I wrote a while back that the film Fight Club said quite a lot about gender, despite having only one female character. Today I’m going to write about that female character: Marla Singer.
First, I need to note that in researching some critical takes on this movie, I discovered to my shock that it’s regarded by some people as a misogynistic story. Of course, some also regard it as glorifying violence. I can only say that such perspectives indicate to me a shallow interpretation of the movie, based on a first impression without analysis. It’s also possible that some people sense the deeper message – a direct challenge to the assertion that the progress of civilization is going well – and they don’t want to hear that.
BE FOREWARNED: I’m going to reference what happens at the end of the movie, so if you don’t want to know, you may want to skip this article.
A brief synopsis: the nameless lead male (played by Edward Norton), nicknamed “Jack” by fans for convenience, meets Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) and discovers a whole lot about himself. In fact, he eventually discovers Tyler is his own alternate (or split) personality, but by then it’s just a little too late for Jack to stop the war on society that “Tyler” has started.
The film’s only woman, Marla Singer (Helena Bonham-Carter), weaves in and out of the story, interacting with Jack and Tyler. She seems to be just a catalyst for Jack at first, when she starts coming to all the same support groups he frequents. This makes him self-conscious and unable to let go and cry at the meetings, which was his only outlet for feeling any sort of emotion. When Marla’s presence denies Jack the ability to cry, Tyler steps forward to pull all the rugs out from under Jack. This propels them to start Fight Club, which gives Jack a different form of release than the self-help groups provided. A much-needed form of release.
Then Marla becomes Tyler’s lover, and that propels Tyler to start Project Mayhem without Jack – the above-mentioned war on society that takes things a step further than Jack wanted to go with Fight Club. It would be easy to view her as nothing but a plot device.
But she’s a lot more than that.
In the very first scene of the movie, “Tyler” has a gun in Jack’s mouth and Jack – aware now that Tyler is actually him – has to conquer Tyler once and for all. From there, the rest of the story is told in flashback, and introduced by one very telling line of dialog:
Jack: Somehow, I realize all of this — the gun, the bombs, the revolution — is really about Marla Singer.
It’s a subtle point, easily missed by the casual viewer, but absolutely essential to any serious understanding of the film. Once I caught the line and its significance, I wondered, how was it all about her? I had some ideas of my own – including a wild theory that she was yet a third Jack personality – but I went to the source. Chuck Palahniuk, the author of the original book, said,
And the whole story is about a man reaching the point where he can commit to a woman.
So much for slapping a misogyny label on this film.
What exactly does Jack do in his attempt to reach that commitment point? He recognizes an imbalance in himself. He tries to correct it the civilized way: support groups. The problem is, what’s ailing Jack is civilization itself, and its repression of two very basic and interrelated human drives: the need for a purpose in life, and the urge to care deeply and passionately about someone or something. Including yourself.
And so Jack forms Fight Club: a support group for people suffering from civilization.
But how does this bring him closer to committing to a woman? Let’s consider what we know of Jack’s lovely civilized life prior to meeting Marla or Tyler. Here’s how he describes his job at a major auto manufacturer:
The car crashes and burns with everyone trapped inside. Now: do we initiate a recall? Take the number of vehicles in the field, (A), and multiply it by the probable rate of failure, (B), then multiply the result by the average out-of-court settlement, (C). A times B times C equals X. If X is less than the cost of a recall, we don’t do one.
And more lives are lost, with the company’s full awareness. Jack’s a button down murderer in a cubicle, and he’s never thrown a punch.
How many of us are the same? We have high moral standards when it comes to getting our hands dirty, but willingly work for insurance companies that deny people life-saving treatments, or manufacturers who pay slavers to make the goods. We rationalize our roles in these things and keep right on going.
Jack has taken the first step in growing beyond that: he’s stopped rationalizing, and the blood he’s now getting on his hands is literal, physical and in his face. He’s confronting his demon. He’s no longer comfortably disconnected from reality. Well, not completely.
Tyler is a construct Jack unconsciously creates to sever all his ties with his pseudo-purposes in life: the job, the quest for possessions, etc. But he spends most of the rest of the movie thinking Fight Club is his purpose, and he’s mistaken there.
Tyler’s next step is Project Mayhem, a calculated war on civilization. Every act Project Mayhem commits is carefully planned to avoid hurting anyone, but when you’re blowing up buildings and so on, accidents are inevitable. When a friend is killed, Jack begins to realize he hasn’t found his solution after all. Soon thereafter, he realizes he is Tyler, and everything Tyler did, he did.
The problem wasn’t that Fight Club was a wrong step on a slippery slope to Project Mayhem. The problem is that Fight Club was just step one, and when Jack didn’t follow it up properly, Tyler took over and took a second step – but not the one Jack needed to take. The step Jack needed to take had something to do with Marla Singer.