We are the all singing, all dancing crap of the world:
Fight Club and the Post-Modern Dilemma of Manhood

by Ron Hogan

"Years ago, manhood was an opportunity for achievement, and now it is a problem to be overcome."
--Garrison Keillor, The Book of Guys

     There is a growing feeling in society, spawned predominantly in the wake of the feminist movement of the 60s and 70s, that men are growing increasingly devalued in North American life. Certainly, men are still present, and there are still roles for men to play, but the traditional roles of men are increasingly being usurped, supplanted, or phased out by the rise of women in the workforce and the overall societal shift from production to service as primary employment, as well as a cultural shift that has been putting more and more emphasis on women and female achievement rather than splitting the emphasis between male achievement and female achievement. Men are being alienated and marginalized by the very group that they marginalized and alienated for centuries, specifically women, in an attempt to bring about a twisted version of equality.

     The primary subject and focus of the movie Fight Club is the generation of men born in America since the 60s: the male children of the Baby Boom generation in North America. While certainly the film has appeal to all sexes, men and masculinity will be central to the discussion because men are the subject matter under discussion. There are several important male characters known by name, such as Tyler Durden and Robert 'Bob' Paulson (a former champion bodybuilder who lost his testicles to cancer and developed what Jack calls "bitch tits"), one male character with no name, called here Jack or Narrator, and only one female character of which to speak, Marla Singer, which renders the focus on the movie solely on the boys.

     The movie is primarily about the relationship between Tyler and Jack, which takes on a father-son dichotomy, in the sense that the father is a model for the son. Jack is a white collar worker at an insurance agency who is racked with insomnia. On one of his many flights cross-country, he meets Tyler, a flashy and charismatic soap salesman. Through Tyler, Jack experiences an awakening in both body and spirit that spawns primarily from a group called Fight Club, in which men get together in a basement and fight one another for the simple pleasures of fighting and bonding with one another; think of it as a fraternity with more blood. As Tyler's behavior spirals out of control and Fight Club morphs into the paramilitary organization called Project Mayhem, Jack is left with a frightening realization: he is Tyler Durden, and somehow, Jack must stop himself from destroying the headquarters of the American credit-card industry to free working-class America from its crushing debt, and put a halt to Project Mayhem's revolutionary 'homework assignment' (summary of Fight Club).

     Roger Ebert describes Fight Club as "the most frankly and cheerfully fascist big-star movie since 'Death Wish,' a celebration of violence in which the heroes write themselves a license to drink, smoke, screw and beat one another up" ("Fight Club (1999) **") or do Ebert and the majority of the 'cream of the crop' film critics working today miss the point of the movie? Examining the user ratings for the film on the Internet Movie Database, we find that the general public holds Fight Club in high esteem, with the film located in the 41st spot in the Internet Movie Database's top 250 movie listing ("Fight Club (1999)"), which suggests a serious disconnect between the educated reviewer and the public that holds the film in high esteem. It is very possible that the published reviewers are missing the entire point of the movie simply because they are no longer members of the group of people that Fight Club speaks to and about. Roger Ebert and his ilk are no longer members of the middle and lower classes of men chained to low-wage, dead end jobs, and thus, they have forgotten the frustration and hopelessness that shackles the average American male to a world that he cannot mold in his own image. Roger Ebert cannot rage against the machine, because he has become a cog within the machine.

     Contrary to Ebert's opinion, Fight Club is not "a celebration of violence ("Fight Club (1999) **"). The violence of Fight Club betrays the violence of Fight Club's message, and is very necessary to understand just why Tyler Durden is the created double of Jack. The film seeks to answer Jack's question: "If you wake up at a different time, in a different place, could you wake up as a different person?" (Fight Club). While the phrase 'passing' in the original context of Werner Sollers meant solely racial or "passing [. . .] in the sense of 'crossing over' the color line from the black to the white side" (Sollers 247), the passing referenced in this work is the extended idea of passing postulated by Elaine Ginsberg "applied discursively to disguises of other elements of an individual's presumed 'natural' or 'essential' identity, including class, ethnicity, and sexuality as well as gender" (3). Unlike Oscar Wilde's novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, in which the handsome Dorian is the passing figure for the depraved and hideous Dorian in the picture, the mundane and boring Jack is the passing figure for the inner, honest man that is Tyler Durden, in an amalgamated 'passing' against repressive forces critical of male sexuality and the lower/middle class which reverses the idea that the passer's non-passing identity is the 'true' identity. Passing is primarily a method used to escape from or to cope with the pressures of societal oppression, with Tyler passing as Jack to avoid the recriminations of political correctness; Tyler drinks, smokes, curses, and generally does everything that is frowned upon by both church morality and state mandate. 'Thou shalt not take the Lord's name in vain' now goes hand in hand with Lexington, Kentucky's indoor smoking ban. Tyler Durden escapes from Jack to reclaim his ability to express his manhood in a way that postmodern society does not allow manhood to be expressed.

     Fight Club is a work that concerns itself with raging against the machine in all its guises, with Tyler Durden and Project Mayhem existing solely to confront those implements of society that cripple and chain men, preventing their 'inner Tyler' from being freed, forcing men to play the vanilla role of 'Jack'. Fight Club itself is a manifestation of the internal war between Jack and Tyler; the fighting is not between the maitre'd and the copy boy at the office but between the office role and the inner man struggling to be released from the prison of the service industry, passionless, sexless, and soulless male.

     The importance of the film and novel Fight Club lies within the plot, but the institutions introduced in the plot and protagonist and antagonist are the very keys that drive the work, making the movie into biting social commentary that transcends the dualistic nature of Jack/Tyler. Jack, the narrator, Tyler Durden, the leader of Project Mayhem, and the Fight Club/Project Mayhem institution itself are worth serious focus, as it is the interplay between these concepts and the feelings, beliefs, and actions that they represent that illuminate the plight of the male in the current societal climate; Fight Club is incredibly popular among young men because young men can identify with the film:
          All that thirty years of behavioral conditioning has done is drive manliness underground and distort it by severing it from traditional sources of masculine restraint and civility [. . . B]ut little boys still want to play war and shoot up the living room with plastic howitzers, and we can't give them all Ritalin. [. . .] Again, the point is to channel these energies into the development of character. Boys and young men still want to be heroes. (Newell qtd. in LiveReal)

     Men work the inane jobs that Jack and Tyler suffer through to survive, and they are victims of the same existentialist torments that Jack suffers from because what he is told to be is what postmodern man is told to be:
           "[T]he new workforce hero is now modeled on the image of the young computer whiz yuppie who defines his life and goals around hot start-up e-commerce companies, day trading and other get rich before I'm twenty-one schemes as well as the conspicuous consumption of expensive products" (Giroux "Private Satisfactions and Public Disorders: Fight Club, Patriarchy, and the Politics of Masculine Violence").

Fight Club speaks to listless and directionless young men in a calculated attempt to shock and disturb them from their mundane slow deaths that pass for existence, and it speaks to and shocks women in an attempt to wake them up to the way the change in society is damaging and killing their sons, brothers, and husbands.

     Before we can discuss the hero Tyler, we must first meet the walking, talking corpse Jack. Without Jack to repress him, there is no Tyler.

"I am Jack's section of the paper."

Fig. 1 – Jack living vicariously through Bob

     The nameless narrator of Fight Club is the unfortunate and pathetic result of the placeless plight of the male in postmodern America. Jack, as he is called by those who discuss the movie (as a pun on the reused "I am Jack's _____" medical booklets found in Tyler's squat), is a prisoner of his own emasculation. Jack is miserable and suffering, a shell of a man who exists solely to produce and consume, but never to exist.

     Jack's emotional problems are manifested in a myriad of ways, but of particular interest are the ways Jack's unhappiness affect him physically. Jack, in many ways, is a victim of the slothful lifestyle of the service industry. Jack's job as a recall coordinator for a major car company keeps him on airplanes or slumped behind a computer monitor, and this sedentary lifestyle plays havoc with Jack physically. An examination of Jack's tormented body explains a great deal about Jack's tormented soul. Jack is an insomniac, catching a few hours of sleep here or fifteen minutes on an airplane; Jack's sleeplessness is a sign of something more significantly wrong with him mentally, rather than a physical symptom. Jack is pale. His shoulders are permanently slumped forward. Jack is soft and flabby, his eyes hollow and listless. Jack is a wreck; he is merely another victim of the keyboard jockey lifestyle. Jack, to put it bluntly, is very slowly dying in the most miserable manner possible, and this death is more than simple physical death, it is a spiritual death.

Fig. 2 – Evolution: from ape to Jack

     Jack is the epitome of what most people would consider to be a nonentity. He, quite frankly, is boring not only to others, but he is even boring to himself. Jack is a living, breathing zombie, shambling through life on the most basic of automatic pilot modes. He goes from work to home, shifting his attention from computer monitor or gristly accident scene to the blurry brightness of the television or the brightly-colored and artificial IKEA catalogue. To further emphasize the fact that Jack is not an entity, Jack does not even have a real name. Jack is simply what he is called in the DVD's extended commentary and the name that fans of the movie have given him in order to keep from calling him simply Narrator (Edward Norton's role as listed in the film's credits).

     Jack has no real self; what Jack endures day in and day out cannot even be generously described as a rich, fulfilling life. He is an emotionless, soulless shell of a man who can only feel or experience any sort of relief from his insomnia through the purgation of his negative emotions that he accomplishes vicariously through various 12 step and survivor's support groups, most specifically AA, NA, a brain parasite support group, and memorably, testicular cancer survivors; these are places that he has no right to be, considering he's not addicted to drugs, alcohol, has no known brain parasites, and still has his testicles. Marla Singer, the sole important woman in the movie, is quite possibly the person Jack blames loss of this release and the emergence of Tyler:
           "She was a liar. She had no diseases at all. I had seen her at 'Free and Clear' my blood parasite group Thursdays. Then at 'Hope', my bi-monthly sickle cell circle. And again at 'Seize the Day', my tuberculosis Friday night. Marla... the big tourist. Her lie reflected my lie. Suddenly I felt nothing. I couldn't cry, so once again I couldn't sleep" (Fight Club).

After he has a good cry at a survivor's group, his insomnia is broken and he is free to sleep. Jack cannot feel, cannot live sanely without this vicarious emotional release and with Marla present, Jack's perilous fiction that all these people are legitimately suffering and dying is broken. If Marla is 'passing' as a cancer patient, then perhaps there are no real suffering souls in these meetings and all the empathy generated is false. In order for Jack to be sated by his vicarious emotional outlet, he must be the only person in the group 'passing' as a victim of whatever the malady of the day is. Robinson, in her piece "It Takes One to Know One: Passing and Communities of Common Interest," discusses the three distinct audiences of passing: the passer, the dupe, and the in-group. In this case, Jack is the passer, the self-help groups members are the dupes, and Marla is the in-group because she recognizes Jack as a fellow passer without his confessing such. Knowing that there is another member of the in-group amongst the dupes destroys the illusion of Jack's successful pass. Someone else knows his secret. Without the respite provided by the self-help groups, Jack becomes more and more helplessly gripped by his damaging insomnia, denied the very thing which kept him sane.

     Jack is a materialistic shell of what he could or should be. "Home was a condo on the fifteenth floor of a filing cabinet for widows and young professionals" (Fight Club). His apartment is an IKEA showplace, with every piece of meaningless furniture chosen out of a catalogue at an inflated price. The furniture is in fact, barely functional. The IKEA furniture is merely a collection of status symbols, pointing towards Jack's status as a well-off middle-class apartment-dweller. "I flipped through catalogs and wondered: 'What kind of dining set defines me as a person?'" (Fight Club). Jack has this furniture not because he wants it, particularly; Jack has this furniture because he is supposed to have it and because he foolishly believed that he could define himself with catalogue garbage.

     Jack has all the typical dysfunctions associated with the 'new breed' of man popularized in the 90's. "Jack is portrayed as a neoliberal Everyman–an emasculated, repressed corporate drone whose life is simply an extension of a reified and commodified culture" (Giroux "Private Satisfactions and Public Disorders: Fight Club, Patriarchy, and the Politics of Masculine Violence"). He is a brand whore, handcuffed by his material possessions to a job that is slowly killing him. He works his lousy job, lives in his picture-perfect apartment with the photo reproductions on the wall and fancy yuppie furniture. "I see all this potential, and I see squandering. God damn it, an entire generation pumping gas, waiting tables; slaves with white collars. Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don't need," Tyler maintains. (Fight Club) The phrase 'white collars' suggests the white collared shirt traditionally worn by office workers like Jack. Jack consumes and consumes; he is what men are told to be by the same societal forces that tell women to starve themselves for the sake of beauty. Jack, pudgy and pale, is going through life in the same way that everyone goes through life, buying what he is supposed to buy, working where he is supposed to work, and living in a place where he is supposed to live without questioning the status quo or batting an eye as to the effect his conditioning is having on his physical, emotional, and mental health.

     American men are branded (commercial brands, not actual branding irons though that would probably be more respectable and less damaging in the long run) to within an inch of their lives, with "the male body [. . .] transformed from an agent of production to a receptacle for consumption. A rampant culture of consumption, coupled with a loss of manufacturing and middle-management jobs presents white males with an identity crisis of unparalleled proportions" (Giroux "Private Satisfactions and Public Disorders: Fight Club, Patriarchy, and the Politics of Masculine Violence"). As Tyler illuminates, "[W]e're consumers. We are by-products of a lifestyle obsession. Murder, crime, poverty, these things don't concern me. What concerns me are celebrity magazines, television with 500 channels, some guy's name on my underwear. Rogaine, Viagra, Olestra" (Fight Club). Things are bought not because they are needed, but because commercials dictate that a certain brand is the cool thing to have. People no longer sit in armchairs; they sit in Catnapper Recliners or La-Z-Boys. People no longer drive cars; they drive Hummers, BMWs, Mercedes-Benz, and Ford Mustang GTs. Try to find a piece of clothing that does not have someone's name on it somewhere. Even food is branded, mass produced, and homogenized.

     American men accept their lot in life without resistance, because resistance takes a degree of guts, balls, and backbone that has been socially-programmed out of the average American male: "[T]he new millennium offers white, heterosexual men nothing less than a life in which ennui and domestication define their everyday existence" (Giroux "Private Satisfactions and Public Disorders: Fight Club, Patriarchy, and the Politics of Masculine Violence"). The patriots of the American Revolution and the patriots who saved Europe in World War Two no longer exist; Tom Brokaw called these great men and women "the Greatest Generation," forged in a crucible of warfare and economic hardships the likes of which are unimaginable at this point in time. The Great Depression makes America's current economic sluggishness look like a burp; the casualties of the war in Iraq are negligible compared to the casualties at the Battle of the Bulge, which had 81,000 American casualties recorded in 40 days (Kline "The Battle of the Bulge"). The listless and directionless children of the Baby Boom are unable to cope with the mundane business of living without the assistance of a litany of therapists and potent drug cocktails designed to keep Joe Average from slitting his wrists out of desperation. American men are, in the words of Tyler Durden, "the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War's a spiritual war... our Great Depression is our lives" (Fight Club). The response of society to the problems specific to male children is telling:
           "More than 70% of [students in special education] are also boys. [. . .H]e is four times as likely to be diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder [which] leads to being forced to take Ritalin or risk being expelled, sent to special ed, or having parents accused of negligence. One study of public schools in Fairfax County, Va., found that more than 20% of upper-middle-class white boys were taking Ritalin-like drugs by fifth grade" (Conlin "The New Gender Gap").

     The problems of men like Jack and of the male in postmodern society can be explained by looking at the Baby Boomers and their parenting styles:
          Boomers (of the previous generation) were told not to be hung up about providing masculine role models for children, reassured that we should do whatever made us happiest, including escaping an unsatisfying marriage. After all, to hold things together for the sake of the children would restrict both men and women to old-fashioned "patriarchal" responsibilities. The casualties of this hard, bright credo of selfishness are today's underfathered young men, many of them from broken homes, prone to identify their maleness with aggression because they have no better model to imitate (Newell qtd. in LiveReal).

     The maladaptive Baby Boomers and their radical new ideas lead to a nation largely composed of people who are too psychologically fragile to handle the pressures of actually living without the assistance of TV's glass teat and a handful of Children's Chewable Prozac. Rather than facing the problems of males like those of females have been faced with educational and social programs, as well as thousands of investigative reports and after-school specials, male issues are simply drugged away, solving nothing.

     Jack and Tyler are men raised without fathers, and both men identify their maleness with aggression because they have no other models on which to base themselves because, implicitly, of their absentee fathers: "Our fathers were our models for God. If our fathers bailed, what does that tell you about God? [. . .] You have to consider the possibility that God does not like you. He never wanted you. In all probability, he hates you" (Fight Club). Tyler Durden is Jack's model of perfect manhood and, in effect, the solution to Jack's problems. Tyler Durden educates Jack, freeing him from his materialism and giving him a purpose and direction in life. Tyler Durden is Jack's model for God.

The most interesting single-serving friend I've ever met.

"He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man." --Dr. Johnson

Fig. 3 - The impossibly cool Tyler Durden

     Tyler Durden, the fictional creation of the sleep-addled and wearied mind of Jack the narrator, is in every way imaginable the polar opposite of the weak, emasculated shell of a man referred to as Jack. Jack and Tyler work as an example of what Otto Rank called the double, which "primarily appears to the main character as a reflection. Always, too, this double works at cross-purposes with its prototype" (33). Tyler Durden is, in many ways, a throwback to an era of masculinity that was unashamed to be male and that did not feel bad for having been the scapegoat to blame for all the problems in the world (everyone blames straight white men for the world's problems). Tyler lives, breathes, and revels in his bodily pleasures; unlike Jack, Tyler still retains his figurative testicles, rejecting outright the societal forces that have crippled and castrated Jack.

     Whereas Jack is a mess of emotional and physical problems, Tyler Durden is none of these things. In fact, despite Tyler's drinking and smoking, he is the picture of good physical health, if not good mental health when compared to Jack. Whereas Jack spends all his time in front of the television or the computer, Tyler does not even own any of these things. Jack works as a recall coordinator in a office building; Tyler works a variety of low-paying, low-responsibility 'gray collar' jobs to while away his spare time and to supplement his income, he sells expensive, homemade, high-quality soaps:
"Tyler sold his soap [made of fat stolen from liposuction clinic dumpsters] to department stores at $20 a bar. Lord knows what they charged. It was beautiful. We were selling rich women their own fat asses back to them" (Fight Club).

Tyler is tan. Tyler has good posture, and his body portrays none of the puffiness that is suggested on Jack's sedentary frame, and Tyler's eyes sparkle with an inner light which may or may not be indicative of insouciance. Tyler is "carved out of wood" (Fight Club) without resorting to the cheap meaninglessness of visits to the gymnasium, dieting, and personal trainers. "Self-improvement is masturbation" (Fight Club), Tyler maintains when he and Jack mock an impossibly sculpted male model on a bus advertisement. Tyler's fitness and activity level is not a conscious fitness effort but a natural outgrowth of Tyler's lifestyle.

     Tyler is the epitome of what could be considered a natural-born leader. Tyler is one of those lucky people that act as a magnet for others, setting himself up further as the anti-Jack. "If Jack is a model of packaged conformity and yuppie depthlessness, Tyler is a no-holds-barred charismatic rebel" (Giroux "Private Satisfactions and Public Disorders: Fight Club, Patriarchy, and the Politics of Masculine Violence"), drawing those around him into his sphere of influence with the force of personality alone. Unlike Jack, who has no real name, Tyler Durden is named several times. Tyler has a profitable soap company. When Marla enters the picture, Tyler charms her into bed. Tyler is successful in all the ways Jack is not.

     Tyler works only when it interests him to do so and only jobs that provide him ample opportunity to have and enjoy his free time while still allowing him to pull any number of disgusting pranks on those whom he serves, whether its splicing scenes of pornography in family films as a movie projectionist or urinating into the soup as a banquet server. Tyler is not a wealthy person by any means, but he lives the sort of lifestyle that he enjoys without crass consumerist concerns like those seen in Jack. Tyler manages to live within himself without becoming a service-industry whore like Jack. Tyler, or so we are lead to believe, has absolutely no problems getting to sleep at night, and his thoughts on self-help and support groups no doubt fall into the same category as his feelings on visits to the gym, with self-improvement being equated to masturbation.

      Tyler is nothing like the 'new breed' of male. Tyler has completely rejected all the ethics of materialism. Nothing ties Tyler to the world around him. Tyler works when he feels like it, quits his jobs when they bore him, and cares nothing for a fancy apartment or plush furniture. Jack is a shark like-consumer; Tyler is a vulture, picking through the discarded and 'worthless' remnants of a fad-based consumer society to extract usefulness from things people like Jack have discarded. Indeed, Tyler and Jack come to live together after Jack has been rendered placeless and 'worthless' after the explosion of the apartment which meant so much to Jack's consumer heart. Tyler is able to reclaim the discarded materials of life, from old furniture to liposuctioned fat, to even Jack and the future Space Monkeys of Project Mayhem, and turn them into something that has use and meaning again. Tyler is a found artist, or more accurately a reclamation specialist, who turns the status quo on its ear by remaking broken and heretofore useless things into functional creations once more. Tyler does not accept things they way they are; Tyler works to turn things the way he thinks they should be, which makes him an active participant in life rather than a spectator to life like Jack.

     Tyler is living the sort of life that is enviable in its resistance to consumerist propaganda, although not many people have the necessary degree of self-discipline necessary to lead a life so far below the poverty line. Tyler bears no brand loyalties; his clothing is the type of clothing found at consignment shops in large bins. Tyler, without a doubt, is a person that could very easily be considered cool, but the name brand on his clothing has nothing to do with his coolness. Tyler is cool because Tyler could not care less about allegiance to some corporate entity that does not care about him as anything other than a worker drone or a figure on a balance sheet. "You're not your job. You're not how much money you have in the bank. You're not the car you drive. You're not the contents of your wallet. You are not your fucking khakis" (Fight Club). Tyler lives in a derelict house on a bad side of town with his only neighbors being abandoned factories which Tyler and Jack are free to vandalize. Tyler's home is furnished with nothing that is not scrounged off the street or stolen. The house is a shambles, with floors littered with discarded magazines, a leaky roof, and broken windows, but it is good enough for Tyler. Everything in Tyler's life, from his clothing to his home and furniture, is the epitome of ugly but functional.

     Tyler represents an entirely different way of life than the one Jack represents, and this is where Tyler's power lies. Jack is soft modernity; Tyler is representative of the wild and societies of the past. Tyler's vision of the future is bleak, if you like being chained to created desires:
           "In the world I see - you are 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" (Fight Club).

This is a far cry from Jack's domesticity.

     Tyler's vision protects the world from the nefarious designs of media culture and the health care and prescription drug lobbies suppressing natural cures for unnatural problems. There are no empowerment groups for the supposedly-disenfranchised; there are no beautiful models beckoning from billboards, driving the fattened masses to stuff their maws with McDonalds or force themselves into Calvin Klein's latest design for anorexic gym-rats. There are no televisions around to raise children in Tyler Durden's future; the weak, lazy, and ineffective will no doubt die before they reach procreation age and who says that culling the herd is such a bad thing? Tyler certainly would not.

     Tyler is the antithesis of the listless and directionless "30 year-old boys" (Fight Club) of Jack's generation. Tyler is creation of Jack's repressed desires and serves a necessary fiction designed to keep Jack from snapping entirely. Tyler is Jack's coping mechanism, and as Jack says:
          "[Y]ou had to give it to him: he had a plan. And it started to make sense, in a Tyler sort of way. No fear. No distractions. The ability to let that which does not matter truly slide" (Fight Club).

This is Jack after Tyler enters his life; Tyler gives Jack the ability to not care. This is Jack post-Fight Club.

     There are certain things that one cannot learn from vicarious emotional experiences. Some events in life cannot be communicated properly via television or radio. Some events must be experienced to be believed; some events are not real until they are really survived. Some things, like Tyler says after deliberately crashing a car on the side of the road, could be called "a near-life experience" (Fight Club); in order for these experiences to mean something to the person having them, they must be real. They must affect you physically as well as emotionally. This ability to be shaken from the mundane and to have "near-life" experiences is why Tyler escapes from the prison of boring placidness that is the Jack mask.

     The only way for Tyler to truly escape and to try and rectify his existence with Jack's existence is through the machinations of Project Mayhem and the self-actualizing force of Fight Club.

The thing I'm not supposed to talk about./My homework assignment.

"It is the fight alone that pleases us, not the victory." --Blaise Pascal

     Feminism and women's liberation are not terrible things damning society. Feminism has been very beneficial in equalizing the sexes and easing the patriarchal forces oppressing society. However, there is a fine line between the noble goal of equalizing the sexes and reversing the oppressed/oppressor dichotomy. The pendulum is swinging in the wrong direction, reversing the situation that women tried for a hundred years to change.

     The argument being made is not that women do not deserve a place in the 'man's world', but that men deserve spheres of their own. The postmodern male is entering into a society in which he has no place of his own, and he is struggling with the harshness of his increasingly tenuous place in a growingly gynocratic society. Women are present in nearly every formerly all-male institution and these institutions have been feminized and sensitivity-trained to make them more palatable; there are no more men-only spheres. If there is a men's only group, women fight to be a part of it because they feel left out or are afraid they are missing something; Augusta National Golf Club is a prime example of this trend, with Martha Burk's crusade to integrate a men-only golf course. Men, generally, have no interest in becoming part of female-only groups (except for that one man who sued to be a waitress at Hooters).

     Instead of simply equalizing and empowering women, this change is crippling men. Society is building up their daughters to the detriment of their sons.
          "[I]n every state, every income bracket, every racial and ethnic group, and most industrialized Western nations, women reign, earning an average 57% of all BAs and 58% of all master's degrees in the U.S. alone. There are 133 girls getting BAs for every 100 guys -- a number that's projected to grow to 142 women per 100 men by 2010, according to the U.S. Education Dept. If current trends continue, demographers say, there will be 156 women per 100 men earning degrees by 2020" (Conlin "The New Gender Gap").

Women are entering traditionally male industries and not relinquishing their dominance of traditionally female occupations:
           "From 1950 to 1999, the percentage of women among U.S. architects nearly quadrupled, to 16%; the percentage of women economists nearly tripled, to 51% of the profession; the share of women pharmacists increased sixfold, to 49%; and the number of women lawyers went up sevenfold, to 29%. Women journalists now total 50% of the workforce, up from 38% in 1950" (Cohn "Women in the Workforce").

However, when examining teaching (a traditional female vocation) we find men losing ground:
           "Men make up only about 10% of elementary school teachers, but nearly half in middle and high school. Men are even losing ground here, NEA figures show; in 1971, they accounted for 55% of high school teachers, now it's 41%" (Toppo "USA's Teaching Pool not Diverse").

The function of the Fight Club group founded by Jack and Tyler is to offset the trend of female participation in everything; Fight Club is a place where men can bond and spend time with other men without being forced to adapt to an increasingly feminized workplace.

     This lack of place and a lack of male role models damages males psychologically:
          "A family structure index - a composite index based on the annual rate of children involved in divorce and the percentage of families with children present that are female-headed - is a strong predictor of suicide among young adult and adolescent white males" (McCall and Land "Trends in White Male Adolescent, Young-Adult, and Elderly Suicide: Are There Common Underlying Structural Factors?")

Note the rise in male suicides coinciding with the rise in feminism and the rise of single-parent homes and compare these statistics to the fall in female suicide and the attention paid to female psychological problems:
          "The number of female suicide victims was considerably lower in 1996 than it was in 1979, in spite of a sizeable increase in the American population during that period.  It declined from 6,950 to 5,905 annually.  The number of the male suicide victims rose during the same period from 20,256 to 24,998 annually" (Rowland "USA Suicide Deaths 1976-1996").

Simply put, no one is watching out for the sons of the Boomers, especially not their fathers.

     Fight Club is the actualization of the Jack/Tyler conflict and can be summarized as the lure of the primeval verses the lulling effects of contemporary societal mores. One needs only to remember Tyler's utopian dream of "stalking elk through the damp canyon forests around the ruins of Rockefeller Center" (Fight Club) to realize this. Fight Club meetings take place in the basement of a bar, further harkening back to the simpler times of the Old West and the saloon. The saloon was the precursor to the bar, a building that had many uses in the Old West, "one [social function] was to serve as a setting for a puberty rite for boys, whose first visit was part of becoming a man" (Erodes paraphrased in Ulmer Heuristics). Fight Club serves as a new "fortress of Anglo machismo where masculinity extends its hide, the castle of male chauvinism with hair on its chest, the 'rooster crow of democracy'" (Erodes qtd. in Ulmer Heuristics). Fight Club is the last refuge for men in Jack's world, a last choking gasp of the male rite-of-passage that allows the "30-year-old boy[s]" (Fight Club) to finally become men allowed to freely express themselves and bond thanks in no small part to the relaxing effects of violence, which releases adrenaline and dopamine, and alcohol, which lowers inhibitions.

     Jack and the members of Project Mayhem look on Tyler as something of a father figure, because Tyler is their only real model for manhood. Tyler is the only one who is of male age with no emotional problems (Jack), no overt feminine characteristics (Bob and a young blond credited as Angel Face), and with the determination to organize a group that would eventually become the seeds of a revolution. The men model themselves on Tyler, moving into his Paper Street squat and becoming a de facto family. Jack is so taken with Tyler that several times he has "Tyler's words coming out of [his] mouth" (Fight Club). Fight Club morphs into Project Mayhem, taking on cult/religious overtones. At one point the members of Project Mayhem, called Space Monkeys by Tyler, "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" (Redd "Masculine Identity in the Service Class: An Analysis of Fight Club") as a tribute to their deceased brother Bob, earning the right to have an identity through the ultimate sacrifice. Prospective members are forced to stand at attention in the front yard or perform labor to merit Tyler's attention:
          [T]his 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 (Johanson "Fight Club").

Tyler goes from being an example of how to live to a cult leader; the men in Project Mayhem go from slaves, to free men, and finally, to the level of trained beasts, willfully submitting to their 'father's' wishes. Jack is the only one who resists, and even he cannot sway Tyler:
          Narrator: Tyler, I'm grateful to you; for everything that you've done for me. But this is too much. I don't want this.
          Tyler Durden: What do you want? Wanna go back to the shit job, fuckin' condo world, watching sitcoms? Fuck you, I won't do it.
(Fight Club)

Once the wheels of Project Mayhem are set in motion, not even Jack/Tyler Durden is able to stop them:
          Narrator: You're making a big mistake, fellas!
          Police Officer: You said you would say that.
          Narrator: I'm not Tyler Durden!
          Police Officer: You told us you'd say that, too.
          Narrator: All right then, I'm Tyler Durden. Listen to me; I'm giving you a direct order. We're aborting this mission right now.
          Police Officer: You said you would definitely say that. [. . .] You said that if anyone ever interferes with project mayhem, even you, we gotta get his balls.

The Tyler portion of Jack's personality has sealed shut every chance at stopping the work once it has been begun, because this work is necessary for the very survival of Tyler/Jack's soul.

     In order to free himself to become Tyler for good, Tyler has to destroy life as Jack knows it. Everything in Jack's life is centered on money and materialism, and the most visible symbols of the capitalist society are the corporate headquarters of the American credit card industry. Destroy those icons and Jack is free to become Tyler for good, no longer imprisoned by the consumerist lifestyle; Tyler has to kill what is holding Jack back and his weapon of choice is Project Mayhem's "theatre of mass destruction. The demolitions committee of Project Mayhem wrapped the foundation columns of a dozen buildings with blasting gelatin. In two minutes, primary charges will blow base charges and a few square blocks will be reduced to smoldering rubble" (Fight Club). By freeing Jack in such a spectacularly terroristic manner, everyone else in America will be free. Destroy the computers that contain electronic records of debt, and the debt itself is destroyed and a nation is freed from student loans, mortgages, medical fees, and car payments. Through the actions of Project Mayhem, the erstwhile sons of Tyler become free from debt, already having been freed by Tyler from capitalist society's rampant consumer culture.

     The end of the movie is very problematic for several reasons. As the film draws to a climax, Jack and Tyler are struggling. Jack is trying to stop Tyler's madness, and Tyler is trying to save Jack from himself. Jack is subdued and tied to a chair, with a gun in his mouth. As Jack takes control of his body once more and forces himself to realize that he is the one holding the gun in his own mouth and thusly, has all the power. Tyler realizes this as well, just about the time Jack pulls the trigger and shoots himself in the head. Jack, the character played by Edward Norton is the one who is left to embrace Marla Singer as the credit industry crumbles around Tyler's observation post.

     Why is it that Jack's physical self remains while Tyler's physical self disappears as buildings collapse all around them? This seems similar to the belief that many stalkers have, in which to become the person stalked necessitates the death of the stalker's object of worship. Jack wins, if one can call the destruction of society a win, because he is able to shake himself from the consumer drudgery, regain his lost masculinity and find the delicate balance between the meaningless Jack and the frighteningly unfettered Tyler. By rectifying the disconnect between Tyler and himself, Jack (or perhaps his name really is Tyler Durden all along) becomes fully realized, able to deal with the world around him without shutting down entirely. Tyler physically disappears because, as a coping mechanism, he is no longer necessary once the slate has been wiped clean and Jack regains what society programmed out of him.

"Death—the last sleep? No, the final awakening." Walter Scott

Works Cited:

Cohn, Laura. "Women in the Workforce." Business Week Online. 15 February 2000. 7 December 2004.

Conlin, Michelle. "The New Gender Gap." Business Week Online. 26 May 2003. 7 December 2004.

Ebert, Roger. "Fight Club (1999) **." RogerEbert.com. 15 October 1999. 27 October 2004.

Fight Club. Dir. David Fincher. Perf. Brad Pitt, Edward Norton, and Helena Bonham Carter. 20th Century Fox, 1999.

"Fight Club (1999)." IMDB.com. 1999. Internet Movie Database. 30 October 2004.

"Fight Club and the Modern Male." Livereal.com. No Date. LiveReal. 1 December 2004.

Ginsberg, Elaine K. "Introduction: The Politics of Passing." Passing and the Fictions of Identity. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1996. 1-18.

Giroux, Henry A. "Private Satisfactions and Public Disorders: Fight Club, Patriarchy, and the Politics of Masculine Violence." July 3, 2000. 1 December 2004.

Johanson, AnnMarie. "Fight Club." Flick Filsopher. 1999. 8 December 2004.

Kline, John. "The Battle of the Bulge." 10 August 2004. 7 December 2004.

McCall, Patricia L. and Kenneth C. Land. "Trends in White Male Adolescent, Young-Adult, and Elderly Suicide: Are There Common Underlying Structural Factors?"  Social Science Research 23 (1994): 57-81.

Rank, Otto. The Double: A Psychoanalytic Study. Trans. Harry Tucker. New York: NAL, 1979. 33.

Redd, Adrienne. "Masculine Identity in the Service Class: An Analysis of Fight Club." Criticism.com. 27 June 2004. 8 December 2004

Robinson, Amy. "It Takes One to Know One: Passing and Communities of Interest." Critical Inquiry 20.4 (1994): 715-36.

Rowland, Gerald L. "USA Suicide Deaths 1976-1996." FathersForLife.org. 24 June 2004. 8 December 2004

Sollers, Werner. "Passing; or, Sacrificing a Parvenu." Neither Black nor White yet Both. New York: Oxford UP, 1997. 246-84.

Toppo, Greg. "USA's Teaching Pool Not Diverse." USA Today (online). 2 July 2003. 7 December 2004.

Ulmer, Gregory. Heuristics. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1994.

Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray. New York: Tor, 1999.

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