When it was released in 1999, Fight Club was seen by many critics as a damning statement about consumerist culture, the de-humanizing roles forced on men by American capitalism, and the excesses of masculinity. In fact, Empire described the movie adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk's novel as possessing "a great deal of sick humor at the expense of masculinist ideals and white-collar society." Its director, David Fincher, was largely lauded for having captured the zeitgeist.
But the legacy of Fight Club may end up being quite different. In the decade and a half or so after its release and reception as a cult classic, Fight Club has been embraced by the loose collection of radical online male communities (known as the "manosphere") as a kind of gospel text.
Members of these groups, who congregate around sites like Return of Kings, Masculine Empire, and The Red Pill subreddit, attribute the ills of Western society to the decline of traditional gender roles. All of them—pick-up artists and men's rights activists alike—share a deeply ingrained hostility towards women, and more importantly, feminism. Think articles titled "Five reasons you should date a girl with an eating disorder."
They dichotomize men into two types: "alpha" and "beta." Alpha males are dominant, tough, brutish, and have regular sex with attractive women; betas are weak, emasculated, and sympathize with so-called "social justice warriors." (Unsurprisingly, many are fans of Donald Trump, and some men's rights activists have also flocked to join the so-called alt right.)
If you're one of the few who hasn't seen Fight Club, the plot is relatively straightforward: Anomic 30-something Jack (Edward Norton) creates an alter ego, the macho and anarchic Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt). Durden creates a movement which sees disenfranchised men meeting up to physically beat the shit out of each other, eventually forming a group called Project Mayhem. His ultimate goal: Destroy the pillars of corporatism so men will once again regain their importance and purpose.
The show was one of many 90s movies to deal specifically with male introspection, says James McCormack, a cinema studies PhD researcher at the University of Melbourne who is writing his thesis on masculinity and memory during turn of the millennium Hollywood film.
"You're looking at an era in the 90s when masculinity becomes very self-conscious, very reflexive," he says. "Until then, there was what a feminist philosopher called 'the view from nowhere'—the belief that men don't have a gendered view. That begins to really dissipate in the 90s… and you get films like Fight Club."
So how did Fight Club became the celebrated canonical text of the manosphere? Controversial PUA group Real Social Dynamics (RSD)—home to the notorious Julien Blanc—first introduced the film in the mid-2000s to their pick-up artist community via lectures teaching hapless men "game." The group even had a coach who once named himself after Tyler Durden. (Real Social Dynamics did not respond to requests for comment.)
Around the same time, Fight Club was a constant topic of discussion on "seduction" forums, "if only from the sheer volume of gung-ho adherents," explains an article on PUA website Girlchase. "Their believers treated forums like a place to preach The Good Word—only not of Jesus Christ, but of their very own Lord and Savior, Tyler Durden."
"There were plenty of other guys who had nothing to do with RSD who were deeply into Fight Club," the Girlchase author continues. "One of my early mentors… had a scar on his hand I never bothered asking about, but didn't need to; it was identical to the one Brad Pitt's character wields in the film after burning the back of his hand chemically with lye."
If we put ourselves out there, we are Tyler Durden.
Two other online communities also worship the gospel of Fight Club: The Red Pill, which describes itself as a place for "discussion of sexual strategy in a culture lacking a positive identity for men," and the more hardline group Men Going Their Own Way (MGTOW), which refuses to engage in any relationship with women whatsoever. Members from both groups see Fight Club as a story of redemption, the tale of a beta male achieving his true alpha potential. The film, one Red Pill Reddit user posts, "shows the struggles a man goes through when swallowing the red pill, it shows the denials and fear from straying from the beaten path.'' (To "take the red pill," a reference to a scene in The Matrix, is to accept the belief that modern society is now stacked against men.)
The manosphere's affinity for Fight Club stems from a common central, biologically deterministic claim: Men are naturally predisposed to being violent, dominant hunter gatherers, who, having found themselves domesticated by modern civilization, are now in a state of crisis. Or, as David Fincher put it in a 1999 interview to promote the film: "We're designed to be hunters and we're in a society of shopping. There's nothing to kill anymore, there's nothing to fight, nothing to overcome, nothing to explore. In that societal emasculation, this everyman is created."
Neither David Fincher nor Chuck Palahniuk have spoken about their creation's unlikely adoption by men's rights activists and pick-up artists. I approached Chuck Palahniuk for comment via his agent, but received no response.
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Red Pill member and MGTOW vlogger Kris Cantu sees Fight Club as an archetypal men's rights film. "Ed Norton's character, he was consumed with consumerism and purchasing clothes and furniture for his high-rise apartment and probably spending a lot on rent. I know because I was indoctrinated into that with hip-hop music, just getting money, hoes and clothes, getting that paper. I lived that lifestyle all through my 20s," he tells me via Skype. "It's up to us to peel back those ways where we're programmed to be a certain way, and acknowledge it, and deprogram ourselves."
"It just kind of makes sense," he adds. "If you were just fed up with the current situation, you would just band together with a couple guys who are like-minded, and just start a revolution. And that's what they did in that film… I think that a lot of guys are thinking along the same lines as Tyler Durden, but for so long, just because of the political correctness environment have been afraid to speak out."
Cantu is an unusual MGTOW, in that he publicly advertises his identity. The vast majority of MGTOWs will not do so, for fear of the social consequences, and operate using pseudonyms. Like Jack, they have created different identity to express rage they could not express in ordinary circumstances. "The MGTOWs who have channels are using their alter egos to say things that they can't say in real life," a video by MGTOW vlogger Sandman explains, "… to protect our incomes, reputations, personal safety, and personal relationships with family, co-workers and friends. So, if we put ourselves out there, we are Tyler Durden."
Of course, the chief irony is that that the guy [Jack] is insane.
And MGTOW and Red Pill members, just like the men of Durden's fight club, are highly secretive. "'The first rule of Fight Club is to never talk about Fight Club.' Yes, we all love quoting that line, but do we truly know what that means?" reads one Red Pill post. "TRP [The Red Pill] is to NEVER be discussed outside of this subreddit. Why? Because the truth is nasty and will get you in trouble." The first rule of Red Pill is you do not talk about Red Pill—to outsiders, at least.
The only problem with Fight Club, Cantu says, is its "Hollywood ending." "I think in a true Red Pill fashion it would have ended with Edward Norton throwing [his movie girlfriend] Marla to the side," he tells Broadly. "She's what we call a 'pump and dump.'"
In fact, MGTOWs and Red Pill members tend to regard Tyler and Jack's relationship with Marla (played by Helena Bonham Carter) as a perfect encapsulation of the alpha/beta philosophy. "Brad Pitt is the alpha male that lays, and Edward Norton is the beta male that pays," Sandman's video continues. "Edward Norton has to listen to Marla's emotional diarrhea while Tyler Durden fucks her and doesn't feel any sympathy towards her."
"It's a curious film, and it's curious that it's received this way… Probably amongst certain progressive circles it's kind of like admitting you like Fight Club is like admitting you like fedoras," James McCormack says.
Indeed, the fact that Jack and Tyler are actually the same person affirms the manosphere belief that even the most beta man can turn alpha. "[The movie] seems like something that might be appealing to someone with this kind of retrosexual view," he notes, "but of course the chief irony is that that the guy [Jack] is insane."
But while both the manosphere and Fight Club believe that a lack of "heroic" roles for men in society has caused a generalized male malaise, these online communities add one crucial, misogynist caveat: Women are the ones to blame, and they need to be brought back in line to solve the problem.
Like the so-called alt right, they see social status and self-esteem in society as a zero-sum game; these things must be reclaimed—even violently wrestled back—from women. Or, as Cantu puts it in his video about Fincher's movie: "I think we've given women way too much power, way too much agency… It's really gonna take like a zombie apocalypse, off-grid situation or like a solar flare… Let's go back to the Stone Age, if you will, and that's when men are going to feel important again."
At its best, cinema can make viewers reevaluate their preconceptions and ideals, and film researcher McCormack believes that using Fight Club to reassess masculinity and male gender roles is no bad thing. "I just don't think that the conclusions [members of the manosphere] reach are very sound," he argues.
"Kids have what psychoanalysts call a transitional object… and a film like Fight Club is like a transitional object, or a transitional space for men, and they can kind of look at this film and it offers these different possibilities: It offers being an asshole, being a terrorist, and so on," he explains. "It's sort of meaningful as fantasy and as play, but if you start taking it out into the world, and basing your romantic relationships on it, you perhaps have abused its power a bit."