January 14, 2007

Fight Club and the modern male

David Fincher's Fight Club is one of my all-time favorite movies. And like any great film it is open to a wide spectrum of interpretation and analysis. Various themes that run throughout Fight Club include anti-modernism, Buddhism, societal alienation, nihilism, and non-conformism just to name a few.

There's one theme in particular I'd like to flesh out, and that is Fincher's interpretation of the modern male condition. If you've seen Fight Club you know he doesn't paint a rosy picture, largely portraying men as fish out of water. Very violent fish out of water. The film suggests that men no longer have a proper outlet to vent their latent aggression, and to make matters worse, they have been conditioned by society to suppress their instincts.

Fincher goes on to assert that men have become feminized by society. This idea shouldn't be of any great surprise to anyone; it's a commonly held in-joke that women work to domesticate their wild men. And given the propensity for male aggression and violence, this shouldn't be unexpected. It's been said that testosterone kills.

This domestication and feminization of men is conveyed by Fincher a number of ways. The main character, as portrayed by Ed Norton, obsesses about the decor of his condo and religiously pours over the latest Ikea catalogue. Men are no longer hunters, says Tyler, they have become gatherers. Society has made them into consumers where their sense of self-identity is wrapped around their possessions. As Tyler says, "the things you own end up owning you." Men have become the bi-products of the life style obsession.

Our protagonist starts to suffer from insomnia and eventually discovers a cure: support meetings. He finds that letting out his emotions helps him sleep like a baby. In one memorable scene, he attends a support group for men recovering from testicular cancer. One of the attendees, Bob, has developed large breasts as a result of the treatment. Tyler buries his face in Bob's breasts and has a good cry; the room is filled with men who have had their testicles removed, some have breasts, and they hug and cry. They've been completely stripped of their masculinity.

Eventually all this repression leads to a rather extreme bi-polar counter-reaction: the ultra violent Fight Club where two men battle it out with their fists in the basement of a bar. It's an opportunity to return to the jungle where men can enjoy a cathartic, testosterone delivered release. Males have been stunted by society, and it is through the Fight Club that they can retain their physicality and feel alive. It may be a negative sensation, but at least it's something.

The Fight Club also provides an outlet for non-conformism. Men are the middle children of history, says Tyler, with no purpose and no place. "Our great war is a spiritual war, our great depression is our lives," he says. Men, raised by television to believe they'll be great superstars, have seen through the myth and have become "very, very pissed off."

At the same time the Fight Club showcases the insanity of male aggression. The fights, while highly romanticized, are violent and bloody. The viewer is completely detached from the pain, titillated by the action while utterly immune to the consequences.

The homoerotic element to the Fight Club is also undeniable. Men and women have sex, while men fight with other men. It's still two bodies coming together in physical union, the bringing together of flesh for the purpose of deriving pleasure. Rule #3 of Fight Club: only 2 men to a fight.

And what would a film about male alienation be without commentary about women? There's a palpable misogynistic tone in Fight Club. It was Marla Singer, after all, who "ruined everything." She came between the two friends and created jealousy and unrest. It was Marla who invaded the support groups and their home. "We're a generation raised by women," says Tyler, "I wonder if another woman is what we really need." Moreover, when Tyler said that "the things you own end up owning you," he could very well have been referring to women.

In the end, we realize that we're watching a man struggle with his own inner dualism. Tyler is literally a man of two minds and he's being ripped apart. On the one hand he is driven by his atavistic and reactionary urges, and on the other he seeks calm and rationality. He is tortured by his restraint and repression, while at the same time seeks a life of freedom and careless abandon. Ultimately it's a futile struggle that leads to his self-destruction. The bombs, the destruction of buildings, the nihilism -- these are all projections of male aggression, a violent backlash against society.

But it's through this nihilism that there's hope for Tyler. He is admonished by his inner self that "it's only after we've lost everything that we're free to do anything." Man has to "stop trying to control everything and let go." It's only through mature acceptance that the inner struggle can be quelled.

Which reminds me of an old Buddhist lesson about how to catch a monkey. What you do is attach a box with a coconut inside to the base of a coconut tree. The box has a hole in it the size of a monkey’s hand. When the monkey comes along he will put his hand through the hole and grab the coconut. When you come out the monkey screams because he sees that he’s trapped; he will refuse to let go of the coconut! He’s a prisoner. All he has to do is let go of the coconut and run, but he can't do that because he wants both the coconut and his freedom.

Tyler needs to let go of the coconut. And the Ikea catalogue.

Great film.


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Anonymous said...

I wrote one of my film theory papers at school about Fight Club; incredible film.

I'd like to contribute that the film is against violence and 'angry white male angst.' (I apologize for not having a reference on hand, my paper is in a box somewhere in California but this is from a primary source: Fincher himself). Like the ultra-violence classic A Clockwork Orange (Kubrick, 1971), David Fincher uses violence in an argument against violence (note: Wikipedia article says ultra-violence comes from Clockwork orange but actually Clockwork Orange used the term in response to media criticism which had labeled certain films ‘ultra-violence’, random unnecessary violence). When Kubrick released A Clockwork Orange, it took the violence everyone was objecting to such as The Wild Bunch (Peckinpah, 1969) far beyond the norm. Rather than glorifying violence by focusing on violence’s realities (as opposed to these recent movies featuring the Rock where people die video game style) turns the audience against the violence and make that moral divide between the spectator and the protagonist; moving the spectator into objectivism while viewing the film and actually thinking about the violence.

Tyler is the manifestation of the daydreaming and subconscious reactionary spirit to our domesticated, dehumanized, consumer fetish driven lifestyles. However, as our unnamed protagonist (let's call him Jack) joins in on Tyler's emotional response, and then comes to direct confrontation with it he finds it ugly and determines it must be destroyed. This response is just a replacement with an ultimately equal lack of value. I’m not sure if it’s nihilism at the end but I agree that he is standing without the IKEA catalogue (no longer a consumer identified individual) and without the emotional response. Let’s also note, though, that he is in arms with the female semiotic who is essentially the Tyler of the female situation and obviously absurd. I’d relate this to Buddhism as having found the middle road, for he is no longer reactionary nor complicit; awake and reasonable.

In this way, Fight Club illustrates the modern male condition as something negative but presents us with the realization that our festering emotional response mirrors the same issues but we can abandon our consumer driven lame excuse of a life for something wholly new. As we watch the credit buildings collapse and aware of the agenda to ‘reset society’ what’s possible is entirely left open. As the society is reset, his mind is also reset having dealt with this inner subversive angst and rejecting both his condition and his immediate response.

John said...

Great article, I'm a huge fan of Fight Club as well, brilliant movie. I came across your blog, it was linked to by Ray Kurzweil's daily newsletter, anyhow, I think I'll be a regular reader of your blog now, another great post!

This movie definitely opened my eyes and helped me to understand the male condition. I used to be puzzled by why at a hockey game when a fight broke out everyone (ok, the guys) got so into it. When you consider how slow biological evolution happens, and you realize that even 15,000 years ago (a long time in a historical sense, but a blink in evolutionary terms), in order to humans to survive, I imagine they would have led a very, very different, more violent existance that we live now, and would have had to have been capable to very physical, very violent acts on a regular basis (hunting, defending their families, tribes, etc). What I'm getting at is that although through societal advances for the average North American male we go through our lives with no violence, within us the instinct is still there for it. I think this explains why fighting is still has such a seemlingly inexplicable lure for men. You don't have to look far to see examples in the modern world - wrestling, extreme fighting, soccer hooliganism, gang violence, etc.

George said...

Sachman, thanks for your amazing insight.

George said...

Hey John, welcome to SentDev. I look forward to your contributions.

Mark Plus said...

Regarding the suppressed warrior programming in men: Uh, hello? Haven't you Canadians heard of Iraq? The Arabs present the world with a patriarchal warrior society unsoftened by feminine values, and they threaten to kick the asses of the American troops there, if only through attrition and tightening the noose around Baghdad. Do America's "middle children of history" really like seeing a reflection of what they have repressed within themselves?

I also find it interesting that Fight Club coincided with the height of the "warrior woman" fad in American popular culture. I noticed that that fad went away, fast, after September 11, 2001. American women stopped fantasizing about living as warriors because they decided that they'd rather have the men do it for real.

Anonymous said...

Let's not forget it wasn't David Fincher but Chuck Palahniuk who wrote the story of Fight Club in the original novel.

George said...

Thanks, Colettephair -- point taken.

Anonymous said...

I think that men have definitely been marginalized in todays society. The whole warrior thing that used to channel our agression and give us meaning and purpose has been removed and so we struggle to find something else to give meaning to life. I think a lot of this is caused by the womens rights movement and a shift in the rolls of men and women in society. Not necessarily a bad thing, but it's something that we need to come to terms with, both sexes. I find that many women are not attracted to these new males, and prefer the old stereotypical male. So society pushes us one way, and a great deal of women are push us the other way.

I think society as a whole might be better off someday when we no longer define ourselves by our sexual rolls, or prescribe a sex to anyone for that matter.

Anonymous said...

ahhh...the film is o.k., however it's impact on society tends toward the 'pop' variety and the film betrays subtle hints that the piece was created without any understanding of human psychology, unless generall psychosis is the theme, and only a slight understanding of esoteric eastern religions, such as Buddhism.

What the film does highlight, however, is the lack of 'rites of manhood, a.k.a. initiatory rituals utylized by most cultures to psychologicaly prepare a male for his upcoming role as husband, father, and possibly tribal leader. However, please don't think that such a lack of explicit initiation implies there are no markers of manhood for the modern male. There most certainly are! The problem is that it is we men who are destroying such. Losing our virginity, overcoming our greatest fear, getting into our first fist fight, marriage, birth of our first child, etc. are all small 'mini-rites' of this passage. Unfortunately the men of our society have been taught to take such things for granted, and thus the associated psychological changes never manifest. Our society is left with citizens who have the body of an adult male, but who have the mental maturity of an adolescent.

Now, what's good about the movie is that the main character meets and indluges, a.k.a acknowledges, his more animalistic-side. What's not good is the fact that the movie suggests the killing off of this side is the answer, something completely impossible. (Isn't it odd that this 'murder' is something more becoming of our animalistic side anyway?) Of course the acknowledgement and reconciliation of our animalistic sides, as well as the transfer from repression to supression of our impulses is the key process of truly becoming 'Men.'

Then again, the short answer is that if you have a penis, you are a man, therefore all of your actions, no matter how effeminite, are mere slices of the sphere of manhood.

-Jason Gammon

Anonymous said...


Excellent article. The movie fightclub paints theh exact picture I've seen in American society.

I'm an asian Indian guy and I'm well educated . I have just landed in america. It is surprising that society ( both men and women) portray young men in america as the average frustrated chump or a little-boy and most guys actually buy it.I haven't this attitude of guys and society in any other countries of europe and asia.

They seek approval of women and other people who treat them badly ?? They don't have to disrespect others but at-least have a strong male personality.
I wonder when American guys can be Men and not pussified-boys who act like masochists, like getting ripped off at divorce court and let women use them as accessories.

wake up !