Sunday, November 22, 2009

Destroying Something Beautiful: A Critique of Masculine vs. Feminine in "Fight Club"

I first saw Fight Club as a junior in high school and, though it clearly exudes the qualities I will discuss, never acknowledged it as definitively masculine film or broke down the parts that reiterated that attribute. It is the visual equivalent of an adrenaline rush which can make certain elements lost on viewers, but there are a great deal of societal critiques of masculinity in forms of autonomy/freedom, the lust for and interest in violence seated within the film, and relations with women.

Our generation is bombarded with the idea of a new masculinity. What many people saw borne out of the pages of “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus” and metrosexual fashion trends was an idea of toned down masculinity and, in some extreme cases, many found this change due to the rise of feminism. In men’s health magazines, articles are written about the rise of an “Estrogen nation,” as more and more men throughout the United States have higher levels of the hormone estrogen in their bodies than ever before. While the rise in estrogen is largely due to a rise in sedentary living (body fat is directly tied to estrogen production), many health magazines have alluded that this hormonal imbalance is changing the very masculine framework of our postmodern society… and this is precisely where Fight Club comes into play, critiquing the “feminized” present day, adhering to notions of traditional masculinity, and pursuing violent endeavors to persuade and assert dominance and virility.

The film starts with the main character, or Narrator (a traveling salesman), and the introduction to his general dissatisfaction with life. He attends support groups for the terminally ill, a group in which he doesn’t necessarily belong on advice from his doctor to witness a semblance of “real” suffering as advice per his doctor to help with his insomnia and general emotional state. We are introduced to Bob “Big Tits” Paulson who has become a victim of hormone replacement after suffering through testicular cancer, the intention clear immediately and upfront: this man now has qualities of a woman, and had lost his very virility in the form of his testicles. This cancer is representative of the feminization of culture that later comes up in the film, the testicles (“masculinity”) being removed due to it. The Narrator is disgusted; the Narrator watches this character cry, furthering this notion of femininity. Through these meetings, the Narrator meets the lone female of the story – a character mostly seen as psychotic and despicable (yet sexually alluring) throughout the film’s entirety.

The Narrator meets Tyler Durden, a suave and charismatic individual who ends up taking the Narrator (sometimes referred to as “Jack”) in after problematic living situation circumstances. Tyler Durden pulls the Narrator in with his nihilistic philosophy, and eventual turn towards violence. At a point, Tyler explains his vision in the following lines:

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.

In Fight Club the men have lost faith in their roles as consumers and want to experience a "real" sense of being that can only be achieved through pain. Tyler and the Narrator form a fight club, which pairs men together in abandoned places to gain physical contact with one another in the most violence and typically “masculine” ways possible. They consider these fights to be the catalysts into their neo-post-modern manhood and masculinity. This alludes to our previous readings, such as the one in Men’s Lives, in which it was explained in terms of gendering violence that “[m]en are honored for activity (ultimately, violent activity); and they are dishonored for passivity (pacifism) which renders them vulnerable to the charge of being a non-man…” (Gilligan 554). The lust for and pursuit of violence, therefore, tie directly into the resurrection of masculinity that Tyler and the Narrator try to bring back, which eventually leads to Project Mayhem. Project Mayhem becomes an amalgamation of masculinity (violence, powerful, anti-authoritarian, and generally pleasure seeking) seeking to pursue anarchic and nihilistic stunts.

The first goal of the fight club itself seems to be autonomy and freedom. The fight club exists outside of cultural restraints of order, safety, and precaution – something seemingly common in the society the film takes place in, paralleled to modern day Anywhere, North America. Another line that Tyler Durden speaks in the film is representative of this desire: “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.” Tyler Durden emphasizes the idea of freedom in terms of being a real man. A real man sets his own rules, a real man is proud of who he is, a real man. This idea of masculinity has been reflected through our readings throughout the course. It appears that power dynamics are often linked to the performativity of masculinity and, within Fight Club, individual power (which appears to be the most concentrated form of it) is held above all else.

The relations with women in the film (or perhaps I should say clarify by saying “woman” since there is only one) are some of the most intriguing, as they validate this new ideal of masculinity, but also dismantle it (while then again preserving it). I know that sounds confusing, so I will try to explain without fully inundating with spoilers galore. There is only one woman present in the film, and that is Marla Singer. She plays a fiendish crazy woman who is basically a sexual outlet and little more. The Narrator does not even know if he enjoys her as a human being, Tyler Durden uses her as a receptacle more than anything, and yet she provides a catalyst. Initially, Tyler doesn’t hesitate to explain that women were the cause of the world that they now inhabited. Later, however, after the Narrator has been made extremely uncomfortable by Tyler and Marla’s sexual escapades, it is clear that there may be some sort of emotional investment within him after all. When the final stunt of blowing up buildings with credit card company records (to reduce the debt to zero) and Tyler’s interest in killing Marla become apparent, the Narrator is possessed by the idea of standing in the way of these hyper-masculine acts of violence and destruction, while still retreating to the antiquated notion of masculinity by rescuing the damsel in distress. While maintaining somewhat hurtful (sometimes literally) notions of masculinity, Fight Club also ends up serving as a call to arms to dissatisfied American men. This idea may be why it’s such a popular film across young men, but at the same time reinforces patriarchy. There are no positive women in this film, only men are allowed to take part in Project Mayhem, and the group ends up being cult-like and dysfunctional and literally turning against itself. It is an interested critique about the general laziness befallen on the middle-class American white male, while still not offering a solid solution. It may provide violent allure, but still critiques its ability to bring about change.

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