Masculinities in Fight Club
Throughout our history, the idea of violence, heteronormativity, homophobia, and misogyny are popular among the masculine race. In the movie, Fight Club, this is especially prevalent. The film’s narrative is structured around a sacred ritual that reaffirms heterosexuality and masculinity at the expense of violence and homosexuality. Heteronormativity is a system that works to normalize behaviors and societal expectations that are tied to the presumption of heterosexuality and an adherence to a strict gender binary. A fixed idea of masculinity within a society is not something that is new. Boys grow up in a world where becoming a “man” is only attainable by a certain number of characteristics one has to have. These characteristics are set in stone and approved by society and popular culture as a great way to be a man. Back in 1987, Raewyn Connell, a sociologist, coined the term “hegemonic masculinity” in her unorthodox but inspiring text called Gender & Power. In gender studies, hegemonic masculinity refers to the dominant form of masculinity that exists within a particular culture. This form of masculinity is ever changing, and therefore create different subordinated masculinities. These are the people within a culture that do not live up to the so-called masculine standard in life. Put simply, there are “real men” and then there are all other men. This divide instills a certain fear in people. Admittedly, the film Fight Club depicts the dissatisfaction felt by men with the state of masculinity and the way they use violence in an effort to come out of that depressive state of mind. In fact, while I was watching closely, I reakized the movie tries to convey the message that masculinity needs freedom, and a lot of it. The film revolves around the narrator, who is never actually named. He is in a sort of crisis over his masculinity, and goes through many troubles in order to find himself and gain it back.
The idea of masculinity is portrayed in Fight Club from the very beginning of the movie to the very end. In the beginning though, the viewer is introduced to the nameless first person narrator played by Edward Norton. He is a simple man living a simple life, and hates every second of it. As a way to cope with his self-hatred, Norton attends multiple support groups in his town, even though he does not have any of the addictions or problems these support groups are trying to solve. They let him become a different person and let out whatever emotions he is feeling, which becomes therapeutic for him. As examined by R.W. Connell, the concept of hegemonic masculinity allows us to understand how the presence of plural masculinities generates hierarchical domination not only between men and women, but also between men themselves.
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At the beginning of the movie, we see Norton at a support group meeting for men with testicular cancer, intriguingly named “Remaining Men Together.” This was rather interesting to me, because this support group is for individuals who have literally had their manhood stripped away from them. It is here that he listens to a man grieve about his ex-wife, and how she had just had a baby with her new husband. Obviously, he was upset about something he could not give her. The men that the narrator meets at this support group are a representation of a cultural loss of masculinity. One of the groups members, Bob, is a former fitness guru whose steroid use has caused him to lose his testicles and instead has developed breasts. Ironically, he wanted to create a traditional and strong male physique for himself, but that backfired and instead gave him a feminine physique. In the movie, these are referred to as “bitch-tits”, and Bob has them as a result of hormone replacement therapy. Unfortunately, steroids are a huge problem among men struggling with their bodies not being masculine enough.
For men, bodies have been a major issue faced in the light of hegemonic masculinity. It seems that Bob was making an effort to achieve the “Adonis Complex”. In a reading titled The Adonis Complex by Harrison Pope, he explains that the Adonis Complex is a theory in which men try to obtain the perfect body as shown in advertisements, TV, movies, and more. Pope includes that the G.I. Joe dolls have contributed in this phenomenon. He states, “The sales for male action toys for American boys exceeds 1 billion dollars” (Pope, 44), proving that these dolls have a major effect on the minds of our youth. In One scene shows Norton embracing Bob as he cries extensively over his body. The men in this support group represent the physical manifestation of emasculation.
Norton explains how he would flip through ikea catalogs and wonder “what kind of dining room set defines him as a person”. He went from reading pornography magazines to the IKEA catalog. This can be described as a very feminine way of acting. He had a refrigerator full of designer condiments but no food, this could be looked at as a way of desperately trying to preserve his manhood. In a heteronormative society, women are supposed to cook. Therefore demonstrating this with the empty fridge. Norton felt mentally emasculated because of his consumer driven and IKEA furnished life. This support group was a way for these men to find their “lost” masculinity with the help of other men going through the same thing. The population of this support group was very large, and could illustrate a crisis of masculinity in America. In the following scene, the soft lighting in foreground of the support group contrasts to the hard lighting focused on the American flag hanging ominously in the back of the room.This gives the impression that the image of the men crying has declined into the symbol of the modern American man being weak and helpless.
One other aspect of Fight Club that portrays a struggle of masculinity is the character of Tyler Durden. Tyler Durden is a man that Norton meets on a plane ride, as he introduces himself as a soap manufacturer. Played by Brad Pitt, this is the star most men would probably want to play them in a movie of their life as he is a stunning image of traditional masculinity. Tyler serves as a male aspiration figure for Norton. He answers to nobody. He thinks only for himself. The viewer is introduced to Durden in an interesting way, as we see him wearing red sunglasses and a red leather jacket with a chiseled jaw and spiked hair. This image is so carefully juxtaposed next to Norton’s gray, dull suit. However, there is one catch to the character of Tyler Durden. Tyler Durden is not real. Durden is the result of Norton’s frustration and repressed rage about his own life. This is Norton’s care-free, good-looking and ideal alter ego. Throughout the movie, the viewer does not once see Norton talking to Durden in front of other people. The viewer does not see Durden talking to anyone other Norton at any time, because Tyler Durden is not real. Norton is so intrigued by what Durden does and what he stands for in the movie because he is everything that Norton is not. He is charismatic, sexually and dominantly aggressive, powerful and in charge of his own destiny, all characteristics of the perfect version of what it is to be masculine.
Tyler rejects any idea of consumerism and a materialistic lifestyle, which is exactly what Norton has become comfortable with over the years of his life. Norton was so unhappy with the man he had become that he created a fictional character in his own mind to serve the want for masculinity that Norton had lost in himself. There are many binary oppositions between the two characters, which further explains why Durden is Norton’s superior alter-ego. Tyler Durden is witty, creative, radical and sexually in charge. Edward Norton, is passive, depressed, monotonous and sexually deprived. Norton has lost his own sense of masculinity, but has found it within the man he wishes to become, who is known to the audience as Tyler Durden.
The creation of Norton’s fight club is another example that portrays masculinity in the movie. This club creation is an essential role in freeing Norton from his own personal crisis of masculinity. In Fight Club, the mentality of the group is represented by raw and uncensored violence, a trait only found in “real” and “manly” men. These men are simply beating each other up as a way to remind themselves of the masculinity they feel they have lost but still have deep inside of them. The men in this club turn to violence in an attempt to reawaken their souls and their meaningless lives. They have senses that have been dulled by their mundane existence, corporate, blue collar jobs and consumerist lives. Fight club is a place where these men can experience a true sense of “being”. Norton explains that “You were not alive anywhere like you were alive here. Who you were in fight club is not who you were in the rest of the world.” In the small stages of Fight Club, the men fight in a downstairs basement arena of a bar, and this provides a space in which the men in the film can transcend the reality of their lifestyle, their jobs and their bodies. Ironically, in one scene, we see Norton fighting a character named Angel.
There are eight rules in fight club, and the third rule explains that if a player goes limp, says “stop” or taps out the fight is immediately over. This is a rule that was established by co-creator Norton himself. As Norton fights Angel, the fight becomes very intense and very brutal. Angel is not fighting back in any way, yet Norton continues to beat him up as everyone around him is yelling at him to stop. When he finally realizes that he has completely destroyed Angel, Norton’s explanation of his rage is nothing more than “I wanted to destroy something beautiful.” This statement captures the irony that is fight club; the men are destroying the very bodies that they must inhabit and cannot escape. In this scene, however, Norton has taken things too far. He has broken the very rules he established for fight club by continuing to beat Angel even though the fight was clearly over once Angel stopped fighting back. Because of this, Norton’s want for masculinity as well as fight club is now spinning out of control.
To conclude, the issue of masculinity is a prevalent concern in Fight Club, shown by many characters realizing an internal and external struggle with their acceptance of their own masculinity, and how they change that perception of masculinity into something they think is worthy for society. The creation of the ‘Fight Club’ plays an essential role in freeing Norton from his crisis of masculinity. This club is mostly filled by white, middle class, blue collar achievers who feel their material successes are empty, or working class men frustrated by their social status. The focus of fighting is endurance, as they are taking the beating and defining one’s identity and masculinity through the pain they instill on each other. Fight Club shows scenes of physical displays of violence in an attempt to find an inner ‘man’, as the fighters are men that were once lost, but are now found. On the one hand, Fight Club could suggest that the only way a white male can truly experience a masculine self, is through wounding. Violence is portrayed, a common trait found in men, and often a trait that is celebrated when found. On the other hand, Fight Club appears to be more of a critique of violence than anything else by stressing the brief nature of salvation through violence and pain. By accepting responsibility for his actions and by acknowledging that he and Tyler are the same person, Norton matures as a person and recognizes the limits of masculinity. While the film acknowledges the frustration felt by men in today’s society, Fight Club is ultimately seen as a message to men to take charge of their individuality and masculinity instead of blaming society for making them feel like they have lost it.