If documentaries were fair game for Bechdel testing, Tickled would fail miserably: no women speak to each other and only two women speak on camera at all. But that’s because the film, directed by David Farrier and Dylan Reeve, follows the hitherto underground sport of Competitive Endurance Tickling, which is male-dominated. The bias is in the sport, and not the film: Tickled is only androcentric because its extremely niche, incredibly absurd, and ultimately sinister world is comprised of men only. The tickling competitions turn out to be setups for a series of cons whose targets are, disproportionately, young male athletes. Once recruited, the men are filmed engaging in the “sport,” then blackmailed and harassed, sometimes for years, by a shifting array of online assailants that Farrier and Reeve strike out to track down.
In its thrilleresque pursuit of Internet impostors, Tickled takes after Catfish, the 2010 documentary about wild deception in online dating. And lots of Tickled’s screen time goes to, well, screens: plot points turn around who owns a domain name, or what’s in a leaked zip file. But in the story it tells implicitly, Tickled is a foil to The Hunting Ground, the 2015 documentary about the systemic privilege that college administrations afford rapists, to those on sports teams in particular. College-aged athletes are Tickled’s subjects too, but with the unusual twist that, in this story, they’re the victims.
The crime is also unusual. Once the tickling competitions begin, it quickly becomes apparent that—unlike other contact sports played by athletes in the film (football, mixed martial arts)—there’s something pretty sexual about tickling as it plays out here. The contact is an end and not a means, and the optics are more than a little suggestive. The tickling always happens on a bed; the “competitors” are strapped to it as they writhe, giggling and gasping and straddled by their domineering “teammates”—sometimes four or five guys on one enduring other. All of this winds up, without the participants’ consent, on YouTube, where it reads more like soft fetish porn than like sports footage.
Farrier found out about the videos as an unsuspecting pop culture reporter; he thought they were funny, and contacted a competition coordinator for an interview. When he received an onslaught of homophobic slurs in reply, he “found it hard to take the insults seriously, given what they were producing.” An openly bisexual New Zealander, Farrier seems to live in a world post-homophobic enough, or he’s cultivated enough radar about homophobes, that the vitriol just felt like a clue that something was afoot.
The film only grazes the issue, but homophobia is the fuel of the harassment that the targets face. After filming the men’s tickling matches, the orchestrators threaten to send the videos to the athletes’ coaches and families as proof of their “deviance.” It’s pretty hard to imagine that the deviance of tickling would be as damning to one’s sports career if it read as hetero. Indeed, in one scene we see an MMA fighter overcome with rage when he learns that his key contact in the tickling world is not a woman, as he’d been led to believe, but a man: David D’Amato, the mastermind behind the whole charade. It feels impossible that the fighter would be as enraged about the ruse if it weren’t a gender bender.
Apparently, scientists who study how the two halves of our brains relate don’t agree on how our emotions get divvied up. One theory holds that the emotions with positive valences populate one side, while negatively valenced feelings live on the other. In another theory, emotions are grouped according to whether they motivate us to approach, as a predator would, or withdraw, like prey. The two theories mostly overlap, since in general we approach a stimulus when we’re feeling positive and withdraw when we’re feeling negative. But sometimes the theories compete. We move towards, for example, when we’re angry. And the tickled, who appear delighted, always recoil.
Curiosity is another motivation for moving towards, and this documentary is full of that momentum. We feel it in the literal driving in Tickled: we’re very often in cars, on the go, sometimes watching the view out the window in slow-mo, like we’re the shooter in a drive-by. Of course, it’s only a camera that’s shooting, and Farrier’s approach is all kill-em-with-kindness. He’s openly jovial with those he suspects of masterminding the scam—like when he shows up at the airport to intercept them, bearing a colorful homemade sign. Or when he catches his mark about to slam his car door shut, and sidles up like a partner protracting a goodbye. Farrier’s all about pursuit, but he’s relentlessly, even shockingly, affable.
By contrast, the impulses of his subjects are often violent. The MMA fighter, when asked about the elusiveness of the tickle empire’s anonymous kingpin, laments, “There’s no one to attack.” After he learns that it’s a man who’s been soliciting his tickle videos, the athlete holds out his unsteady hand. We understand his tremors as anger and not fear when he spools out his revenge fantasy: he itches to punch D’Amato out, tie him to a chair, and then to demand explanations when he comes to.
For a moment there, I’d thought—I’d even hoped—that the fighter was quaking with fear and might say so. But no one in the film, at least on camera, ever cops to feeling afraid.
Some women’s voices do, off-screen and on the phone—a secretary and D’Amato’s stepmother both express fear when they warn Farrier that D’Amato is dangerous. But those comments aside, the closest admission we get is “nervous.” Even the film’s directors, in an extremely tense situation, manage only to name their symptoms: “I’m breathing heavily,” confides one. “Yeah, same,” allows the other. It’s funny. As is perhaps fitting for a documentary about forced laughter, Tickled tends to err on the lighter side.
Austin Furtak-Cole, a close friend of mine, actually participated in the tickle videos while D’Amato was still sorting out the con. In those days, it wasn’t just athletes involved, and the operation was far more amateur. Austin was and remains shameless about the experience, and he was never oblivious. He’d figured all along that his female contact (“Terri Tickle”) was probably a guy, presumed that it was a fetish thing, didn’t care, and wanted the money and gifts “Terri” sent him as payment. And while D’Amato often taunted his marks by asking what their mothers would think, Austin (who was in college at the time) made some of his videos at his childhood home while his mom made dinner, and with her bemused approval. He’s straight, but, crucially, he doesn’t care if strangers think otherwise, and his family wouldn’t care if he weren’t.
Austin’s also an artist, which grants him a peculiar kind of immunity since, with a few scary exceptions, D’Amato’s threats target careers and reputations. And, as Austin shrugged to me over Skype, “I feel like it’s kind of hard to damage an artist’s reputation. It’s like the one group in this society where [everything’s] kind of accepted.” That stereotype of the liberal artist has its antithesis in the caricature of the macho sportsman. Of the clichés that come to mind when we think of “toxic masculinity,” varsity athlete ranks right up there alongside frat boy and violent cop. We live in a culture, after all, where a fast swimmer can spend only six months in prison for raping an unconscious woman, and where a presidential candidate, watched by the world, can pass off boasts of sexual assault as “locker-room banter”—and then be elected to office. Of course, male athletes are not de facto violent, as men aren’t de facto toxic.
After Omar Mateen killed forty-nine people for dancing at a gay bar in June, Salon’s Amanda Marcotte defined toxic masculinity as follows: “It’s a manhood that views women and LGBT people as inferior, sees sex as an act not of affection but domination, and which valorizes violence as the way to prove one’s self to the world.” I’d add, because Tickled somewhat unintentionally shows, that such masculinity is not incompatible with victimhood. Far from it: there’s quite clearly hurt, shame, and fear at its core. Those in the grip of toxic masculinity are scared to consider others as equals, scared to make contact that’s not about violence or domination, scared to approach with affection. And, scared to be scared, they move us all in the wrong direction.