“Masculinity is in rapid transition, and for many, change is painful…the unquestioned authority of men (along with other former ‘male certainties’) have evaporated, leaving a deep sense of being lost.” – John Benyon
Fight Club (Palahniuk, 1996), among other masculinist texts of the 1990s such as American Psycho (Ellis 1991), expresses the discomfort of white, heterosexual men in today’s society which values material possession over spiritual wealth and brand names over individual identity. The castration of consumer culture has deprived the Narrator of the text of all personality, especially masculinity, and in seeking an escape he creates Tyler Durden; an anarcho-primitivist and alpha-male who takes on the role of father to the feminised men of consumerism, the middle-men of history who have no great war or depression to fight against (Palahniuk, 1996), only an internal struggle for meaning.
Lack of identity is one of the common themes that run through Fight Club; it tells the story of a white, middle-class man in America, a man with such a crisis of identity that he has no name. The Narrator refers to himself only in third person, and in reference to his internal organs, often as “Jack’s raging bile duct” in the film or “Joe’s Broken Heart” in the original book. The two names represent the Narrator’s crisis of identity; he is the displaced male of the late 20th and early 21st century, finding himself lacking definition in a world where we are so commonly defined by what makes us different. With the persistence of feminism, with race equality and gay pride, white heterosexual men are finding themselves held accountable for the sins of their predecessors but denied access to the rights they had. When Benyon suggests that “The unquestioned authority of men…[has] evaporated, leaving a deep sense of being lost” (Benyon, 2002) he evokes the idea that Tyler Durden vocalises when he discusses the internal spiritual war of men. For Amy Taubin, a film critic, this loss has been transformed into masochism; Fight Club is not about inflicting pain, but about enduring as much of it as possible. The extensive self-harming suggests that, unlike other oppressed groups, white men have no particular enemy to fight against – so they fight themselves and each other, and eventually together against the men in power who have placed them in powerless positions.
“Although these men are everywhere in power, that aggregate power of the group does not translate into an individual sense of feeling empowered. In fact, this group feels quite powerless.” Kimmel and Kauffman, Cultures of Masculinity
When Palahniuk was writing the novel, he interviewed many young men about their family lives. One thing that occurred to him was that for the white, Christian male in America, there is no rite of passage, except through the commodities acquired over years such as cars and houses (Palahniuk, 2001). Traditionally the father would have led his son into manhood, but as Bly (1997) notes, boys without fathers become “perpetual adolescents”. They have no idea how to be men in a traditional sense; as the Narrator says, “I can’t get married. I’m a thirty year old boy” (Fincher, 1999). He has filled his home with objects of consumerism, hoping that he can express his individuality through clever furniture and different varieties of mustard, but finds himself trapped in his “lovely nest” (Palahniuk, 1996, pp 44), uncomforted by material success. The Narrator is a feminised man, rendered impotent by consumerism, no longer masturbating to pornography but trying to find an identity through physical objects, specifically furnishings; “What kind of dining set defines me as a person?” (Fincher, 1999) he asks himself, and tries not to think about who he really is, or what he really wants from life.
Kimmel and Kauffman, authors of Cultures of Masculinity, discuss the recent crisis of white masculinity, pointing out that “although these men are everywhere in power, that aggregate power of the group does not translate into an individual sense of feeling empowered. In fact, this group feels quite powerless.” The Narrator feels helpless in his work, his home and his emotional life. He has become passive and feminised, which leads to his creation of Tyler Durden – an active male, who is strong-willed, capable and beautiful. He is also a construct of hyper-masculinity, and the perfect antithesis to Marla, who defies gender by attending Remaining Men Together, a testicular cancer support group. Tyler’s response to this is founding Fight Club – the one group Marla cannot infect with her femininity.
The creation of Fight Club works as a device to encourage young men to reclaim their masculine birth-right. This group of men “have tried to conquer a world without frontiers and remain physically powerful while eschewing all violent behaviour” (Boon, 2003). Fight Club allows them an outlet for their aggression and a chance for masculine male bonding – as opposed to the femininised male bonding of Remaining Men Together. Fight Club, and later Project Mayhem, give the men of the story an opportunity to prove their worth by traditional means.
“The point was to take the hit…it was more about the receiving.” Edward Norton
The lack of fathers in the lives of their sons is an important element in Fight Club as it draws comparisons between fathers, Gods and heroes. If fathers transmit “culturally approved forms of masculinity to their sons” (Pease, 2000), then what happens to the boys who are deprived of this education? Over time the responsibilities of the father have changed drastically, and he is quite often distant, perhaps literally; “The post-war father was seen as a towering figure in the life of his child not so much by his presence as by his absence” (Pleck, 1987), and gaining his approval became important. Tyler becomes a Hero or legend, and thereby becomes a father to the groups, providing them with an acceptable means of expressing masculinity and fighting the “spiritual war” that is the only way to define themselves.
The downside of this, however, is that Tyler disappoints the Narrator in the same ways his father did – by running away to different countries, setting up franchises of Fight Club in the same way his father set up other families, and the Narrator once again feels abandoned. “I am Joe’s Broken Heart because Tyler’s dumped me. Because my father dumped me” (Palahniuk, pp 134). Although Tyler is the epitome of the hero, the God-like figure of knowledge and strength, he ends up reinforcing the same institutions he seeks to destroy. In the creation of Project Mayhem he simply invents a new bureaucracy, where names and individual identity mean nothing. The members seem to find some nihilistic comfort in the fact that they are not “beautiful and unique snowflakes” (Palahniuk, pp 134), but they are essentially still trapped in an institution where they are just one of many cogs. Only through death do the members of Project Mayhem reclaim their identity, most importantly their masculine identity through the paternal surname, as with Bob becoming Robert Paulson. The Narrator says that “In death, we become heroes” (Palahniuk, 1996, pp 178), but Bob’s death becomes a turning point for the protagonist, who sees that nihilistic masochism hasn’t saved his feminised friend Bob, but turned him into an object and a martyr for the cause.
One of Tyler’s largest grievances is the way that many have felt abandoned by God, the father. He argues that they can now only get attention from God from being bad – “Unless we get God’s attention, we have no hope of damnation of redemption” (Palahniuk, 1996, pp 141) This is tied into ideas of masculine glory in myths and Tyler feels it is the only way to truly beat death – “We’ll be legend. We won’t grow old” (Palahniuk, 1996, pp 11). Tyler says these things because the Narrator is too afraid to – he would rather be an apostle of Tyler’s than a martyr himself. In the book, he (most likely deliberately, on a subconscious level) fails to explode the building he is in because he uses a method of explosive which has never worked for him before. He succeeds in destroying other buildings but cannot bring himself to die. At the end of the book, the Narrator finds himself in an insane asylum, still surrounded by men who have worshipped him as Tyler Durden – the film alters the ending so that he purges himself of Tyler, symbolically killing his father/God and his concept of masculinity by shooting himself, and taking Marla’s hand in an image that evokes Adam and Eve, on the precipice of the new world they want to build.
“The longing for fathers was a theme I heard a lot about. The resentment of lifestyle standards imposed by advertising was another.” Chuck Palahniuk talking to young men
As is fitting for a man who has been denied his masculinity, the Narrator finds comfort in the support group, Remaining Men Together. The book explains that this is the only support group at which he can cry – he experiences years of watching others bare their souls but is only granted his own release in a room surrounded by men who are also seeking to reclaim their masculinity. The Narrator takes comfort in the chant, “We are men. Men is what we are” (Fincher, 1999), but can only express his anxiety against the large breasts of a castrated male. Bob becomes for the Narrator a symbol of his own predicament – in trying to prove himself a man by today’s standards (by body-building and creating a commodity of his own body) Bob ultimately had his manhood taken away from him. Worse than that, when he was treated with testosterone his body responded by increasing his estrogen to the point where he developed “bitch tits” (Palahniuk, 1996, pp 17) – his own body betrayed him and feminised him. Bob is a perfect symbol of the feminised man, whose “self-image has been so battered that they inject themselves with synthetic testosterone” (Benyon, 2002).
Neither the book or the film Fight Club were guaranteed to sell well. They spoke to a specific group of people, for whom there was not much else, and highlighted issues such as castration anxiety, a lack of solid identity and traditional concepts of the Father, God and Hero, among others. After the publication of Fight Club, young men began to approach Chuck Palahniuk asking where they could find a Fight Club near them – it is clear that a masculine identity was something that many men felt they were lacking. The struggle to reclaim male heritage in a world where gender identities are being broken down is a theme that persists today, maintaining Fight Club’s status as a vital text, in either form, for this generation of young men.
Image © Stefano Bagnoli