Should We Fight for "Fight Club"?

Fight Club (1999), starring Brad Pitt, Edward Norton, and Helena Bonham Carter, has come to define a generation of young men. However, this definition has been almost exclusively relegated to the violent aspect of the "fight clubs" started by the main characters, a place where men go to blow off steam, take out their frustrations, and generally share in the machismo characteristic of boys who spend their free time beating each other up. This attitude among real-life men about the value of Fight Club has often led to a devaluation of the film as a childish at best, misogynistic at worst, portrayal of senseless, testosterone-filled, glamorized, indulgent violence. Keeping with the devil-may-care attitude of the film, the 2003 Collector's Edition DVD release glories in the polarizing responses to the film by including quotes from critics within the DVD's insert. Many of these provide poignant examples of the incendiary reaction the film caused on its release: "...a witless mishmash of whiny, infantile philosophizing and bone-crunching violence that actually thinks it's saying something of significance"; "Fight Club is to intelligent men what Catherine Breillat's Romance is to intelligent women -- an insult"; "I would deliver a long tirade against it if it weren't such a dog -- such a laborious and foolish waste of time..."; "Aside from the protracted beatings, this film is so vacuous and empty it's more depressing than provocative"; "It is an inadmissable [sic] assault on personal decency. And on society itself"; "It resurrects the Fuhrer principle". And then there's my personal favorite, which was apparently overheard at one of the film's premieres: "Why aren't there pickets here? Where is Cardinal Collins when we need him?" Puerile. Insulting. Foolish. Vacuous. Indecent. Fascist. A moral outrage. And yet, somehow, I think this is one of the most important films of the 21st century. I don't hold this opinion just because I'm a self-confessed violence junkie who counts Tarantino's Kill Bill and Snyder's 300 in my "top ten films" list. I hold this opinion because I recognize in Fight Club the kind of spiritual and cultural malaise that counts violence as a symptom. Fight Club is worth watching, not for the violence or the disturbing images, but for the spiritual sickness it portrays in the soul of a generation of 21st century men.

Perhaps the first thing anyone sitting down to watch this film should come to terms with beforehand is that this is not a film that is going to provide you with any answers. It is not a "moral" film in the sense that it will show you the path on which to walk to gain any sort of happiness or peace. It is not an existential film; it is not going to reveal any of the answers to the questions, "Who am I?", "Where am I going?", "What is my purpose?". This is a film of questions, barbed questions, acidic questions, the questions that make you squirm in your seat, and draw back defensively, and feel like taking a long, hot shower to rid yourself of their cloying viscosity. Fight Club probes the deepest wounds in the masculine soul with a dull, unsanitary blade; it doesn't succeed in cutting anything out, and it very likely may have put another infection in, but no one can fail to recognize the wound afterwards. However, you will receive no answers, no advice, no doctor's note with a prescription that will make everything all better. I think this is why the majority of the most scathing criticisms of the film have come from men -- intelligent men, enlightened men, men who are comfortable with who they are, men who have made their peace with the world. However, Fight Club reminds us that men may have made their peace with the world, but the world has not made peace with men. Masculinity is constantly under attack, constantly being reshaped, reformed, reworked, to fit society's ideas of what "works", what "fits" within the utopian project of the enlightened, liberal, eternal city on earth. In Fight Club, men are not comfortable; they are under pressures they barely know exist, and the symptoms of such pressures, the desire to break out, manifests itself in the most extreme ways: depression, psychosis, violence. The film, although characterized by the symptoms, is not about them; it is about sickness that lies at the heart of it all.

Fight Club cuts to the heart of questions of masculine identity by pointing them out with startling clarity through its salient dialogue and caustic storytelling. Norton's unnamed character (for brevity and clarity's sake, known hereafter as Jack) lives a life full of things -- an education, a job, a societal function, an apartment full of Ikea furniture -- but devoid of meaning. He suffers from chronic insomnia and bouts of depression, which he finds a way to relieve by attending support groups for people suffering from different deadly physical diseases. The film shows its emphasis on feelings of emasculation and male displacement in society through Jack's attendance at a support group for men with testicular cancer called "Remaining Men Together". The physical cancer is a type for the spiritual cancer that preys upon ideas of masculine identity in culture; men are, in a sense, being emasculated through a type of domestication that renders them virtually androgynous machines, faceless consumers of things rather than men with passion and vitality. Jack and Tyler's conception of "fight club" becomes a spiritual support group that allows men to "remain men together", to support each other in their resistance of social emasculation, and to allow each other a physical outlet through which they can express their spiritual frustration at being "tamed". This coincides with author John Eldredge's insights into the masculine soul in his book Wild at Heart (2001), in which he insists that the heart of man is wild by nature and yearning for adventure, freedom, and passion, which he is being deprived of in modern society. Despite the so-called "social engineering" of gender, there is something in the heart of men, in his very nature, that pushes back against this and actively seeks for a way to express a masculinity that can be definitive, that can answer the desire for danger, for unpredictability, and for risk. No amount of social engineering can completely destroy this longing in the masculine heart, but, the more society attempts to emasculate and domesticate the heart of man, the more he will search for outlets on the fringes and in sincerely risky behaviors, like "fight clubs" and acts of machismo, in gang behavior and "rape culture".

This sense of loss and confusion about masculinity is exacerbated in the film by the void created by absent father figures and male role models. In a few snatches of conversation between Jack and Tyler, the film forces us to face the reality that men are suffering from a lack of direction and example when it comes to feeling comfortable as men in the world and feeling fulfilled in the lives they are expected to live in society. Jack speaks about how his father abandoned him and his mother to start another family in another city; he admits that he doesn't know his father, and the way he relates to him is through the vision of a consumerist society: his father is a corporation, consuming women and producing children, moving on to spread the franchise after success has been achieved in one geographical location. The male interrelationship has been defined, not by personal virtue, but by social success. Tyler reveals the litany of his father's expected social accomplishments -- go to college, get a job, get married -- but these events have been robbed of their personal significance. They are motions of the body, but not of the soul. They mark men as social beings, but are devoid of personal meaning. The fathers in both Tyler and Jack's lives have given them the motions, but no meanings. They can set up franchises, but not families. Jack's protest, "I can't get married. I'm a thirty-year-old boy", shows the acute sense men have of not knowing what it means to be "men". They have never been shown how.

This leads, in the case of Tyler Durden, to just the sort of answer one might expect: anger, resentment, and destruction. A rejection of stereotypes provided by the consumerist media of what a man should be, how he should look and how he should act, typifies the type of self-destruction Tyler advocates. He imagines a world where life is taken back to a state of survival, where mankind lives "naturally", freed from every kind of social structure: familial, economic, cultural, and religious. Father figures and role models and God all need to be torn down in order to rebuild man on the image of basic animal instinct. Tyler's ideas of masculinity comprise an all-out rejection of anything beyond the primal instincts of the Freudian id: sex and death. However, given the rejection of the father figure, the procreative aspect of sex is done away with through the "glass slipper of our generation", as Marla so neatly terms it, and so there is nothing really left but death. Even sex in some sense becomes an act of violence, an act of domination and dehumanization disguised as a thrill ride for adrenaline junkies. In the same way as A Clockwork Orange's particular brand of "ultraviolence" brought with it the sexual violence of gang rape, Fight Club's fisticuffs brings along with it a degradation of the role of woman from mother to pleasure object. Paradoxically, sex becomes just another "near-life experience", like violence, in which the momentary thrill of sexual union is prevented from being a true "life experience" by the depersonalization of the sexual partner. The claim that being raised only by women has resulted in an effeminate version of man allows Tyler to assert that men don't need women, and that allowing women to in some way define who men are ("boyfriend", "husband", "father") creates just as false a notion of masculinity as the showy abs on Calvin Klein models. Tyler sees the problem inherent in man's identity crisis as one of outside influence; for him, human society must be rendered completely devoid of meaning in order to recapture a true idea of what it means to exist.

Jack provides a balance point for this spiritual "personality disorder" between the life of primal instinct practiced by Tyler and the domestic consumerism which typifies Jack's earlier life. The film does not try to replace one with the other, but reveals through Jack's rejection of Tyler's behavior that neither extreme is healthy. Masculine instinctual desire and emasculated cultural civility must be put in their proper order, which includes both a rejection of machismo and an acknowledgement of personal responsibility or purposiveness. Jack undergoes a transformation through which he realizes that Tyler's anarchic behavior is, at its core, not "masculine" but inhuman. However, there is no going back to his old life of resentful docility and depression either, as he expresses in his last words to Tyler: "My eyes are open." Now he must acknowledge his own power over his life and actions, and actualize those traits in him that truly do make him a man. Oddly enough, this gesture toward a possible resolution in the final twenty minutes of the film is accomplished in the person of Marla Singer, particularly through Jack's realization that Marla is more than a "tourist", a "tumor", or a "threat" to him, and that he actually cares for her. When Jack begins to understand the true complexity of his relationship with Tyler, it is Marla he calls for confirmation of his worst fears because she is the only one he trusts to tell him the truth. When he realizes the true intimacy of his relationship with her, he steps up to take responsibility for it, to take the blame for how he has been mistreating her in the past, and to promote his intentions to make life better for her in future in whatever way he can. When Tyler informs him that Marla must be disposed of because she "knows too much" about them, Jack is willing to risk his own life to protect hers. Fight Club is no fairy tale; Marla is definitely not a princess, and Jack is no prince. But there is something inherently heroic and masculine in his almost instantaneous desire to protect her, to take responsibility for his actions, and to entrust himself to her once he realizes that he "really likes" her. In an interesting switch, once Jack is able to take control of his own life, the hedonistic and misogynistic view of women promoted by Tyler is replaced by one of neo-chivalric care, security, and stability. For her sake Jack is able to overcome his anarchic alter ego and find equilibrium so that he might lead a truly fulfilling life. In a very real sense, Marla is Jack's "power animal"; she is the impetus for him to find his inner strength, to choose order and self-control over chaos and destruction. The best of man, in the end, is brought out in the defense of woman.

Despite this, it is important to remember that Fight Club -- either the film or the real-life enactment of it -- is not meant to provide an answer, but to make visible the longing for personal meaning in the lives of a generation of 21st-century men, a gendered significance that will address the very real and very unique needs of a man's soul. This may imply a certain sense of anarchy against those cultural movements that seek to relegate identity to media stereotypes, or social performance, or the consumerist machine, but it must at the same time resist the impulse to deny the personal significance of existence in this world in relation to others and the self. It is true, as Tyler says, that we are not defined by our jobs, or our bank accounts, or our worldly possessions, but it is also true that we are not animals with no personal significance beyond the need to fight and breed. Fight Club does not necessarily provide answers to the problem of masculine identity, but it does reveal it in a shocking way and attempts to find a balance between effeminate domesticity and nihilistic anarchy, neither of which encompass the totality of what it is to be a man.


The point of this blog is not to tell anyone what they should or should not consider entertaining, nor what films, books, lyrics, or television shows are morally or artistically good or bad. The point is to engage with the stories that are creating our culture on an intellectual level, to meet the morals with our minds before they go to our hearts. Once you know what's in the entertainment you imbibe and you're aware of how it may be shaping your perceptions of the world around you, well then, imbibe away!

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