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In Defense of 'Fight Club'

Twenty years after the iconic film came out, some of the world's worst men have aligned themselves with it. But as women continue to fight against misogyny and sexual violence, there's still value to the film for us.

by Lavinia Liang
16 October 2019, 7:00am

20th Century Fox via IMDb

This article originally appeared on VICE US.

Today marks 20 years since David Fincher's Fight Club hit the big screen, bombing at the box office, polarizing critics, and becoming a cult classic with its faux-losophic quotes plastered across dorm walls. I saw it for the first time when I was in high school and immediately fell in love with it, although I could never really articulate why.

Here was a movie about angry white men releasing their white male anger, and I was a sixteen-year-old Asian American feminist who despised violence, was incensed that war drafts ever existed and squirmed during slasher movies. And while I'm all too familiar with the first (and second) rules of Fight Club (You do not talk about Fight Club), two decades later, I'm still trying to wrap my mind around why a movie about men beating each other up felt so necessary and important to my teenage self.

Even though few on-screen heroes looked like me back then, I couldn't have identified less with the story of a nameless insomniac office drone (Edward Norton) who attends support groups in church basements because they're the only places he can cry, has intense sex with a woman who steals jeans from laundromats and resells them at thrift stores (Helena Bonham Carter), and starts underground fight clubs with an off-the-rails soap salesman (Brad Pitt). Upon its release, Roger Ebert called Fight Club "macho porn" and argued that women, "who have had a lifetime of practice at dealing with little-boy posturing, will instinctively see through it." I'm someone who generally has little patience for that posturing, and I also know that real-life fight clubs and teenage criminals have cited the film, somewhat disturbingly, as an inspiration. Still, I've watched it around a dozen times.

In Best. Movie. Year. Ever.: How 1999 Blew Up the Big Screen, Brian Raftery writes that a producer raised questions about Fight Club's commercial viability early on, telling Fincher: "Men don't want to see Brad Pitt shirtless. It'll make them feel bad. And women don't want to see him bloody. So I don't know who you made this movie for." But after rewatching the film in 2019, I believe that the producer got it wrong, at least as far as women are concerned: Maybe I do like seeing disaffected and attractive white men shirtless—and maybe I like watching them bloody each other, too. There is something strangely satisfying about seeing men take out their rage in ways that are largely off-limits to women, all while demonstrating the self-destructive nature of their violence.

"We're very pissed off," soap salesman Tyler Durden concludes in one of his big pre-fight speeches. Fight Club is a film concerned chiefly with male anger, and not surprisingly, it's often the women in their lives who get the blame. "We're a generation of men raised by women," Tyler garbles to Norton's the Narrator early on. The only prominent female character is Bonham Carter's Marla, who is portrayed as a destitute nutcase for the majority of the film. The Narrator refers to her as the source of all his troubles; Tyler, meanwhile, seems to regard her merely as a sex object. When Marla asks about Fight Club, the Narrator tells her, "It's for men only."

But as the story unfolds, we find that the characters' reasons for joining Fight Club (and eventually, Project Mayhem) have little to do with women directly. Tyler is restless and craves thrills, and the Narrator is seeking peace from his insomnia and an escape from the tedium of office life. The men who join their operations are similarly unsatisfied with who they've become. When you look deeper, though, they aren't really angry at their so-called oppressors—who appear to be credit card companies and other corporations, for the most part. Rather, they're merely searching for some semblance of control over their white-collar lives, which they incidentally find through creating chaos for others. They're excited for some new fun and eager to prove their masculinity by shrugging off insults that they're too old, too fat—or, in Jared Leto's case, too blonde. Bob, a testicular cancer survivor whom the Narrator meets in one of his support groups, joins Fight Club because he wants to feel more traditionally masculine again after losing his organs.

Some have proposed that the way to continue to consume good art created by problematic men is to love these works privately. But this was never the issue with Fight Club; rather, with Fight Club, the art itself is problematic men. After reading the script, Norton reportedly asked director David Fincher, "You're going to do this as a comedy, right?" to which Fincher replied, "Oh yeah—that's the whole point." Fight Club is satirical, and it's cynical even of its own cynicism, a quality that leaves the film's own political compass somewhat open to interpretation: Is Fight Club making fun of angry men, or glamorizing them? That's why I think there's a case to be made for loving a movie like Fight Club in public: by voicing our appreciation for it as women, we take the reins and answer that question for ourselves, highlighting the idiocy of its characters and their actions and offering a counter-narrative to a reading of the film as simply "cool."

In her 1975 polemic "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema," film theorist Laura Mulvey coined the term "male gaze" to describe the power men enact when they project their fantasies onto the women they encounter on-screen, and how filmmakers style female characters accordingly. Still, she acknowledged one way that women in the audience can one-up the male gaze: By taking advantage of the opportunity to see the world through the eyes of a film's male heroes, they experience a fleeting glimpse of the freedom and power that men enjoy in the world offscreen.

That meta-agency—owning the men who own the film—was precisely why I loved Fight Club so much when I was growing up, along with movies like The Departed and The Godfather. Where Fincher's producer fretted over what he saw as an impossible audience, I see how easily angry, disenfranchised women—and particularly angry non-white women—can find in Fight Club a way to own their anger. It's fitting, then, that the film's anniversary comes to us in the era of female rage, as women reclaim the right to be furious by writing more and more books exploring the shape of female anger in politics, interpersonal relationships, and beyond. It's not only literature; it's social action, too. Since Trump, since Weinstein, since Kavanaugh, and more, women are taking to social media and the streets and saying: No more.

Here's the important thing about that, though: While women may be owning their anger more now, they largely do not appear to be choosing to do so through violence. And it's violence—one way of expressing anger, but not anger itself—that is at the center of Fight Club. The funny thing is, many of the film's male characters aren't even that angry. They may be frustrated, bored, restless, or ashamed, but the sources of their angst pale in comparison with the unequal pay, sexual violence, and general double standards that women grapple with all their lives—all too often in silence.

When I watch Fight Club today, it's a different kind of anger that rises up in me—not one of feeling like something rightfully mine has been taken from me, as the men in the film would describe it, but one that stems from a realization that I never had those things to begin with. It's an anger that is even more angering because it cannot always be expressed, owing to how women are socialized from girlhood not to express rage or be too emotional. When I watch the Narrator pounding Jared Leto's blondeness into oblivion or Project Mayhem members threatening to castrate the police commissioner, it's Audre Lorde's words to angry women of color that surface in my mind: "I have lived with that anger, on that anger, beneath that anger, on top of that anger, ignoring that anger, feeding upon that anger…Once I did it in silence, afraid of the weight of that anger. My fear of that anger taught me nothing. Your fear of that anger will teach you nothing, also."

The distinction between anger and violence is important. It reminds me that patriarchy is of a piece with violence, and that it is most often deployed through violence—a message that feels all the more relevant at a time when men's rights movements are gaining momentum, mass shootings are often linked to misogyny, and women in all industries are continuing the fight against sexual violence.

Fight Club depicted this relationship between patriarchy and violence, but it also offered a warning: Look where violence gets you, silly men. You thought you could take the world down because you peed in someone's soup? You thought you could stop mass consumerism by pretending to cut off other men's balls? Violence only leads to dead friends in your backyard and a gun shoved between your teeth.

Fight Club showed me that I wanted to, needed to, and would express my anger—while also instilling in me a vivid sense of how didn't want to express it. While I'll always love the Pixies track at the end, the gloom and the grimy lighting, and the largeness of the night around Paper Street, Fight Club whispered offered something even more important to sixteen-year-old me: While you wait for movies that tell the stories you need and want to hear, have this.

Tagged:
feminism
DAVID FINCHER
Brad Pitt
ed norton