On Fight Club, Materialism, and the Modern Man’s World
There are 5 movies on my personal pantheon. Some are more artful and historically important than others but all are terrific films. Here they are in no particular order. *
- The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
- Star Wars
- Back to the Future
- Fight Club
The subject today is Fight Club. When it came out in 1999, it was hailed as “blistering, hallucinatory, often brilliant.” Peter Travers of Rolling Stone wrote, “It’s about being young, male and powerless against the pacifying drug of consumerism. It’s about solitude, despair and bottled-up rage.” Fight Club provided the outlet for everyone who was disillusioned with the post-Reagan, post-Cold War era. By way of great simplification, by the late-90’s, America was #1, stocks were booming, Presidents were banging interns, and our pop-culture continued to glorify business acumen. Not everyone was enamored with this world; many felt alienated from it.
Part 1: “Fuck Martha Stewart”
Here we are, it’s a decade and a half later, and yet I would argue that Fight Club is actually more relevant than when it came out. There is still debate as to the actual causes of the last great economic downturn and blame ranges from bankers to the Fed to Frannie Mae. But what I believed happened — and whether it was the main cause or merely a contributing factor doesn’t matter — is that the materialism of the 1990’s returned with a vengeance.
Actually, when writing this ode to Fight Club it was hard for me to clearly distinguish the materialism of the 80’s from the materialism of the 90’s and 2000’s. The reality is that culturally we are every bit as obsessed with things as we were in the past.
“We’re consumers. We are the byproducts of a lifestyle obsession.”
Criticize my analysis of the 2008 financial collapse all you want, but the truth is that a driving factor was people living beyond their means, especially by getting into mortgages that were too much for them. Another fact is that regardless of the macro results of the Great Recession, everyone’s individual lives would have been much better had they lived Tyler Durden’s attitude towards material possessions.
“Reject the basic assumptions of civilization, especially the importance of material possessions.”
And here we are in 2015. The crises has abated and (according to those who most benefit from an overall perception of a recovered economy) the economy has recovered. But we are still the same possession-fixated people we have always been. 0% APR, celebrities, house renovations, clothing, cell phones, television… the list is endless. The funny part is, we are no happier than before, but we do try to make up excuses for why we aren’t. (More articles here and here.)
“By the end of the first month, I didn’t miss TV.”
We still haven’t grasped the adage that we work to live, not live to work. Americans take fewer vacation days than almost all other people in first-world nations. We work more hours and have higher job stress levels.
Narrator: “What do you do for a living?”
Tyler Durden: “Why? So you can pretend like you’re interested?”
Americans hang their hats on being the innovators of the world and powering the worldwide economy. What do we have to show for it? A higher GDP? Higher median income? Faster proliferation of new technology?
Who gives a fuck? Are we happier? Are we living longer? Are we more satisfied with our lives? Not to get into hippie shit, but is the planet better off?
“You wake up at SEATAC, SFO, LAX. You wake up at O’Hare, Dallas-Fort Worth, BWI. Pacific, Mountain, Central. Lose an hour, gain an hour. This is your life, and it’s ending one minute at a time.”
Though he has the lifestyle that we are told is the modern ideal – a condo, a good job, a nice wardrobe – the narrator finds himself sleep-walking through everything he does, quite disconnected from his life. The plot’s driving force is therefore his lack of satisfaction. “But,” the world screams back at him, “this is the way you’re supposed to live. What’s the problem?”
“That condo was my life, okay? I loved every stick of furniture in that place. That was not just a bunch of stuff that got destroyed, it was me!”
Turns out, having his condo destroyed is the greatest thing to ever happen to the narrator. Without losing everything he thought mattered, he never would have begun the journey that leads to his ultimate understanding about our engulfing materialism and consumerism.
“You give up the condo life, give up all your flaming worldly possessions, go live in a dilapidated house in a toxic waste part of town…”
Want to know who I think are among the freest and most innovative people in today’s world? These motherfuckers. The preppers and the tiny-house builders. That’s right – the small-time, rural-cast-offs who everyone in the mainstream looks down on. Those who have removed themselves from the toilet bowl of modern society and live on their own in a debt-free, environmentally sustainable, simple life.
“It’s only after we’ve lost everything that we’re free to do anything.”
You can have your nice job and your nice car and your nice house; just remember though: none of that shit matters. “Allow nothing to be in your life that you cannot walk out on in 30 seconds flat.” Though this does not include friends, family, and the things that really matter, it is the right sentiment.
“In the world I see, you’re stalking elk through the damp canyon forests around the ruins of Rockefeller Center. You’ll wear leather clothes that will last you the rest of your life. You’ll climb the wrist-thick kudzu vines that wrap the Sears Tower. And when you look down, you’ll see tiny figures pounding corn, laying strips of venison on the empty car pool lane of some abandoned superhighway.”
Part 2: “When the fight was over… we all felt saved.”
Tough as it may be to believe, Fight Club‘s contribution as a satire of modern worldliness is not its greatest achievement. In fact, only a superficial analysis of the film would include nothing beyond its condemnation of our culture’s superficiality.
“I found a new [group]. It’s for men only.”
Now we will delve into why exactly this movie is a guy movie and why women, though they (like all people) sympathize with the materialism analysis above, will never understand this movie the way men will. Women can appreciate it from an academic standpoint but it cannot resonate with them like it does with men.
“Fight club wasn’t about winning or losing. It wasn’t about words. The hysterical shouting was in tongues, like at a Pentecostal Church.”
More than anything else, this film is about the displacement of the man in the modern world and his subsequent revolt and liberation from it. Fight Club shows the audience a crisis of masculinity – what is to blame, how it develops, and how it is overcome.
“I see in Fight Club the strongest and smartest men who’ve ever lived. I see all this potential, and I see it squandered.”
The film beings with the narrator’s body literally rejecting, via insomnia, his own lifestyle. We get an early indication of the direction of the movie by seeing that the first place the narrator finds relief is in a support group for men who have testicular cancer. As members of the group share their stories, we notice each man feels a complete loss of his manhood due to the loss of his testicles. Though the narrator still has both of his, it is significant that once he sympathizes with those who are without he is able to release his emotions and sleep peacefully. Later, we will see that the testicles were only a symbol of manhood. Despite having “bitch tits,” no testicles, and unbalanced hormones, Robert “Bob” Palmer regains his sense of manhood through participation in Fight Club.
“God damn it, an entire generation pumping gas, waiting tables — slaves with white collars.”
When Marla Singer arrives and treats the support groups as a tourist, she destroys the narrator’s haven and it’s clear that the support groups were only a temporary solution to his greater problem. Specifically, he is still bound to a lifestyle that is harmful to his nature. Thus arrives the narrator’s inner persona, Tyler Durden, and the destruction of his property, prompting an actual lifestyle change — something group therapy could not do. Other men follow him almost blindly, driven by a primal need to discover what it is about their lives that make them feel so distraught and forgotten. The movie hits its stride with the creation and growth of Fight Club and the remaining time is more falling action than anything as the men turn on the world that cast them and their manhoods aside.
“You weren’t alive anywhere like you were [at Fight Club].”
The reason Fight Club is so important today is because much of today’s world is antagonistic to traditional masculinity, i.e., the nature of men. Notice how I use the word “nature” to describe masculinity. It’s not about culture, it’s about biology. In the heart of each man is an energy and desire that is unique to our sex. I am not talking about sex drive or testosterone, although they are elements of this. I am talking about instincts that developed over thousands of years, programmed into the animal parts of our brains and against which stand our modern lifestyles and culture.
We now live in a world where schoolboys are reprimanded for displaying male characteristics (like rough-housing, being competitive, or playing games like cowboys and Indians) while simultaneously being praised for displaying female characteristics (like being more emotional, acting subdued and quiet, and sharing). This is why boys are medicated with psych drugs at much higher rates.
The male sex drive is being eradicated from college campuses. Drunk sex now means rape, rape hoaxes get national coverage despite shoddy journalism, and consent forms are needed before sex. Political correctness is driving alternative voices from even being discussed at colleges – just look at the speakers banned from commencement speeches and see the “trauma” rooms for audience members who are uncomfortable with the words someone else says. In fact, PC Culture itself is a feminine idea — based in emotional response rather than verifiable fact.
In movies, television, and advertising, men are portrayed as assholes and incompetents — if not outright stupid, they are never shown to be smarter than their female counterpart. The expansive state and federal governments are eliminating self-reliance. This is, again, a feminine idea, as females are by nature more risk-adverse and thus vote in favor of more social programs in much higher proportions than men. Single-motherhood is now the norm and endorsed implicitly by divorce rulings despite the fact that having a father in the home is one of the most powerful indicators of a child’s success and single-father homes have better childhood outcomes than single-mother homes on average.
And I won’t even delve into the gutting of organizations like the Boy Scouts.
“We’re a generation of men raised by women. I’m wondering if another woman is really the answer we need.”
The point of these few paragraphs above is not that each item is a bad thing in and of itself. It is to make the larger point that on a macro level ideas and actions that are masculine in nature are slowly being snuffed out. The male of today can easily feel as cast off as any of the characters in this film.
“Our fathers were our models for God. If our fathers bailed, what does that tell you about God?… Fuck damnation, man. Fuck redemption. We are God’s unwanted children. So be it!”
Now from the perspective of someone who didn’t like the movie, but still saw in it some of the reasons why it appeals to men. Patrice O’Neal broke down the movie on The Opie and Anthony Show.
Patrice is right.** Tyler Durden is the lame man’s fantasy fulfillment. The next step in this line of thinking is that because modern society is so overrun with the displaced male (i.e. Patrice’s “lame” man) this movie has broad appeal among men. They see in Tyler Durden a strong, charismatic, and independent man and they believe there is something of that inside themselves — an untapped power. In other words, they see in him their lost masculinity.
“I look like you wanna look, I fuck like you wanna fuck. I am smart, capable, and most importantly, I’m free in all the ways that you are not.”
Men love this movie but they don’t really think about why. It gets damn near perfect audience ratings on Rotten Tomatoes and IMDB but few critics have captured what makes it resonate.*** They can talk about Brad Pitt’s character and fantasy fulfillment but most of what they are missing is contained in the quote at the top of this section: “When the fight was over, nothing was solved, but nothing mattered. We all felt saved.”
Why would being in a group of men and fighting each other be the key to their salvation? It is because the modern world has taken from them the things that make them men and thus they must find a way to regain them. As shown by the redemption of testicle-less Bob, it’s about more than pounding chests and boosting testosterone. Rather, Fight Club is a subtle reminder of the deep inner bond that men share with each other – a spiritual connection as old as our species. In generations previous, the passage into manhood was significant and led by those who had gone before. As grown men and leaders in our families and communities, we continued with each other, offering support when needed. But now, the world is changing, the sacred bonds are stressed and failing, and men are becoming obsolete, lost to time. Fight Club is one of the few moments in pop culture history where this decline is both recognized and protested.
The essence of the movie is in the picture below, showing two men that in the seconds prior were beating the ever-loving shit out of each other:
Which brings me to a final point: I have always been annoyed by “sausage fest” type jokes. We’ve all heard them. Whenever a group of men go spend time together, even just out to a movie or relaxing at someone’s house, there’s always someone who makes a comment about how many guys are there compared to girls. These comments not only betray personal insecurity (and perhaps underlying homophobia) but also show a great deal of immaturity in failing to understand the significance of the male bond.
“We’re the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our great war is a spiritual war. Our great depression is our lives.”
Again for emphasis: “Our great war is a spiritual war.”
Before concluding I will throw the women a bone. I mentioned above that women can never fully appreciate this film and while that is true, I’m going to back off the part where I said any appreciation they have will be only academic. Many women have an instinctual response to this movie in a similar manner to men. When watching this movie, men see themselves and who they want to be. Women see who they wish men would be.
End: “You’ve met me at a very strange time in my life.”
I’ve attempted to do it here but it’s actually very hard to characterize what makes this generation of men seemingly different than all others. In some ways, it’s a good thing. In many other ways, however, we’ve lost something important; Fight Club understands this and, while it does beat the audience over the head with disdain for the modern world, there’s more to it than that. There’s something subtle in this film that recalls our pasts as animals, humans, and men.
“If you are reading this then this warning is for you. Every word you read of this useless fine print is another second off your life. Don’t you have other things to do? Is your life so empty that you honestly can’t think of a better way to spend these moments? Or are you so impressed with authority that you give respect and credence to all who claim it? Do you read everything you’re supposed to read? Do you think everything you’re supposed to think? Buy what you’re told you should want? Get out of your apartment. Meet a member of the opposite sex. Stop the excessive shopping and masturbation. Quit your job. Start a fight. Prove you’re alive. If you don’t claim your humanity you will be come a statistic. You have been warned ___ Tyler”
P.S. This is how I know I’m getting older. When I first saw Fight Club I didn’t give much thought to Helena Bonham Carter’s character Marla Singer. Now, though, every time I see the movie I think, “Damn, she is sexy.”
* Though all these are a significant step below my pantheon, the rest of my top ten favorites (comedies are a separate list) are 6) Field of Dreams, 7) A River Runs Through It, 8) Children of Men, 9) Blood Diamond, 10) The Fellowship of the Ring.
** Patrice also mentions why Fight Club seems to be a white guy movie and he’s getting at a racial issue that I think is incredibly insightful but is beyond the scope of this post.
*** Henry A. Giroux wrote one hell of a review for the movie and pretty much covered everything I wrote here and more, although in much greater detail and with much more polish. I didn’t find his until after this was almost done.