There is a dissatisfaction that American men are coming to realize afflicts them. As American women woke to their unhappiness and lack of personal fulfillment in the 60s, the first stirrings of something similar among men is occurring now — check out Susan Faludi’s new book Stiffed. We see this inarticulate itchiness to lash out against… something… in the popularity of ultraviolent video games, so popular with young men in particular, and the return to primetime TV of the over-the-top aggression of the spectacle of professional wrestling. And we see it in movies like American Beauty and now Fight Club.
Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt: Meet Joe Black, The Devil’s Own, edgy and brilliant here) is just the kind of wake-up call Jack (Edward Norton: American History X, as intense as always) needed. So downtrodden and faceless and powerless that the credits refer to him merely as “Narrator,” Jack is the Everyman of the 90s: “a slave to the Ikea nesting instinct” with a condo that could be said to own him more than he owns it. An insomniac, he finds relief in attending meetings of support groups for terminally ill people. He’s not dying, but “when people think you’re dying, they really really listen to you.” Crying with his support-group buddies allows him to sleep. He can’t quite pinpoint his problem, but Jack is desperate for… something.
Tyler identifies the issue for Jack: He is a victim of a feminized consumer culture that places more worth on nice furniture and a nice wardrobe over masculine values like strength and power. Tyler helps Jack remedy this imbalance in his own life when they inadvertently discover that they can make themselves feel like real men by fighting, actually beating the hell out of each other. And that there are plenty of other regular guys who get not only a kick but a real boost to their egos by beating one another up. Fight Club, born in a bar parking lot, eventually has to move to the bar’s huge basement, so many guys are turning up to throw punches.
Ardently violent and disturbingly anarchic, Fight Club is not for everyone. Bizarre and absurd and bleakly funny, director David Fincher’s (The Game) film is also darkly, sneakily misogynist in a sweeping, generalizing kind of way. Though the only female character, skanky Marla Singer (Helena Bonham Carter: The Wings of the Dove), is almost an afterthought, barely necessary to the plot, it’s Fight Club‘s attitude that’s more disquieting. The blame for the feminization of men is never quite overtly placed on women, but the implication is there. Jack’s support groups — in particular, the one for men suffering from testicular cancer — are full of men opening up, crying, exploring feelings… doing all those things girls are supposed to like. And as if there could be no bigger insult to a guy’s manliness, one of the testicular-cancer patients (Meat Loaf) has, as a result of his hormone treatments for the disease, developed huge breasts. The spectacle of this man — a former champion body builder, no less! — weeping openly, clasping Jack to his ample bosom during a session, is just that: a spectacle. It’s the precipice at which Jack reaches his limit, the point at which someone like Tyler Durden becomes almost a necessity in his life.
Not that Fight Club is a bad film. Not at all. In fact, it has a power that cannot be denied. And its misogyny is only skin deep — we see the dreaded consumer culture as an edifice supported and perpetuated by men: by Jack, working for a major automobile company as the guy who decides to issue recalls of dangerous vehicles, but only when such recalls make financial sense (the implication is that consumerism equals death); by Tyler, who makes and sells specialty soap, at $20 a bar, albeit with an ironically surprising ingredient. (Indeed, it was men in advertising and marketing who initially invented our consumeristic society after WWII to give Donna Reed-esque suburban moms reasons to feel guilty — Is my house clean enough? Are my husband’s shirts white enough? — to keep them occupied and diverted from the fact that they were bored silly.)
And as the outrageously antisocial Tyler creates a cult of personality around himself, and Fight Club mutates into Project Mayhem, a frighteningly fascist paramilitary organization, the ironic falseness of Tyler’s solution to Jack’s problem — and by extension, that of American men as a whole — becomes clear. Tyler’s goal is not modest: he wants to bring down civilization. And he wants to start by blowing up the offices of credit card companies, thereby wiping out debt records and letting everyone start over. As Tyler’s plan spirals dangerously toward realization, we are reminded — at least, I hope most of us are — that this is how dictators get their start, gathering men about themselves willing to die for a charismatic leader, men willing to follow rules like Project Mayhem’s: No questions, no names. The depersonalization to which Tyler’s followers are willing to subject themselves, and the violence they are ready to commit, is a terrifying reminder that one of the aims of civilization is to contain the aggression of strong men — and that civilization is not an insidious plan perpetrated by women for their own protection but the institutions by which weaker men protect themselves.
“Is that what a man looks like?” Jack asks Tyler as they sneer at a Calvin Klein underwear ad full of sculpted, discreetly nude male models. Of course it isn’t. But the person that Tyler turns Jack into isn’t a real man, either. I hope that was the point David Fincher was trying to make. The other prospect is too frightening to think about.