Men With Women; Women With Men: Fight Club, 15 Years Later

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While I know a lot of men from my generation who love Fight Club, it was always the girls with the posters featuring Brad Pitt, half-naked and bloody. The fights throughout the film are all vaguely pornographic, too, with piles of sweaty, beautiful male bodies cheering and slamming into one another, all close up images of fist and mouth. The ubiquity of these posters among the women I went to school with always felt a little shocking to me, even though I appreciated that there was something sexy about the film.

When I learned to play Texas Hold ‘Em poker, which was incredibly popular my freshman and sophomore year of college, I was deeply intrigued by the fact that I would often be one of the only girls in the room. Even though I was welcomed to play, the world I entered always seemed to be a solidly “male” space—there would be foldout chairs and half-empty beer bottles, and cheap cigars, potato chips, dirty laundry, and dirty magazines, only partially hidden. I loved the silent, masculine energy in those games, the wide-legged posturing, the sarcastic jokes, the dares. I won a lot, mostly because the guys often took for granted that a girl wouldn’t be a very good player, but also because I was good at it. In a world where I often felt I wasn’t big enough or physically strong enough to be aggressive, poker was a psychologically aggressive sport where being quiet and unreadable didn’t make you vulnerable. It gave you tremendous edge.

When re-watching David Fincher’s Fight Club for its 15th anniversary, I thought a lot about the late ’90s and early 2000s and how little the gender landscape has changed since then. In a world where gender studies still often only relates to women’s experiences, Fight Club dares to ask questions about what maleness actually means. It doesn’t offer pat or simplistic answers to that question either. Is masculinity best represented by Tyler Durden’s [Brad Pitt] cheap fortune cookie aphorisms that often contradict, but are delivered with enough cojones to seem genuinely seductive? Does the film’s critique of consumer culture push a decidedly “men’s rights” agenda? In her essay for VICE, “15 Years Later Fight Club Still Sucks” Megan Koester makes the argument that Fight Club is an inherently sexist film, an “ode to alpha malehood.”

But Fight Club was never a fairytale. It’s a painful howl into a night that probably isn’t listening and that is more a cry of pain than a drive to hurt. When a bunch of confused, angry, and sad men bond together, first to fight one another, then to indiscriminately terrorize an entire city, we are meant to feel uncomfortable. We are also meant to feel uncomfortable by the fact that, for a little while, Tyler Durden’s diatribes did seem interesting and seductive.

In some ways, Fight Club is about having sympathy for a dying animal, and I think for some people who aren’t teenagers or young or suffering from depression or rage or deep-seated ennui, that must be hard as hell to do. After all, Tyler Durden often acts like a complete and total jerk. He is basically the poster child for young male dissatisfaction and rage. In contrast, Marla Singer [Helena Bonham Carter] is the female version of this same pervasive sense of ennui, and in true female rage fashion, her depression turns inwards. She is constantly trying to off herself. Her brand of “acting out” is more quiet and gentle than the narrator’s [Edward Norton]. She steals things and smokes and goes to places where she is obviously not wanted like the testicular cancer support group where she first meets the narrator, who hasn’t yet realized he has a multiple personality disorder.

One of the reasons I’m probably sympathetic to Fight Club is that I’ve always been intrigued by male-only spaces. Sometimes I’ve had the experience of being welcomed and included in these spaces. At other times, I have felt like an outsider, an anthropologist looking at a world I can never have complete and total access to.

Maybe it sounds like I’m exoticizing men when I say that. I’ve always hated when people try to sum up what it means to be a woman by presenting a laundry list of stereotypes. I don’t know if womanhood has made me especially kind or gentle or nurturing or maternal. Though I’ve identified as very feminine since I was a little girl, if you were to press me I’m still not sure exactly what about my nature is decidedly feminine, and how much of that is based on how I look versus who I really am. I think it’s because of this that the best explorations of gender make the audience ask a lot of questions and aren’t afraid to make the viewer or reader feel uncomfortable or unsettled. And clearly the image of masculinity presented in Fight Club is both alluring and troubling. Brad Pitt’s Tyler Durden, all hot and cocky, is everything we love and hate about machismo. And the narrator who is seduced by Tyler encompasses everything we worry about beta males, who want access to the doors that open with that kind of slick power. Who wouldn’t? Feminists can criticize machismo ’til the cows come home, but our culture still values competence over kindness, and made-up answers over genuine questions. It’s one of the reasons that Tyler’s drive to take down consumer culture is ridiculously ironic. He destroys franchises by putting up his own violent version of them. In every city where there was a McDonald’s or a Starbucks, he instates his own little sad sack fight club.

Today, male camaraderie is often depicted as violent and awful: the male party-goers who rape a teen girl, the gamers who hurl obscenities at a female player, the man who beats his wife and the men who defend him afterwards. While I think violence in “male” culture is worthy of critique, I also think this story of “maleness” in our culture is strangely one-sided and fails to consider the myriad ways that men today have embraced feminism in a way that previous generations have not.

Maybe what we need is not less Fight Club, as Koester suggests, but more varied depictions of what masculinity can and does mean in today’s world. After all, most of the men I grew up with are not reflected at all in the media images of men I’m likely to see when I watch a movie or TV show. The men of my generation may have played violent video games and listened to misogynistic songs, but I did too. Sometimes we did fail at understanding each other’s perspectives. Sometimes, we made rash judgments or got defensive or pissed off. Sometimes it still felt like we were living in different worlds, with different rules. And sometimes we really were. At times, the barriers between our experiences as men and women seemed insurmountable. The social pressures we faced were intrinsically different; the bodies we had were completely unique and sometimes unintelligible to one another. Once I asked a male friend what sex felt like for a man and he rolled his hand into a barely open fist and proceeded to move his index finger in and out of the hole.

“Like this,” he said, “Only it feels really good.”

“That’s kind of what it’s like for women, too,” I replied.

Kind of, but maybe not quite. Not only do our unique experiences of gender alienate us from understanding one another, our individual experiences of the world, and our bodies, do too. If identity politics teach us one thing, it is that we can never fully understand a person from a different group’s experience. Maybe at some fundamental level that is absolutely true—I’m never going to know what sex feels like for a man, but I’m also never going to know what exactly it feels like for other women, either. And I don’t think we need to relate completely in order to try to understand one another. I don’t think the fact that we experience the world in different ways means there is a wedge between us that can never be crossed.

In Fight Club, Tyler Durden is obsessed with annihilation, with the idea that we are not all the unique snowflakes consumer culture says we can be when we purchase some empty, meaningless products. But while the narrator spends a great deal of the film walking around clean, elegant IKEA furniture and bleeding all over everything, it’s the film’s last image that resonates strongest: when the narrator kills off Tyler and reaches for Marla’s hand instead. Their silhouettes seem small, but also hopeful, as they reach for one another, even as the world literally collapses around them.


Arielle Bernstein's work has been featured in the Atlantic, Salon, IndieWire, and RogerEbert.com, among other publications. She teaches writing at American University and edits TORCH at The Rumpus. You can follow her on Twitter at @NotoriousREL. More from this author →