Fight Club may seem an odd choice to review on a site about gender: it’s got one female character, and it’s all about a man’s search for identity in the form of manhood in a world of men. But one line of dialog says it all:
A generation of men raised by women. I’m wondering if another woman is the answer we really need.
This is the finish to a conversation about the rather underwhelming guidance the two main male characters had gotten from their fathers: go to college, get a job, “I don’t know – get married”. In other words, follow the formula.
But the point of the whole movie is that the system is breaking down. What once supposedly guaranteed a life of rewarding employment, a gold watch at retirement, and hopefully a reasonably nice family life just doesn’t cut it. Employers would rather deal with cheap hires who don’t know what they’re doing than pay for talent. They punish loyalty because they’re too busy looking at the steady raises and earned retirement benefits they’ll have to pay. And even if a man makes enough to keep a wife and kids in nice style, his family will want more. In fact, they want the same elusive thing he wants: identity.
Fight Club is the story of a nameless man (nicknamed “Jack” by fans for convenience) whose system is literally breaking down. He’s got a job, he’s got a condo and the complete Ikea package to furnish it, he’s finally got his whole life together, according to the system laid out by prior generations. And yet he can’t sleep, and it’s starting to interfere with his life. When he goes to the doctor, the doctor doesn’t want to give him drugs – no, no, he recommends chewing Valerian root: a cunning woman’s cure, a witch’s cure. The doctor’s solution is a “feminine” one which doesn’t even begin to address Jack’s real, underlying problem: that he has a second personality which is getting well out of hand.
(I’d like to note here that I don’t believe in hard and fast definitions of “feminine” and “masculine” as a rule, but our society does, and it is these values that the movie is playing with to make a point.)
Misplaced “feminine” energy is as much a part of the problem as displaced “feminine” energy. And the men in Fight Club have all experienced an odd feminization process, due to a society which has tried to diminish feminine energy, only to have it bubble up and fill the vacuum, ready to explode: the equal but opposite reaction to be expected in any system of balance. Jack’s boss is heavily into the color “cornflower blue”: a soft, desaturated shade of blue (the color for infant boys), the name of which combines the ideas of “corny” and “flowery”. Jack’s own fascination with setting up house properly represents sensibilities to his surroundings that are traditionally considered something only women concern themselves with. Notably, his alter ego’s first serious intrusion into his nicely mapped out little life is to blow up Jack’s condo – a hugely “masculine” gesture.
And it’s Jack’s fascination with a self-help group for men who have literally lost their balls to cancer that gives Tyler (the alter ego) a starting point for creating Jack’s identity. Tyler and Jack start their own self-help group: Fight Club. Where men go to beat the living crap out of each other and find out what they’re made of. Neither had ever actually been in a fight before.
As the Fight Club gains members and progresses, Jack and Tyler find themselves looking at Calvin Klein ads and asking snidely, “Is that what a man looks like?” They no longer need to be told: they have become men of their own making – not of their fathers’ making, or society’s making. Fight Club answers the question “If men run the world, why can’t they stop wearing neckties?” It’s because those neckties running the world aren’t really men: they’re just power mongers. And there is nothing positive, impressive or masculine about someone who only feels empowered by standing on the shoulders of others.
I relate to this completely, despite the Orwellian lack of corresponding feminine terminology: being a real man means being self-reliant. Doing what you believe you should, not what you’re told. Cooperating because you see the benefit, not because you’ve been trained like a monkey. And fighting when necessary, not to prove a point.
There is no way in the English language to express these things for women. Grow up and be a woman! That’s what separates the women from the girls. She’s really got balls! Girls are presented with no goals for adulthood. No matter what a great woman they become, it’s hardly worth the trouble because only the achievement of manhood is respected in our language – and therefore, in our thinking.
So I vote we steal the terminology, or at least the concepts from the men. Fight Club’s message about becoming a real adult instead of the adult you were programmed to become speaks just as well to women as to men. Fight Club portrays a society that is completely breaking down, and taking individuals of both genders with it. It’s going to take both genders to turn it around.
Tyler Durden issues a rallying battle cry to the men of Generation X, the smallest generation of the 20th century, the tiniest target audience in a society driven by demographics. But consider how much it sounds exactly like the complaints women have been making for decades:
I see in Fight Club the strongest and smartest men who have ever lived. I see all this potential; and I see it squandered. God dammit, an entire generation pumping gas and waiting tables; slaves with white collars. Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need. We are the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no great war, no great depression. Our great war is a spiritual war. Our great depression is our lives. We’ve all been raised by television to believe that we’d 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.
Our society hasn’t just broken its promises to women; it’s broken trust with all of us. And the people at the top are neither men nor women; they are genderless piles of insecurity in the form of human flesh. They are as afraid of real men as they are of real women, and tricking us into thinking we’re pitted against each other has been their greatest weapon all along. Our language doesn’t bother giving us a way to talk about the importance of growing up to become a real woman, because it’s not considered a laudable goal. It’s up to all of us – women and men – to change that. It’s in our best interests to put individualism ahead of “manhood” because “manhood” has always been defined by the folks who are in power. You think the folks in power are going to train you on becoming powerful enough to challenge them? Think again, boys.
And I’ll take one part of Tyler’s speech and raise it by a point: advertising does a lot worse than keep us chasing crap we don’t need so that we’re too busy to actually achieve anything that might overturn the powermongers at the top of the food chain. It has been pandering to the weakest instincts in young men and boys for a couple of generations now. 18-25 year old white boys don’t want to see strong women? Solution: don’t put a strong woman in your movie! For heaven’s sake, don’t show them that a woman can be strong and traditionally “feminine”. Or that a woman can be rather manly and still extremely sexy and attractive to manly men. Or that a woman can be a failure, and the failure have nothing to do with her gender.
No, don’t show them these things, because then they might become strong and secure. And they might in turn encourage women to be strong by not running from strong, smart or secure women in terror. And then the power mongers at the top might suddenly find themselves in their proper place on the evolutionary ladder.