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MESSAGE ARCHIVE RSS THEME Things about me. On Masculinity in Fight Club.


I'm cooler than the other side of the pillow.
  • Hello to whoever will read this.

    I know I usually don’t write stuff, but i just completed a paper on Fight Club (this being on the 25th of May, 2012) for my university course, which I’m pretty proud of, so if you’d like to read it, that’s cool, by all means, please do so. And if you wanna leave feedback, that’s even more sweet. So yeah, awesome.

    David Fincher’s 1999 cult classic, Fight Club, based on Chuck Palahniuk’s novel of the same name, is a film that has a lasting impact on its viewers, primarily due to the myriad of issues it grapples with. One of the most prominent themes in the film is the issue of masculinity, the “[…] characteristics associated with the male sex.”(Chandler, D, & Munday, R,Oxford Dictionary of Media and Communication, Oxford University Press, New York, 2011); in particular the role gender stereotypes play in Generation X twenty-something males’ lives. The film portrays these men as struggling to find their identity, struggling to comprehend what is going on in the world around them, and how to live up to the harsh expectations set by society. With nihilistic aphorisms and near-poetry, the film explores the concept of regaining a masculine identity through self-destruction. The story is told by the narrator (Edward Norton) whose name we never learn, although he refers to himself as Jack’s Various Body Parts throughout the film, after having read an old issue of Reader’s Digest: “I Am Jack’s Raging Bile Duct”, “I Am Jack’s Cold Sweat” and “I Am Jack’s Complete Lack of Surprise”, to name a few. After suffering from insomnia for six months and developing a dependence on a wide array of illness support groups (testicular cancer, brain parasites, tuberculosis, and other various 12-step programs), the narrator liberates himself through hugging and crying, which enables him to sleep. He then meets Marla Singer (Helena Bonham Carter) and Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), the latter of which turns out to be a figment of his imagination, created to escape from his depressing work-filled bachelor lifestyle.


    One of the most notable things about Fight Club is the lack of women. This in itself gives the film a very masculine appearance, since all the characters are men, and the story follows the progress of these men as they attempt to search for their identities. However, the only central female, Marla Singer, is of vital importance to the story. We are introduced to her through the narrator, when he meets her for the first time at one of the many support groups he attends. She is presented as vulgar and crude, dressed shabbily with wiry hair and a cigarette constantly in her mouth. Right from the first moment, it is clear she is going to be an important aspect of the film. Marla, becoming the catalyst for the narrator’s invention of Tyler Durden, is both an object of desire and destruction. She is the narrator’s love interest, yet she is also the reason he creates Tyler. She intrudes on the narrator’s private life, the support groups in which he finds solace, and ruins the effect they have on him, turning him into an insomniac once again. This demonstrates the fact that the narrator is unable to display his real emotions in front of this woman; he cannot cry or let himself go in front of Marla. Instead, he masks his feelings, hiding behind the façade of what is expected of him by society. Gender stereotypes, the “Personal beliefs about gender differences in traits and behaviour, largely attributable to socialization.” (Chandler, D, & Munday, R,Oxford Dictionary of Media and Communication, Oxford University Press, New York, 2011) dictate that he is not meant to cry, nor have public displays of emotion. Therefore, the only way the narrator can escape from the strict confines of society’s expectations is by creating Tyler. Marla’s relationship with the narrator is quite dysfunctional, primarily due to the fact that the narrator is not aware that he is himself Tyler Durden; and therefore not consciously aware when he is with her or not. The narrator initially loathes Marla for raining in on his precious support group time, but the loathing quickly turns to interest. However, Tyler convinces the narrator that he doesn’t need Marla: “We’re a generation of men raised by women. I’m wondering if another woman is the answer we really need.”(Fight Club, 1999) yet he hypocritically begins to have an affair with Marla, leaving the narrator caught up in a strange love triangle, described by him as: “We have sort of a triangle thing going here. I want Tyler. Tyler wants Marla. Marla wants me. This isn’t about love as in caring. This is about property as in ownership. Without Marla, Tyler would have nothing.” (Fight Club, 1999). This love triangle creates a sexual tension in which the narrator thrives, making himself jealous of himself (since he is Tyler), and in turn, he creates Project Mayhem. Marla Singer has been so disconnected from life for so long, she doesn’t care about anything, including her own life. While the narrator thinks Fight Club has given him a new lease on life – awoken him from his sleepwalking state – Marla knows he’s still not connecting with the most subversive force in human experience: caring. And so she remains unimpressed. By the end of the movie, he understands this, too. It occurs to him that while Project Mayhem will weaken society, it won’t strengthen individuals. Then he realises he cares about Marla, and takes steps to isolate her from the results of Project Mayhem – sending her away to safety in a display of false nobility and self-sacrifice. But in the end, she’s brought right back to him by his own – Tyler’s – hand, and he’s forced to rise to the occasion, forced to make the commitment, to will himself to care for something, going against all that he – Tyler – has convinced him was right, the path of self-destruction over self-improvement. Instead he chooses to let himself go, and opens up to someone, just like he did in the illness support groups.


    One of the ways the film deals with the issue of masculinity is through the representation of ‘common’ men in the film. Most of the men in this society are white-collar workers, slaves to the consumerist nature of the turn of the 21st century. The narrator himself is weak-minded, an insomniac at the beginning of the film. He is absorbed into this consumer lifestyle, “[…] a slave to the IKEA nesting instinct.” (Fight Club, 1999)  as demonstrated in a scene in which he goes through an inventory of all the furniture in his condominium, stating, “I had it all. Even the glass dishes with tiny bubbles and imperfections, proof they were crafted by the honest, simple, hard-working indigenous peoples of wherever.” (Fight Club, 1999). He buys material possessions to fill the void in his life, to have something to occupy his time, but he still feels empty. This entire generation of men is represented in such a manner, having become senseless, trapped in this new world of dull office jobs and advertising. Tyler sums this up expertly when describing it to the narrator: “We are consumers. We are by-products 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.” (Fight Club, 1999) As Daniel Chandler states in his book, Semiotics: The Basics, (Routledge, London, 2002) “We seem as a species to be driven by a desire to make meanings”, and these men are unable to make meaning of their lives. These men have become lost to what it means to be a man; their natural instincts have been dulled or lost. Whereas before, rituals and rites of passage determined when a boy became a man in the hunter-gatherer society, where the strongest survived and men relied on their primal instincts; now everything is offered to these men on a silver plate, for a price. These men do not know what it means to be a man because they were a generation of men raised by women, their fathers never there for them, because they went out to work to provide for them, much the same, as they will in turn do for their family. They have become victims of this vicious consumer culture, “A pejorative reference to modern Western society in terms of its domination by the marketing and consumption of goods and services.” (Chandler, D, & Munday, R, Oxford Dictionary of Media and Communication, Oxford University Press, New York, 2011)  and obey orders from anyone who proclaims themselves as important, following these false leaders like sheep. The character, Robert Paulson (Meatloaf), is an excellent example of someone who has fallen victim to the new society; an ex-bodybuilder, he was in the spotlight for many years – a celebrity icon, on stage for everyone’s viewing pleasure, someone to idolise as a temporary success – until he crashed and burned, after which he was shunned and rejected, no longer important, society having already moved onto the next big thing. Through Bob’s character, it is made clear that twentieth century society still looks up to and needs fatherhood icons in their lives, leaders who can show them right from wrong, strong men who are capable of exerting hegemonic masculinity, “The mythology of gender dominant within cultural representations of males, reflecting normative behavioural ideals for males in a culture in a particular period.” (Chandler, D, & Munday, R, Oxford Dictionary of Media and Communication, Oxford University Press, New York, 2011). This is where Tyler Durden comes in.


    The narrator creates Tyler Durden as an image of the perfect alpha male, following the “model of masculinity […] against which all men are judged, tested and qualified” (Feasey, R, ‘Introduction: Theorising Masculinities on the Small Screen’ and ‘Animation: Masculinity in the Nuclear Family’ in Masculinity and Popular Television, Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, 2008). Tyler is a leader, free from the constraints of society, able to do whatever the narrator is not able to because of his sense of moral justice. As Tyler explains it to the narrator, “All the ways you wish you could be, that’s me. I look like you wanna look, I fuck like you wanna fuck, I am smart, capable, and most importantly, I am free in all the ways that you are not.” (Fight Club, 1999). It is through Tyler that the narrator creates Fight Club and Project Mayhem. It is through Tyler that the narrator deals with Marla, as a dominant male, confident and unafraid. Tyler allows him to express his free will, to rebel against the authority that has been set out by the big companies and conglomerates. As Mark Dery points out in his article, ‘Culture Jamming: Hacking, Slashing and Sniping in the Empire of Signs’ in the Cyberpunk Project, (2003) our lives are inextricably tied to television, and the huge amount of influence it has on us in new-age society. The media and the advertising all around us is what controls our decisions; unaware of it, we are being rendered dull and senseless, ignorant. It is against this that Tyler chooses to rebel, and does so through Fight Club and Project Mayhem. He encourages the men involved to take a stand, to take back their masculinity, become what they were meant to be, real men. Through the physical release of wrestling and beating each other senseless, the men are freeing themselves of their proverbial shackles, and are able to let their primal instincts loose. Tyler blames all the wrongdoings that have been caused to men on television and advertising, best described in his 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.” (Fight Club, 1999)


    Tyler believes that to be free, you must let go of everything: “It’s only after we’ve lost everything that we are free to do anything.” (Fight Club, 1999). This is why he creates Project Mayhem, with the ultimate plan of rebuilding society from the ground up, and reverting to its hunter-gatherer origins. However, the narrator does not agree with this plan, and chooses to rebel against Tyler, who has now become the main figure of authority in these men’s lives. In doing so, the narrator kills Tyler, by shooting himself in the cheek, and by losing Tyler, the narrator actually realises that for the first time, he is free to do anything, just like Tyler had told him.


    Masculinity is a predominant theme in Fight Club, with many complex questions posed to today’s men on how they act and perform within society, and whether or not these stereotypes are justified. It challenges what it means to be a man in a 21st century consumerist culture, and if it is possible to determine when a boy becomes a man. By rebelling against his inner demons, in the form of Tyler Durden, the narrator was able to determine what made him a man, and discovered his true identity, “The persistent sameness of a person despite changes over time.” (Chandler, D, & Munday, R, Oxford Dictionary of Media and Communication, Oxford University Press, New York, 2011). The masculine title and nature of the film are misleading; Fight Club is merely the story of a man trying to discover who he really is, and does so through finding love in his life, in the form of Marla Singer. As the narrator says at the start of the film: “Suddenly I realize that all of this, the gun, the bombs, the revolution, has got something to do with a girl named Marla Singer.” (Fight Club, 1999)