Whether we’re talking about manspreading, mansplaining or the ‘controversial’ Gillette commercial, there’s no doubt our society discusses the nature of masculinity and initiates conversations that question what we see as masculine. This is indeed a worthwhile discussion, but don’t be tricked into thinking this is something new. Like all great universal themes, it’s one that’s been explored before, and perhaps never as successfully, or as ironically, as in Fight Club.
Chuck Palahniuk’s debut novel had been on shelves only three years when Twentieth Century Fox released one of the great films of the turn of the century. Casting Brad Pitt and Edward Norton as the novel’s twin protagonists was a stroke of genius that perfectly captured the two character foils. Pitt, ‘the sexiest man alive’, was cast to play alpha male Tyler Durden, the novel’s symbolic representation of what we now understand to be toxic masculinity, while Norton played the novel’s unnamed narrator, a disaffected man struggling to make sense of life in an era that had eschewed the need for ‘traditional’ men.
The phrase ‘we don’t talk about fight club’ has become a ubiquitous catch-cry among those who hear the film’s name mentioned, but you have to wonder if those spouting it understand the irony in what they’re saying. Fight Club itself rails against the terminal damage notions of toxic masculinity cause to a generation of males living in a world that no longer requires them to fight wars, hunt food, protect the clan, or convey the rule of law. What we really don’t – or at least didn’t – talk about, if you take Palahniuk’s perspective straight from his page-turner is that old notions of masculinity can only create men with no place in the modern era.
In much the same way as Steinbeck highlighted the downfalls of his era by thrusting them into the public eye with explosive fiction that the Nobel Prize-winner claimed was concerned with ‘dredging up to the light our dark and dangerous dreams for the purpose of improvement,’ Palahniuk refuses to preach or proselytise in Fight Club. Analysis of the text, however, reveals those characters, including the unnamed narrator, who idolise Durden’s exaggerated masculine qualities come to tragic endings.
The ancient commission of the writer has not changed. He is charged with exposing our many grievous faults and failures, with dredging up to the light our dark and dangerous dreams for the purpose of improvement. – John Steinbeck in his Nobel Prize banquet speech, 1968.
In the spirit of talking about things we shouldn’t, let’s get straight to the spoilers. Durden himself is a figment of the narrator’s imagination and an antithetical projection of his masculine inadequacies. Perfectly capturing this fact, Durden manifests at a nude beach. “Tyler was naked and sweating, gritty with sand, his hair wet and stringy, hanging in his face.” He’s also engaged in a feat of engineering. “The giant shadow hand was perfect for one minute, and for one perfect minute Tyler had sat in the palm of a perfection he’d created himself.” Multiple layers of symbolism are at work here. From his naked birth to the fact that, of all things, he’s building a hand from timber, just as another idolised carpenter may have done, Durden is presented not in a sexual light, but in one that marks him as zen. Christ-like.
From here, the novel quickly moves to a much more famous scene. Shortly after the narrator’s home, described as a monument to his “nesting instinct,” is blown up and his prized possessions are lost, he seeks shelter with Durden. Their initial meeting ends with a night of drinking and Durden’s cult-classic request: “I want you to hit me as hard as you can.” Here again, we see the narrator striving for an alpha male lifestyle. There is the obvious nod to a ‘real man’s’ ability to fight and withstand physical pain, but more importantly, Durden lives in a dilapidated squatter’s hovel. His life is one of minimal efficiency and he even runs his own business. There is literally nothing Durden, a hyperbolised alpha male, can’t do. He’s strong, handsome, intelligent, and spiritual.
As the novel develops, Durden preaches the destruction of a society that has evolved beyond one that required men to be farmers, hunters and builders. “Tyler said, picture yourself planting radishes and seed potatoes on the fifteenth green of a forgotten golf course. You’ll hunt elk through the damp canyon forests around the ruins of Rockefeller Center.” With the pinnacle of masculinity developed and symbolised, Palahniuk creates a literal army of men to idolise it. Anyone familiar with the film or the text knows that as the narrator is drawn deeper into Durden’s world and aspires to become more of a ‘man,’ he becomes more self-destructive, and so do the men who seek to join him on his own journey to manhood. The contact-point for these men is the famed fight club of the novel’s title: underground boxing rings where these ‘failed’ men can prove their masculinity by punching each other. The satire here is scathing and perfectly c aptures the modern fascination with violence and the vicarious enjoyment of it through sports like MMA.
Note that these men all symbolise traits seen as undesirable in the traditional notion of an alpha male. Durden, also a fine orator, describes the men who seek to join him with a quote that routinely makes top ten monologue lists. “”We are the middle children of history, raised by television to believe we’ll be millionaires and movie stars and rock stars, but we won’t. And we’re just learning this fact, and we’re very, very pissed about it.” No character reflects this greater than Bob. As the narrator states, “Bob cries because six months ago his testicles were removed…Bob has tits because his testosterone ration is too high. Raise the testosterone level too much, your body ups the estrogen to seek balance. Too much estrogen, you get bitch tits.” Cursed with the most visible feminine trait possible and the excision of his most masculine organs, Bob dies as a result of his attempts to reach Durden’s ultimate masculinity. This is the result of the toxicity described in Gillette’s marketing campaign and in opinion pieces around the globe. Bob venerates a tired ideal of what a man should be and he dies for it.
Continuing with that sentiment, the narrator eventually realises the damage Durden is doing to him – and to society on the whole – and seeks to solve the problem in the most traditionally masculine way possible. With violence. The irony here is that in order to kill Durden, he will inadvertently destroy himself. As the novel comes to its conclusion, Palahniuk’s perspective on masculinity is finally clear. Written in the blood of his protagonist, he claims that men who cling to traditional notions of masculinity in a changing world will not survive and will only destroy themselves – and everything else – if they don’t change their ways.
Note: There is so much more we could have talked about in this piece, but due to the nature of it as an exemplar for Yr 11 student use, it had to be kept to a narrow focus and limited to circa 1000 words.