Toxic men in Fight Club

In 2005, when this site was very new, I wrote an article about Fight Club that talked about… to be honest, it rambled. It’s mostly about how the system men created has betrayed them, but there’s a lot of other stuff in there. More than a few MRA forums linked to the article as a great read on why women suck so much and it’s perfectly right for men to hate and abuse them. I’ve wanted to write a follow-up piece clarifying article for some time, and this is it.

From the original article:

“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…

…and Jack has been left out in the cold. This is the part of the movie MRAs and other misogynists interpret as a criticism of women and the toxic effect they have on the men and boys. But is that what Tyler Durden’s saying?

Consider the conversation leading up to that line. Jack and Tyler have just discovered they had very similar fathers. These fathers:

  • Gave them meaningless crap instead of guidance.
  • Moved to a new city and started a new family every 6 years or so, like a franchise.

That’s a pretty damn good example of not being there for your kids, isn’t it? Of a father’s absolute selfishness and entitlement to move on whenever he’s bored, regardless of the damage he leaves in his wake. He doesn’t care. Once the kids aren’t interesting to him anymore, they might as well cease to exist. As Tyler says later in the movie:

Our fathers were our models for God. And, if our fathers bailed, what does that tell us about God? Listen to me. You have to consider the possibility that God doesn’t like you, He never wanted you. In all probability, He hates you. This is not the worst thing that can happen… we don’t need him.  Fuck damnation. Fuck redemption. We are God’s unwanted children, with no special place and no special attention, and so be it.

What this is, is a thorough condemnation of patriarchy: God and ours fathers have abandoned us. The people we put in charge and worshiped and gave special treatment have gotten bored with wiping their feet on our backs and moved on to another challenge. They couldn’t care less what happens to us. That’s what Tyler’s talking about: God and fathers letting men down.

And let’s not forget what Jack does for a living: he works for an auto manufacturer. When a problem is found with a car model, it’s his job to determine which will cost more: a recall, or a class action suit. If the recall’s more expensive, the company just waits around to get sued. If people are fried alive in the car in the meantime – like one entire family whose car Jack has to examine – that’s okay. The scene is played for comedy, but don’t miss the gravity: why do you think Jack loses it and develops the Tyler personality? He’s basically an accountant, but because corporations are structured to function like psychopaths, the corporation can experience causing lives to end violently and prematurely as a mere pile of stats on a computer screen viewed over a nice hot latte. But Jack’s the one who has to look at the remains, and he’s unable to harden himself to the violence like the jackasses in the scene who make jokes about human fat cooked into the seat upholstery. (Not long after this scene, Jack “meets” Tyler for the first time, and guess what Tyler does for a living? Makes human fat into soap and sells it back to the corporate bullshit world from whence it came.)

Tyler, Jack’s shadow self, comes along to help Jack tear down the corporate world that enables God and our fathers to kill, torture and oppress in the name of “Hey, we’re just chasing the dollar, sorry” and “It was a good business decision.” Tyler is Jack’s solution to living in a system that rewards the sort of callousness, selfishness and egotism Jack’s father demonstrated when he dumped his son for a newer model.

But in the end, it’s not society Jack wants to destroy, but himself – or at least, the part of him that’s Tyler. This suggests a few possible interpretations, but we have an intriguing quote from author Chuck Palahniuk: “The whole story is about a man reaching the point where he can commit to a woman.” Combining this with everything else, what do we get?

Tyler is Jack’s fantasy self – a rebel with a cause who doesn’t need Ikea furnishings. Or civilization, for that matter. Tyler is an island. He’s enlightened. He can endure anything and he can do anything. He’s Jack’s superman, and after spending the whole movie wanting to become Tyler, Jack destroys him because Superman isn’t the answer. Bombing civilization isn’t the answer. Fights that get you back to your primal urges aren’t the answer. What is?

Self-acceptance. That’s what you need before you can seriously commit yourself to someone else, and that’s what Jack doesn’t have. Committing to a cause is easy – you just have to love the cause. Committing to others – spouses, children, friends, whatever – is best done by people who have first committed to love themselves, warts and all. Jack, like so many people, needs to accept that he’s human and imperfect and that’s okay. (This is almost surely what made it impossible for Jack’s father to stay committed to a spouse and children – deep down, he probably figured they’d leave him if he didn’t leave them first.)

This is what Fight Club is really about: learning to love yourself, a prerequisite to loving anyone else. Everything Tyler criticizes – consumer culture, wimpiness, lack of discipline – is stuff we’ve substituted for healthy self-love in this society. Feeling empty and dead inside? You just need to own the new iPiddle!

Who’s offered men this crap as a solution for unhappiness? Not women: other men. It wasn’t being raised by a woman that hurt Jack; it was being abandoned by his male role model that did the damage.

The message of Fight Club seems to be, through most of the film, that men need to get in touch with their inner animals and shrug off the trappings of civilization. But in the end, what Jack needs is to get over the idea that if he’d been perfect enough, his father would have loved him.


  1. snobographer says

    I read your first Fight Club post. It’s a big illogical reach for the MRAs to figure you were saying men have been screwed over by women.

  2. Charles RB says

    “Jack, like so many people, needs to accept that he’s human and imperfect and that’s okay.”

    The book ends with a scene and line that is not in the film: the epiphany “Jack’s” had that people aren’t unique snowflakes but they’re not the all-singing crap of the world either: “we just are. And what happens, happens.”

    Too many people seem to watch and read Fight Club and miss that. Instead they focus on Tyler’s anarchism and “you’re not a snowflake” and miss that, y’know, Tyler’s wrong. All he’s doing and can do is fuck things up. (Project Mayhem’s agents are brainwashed drones – “spacemonkeys”, in the book – for fuck’s sake, following Tyler gets people more dead inside and less independent than before)

  3. Maria says

    Have you watched The Secret Lives of Dentists? I think that speaks to some of the same themes… I might try to do a review of it soon.

  4. says

    This is an extremely interesting analysis. It would also be interesting to think further about the absent-father, and what drives him and his restless wandering. I suspect it would be a similar sort of betrayal from what was promised. Love, for example, is often very problematically discussed in our society.

    I do want to take issue with one thing, though. I don’t think what is needed is self-esteem. Rather, I think it is self-respect. The reason that I think it is worth making the distinction is because what you are talking about (recognizing oneself as intrinsically valuable, as being flawed but being ok with that) describes respect rather than esteem. Esteem is about valuing one’s developed character traits and achievements. It is an extrinsic way of valuing one’s self (where you value yourself for what you have done and who you have become).

    I think self-esteem is a problematic concept to use because we can nurture self-esteem by focusing on only superficial traits. For example, many of those neck-tie wearing corporate yes-men probably have esteem for themselves because of the position that they have achieved. But to respect one’s self requires a deeper kind of valuing.

    Laurence Thomas does a good job of describing the difference in the 13th Chapter of Dignity, Character and Self-Respect. Thomas ties self-respect to parental love and also to justice in a way that I find rather convincing.

  5. says

    Okay, I’ve heard so many really conflicting definitions of self-esteem – it’s quickly becoming a useless term, since I’ve never had a conversation in which all parties were defining it the same way.

    I went to the Wikipedia, which was actually pretty helpful in this case. It listed several close synonyms, including self-respect. This led me to self-acceptance:

    Which is exactly what I’m talking about. Loving yourself despite flaws. I’m going with that one. Thanks for the catch.

  6. says

    Yes, I think self-acceptance is also a very good term to use. It does capture what you mean exactly. I guess I have a respect-bias because that concept has been important in western philosophy (e.g. things like human rights are based on dignity which traces theoretically to Kantian respect; and I am a philosophy-nerd, so please forgive me).

    I am very curious to hear about how the MRA groups could possibly have tied your earlier post to the idea that women suck. I checked the comments there, but did not go too deep and did not see trackbacks on first comment page. How could they have made that interpretation from what you wrote, which is clearly not saying that.

    I am also wondering about the title for this post. Are you discussing toxic men in this post? It seems you are discussing toxic situations, that create toxic reactions rather than discussing men who are (in-themselves) toxic. The point of the post, as I interpret it is that the system of capitalist-patriarchy is toxic to love and toxic to self-acceptance and betrays the vast majority of those whom it purports to benefit. I thought the post was describing a toxic situation that can lead to toxic and violent reactions if the situation is not itself examined, and instead individuals are blamed (e.g. women in “a generation raised by women”). Tyler might be toxic-in-himself, since he is the representation of the how-not-to-react. But “Jack” is not toxic-in-himself, because in the end he comes to see the problem with Tyler’s toxic reaction, and puts an end to it. I can see that you are discussing a toxic form of masculinity, but I don’t think I understand how you are discussing toxic men. I hope this is not an inappropriate question, I was just curious about the title.

  7. says

    Tyler and Jack’s father are the toxic men I had in mind, particularly to Jack. There’s definitely also a larger picture of toxic concepts of manhood. I was also contrasting it with the idea that “women” (“the last thing we need”) are toxic.

    You won’t find trackbacks to MRA forums here because I delete them. :) But to sum up, a couple of forums read it this way:

    –In the original article, I said the old system was breaking down. That, they decided, was because of feminism, which they define as the most toxic sort of “narcissistic” woman who wants to destroy men and take over the world.
    –I mentioned what I called an “odd feminization process” (I’m sure you followed what I actually meant, so I won’t try to summarize) which they took to mean The Whole Problem For Jack And Other Men Is Feminists Making Them Act All Girly.

    People like these just see a few words that could be taken to support their pet theory, and run with it. Over the years, I’ve gotten better at avoiding giving them even a phrase to latch onto. 😉

  8. says

    Ok, I see then where the title is coming from. I think it is interesting that among my acquaintances, many of the men I know who have had absent fathers are really messed up about it. Also, a significant number of them have displaced their anger on to women. So I think the pattern that Fight Club is identifying feels true to my experience.

    I still wonder, though, what is going on in the minds and emotional lives of the fathers. It is easy to criticize this behaviour because it is obviously selfish and irresponsible. But there is also something about the culture there, too, I think. It is hard to know what to say about them because they are not really in the movie, per se. But to the extent that Jack and Tyler reflect them there might be something else going on. For example, we are encouraged to cleave ourselves in two and keep only the parts coded for our gender. This does not seem to leave men who follow the macho script with very many resources for family life. Since violence, independence, and success are coded masculine this would seem to strongly encourage leaving one’s family if one begins to be attached (no longer independent), or to find it difficult to navigate the emotions involved in family life (that is one finds oneself failing).

    Any how, great post! Thanks for sharing all your thoughts about this.

  9. says

    Hey, here’s a decent example of how people completely misinterpret my article:

    I’ve already written and asked him to remove me as a source, since he’s completely misrepresenting what the article said.

    Re: fathers. I talk about the impossible dichotomy between being Mr. Macho and Mr. Family Guy here:

    What we ask men to be simply isn’t possible – it’s too much for any human. What we ask women to be is achievable, but soul-destroying because it’s LESS than any human can tolerate being with self-respect intact.

  10. Jen says

    The only Chuck Palahniuk books they convert into films are the ones that, on the surface, look like they are all about manly things like violence (fight club) or sex (Choke).
    I bet it would burst the bubbles of a lot of hetero men who get off on their perception of these films to learn that Palahniuk is actually a homosexual.

    In my opinion his best book is ‘Diary’, which is from the PoV of a 30-40 year old female and has a beautifully nuanced paranoia throughout, in the vein of (one of Palahniuk’s favourite books) Rosemary’s Baby.
    Similar themes too, a woman being used, drugged, betrayed by her husband, told she is insane, her child is taken away from her. Everyone should read this book it’s a masterpiece!!

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