My Enduring Intellectual Love Affair With Fight Club
Or, why everything you *think* you know about a (supposedly) violent and misogynistic work of art is probably wrong.
1999 was a simpler time. You could get on an airplane without having to remove half of your clothes. Most people were eating gluten and didn’t seem to care. There was Nu metal. I could go on…
Also in 1999, you could make a movie where a rag-tag group of (mostly white male) ne’er do wells in trench coats and ski masks plan to blow up buildings while beating each other to a bloody pulp, and barely an eyebrow was raised. There was also no Facebook and Twitter to host outrage-fueled rants about the film’s nearly pornographic violence. Everybody won!
All kidding aside, 1999 was also the time when David Fincher’s cinematic interpretation of Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club was released. The reviews — as they sink into the annals of cinematic history — are decidedly mixed.
It is not difficult to find scathing, but well thought-out, reviews of the book and film. It’s also not difficult to find reviews praising it as a masterwork of cultural criticism. Like so many works of art, it has been as divisive as it was impactful.
I am not here to analyze what different critics think of the film. I am not here to praise one review or take apart another. I am here to talk about what the film means to me — both personally and philosophically. Because when I first saw the film — at age 16 — I was hooked in a way that no other movie at the time had hooked me. And though my mindset was decidedly different at that age than it is now, my appreciation for the film (and to an extent, the book) remains with me.
Because I want to be fair, I will give a very brief account of what has been said against Fight Club as a good and insightful piece of writing and cinema. It has been accused of condoning overt sexism, misogyny, violence, and barbarism. A simple Google search will yield for you a bevy of well-written articles making those claims. Many are worth reading. I will let you decide which ones with which to engage.
But at the end of the day, the greatest thing that Fight Club does is what any great piece of (a certain kind of) art does: it leaves you dizzy, disoriented, and in a position to think freely about everything that was just thrown at you — so you can make your own decision.
To kick things off, I’m going to bust some myths and misconceptions about Fight Club as quickly as I can here. I’ve given some version of this spiel to nearly every woman I’ve dated or been friends with (always trying my best to never mansplain, of course), so by now, it’s nearly memorized.
1: Fight Club is not about fighting — at least not physical fighting.
Yes, you probably knew some douche who either started his own “fight club” or talked enthusiastically (drunkenly?) about doing it. Fight Club is not about fighting, or starting a club where people fight. It is about a group of people — young men specifically — who feel out of place, uncertain, confused, and needed an outlet.
It’s also about how many wrong ways there are to explore those feelings and vent them.
**SPOILER ALERT FROM HERE ON**
The main character is so dissatisfied with his life that he creates a second personality that takes over when he’s sleeping. This second personality — named Tyler Durden — creates a subversive club of other dissatisfied dudes who beat each other up, and then engage in political vandalism and disruption.
The film’s climax revolves around the main character chasing Tyler Durden to undo his now nationwide conspiracy to overthrow the financial system in the US (named “Project Mayhem”). He confronts Durden, who insists that he’s only doing these things because it’s what the main character really wants. The film ends with the main character fighting and killing Tyler Durden (i.e., the destructive, subversive, nihilistic part of himself).
So yes, figuratively it is kind of about fighting —but it’s about a man fighting a spiritual fight against his more basic and immature self. He’s fighting against society’s dictate that he grow up and fall in line, but then fighting against a harsh nihilism that he adopts as a reaction to that. Even the scenes that seem to be a fight between to characters are really something else entirely.
There is one brutal fight scene — in which the narrator (played by Edward Norton) is fighting the admittedly good-looking member of the fight club (played by the handsome Jared Leto). He hates this guy purely based on the fact that he’s “pretty”. During a run-of-the-mill fight, Noton’s character ends up straddling Leto’s character and begins punching him in the face — furiously. He ignores his opponent’s attempt to tap out (which is strictly against the rules of the club), and proceeds to smash his face in with a series of blows, until the other club members pull him off.
When the film came out, this scene was often cited in complaints about the movie’s pornographic use of violence. And this was indeed a vulgar display of violence. But the vulgarity had a purpose. We weren’t really watching a man fight and severely injure another man; we were watching a man fight and severely injure the better angels of his nature. That scene was the scene where this main protagonist lost control. It was a fight that the good guy lost — until the very end of the film, when we see him rear his head again to win a victory for reason.
The fights in Fight Club is definitely violent, but more intellectually violent than physical. And any punches thrown are symbols for the deeper fight happening within the story.
2. Fight Club features only one woman, and only in the role of a love interest — but not for the reason you think.
Yes, the film scores poorly on the Bechdel Test. But I submit to you skeptics this fact: it does so on purpose, and its act of doing so aids in furthering the feminist cause. Hear me out (and go ahead and comment if you find that I end up mansplaining).
When I was a teenager (which was when the film came out), young men were being encouraged to pursue women as trophies — accessories to a better-looking life — and as part and parcel of building a more thoroughly masculine identity. This might sound familiar to many women, who were (and are) encouraged to pursue men as necessary parts of their lives and identities. In fact, this is pat of the reason for the Bechdel Test in the first place (as I understand it).
When Fight Club came out, I was on the border of swallowing that sweet, sweet concoction of misogyny, chauvinism, and low self-esteem that was being passed around at the time. Because I was patient enough to look beneath the surface of the film, I got the real message. That message, to me, was this: you have a lot of work to do on yourself before you can go bringing a lady into your mess. Define who you are — fight that fight with yourself — before you go trying to forge a relationship. A woman should be an equal partner in your life’s journey, not a way for you to define your success or identity.
It took me a long time to internalize that lesson — at least the part about doing work on myself. It wasn’t until very recently (and interestingly, after I got married) that I really rolled my sleeves up and did that hard work on myself. To an extent, I’m still doing it.
3. Fight Club is not advocating the violent overthrow of society.
During the film, the dudes who were enthusiastically beating the hell out of each other the day before begin what they dub “project mayhem”. It involves malevolent and destructive pranks aimed at businesses and certain types of art. There are threats of personal violence against public officials, and ultimately the planning and carrying out of the explosive destruction of several large commercial buildings. It’s all done in the name of one man’s vision to rid the world of commerce and capitalism as we know it. To those who have been watching Mr. Robot, the message is familiar — hauntingly so.
But if you really watch the film, there is explicit skepticism about this movement from the very man who helped it begin. He perceives the plan as having gone way too far past the initial light rebellion and fellowship. He sees the blind following of a charismatic figurehead, and hears the dogmatic chants of the disillusioned young men (though their chant is not about making America great again, it seems hauntingly familiar). He comes to understand that it’s not the right path, and essentially wakes up from his nihilistic slumber in order to try to shut it all down.
To me, this was important. I learned that no dogma, no “simple” solution, no slogan will save you from having to deal with uncertainty and fear about what you will do with your life. No externally provided and neatly packaged answer — especially not from a charismatic pitchman in disguise — will make the pill of existential angst any easier to swallow. The answers are never simple, and if someone tells you they are, they’re not giving you the real answers. Tyler Durden was just a different kind of Hitler, a different kind of Donald Trump.
Love and Mayhem
If you’re a skeptic about the film, hopefully I’ve made you think a bit more about it. But I had (and still have) an abiding love for the film. It came at the right time in my life, at the right time on the American timeline, and it cemented the bond of a friendship in the most formative period of my life.
But I can’t write off my love of the film as the result of nostalgia or subjectivity. I came to love it, and still do, because it presents an original view of both issues that exist in society, and a unique response to them. It also presents a still-relevant critique of dogma and demagogues.
I still love Fight Club — the mayhem, the bloody fists, the Edward Norton — all of it. And I hope that perhaps this small offering can help others do the same. But make no mistake: if some bro insists that you sit down and watch the movie with him — be very skeptical.