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Masculine Identity in the Service Class: An Analysis of Fight Club
By Adrienne Redd
Last updated on June 27, 2004
Copyright 1996-2004 Adrienne Redd
Table of Contents
1 Gray-Collar Workers
2 On Being a Man Who Serves Others
3 "A Very Strange Time in My Life"
4 Shattering the American Dream
5 Nervous Laughter
6 Hypotheses about Masculine Identity
This film will be more enjoyable for those who see it first and then read this analysis because, like The Sixth Sense or The Crying Game, Fight Club has a secret, which this discussion will reveal.
As does Natural Born Killers (www.geomatics.kth.se/sjoberg/homepage/nbk.htm), this film addresses morality and society by using the motif of violence. But like that film, it is not primarily about violence any more than Dog Day Afternoon is about bank robbery. Nonetheless, Fight Club (www.foxmovies.com/fightclub/) will inspire wringing of hands as critics and commentators call it a mirror held up to an empty and tormented contemporary consciousness. This is a misinterpretation and not the central point of the film.
Prima facie, Fight Club is also about masculinity, but with the crucial proviso that it is about masculinity among a specific class of American men: the burgeoning stratum of service or gray-collar workers. There was a time when blue-collar workers could invest in a kind of honor and mythology of hard physical work, but "the world has changed" (as one Bruce Springsteen song laments (www.musica.org/letras/ing1/Y19049.htm)) and now former steelworkers are parking cars, waiting tables, and watching security monitors. They have not even the solace of big muscles and the solidarity of unions from which to construct their identities and with which to salve their bruised egos. And as a character says in the film, they lack a great cause, like a war or depression, in which to test themselves.
With nihilistic aphorisms and near-poetry, the story is told by the narrator (Edward Norton, www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/style/movies/oscars/edward_norton.htm), whose name we never learn, although he has aliases. Call him Jack. After suffering from insomnia for sixth months and developing a dependence on a comically wide array of support groups (testicular cancer, brain parasites, tuberculosis, and various 12-step groups), Jack first encounters another faker at the support groups, a derelict young predator named Marla Singer (Helena Bonham Carter, www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/style/longterm/filmgrph/helena_bonham_carter.htm) and soon after an alter ego who blows up his condo unit (unbeknownst to him). Condoless, he moves into a dilapidated house in the warehouse district with his new friend, Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt, washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/style/longterm/filmgrph/brad_pitt.htm). Thus he begins a series of adventures: fistfighting with a growing circle of other men for fun, giving assignments of starting fights with strangers, becoming increasingly more defiant at work, making premium soap from the fat discarded by liposuction clinics, and ultimately building an army of gray-collar workers to wreak havoc around the unnamed city (perhaps Los Angeles) -- first in a transgressional way and then more and more destructively.
In a twist that will catch most viewers by surprise, Tyler Durden turns out to be a fragment of Jack's personality, but this is merely a device to have this mysterious and powerful character (and manifestation of wish fulfillment) appear in Jack's life. (An analysis of Tyler Durden's name reveals that in antiquated English, "Tyler" means gatekeeper or house builder. "Durden" has the word root dour meaning hard (as in "durable"). His initials, T.D., invoke Todd or death in German or perhaps D.T. (delirium tremens), since Tyler is a hallucination of Jack, the waking person. Although a second viewing shows that the first understanding of the film meshes successfully with subsequent viewings, the narrative device of the alternate personality is just that and does little to tap into what is understood about multiple personalities. One of few consistencies with psychological literature is that Jack, the waking self, is depleted and becomes less powerful as Tyler becomes more dominant. An aside, it's interesting to note that this is the second film in Norton's short but meteoric career in which he has played a character with multiple personalities, the first being Primal Fear (1996) (www.aboutfilm.com/movies/p/primalfear.htm), in which Norton made his film debut.
Fight Club is really about what it is to be a man who serves others (as women have traditionally) and how such men construct identity and meaning in their lives. That women now can take most of the jobs that men can is certainly a background fact, but the film explores other issues or sources of masculinity. The first of three pivotal scenes in this film is a moment of intimacy between Jack and Tyler when they confide that their fathers are distant and disengaged. Jack's father left when he was a small boy and married subsequent wives and had subsequent families. Tyler says that his father didn't go to college and so this was very important for Tyler to do (and Jack comments that this sounds familiar.) He says that his father was not able to adequately answer his series of questions of "now what?" Later, when Tyler subjects Jack to a deep chemical burn on his hand (which leaves a scar curiously like puckered lips), Tyler makes this empty silhouette where the father-deity should be more explicit, asking Jack, "What if God doesn't want you? What if you are one of his unwanted children?" This is echoed when the Tyler personality "leaves" (and Jack must pursue him) and Jack laments, "My father dumped me. Tyler dumped me."
Another potential font of masculine meaning, a man's identity in contrast to (and potentially in harmony with) women as partners is touched upon briefly and discounted. Tyler says in his heart-to-heart with Jack: "We are a generation of men raised by women. Do you really think that women are the answer?" At the prospect of marriage, in hypothetical response to Tyler's questions of "what next?" Jack says, "How can I get married? I'm a 30-year-old boy." Not until Tyler becomes a threat to Marla, who has been Tyler's lover, does Jack take steps to protect her. In the final moment of the film, he can acknowledge that he has been part of this relationship (which he believed only to be between Tyler and Marla) and can be tender to her. By way of explanation, he says, "You met me at a very strange time in my life."
The film, though violent and brutally blunt, is remarkably nonsexual. The love in the film is not love between Tyler (or Jack) and Marla, nor is it homoerotic (the idea that heterosexual men need to integrate their feminine side or embrace some of the sensitivity of gay men is completely avoided). There is not a single gay character. There only is the goal of self-love, both in the sense of a well-integrated self and in the sense of the central male character, Jack-Tyler, loving his penis. One of the marginal professions that Tyler pursues (while Jack seems to experience insomnia, but is in a kind of fugue state) is that of projectionist. He enjoys splicing single frames of pornography ("a nice big (flaccid for the ratings people we suppose) cock") into family films. In fact, just before the credits roll at the end of Fight Club, one can observe one such nearly subliminal image. There are also nagging fears of castration and mutilation that pervade the film. The first support meeting that Jack attends is a testicular cancer group where the members have had their testicles removed and commiserate, saying, "We're still men." One of the survivors of testicular cancer, Bob (Meatloaf), has grown huge breasts because of subsequent hormone imbalances, but there is no sense of his being effeminate. His breasts are almost incidental and (consistent with the rest of the film's dismissal of women) referred to as "bitch tits." After the Tyler personality blows up Jack's condo, he tells him that it could be worse: He could have had a woman cut off his penis as he slept and thrown out the window of a moving car. Castration is also a threat used against adversaries at other points of the film. Jack embraces and reintegrates Tyler in the final scene of the film when he shoots himself in the face, "killing" Tyler. The act (which exorcises Tyler as a distinct fragment of Jack) takes courage and abandon worthy of Tyler. Afterward, Jack seems powerful and in control.
The other two pivotal scenes, with regard to exploring masculinity, are occasions when Tyler speaks to the members of fight club, saying, "We've all been raised to believe that we'll be millionaires and movie idols. But we won't!" This ties into the American dream and the mythology that anyone can become rich or become president. Part of the way that the working poor are lulled into cooperating and staying in the service of richer classes is by this unspoken promise that if they work hard they will ascend to higher security and status. Implying that the fights fill the men's need to test themselves, Tyler also says that this generation of men has had no Great Depression or great wars in which they could prove their toughness and worth. Ridiculing men who sculpt their bodies in fitness clubs, Tyler says, "Self-improvement is masturbation." Of the fights, Jack says, "nothing was solved" but "we all felt saved." (Interestingly, most of the fistfighters are the same "angry white men" who voted against liberals in the 1996 elections.)
In spite of the implied criticism of social stratification, the narrator behind the narrator or the core sensibility of the film does particularly lionize gray-collar men. One of Tyler's practices becomes what he calls "human sacrifice." He pretends to rob a convenience store, tells the clerk he is going to murder him and then tells him that if he does not pursue the dream he originally held (becoming a veterinarian or whatever), that he will be dead in six weeks. This implies that the motivation to succeed must come from the individual who has slipped into the gray-collar class, not from the system and that the individual, not the system, is responsible for the individual's success.
Before he blackmails his boss to put him on salary for not revealing the company's unscrupulous business practices and quits his job as a recall coordinator (analyzing catastrophic crashes to determine if the auto company should issue a recall), Jack emails haikus such as the following to his coworkers:
The worker bees can leave The drones can fly away The queen is their slave.
This implies that the people at the top of society are slaves to the service class, of which Jack-Tyler's followers are members. (Interestingly, the novel, Alias Grace (1996) (www.dancingbadger.com/agrace.htm), by Canadian author Margaret Atwood, also touches on the idea that the privileged are helpless and almost childlike without those who serve them.) There is a certain disdain for the classes higher than themselves and at the same time, the implication of an unwilling parasitism. This is epitomized in the premium soap that Tyler makes from human fat and sells at a chic shop. He delights in "selling rich women their fat asses back to them."
There is also a sense in which Tyler, though he works at a restaurant and as a projectionist, is not truly one of the class of gray-collar workers. Late in the film, when Jack is just about to learn the secret of his additional personality, he interrogates a worker in a dry cleaning facility and then snorts in disgust, "you're a moron." This individual devaluation is also manifested in one of Tyler Durden's mantras for the corps: "You are not special. You are the all-singing, all-dancing crap of the world." There also is a very powerful implication that although Tyler tries to give his followers awareness and a sense of living every moment fully, they have merely exchanged one set of programming for another. This is most painfully evident when Bob, now a member of Project Mayhem, is shot and killed. One soldier insists on burying the evidence (the body). The soldiers assert that as members of Project Mayhem they have no names and Jack insists, "This is a friend of mine and his name is Robert Paulson." They take this as a new part of their credo and begin to chant, "His name was Robert Paulson. His name was Robert Paulson."
Also supporting the idea that the gray-collar workers are merely waiting to be programmed is another scene near the end of the film. Tyler Durden is driving recklessly to try to shock Jack (who has not yet become aware that they are two aspects of one person) into feeling alive. He turns to two of the soldiers and says, if you knew you were going to die, what would you do?" They intone emotionlessly, as though it is a rote response, "paint a self-portrait" and "build a house."
The film is ultimately deeply conflicted about the identity and worth of gray-collar workers. After Project Mayhem's destruction has drawn the awareness of city leaders, some of its members wait tables at an anti- crime banquet. They grab the police commissioner in the men's room and threaten him with castration if he does not call off the investigation, saying, "We cook your food; we haul your trash; we place your calls; we guard you while you are sleeping. Do not fuck with us."
Using soap to make explosives to destroy the records of all the credit card companies seems like a Marxist impulse to level society (but it is quixotic and pointless since all such records are double- or triple-backed up.) On the other hand, exonerating the least responsible citizens from their consumer debt contradicts Tyler's urging clerks to work harder to become what they dreamed of being. Tyler's goal is not, however, a Marxist leveling of the industrial world nor even a revolution by agricultural peasants. In a vision of the post-destruction world that Tyler articulates to Jack before he "leaves," he seems to describe a pre-agrarian, hunter-gatherer world where young, strong men are kings once again. (This sensibility is well captured in Mose Allison's "Young Man Blues," recorded by The Who in 1968.) Tyler's first conversation with Jack, in which he asks him if he knows what a duvet is and ridicules the valuelessness of this knowledge in the "hunter-gatherer sense," reinforces Tyler's pre-agrarian, pre-specialization, pre-societal stratification vision.
Although dark, this is a very funny film, inspiring much laughter, both nervous and hearty. The transgressional mischief that Jack and his Tyler component engage in is also an important part of being male. Reversing the tines on parking lots so that tires explode dramatically as unsuspecting drivers exit, slipping revised safety guidelines into the rear seat pockets of airplanes which show the passengers praying, weeping, and cringing in fear, bucking the system exploring new realms are all parts of the defiant and creative curiosity that leads men to fly to the moon and climb mountains just because they are there.
There are two hypotheses about another potential source of masculine identity. It may be that only men of middle class and above get to be gentle, reliable providers and perhaps working class men only get to be violent (and have that outlet be socially accepted.)
The second hypothesis is that the materialism that is so reviled and rejected throughout the film is the real social flaw, not the stratification of society. Perhaps working class men only feel like they cannot be gentle, responsible providers because they have been seduced into what Jack calls "the Ikea nesting instinct," the urge to keep up with the Joneses and to be defined by one's things. Echoing Thoreau, Tyler says early in the film that "the things you own end up owning you," and one of his instructional speeches after he assembled the Project Mayhem army is, "You are not your job. You are not the contents of your wallet. You are not the car you drive. You are not your khakis." It may be that working class people's finances and their standards for happiness are destroyed believing the marketing that says that everyone can and should have every convenience and material pleasure. This cannot be true, because if such luxuries could be had by everyone, they would not be so desirable.
Another compelling theme of this film seems to be accepting the reality of one's mortality and living life to the fullest. While waiting for a plane, Jack says, "This is your life and it's ending one moment at a time." The terminally ill members of the support groups are also a strong reminder of death the project of being alive until one dies. The first time that Jack converses with Marla, who is, like him, a support group tourist, she finishes his sentence for him. He says, " When people think you're dying they really listen," and she adds "... instead of waiting for their turn to speak."
The film is also about escaping conventional society. Representative of escaping out the top of a cold and constrictive society are the references to being a millionaire or a celebrity. Representative of escaping out the bottom are the constant references to "trying to hit bottom" to attain a freedom that doesn't come until one has nothing to lose. However, though Tyler and the other characters want to walk away from conventional consumer society, they do retain a sense of honor. Tyler makes Jack promise three times not to speak about him (and this makes the dual realities of Tyler as a separate physical person and Tyler as fragment possible) and when Tyler stands up to Lou, the owner of a building in whose basement the fight club meets, they resolve the conflict with Tyler taking only the owner's word that they can continue to use the building. This and the threat with which Tyler extracts a promise from the police commissioner recall the concept of testifying. It means to "tell the truth" in a formal sense, but has its origins in the Roman punishment of castration for perjury. To promise or to give one's word was to promise upon one's testicles.
Fight Club's themes of honor and freedom (perhaps attainable through total disengagement from society and perhaps by starting over) remains complex and contradictory, as do its exploration of individual work and group power. Ultimately this film, directed by David Fincher (Seven, 1995; The Game, 1997) does not coalesce perfectly, but its themes and images are rich with meaning and it is one of the deepest explorations of modern masculinity within the working class to date.
Adrienne Redd has written about film, theater, music, the visual arts, politics, and the environment for 20 years. She lectures on film and leads a monthly film discussion for the County Theater in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. She is writing a book about American political activists, working on a documentary and pursuing graduate work in sociology at Temple University in Philadelphia.
This essay copyright (c) 2000-2004 by Adrienne Redd.