Words by Karli Settimio
After the first time you watch Fight Club, and Pixies’ “Where is my Mind?” begins to play as the credit companies demolish, it is difficult to not be struck by just how completely awesome the film is. And, of course, you wouldn’t be the only person to feel this way. In 2008, Empire, the film magazine, named it the 10th greatest movie of all time, and Tyler Durden the greatest movie character ever. The enthusiasm around the film has become so great, several real fight clubs have been established in the years since its release, all inspired by the anti-consumerist, disruptive message of the film.
If you go to any major university or know any young people, it will not be hard to find Fight Club fanboys, but I have to wonder if they really understand the movie. The film makes many valid points in its critique of consumerism and identity, but tying these points into hegemonic ideals of masculinity specifically seems to be problematic. Too many times, Fight Club gets hailed as a pinnacle of anti-consumerist films without anyone really pointing out how bizarre the film’s message actually is. Among various profound one-liners like, “It’s only after we have lost everything, that we are free to do anything,” and, “The things you own, end up owning you,” people tend to to forget the other more confusing message of Fight Club, namely, misogyny as a means to liberation. Many people assert Fight Club is an attempt at condemning sexism by depicting sexism, thereby making it a feminist film. However, the film’s venture sorely failed.
Fight Club is as an audacious attempt to keep audiences “woke” through an anti-materialistic revolution, but it actually works to trivialize efforts towards a less consumer-based society through usage of sexism, exclusion of women, and unrealistic, violent campaigns. Fight Club had the potential to be an original political statement, but instead just became another Hollywood blockbuster filled with stereotypes. The film routinely demonstrates an anxiety over castration or the feminization of men. In the first scene, we are introduced to the main character and narrator, named Jack for the purposes of this article, where he is in a support group called, “Remaining Men Together.” There is a comedic element to the scene because the audience is meant to see it as funny that these men are displaying stereotypical female attributes, like crying and hugging each other while wailing out, “We are still men!” This scene is also where we meet Bob who has “bitch tits.” He is feminized by his apparent breasts, which are devices the film uses to demonstrate his humiliation. This humiliation is felt on a symbolic level by men everywhere in a society supposedly run by women. Later, during a discussion of Marla’s dress, she yells “You can borrow it sometime!” as an insult. Again, we see feminization as an affront.
There are nuanced moments that audiences might not realize are meant to be moments pointing out the subtle feminization of men and their complacency. Jack sits on the toilet with his knees together suggesting physical emasculation, as opposed to standing over the toilet like a “real man,” all while proclaiming to be a victim of nesting. When Tyler Durden shows up, Jack’s interests in stereotypically feminine projects like interior design is seemingly at its peak.
Tyler Durden’s distrust of corporations coincides with his distrust of women. In Tyler’s mind, consumerism is created by women. He says in a pool hall, “Why do guys like you and I know what a duvet is? Is it essential to our survival? In the hunter-gatherer sense of the word? No.” By saying “guys like you and I,” Tyler uses intentionally exclusionary rhetoric meant to separate himself from women and feminine men, and instead, put himself in a higher position. His use of the word “hunter-gatherer” creates a world of simple binaries where men are men and women are women. His ideas are portrayed as subversive, but in reality they play into modern, yet antiquated, ideas of traditional roles of gender.
Tyler regularly feeds an anxiety about emasculation and the removal of male power to his minions and to Jack as well. “We’re consumers. We are the byproducts of a lifestyle obsession. Murder, crime, poverty—these things don’t concern me. What concerns me are celebrity magazines, television with 500 channels, some guy’s name on my underwear. Rogaine, Viagra, Olestra… fuck Martha Stewart.” His possibly valid point about the superficiality plaguing society gets lost by his preoccupation and concern that a man is somehow claiming him in a sexual way, implying that it is his job as a man to own women and for a man to own a man is against nature. He focuses on products that are only marketed to men like Rogaine and Viagra, ignoring women, but then he brings up women again when he goes to blame them for this problem by saying, “fuck Martha Stewart.”
Castration is a key element to Fight Club. When Jack laments about his woes to Tyler, Tyler says, “Could be worse. A woman could cut off your penis while you’re asleep and toss it out the window of a moving car.” This reiterates a theme of women as villains and agents of castration. The testicular cancer group is significant; it is a self-help group for men who have literally lost their balls to cancer. Splicing a picture of a penis in family films might seem funny, especially since nobody is upset by the unnoticed picture, but it is put there for several reasons. It is to show that people ignore or are complacent even if they have knowledge of other things going on. It also is mentioned in order to compliment Fight Club’s preoccupation with castration. The penis is a form of rebellion in a world of fake tales of a fox and a rabbit getting along. Marla voices this anxiety when she says to Tyler about her sex toy, “Don’t worry. It’s not a threat to you.” During Project Mayhem, cutting the balls off men becomes the ultimate punishment, even more so than death.
“We are a generation of men raised by women. I’m wondering if another woman is really the answer we need.” Tyler says this quote specifically referencing his father’s desire for him to get married. He and Jack have bonded over the lack of a father figure in their lives. They perceive a lack of male presence as a source of this consumerist illness. Tyler tells a story of being let down by his father, who fails to provide the answers on what Tyler should do with his life. The absence of men and manliness is the problem with this constructed society. While the father is the answer, the mother is the problem. It is a larger misconception that male issues can’t be worked out without shifting all of the blame onto the opposite gender. “Our fathers were our models for God. If our fathers bailed, what does that tell you about God? Consider the possibility that God does not like you… We are God’s unwanted children? So be it!” Later, Tyler becomes a father figure for the men in the movie. Jack says, “In Tyler we trusted,” as if to say that Tyler has become the new model for God and fathers.
It can be argued that Fight Club is a movie about modern male problems, and that it excludes women for this reason. However, the film brings gender issues to the forefront of its battle against the maternal material. It is flabbergasting that the film would bring in issues of sexual objectification and self-esteem in the media and not bring up how women are affected. Empirical studies have indicated that women are overwhelmingly targeted more for sexually objectified treatment than men and that eating disorders disproportionately affect women. This is largely due to media representation. However, this is ignored in Fight Club. In fact, this issue is transferred onto men as if it is entirely just a male issue. Ads in the film portray half naked men in sexual, inviting poses. Jack and Tyler look at a Gucci ad on a bus and snidely ask, “is that what a man looks like?”
It is often pointed out that Fight Club fails the Bechdel test for female representation and the only female character is sexualized, disregarded, and generally treated terribly, but always comes back for more. But strangely, Marla is often cited as a great character by critics. Why? Fight Club is by men, for men, and about men, and Marla serves a purpose in the film without becoming a force unto herself. Marla is a unique character because she embodies some qualities of the stereotypical manic pixie dream girl through her weird actions, but ultimately, she doesn’t work to save the male hero and complete his life; rather, the male hero excludes her, demonizes her, and objectifies her, and in the end, she is made whole by him and his ideology. She also is considered by many to be a femme fatale through her mysterious, dangerous, and sexually desirable disposition.
When Marla asks why Jack hasn’t gone to support groups, he says, “I found a new one. It’s for men only.” Marla is reduced from being an intellectual threat in the beginning of the movie to a submissive weakling in the end. She takes all of Jack and Tyler’s manipulative and abusive behavior, despite her seemingly independent nature. Once Jack is empowered by the misogynistic Tyler, he can begin to put women in their rightful place, in accordance with the film’s sexist framework, by diminishing Marla to an object, calling her, at first, a “little bitch,” and later, “a sport fuck.”
Man-to-man fist fighting as a means to escape the numbness instilled by constant conformity is not really breaking the mainstream. A glorification of violence in mainstream media is more evident than a glorification of passivity. Fight Club takes mainstream, regressive ideas and repackages them to make them seem anti-conformist and subversive when they are not. Tyler recruits other middle class men with the ultimate goal of bringing down the system that breeds their numbness. They do this through using explosives to make strategic strikes at highly visible and symbolic buildings and structures. The idea of cultural revolution through male violence has struck a chord with many people who watch the film.
Contradictions in Fight Club occur often. Tyler preaches a lot about reclaiming an ideal version of heterosexual manhood, but all those shirtless men in the film and the preoccupation with penises create a compelling homoerotic subtext. Jack describes his relationship with Tyler to be like “Ozzie and Harriett” and there are scenes of them living together that could only be described as domestic bliss. The jealousy Jack feels towards Marla for taking up Tyler’s time is palpable. Although the film critiques visions of mainstream manliness, Brad Pitt, a man known for his good looks, is cast as Tyler Durden.
Sexism in Fight Club comes in conflict with the main characters’ beliefs. Tyler explains to the Commissioner of Police that “The people you are after are the people you depend on. We cook your meals. We haul your trash. We drive your ambulances. We guard you while you sleep.” Are women completely jobless in this society? It is ridiculous and naive to think that any revolution could be as successful as the one depicted in a movie without women, who comprise half of the population. This kind of exclusion is brought up again in his infamous monologue:
“Man, I see in fight club the strongest and smartest men who’ve ever lived. I see all this potential, and I see squandering. God damn it, an entire generation pumping gas, waiting tables, slaves with white collars. Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need. We’re the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War’s a spiritual war… our Great Depression is our lives. We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won’t. And we’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off.”
What is wrong about these statements? These critiques of the American dream could be considered authentic ones, but they are mixed in with violent and misogynistic rhetoric. Tyler preaches about a loss of identity and then becomes a fascist dictator intent on taking away any sense of individuality. The men in the film never look inward or do any self-actualization; instead, they unite against IKEA for feminizing their lives. Violence wins over any actual thought. They welcome the fascist new world order Tyler creates, not realizing they are becoming a part of another homogenized collective. Tyler begins Fight Club by saying to Jack, “Hit me… I’ve never been in a fight. Have you?” Then Jack says, “No, but that is a good thing,” while Tyler exclaims, “No it is not!”. When explicitly asked if violence is good, Tyler says yes. Somehow, to men, violence is the key element that the world lacks. “A guy came to Fight Club for the first time, his ass was a wad of cookie dough. After a few weeks, he was carved out of wood.” It is not a rebellious idea that violence is a symbol of manliness, that is actually a cliché many feminist men have worked to stop, but Fight Club reinforces it.
If Fight Club is trying to depict sexism and racism ironically, it is doing a bizarre job of it. With almost no female characters, it is curious how some may still see this as a feminist film. One of the only men to show up in the film who is not white is Raymond, a convenience store cashier whom Tyler threatens with a gun to his head so that Raymond can go back to veterinarian school. This is a turning point in Fight Club. The naivety it takes to assume that this person has control over being able to afford school or having the mobility to become a veterinarian is astounding. However, what does one expect with no people of color or low-income people accurately depicted? However, Fight Club continues its theme of depicting assault as an act of nobility.
Cultural criticism as a genre has the goal of taking a closer look at aspects of the media we take as a given, and Fight Club is probably the most notable fictionalized film that does this. However, nothing in Fight Club is meant to be taken seriously. Despite how the world may perceive the movie, it is actually attempting to be a feminist film because it is trying to make fun of the rise of men’s rights activism. Tyler, a hugely celebrated character, is actually supposed to be the villain. Chuck Palahniuk is an openly gay man. He himself does not fit into the standards that Fight Club creates for men. In Palahniuk’s 2015 sequel to Fight Club, Tyler is actually the leader of the Islamic State, commits sexual assault, and his anti-feminist rhetoric is even more obvious. It is scary that a movie that is evocative of the book 1984 by George Orwell is looked up to in a very uncritical way. Remember the Party’s slogan? “War is peace. Freedom is slavery.” Sounds a lot like Tyler Durden’s ideas of violence as individuality and fascism as liberty.
Fight Club has certainly left a cultural impact on the world and possibly the psyche of young men. It is contestable that most of the people who saw this movie came out of it with Tyler’s beliefs reinforced in them, but it is certainly plausible. Many of the people I know who saw the film enjoyed the mindless violence and misogyny. Whose fault is it for misinterpreting a message? The audience or the creators of the film? It’s a complicated question, but I wouldn’t be remiss in pointing out that a huge group of people saw Fight Club in a way it wasn’t meant to be seen. And who could blame them? Fight Club has some genuine criticism of a lack of upward mobility, corporations, identity, materialism, advertising, media, and consumer culture. So why mix these issues up with an insincere promotion of sexism and classism? Did the movie promote these ideas because Tyler did? I don’t think it tried to, but too often, it did.