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Theme of Masculinity and the Role of Women in the Film 'Fight Club': Critical Essay

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'Fight Club’ (1999), directed by David Fincher, remains to be a volatile encapsulation of the zeitgeist on the eve of the 2000s, underlining white-collar melancholy mourning the loss of manhood. The film has been interpreted in vastly differing lights – some identify it to be a film that critiques hegemonic norms of white masculinity, but also one that perpetuates a dangerous notion surrounding misogyny and homophobia. In a literal sense, masculinity is defined to be characteristics that are traditionally thought to be typical of or suitable for men. With context to the film, being masculine and a ‘real man’ is not only showing contempt towards ‘feminine traits’, but it is also the reversion back to a violent primal state where one is fully willing to feel pain to its entire extent. The film encapsulates this crisis of masculinity and loss of identity men faced in the 90s with the rise of consumerism and the active feminization of culture.

The film effectively narrates the level of crisis that saturated society in the 90s regarding the loss of masculinity. The 90s were a time when there were no wars or frontiers for men to fight and feel like ‘men’ – it was a ‘generation of men raised by women’. The notion is that consumerist culture led men to embark on ventures like earning money and ‘enriching’ themselves, and in exchange abandoned practices that made them ‘men’. Capitalism substituted these features with affluence and power, enabling them to enjoy what is said to be ‘ornamental masculinity’. Jack was seen to be confined in an office space with a computer, as most white-collar professions consist of, compelling him and Tyler to form ‘Fight Club’, and essentially have a masculine rebirth. Within the walls of Fight Club, Tyler Durden acts as a general of some sort leading the men in a war-like conquest to salvage the remains of their manhood, giving their drearily depicted lives a sense of purpose – a purpose that was robbed from them by a society that they believe, don’t allow men to be men. Tyler states that he sees “the strongest and smartest men who have ever lived” and they are “pumping gas and waiting tables” to “buy what they don’t need”. Moreover, the idea of furnishing a home is seen as a feminine and ineffectual pastime – Jack states that “we used to read pornography, now it was the Horchow collection”. With the notion of not the “thing you own end up, knowing you”, Jack breaks free from this consumerist ideal when he blows up his apartment and resides in an unfurnished grimy mansion with Tyler. Thus, the film underlines that the creation of Fight Club is in itself an emblem for anti-consumerism in the 90s, and how the destruction of masculinity is a product of its existence.

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It was the belief in the early 90s that culture was becoming feminized and these practices were destroying their sense of manhood. Suzanne Clark asserts that “‘Fight Club’ reasserts that masculine identity is threatened by the feminization of American culture” (Clark, 413). A further reading of this could indicate that perhaps they are insinuating the notion that women themselves are the enemy. The reversion to a primate state of mind plays into the notion that “violence is the only means through which men can be cleansed of the disastrous effect that women have in shaping their identities” (Giroux, 18). Jack, who is on a path to discovering his manhood, states that “maybe another woman isn’t what [he] needs right now”. We see throughout the film that Jack opts to merely associate with men but to mostly ignore and deride women, specifically Marla. Despite the appalling hostility Marla is met with throughout the film, she is vital in Jack’s objective of defeating Project Mayhem and Tyler, indicating that society, specifically in the 90s, should not travel down a path of hypermasculinity, but one that embraces masculine and feminine traits. Furthermore, this concept of feminized culture is represented further when Jack attends support groups to cope with his insomnia and emotional issues, but then abandons these feminized options and creates Fight Club, which offers him the ‘right’ and masculine way of dealing with these problems and releasing these tensions. Robert Paulson ‘Bob’, introduced in a men’s testicular group where highly emasculated men meet, can be seen as an amalgamation of two traits with his manly frame but conspicuous breasts. Despite not being the ideal version of a ‘man’, he is one of the only characters we see Jack cry to, and push the notion that men accepting their femininity and freeing themselves can allow other men to do so also. When he dies, Jack forces Project Mayhem to say his real name so he is not lost in the abyss of hypermasculinity. Therefore, ‘Fight Club’ presents a poignant and gnawing perspective on the pervasive attitudes of men during the 90s, and the disdain they had towards the feminization of culture.

The film converges on the crisis men have in forging secure identities in the face of an evolving world. Jack, prior to meeting Tyler, has no defined identity outside the scope of his material possessions and a job he despises. Being so lost in terms of identity in the languor of his life, he goes as far as to fabricate a defiant alter-ego who has the valor to act out his underlying aspirations and fulfill his objectives from a place of untouched anonymity. In ‘Men and Masculinity’, Sweetman states that “identity only becomes an issue when it is in crisis, when something assumed to be fixed, coherent, and stable is displaced by the experience of doubt and uncertainty”. Jack’s attempt to reclaim his identity and masculinity results in drastic repercussions within his world, presenting the dangers of functioning on a hypermasculine mindset. A certain hostility is portrayed by the men towards ‘history’ as a general concept – they are resentful about their role as the inheritors of a deeply troubled past, and are bitter about the modern concept of masculinity and about having no place in the world. Therefore, the destruction of society seems to be the only way that these men feel a sense of belonging and reconstruct their significance within history, even if it means dying in the process. With context to the book, Tyler calls them “God’s middle children” and justifies the violence by stating that “getting God’s attention for being bad was better than getting no attention” (Palahnuick, 141). This violence for the men is a way to return to their true primal state and be ‘born again’, therefore prompting an allegorical argument on the nature in which the juvenile ethos within current consumerism is estranging people from their bodies. This portrayal of violence within the film is thought to be damaging as it may affirm “a fantasy of a redemption through the suffering of violence”, and “liberating – even, indeed, salvific” (Craine, 12). Nevertheless, the radicalness of Jack’s effort displays both the extent of the obstacles inherent within a society where there is a loss of ‘masculine’ identity and exhibits the futility of attaining a solution for the said problem if the world persists to be unchanging as it is now.

The narrative culmination of Fight Club and Project Mayhem presents the crisis of masculinity prevalent during the 90s with the rise of consumerism and feminization of culture as a whole. The film critiques the concept of modernistic consumerism and how the false need for material possessions like an ornamental apartment is inflicted on society in an attempt to eradicate ‘true’ masculinity. Moreover, the concept of femininity is heavily ingrained into the film, endorsing the notion that the feminization of culture is a threat to masculinity as it dethrones men of their societal place in the world and that the only place they belong is within the walls of Fight Club where they can be their true masculine selves. This links with the struggle that modern men endured with identity, forcing them to revert to a state of violence and destruction in order to feel a sense of belonging and worth. Thus, ‘Fight Club’ is a commentary on these notions, ending with society disintegrating – Jack stands alongside Marla, not as Tyler, but as someone better.

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Theme of Masculinity and the Role of Women in the Film ‘Fight Club’: Critical Essay. (2023, October 26). Edubirdie. Retrieved March 5, 2024, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/theme-of-masculinity-and-the-role-of-women-in-the-film-fight-club-critical-essay/
“Theme of Masculinity and the Role of Women in the Film ‘Fight Club’: Critical Essay.” Edubirdie, 26 Oct. 2023, edubirdie.com/examples/theme-of-masculinity-and-the-role-of-women-in-the-film-fight-club-critical-essay/
Theme of Masculinity and the Role of Women in the Film ‘Fight Club’: Critical Essay. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/theme-of-masculinity-and-the-role-of-women-in-the-film-fight-club-critical-essay/> [Accessed 5 Mar. 2024].
Theme of Masculinity and the Role of Women in the Film ‘Fight Club’: Critical Essay [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2023 Oct 26 [cited 2024 Mar 5]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/theme-of-masculinity-and-the-role-of-women-in-the-film-fight-club-critical-essay/
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