20 Years of Fight Club: How David Fincher Takes a Sharp Jab at the Male Ego in This Nihilistic Film

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20 Years of Fight Club: How David Fincher Takes a Sharp Jab at the Male Ego in This Nihilistic Film

Illustration: Arati Gujar

David Fincher’s Fight Club, 20 years old today, seems like a clarion call to the masses, a rebellion against the eternal cycle of capitalism: work a job you hate so you can buy shit you don’t need. It shows a Narrator, known as Jack (Edward Norton), womanless, friendless, soulless, crushed by the grindstone. But then he meets this uber-cool dude, Tyler Durden, a soapmaker on a business trip, who preaches the importance of protecting manhood. He says that men were designed to be hunters but were now trapped in a society of shopping. 

Tyler, the alpha male, is as charming as he is dominant. His preachings on class struggle teem with pseudo-zen quotes: “It’s only after we’ve lost everything that we’re free to do anything” and “The things you own end up owning you.” His punch-your-emotions-out approach is irresistible to a gender unable to release their feelings in a socially acceptable manner. In a way, Tyler takes the simmering insecurities of innocent men and sculpts them into all-out rebellion: Fight Club demands that the path to freedom be paved with splattered blood and shattered ribs. Tyler creates an army of wannabe anarchists who see themselves as underdogs, challenging the world that they think wants to eradicate their masculine ways of life. 

fightclub

Tyler creates an army of wannabe anarchists who see themselves as underdogs, challenging the world that they think wants to eradicate their masculine ways of life.

Fox 2000 Pictures/ Regency Enterprises/ Linson Films

Interestingly, Fox initially refused to fund the film, citing that Brad Pitt was too hot and too vicious, which would intimidate male and female viewers, respectively. They were half-right: Fight Club was called “the ultimate anti-date flick of 1999” because women were turned off by the excessive brutality. The men, however, literally drooled over Tyler. They loved him for how he made them feel. They were addicted to him. And even if they denied it, the queerness had been spliced in from the start. In an interview a few years ago, Chuck Palanhiuk, on whose eponymous novel the film is based, revealed that “Fincher told me Fight Club was going to be the most homo-erotic mainstream American film ever made”. 

The homoeroticism, like the rest of the movie, is also savage and territorial. Fight Club opens with a goddamn gun in Jack’s mouth, the shot angled into a blowjob, as you stare down into his pitiful eyes. The scene is powerful because it empowers the viewer: We watch him mumble for mercy, but we don’t care; we delight in his perspiration, in the fullness of his throat, in the fact that his fate is cupped in our hand. There are several such scenes. Tyler sitting in the tub next to Jack wondering “if another woman is really the answer we need?”; Tyler kissing the back of Jack’s hand; Jack beating the teeth and eyes out of Angelface’s (Jared Leto) respective sockets because he was jealous that Tyler was paying more attention to the gorgeous newbie. Even the third rule reeks of a perverse masculinity: “If someone says stop, goes limp, taps out, the fight is over”. After all, a man who goes limp is powerless, right? 

It’s only in the end that we discover that Tyler does not exist, that he is a symptom of Jack’s neurosis. I suspect that Tyler is not violent as much as he is violence itself. At some point during the film, Jack, depressed about his own lack of agency, dissociates himself from his own masculinity. It is thus easy to see why castration anxiety is the central theme of Fight Club – men base their entire personhood in their precious nutsack – and the punishment for rejecting the Rules is having it hacked off. These extreme reactions are based on a recent theory known as masculinity-in-crisis. It suggests that men, prevented by modern liberalness from exerting their privileges, will lose their sense of identity — and, perhaps, lash out against society. 

It is thus easy to see why castration anxiety is the central theme of Fight Club – men base their entire personhood in their precious nutsack.

Unfortunately, most Fight Club enthusiasts, especially its legion of straight male fans, sift it for nuggets of wisdom about being a man and standing up to oppressors – fathers, God, consumerism, whatever. They believe that they are, as Palanhiuk puts it, “the middle children of history”. They have no wars to fight, no saber-tooths to poach. So they seek to revert to the good-old days when men were men and did whatever they pleased. But the truth is that the chains that hold men down are far more ancient than they think. Being a man, any kind of man, is compliance. It doesn’t matter whether you work in an office or wrestle sweaty dudes; buy Ikea furniture or crack someone’s femur; identtify as super-gay or super-straight – you are still a pawn of the patriarchy. This is the invisible wall of irony between Fight Club and its fanatics. 

You see, Fight Club is not meant to be the Gospel of the “modern man”. Instead, it does the complete opposite: it takes a sharp jab at the male ego and its heroic pomposity. As Scott Tobias observes in The Guardian, “The film does recognise a phenomenon where men are waking in anger from a culture intended to numb or emasculate them, but it also sees in that the presence of sickening misogyny and the potential for fascism” The true “hero” of the story is therefore Jack, when he finally realises that he has to take responsibility for his actions. He proves — in his choice to kill Tyler Durden at the probable cost of his own life — that a man is a man only when he has the balls to sacrifice his toxic masculinity.

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