixir Art is sipping on during the entire challenger match. What works so well in the churro scene is that it’s basically a psychosexual dance between the two men, as you pointed out, Sally. When Patrick finishes off the rest of Art’s churro, he’s saying, “I’m hungrier than you,” in multiple senses.

J.V.: Also don’t forget the way Patrick pulls the stool closer with his foot to make sure they were sitting nice and close. There was an audible gasp from the audience at my screening when the stool scooched over.

I’d be remiss to not mention how sloppy Patrick is when eating, getting cinnamon sugar on his cheek and in his hair. Not only does it give Art a chance to wipe it off for him, but it shows how playful and young they are at this point in the movie, before things get a bit bleaker later on.

<h1 class="title">CHALLENGERS (2023)</h1><cite class="credit">Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures</cite>


Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures

S.A.: There’s so much going on with food in this movie, y’all. The Dunkin’ Donuts breakfast sandwich. The remains of the cake at the Cincinnati Applebee’s. The sad Stanford cafeteria broccoli when Art is trying to undermine Tashi’s relationship with Patrick over lunch. Apart from the recurring Trent Reznor / Atticus Drop techno needle drops, the little nibbles in every scene definitely seem to be part of the Challengers secret sauce.

Juan, it sounds like you had a good crowd? I was, unfortunately, at an empty screening. Any other big reactions? I laughed out loud during the sauna scene, especially at the “Can you put your dick away?” / “This is a sauna” exchange.

J.V.: There was a recent Curb Your Enthusiasm episode about Sienna Miller and her “fruit acting.” Larry David accuses her of eating apples in every scene of her recent film, which she is of course completely blindsided by. It seems like there is something in the zeitgeist about eating while dialoguing on screen that Luca has tapped into.

As far as big reactions, my friend Katie and I couldn’t help but dance to the Reznor/Ross beats. I couldn’t tell if anyone else was grooving around in their seats as much as we were, but for an 11 a.m. weekend screening, the theater was more than half full and the group energy was palpable, especially in the final match scene.

“The Foley work on those crunchy cinnamon dough sticks was ASMR gold.”

S.A.: OK, Sally, when you texted me your ticket to announce you were seeing it, my eyes were definitely drawn to the showing time: 10:30 a.m. What is with you both and these matinees? This movie should play in nightclubs, and you’re out here seeing it during brunch!

ST: One thing about me is: I love the morning and prefer to get all my life and work business done before afternoon whenever possible. When I saw that I could start my day with a horny sports movie that is sometimes shot like a soft drink commercial, and at other times has the urgency of Dunkirk, and at still others feels like a biopic about Josh O’Connor’s body, face, and hair, it wasn’t really even a decision for me. The auditorium was me and maybe six other weirdos.

J.V.: This is a habit I developed one weekend after signing up for the AMC A-List. I was up super early and decided to check out the first screening available. I took myself out to breakfast beforehand, and thus my breakfast matinee self-care routine was born. Lots of my friends are early risers! It’s fun to catch a flick and still have the rest of the day to go shopping at Marshall’s and Home Goods. That’s relatable right?

S.A.: Perhaps on the note of you both attending AARP screenings, I do have to note that we collectively form the elder millennial contingent of Them. I personally enjoyed having my contemporary understanding of queerness projected backward onto some very 2006 scenes, like the Nelly “Hot in Herre” sequence. Did either of you find that oddly healing?

J.V.: I think the churro scene had an American Pie vibe to it, but paired with the sort of queer undertones that my teenage mind projected onto all those aughties horny teen comedies. A common refrain between me and my gay friends in regards to all of those formative films of the 2000s is “this would be better if it were gay!” and I think Challengers is almost a fulfillment of that wish. It feels in moments like a nod to those irreverent Y2K teen movies, but through Guadagnino’s more nuanced auteur lens. Also cheers to Luca for the full frontal male nudity in the locker room scene. Much needed!

Zendaya’s tennis threesome movie is exactly as much of a blast as we were hoping it would be.

S.T.: You know, I loved the brief moments of Culture that set up the milieu of these characters’ lives, especially the ones that place us in the early 2000s: Nelly playing at the Adidas party, Patrick smoking Camels, the boys’ floppy haircuts, Blu Cantrell’s classic “Hit ’Em up Style (Oops!)” playing in the Stanford cafeteria, etc. Whether I like these because they pander to me as someone who was an adult in the 2000s or because they are good filmmaking, I can’t say.

I will note, though, that I felt like the hotel room scene portrayed a very casual and very 2024 attitude about queerness and same-sex shenanigans that, while delightful to see depicted, feels a little more of this moment than the moment the scene is set in. That’s more of an observation than a complaint or a judgement, though. When you’re in Luca’s hands, these things work, what can I say?

S.A.: Truly, there were so many moments in this movie where I was like, “I wonder if this would be any good without Guadagnino?” — and finding out afterward that the churros were his addition all but confirms how much he brings to the table. He could have turned a scene set at a Wetzel’s Pretzels mall kiosk into an erotic chess match. Speaking of the 2000s, as Lucille Bluth often says in Arrested Development, “Ah! He got me again!” Thanks, Luca! I’ll be thinking about Mike Faist eating out of Josh O’Connor’s hand for the next 20 years of my life.

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Originally Appeared on them.