Bruce Seaton
Professor Julian Yates
Reaction Paper: Laura Mulvey

Fight Club as Feminist Cinema

“Quite apart from the extraneous similarities between screen and mirror... the cinema has structures of fascination strong enough to allow temporary loss of ego while simultaneously reinforcing it... the cinema has distinguished itself in the production of ego ideals, through the star system for instance.”
-Laura Mulvey, Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema (Norton, 2185)

“We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires and movie gods and rock stars...
...but we won’t.”

-Brad Pitt as Tyler Durden, Fight Club

In 1975, Laura Mulvey published Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, a work that used Freudian psychoanalysis to criticize Hollywood cinema as phallocentric. In this work she describes the subtle ways in which the role of women in film is downplayed to the level of objectivity, the seen, while masculinity was portrayed as powerful, as the seer. In 1999, director David Fincher released Fight Club, a seemingly (and actually) masculine movie with many strongly feminist themes. The way in which Fincher portrays his characters in this film suggests that not only is it feminist, but specifically Mulvian in form.

That Fincher should use feminist themes in his work should be no surprise after briefly examining his body of work. The start of his career in major entertainment as a director was for Madonna’s music videos for the songs Vogue, Express Yourself, and Oh, Father. All three of these songs take the common view of women in popular culture and turn it on its head (and all three were voted in the top 20 of the top 100 music videos of all time by Slant magazine in 2003). Fincher was able to complement this theme with a view of the male as well as the female as an object of desire. His first major motion picture was Alien3 (1992), which took the already proto-feminist character of Ripley and made her a Christ figure. Feminist themes rear their heads in the movies Se7en (1995) and The Game (1997), as well, despite largely male casts in both pictures. Later, he would direct Panic Room, in which a terrified mother defeats the male villains of the story.

One important point that Mulvey makes about cinema is the one suggested by the quote which introduces this essay. She suggests that when men watch movies, the movie allows the viewer to identify the protagonist (around whom the story revolves) as himself, creating an ego-ideal. Fight Club decentralizes this tendency by making the nameless main character (Jack) not only inferior but subservient to his own idealized alter-ego, Tyler Durden. The tendency for the male audience member then is to attempt to associate with Tyler, but Jack steps between, engaging the audience directly, speaking casually to the camera, as if to say no you don’t, that’s MY alter-ego. You can’t identify with him, you must identify with me. In this way, Fincher severs the connection to the idealized male, and replaces it with a connection to a far inferior character. This also destroys the aspect of scopophilia (pleasure in looking- 2184), in that the viewer also becomes the (uncomfortably) viewed. This is repeated over and over throughout the picture. Even as the audience is called back to identify with “Jack” again and again, he refuses to ever tell anyone, within the context of the movie or without it, his real name. He is a coward and an escapist. Our protagonist is, in short, an almost totally ineffectual being.

In Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, Mulvey states that mainstream cinema has created an increasingly sexist system of codes in the way it portrays women and men. Women are portrayed as the objects of viewing by the men in the films, “simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact... as erotic object for the characters within the screen story, and as erotic object for the spectator within the auditorium” (2186). Mulvey goes on to describe the initial appearances of women in several films, including The River of No Return and To Have and Have Not (2187). In Fight Club, the major female character in the story, Marla Singer, first appears as a disheveled but strong willed, cigarette smoking wreck gatecrashing a testicular cancer support group. While Jack is desperate to cling to the support group so that he can sleep at night, Marla is there because, in her own words, “it’s cheaper than a movie and there’s free coffee.”

Marla is hardly a sex object, and not at all demure and subservient. Not only is she not intimidated by men, but Jack is at once terrified, attracted, and repulsed by her. The only fantasy he will allow himself regarding her is telling her off for invading his support groups. Cinematically, she is shot on an even line with both Jack and Tyler, with one exception: Fincher uses a classic close-up glamour-girl shot of her when she overdoses on sleeping pills and calls Jack to tell him. The singular un-sexiness of the scenario makes a mockery of the glamorous angle. Fincher goes so far as to make Helena Bonham Carter, who plays Marla, wear enormous platform shoes to elevate her diminutive figure to eye level with the men in the movie. One great symbolic portrayal of Jack’s level of terror regarding her is the first scene of the movie, which begins in a computer-rendered vision of the fear center of Jack’s brain and ends with, “all this... has something to do with a girl named Marla Singer.” Marla can hardly be a distraction from the forward motion of the plot then, as Mulvey suggests, saying, “her visual presence tends to work against the development of a story-line, to freeze the flow of action in moments of erotic contemplation.” Marla is, in fact, the opposite. She is not the object of Jack’s (at least conscious) erotic contemplation at all (quite the opposite), and she is simultaneously the driving force behind the plot!

At the same time, it is Tyler who becomes the sex object. By casting Brad Pitt as his idealized male, Fincher has cast a man whom many consider the most attractive man in modern cinema, and who is arguably more beautiful than Helena Bonham-Carter. It is this very figure who is screaming about the injustice of the brainwashing of cinema (see introductory quote) and meanwhile walking around in a major film with no shirt on! This seems a direct response by Fincher to Mulvey’s comment, “the male figure cannot bear the burden of sexual objectification. Man is reluctant to gaze at his exhibitionist like” (2187).

The visual irony of this scene is a key to understanding what Tyler is. Tyler is not only an idealized version of Jack which allows him to have a relationship with the intimidating Marla, but Jack is also on a certain level in love with Tyler himself! Brad Pitt is taking on the roll of the classic actress/sex object. His first true appearance in the film is more like the classic female entrance than Bonham-Carter’s, wearing shades and perfectly disheveled hair on an airplane, where he speaks almost flirtingly with Jack. He is literally becoming feminine. The one and only scene of Marla naked, the first time she and Tyler have sex, is thickly stylized and the focus is smeared. It becomes difficult to even tell, in this short series of “fly’s-eye-view” shots whose limbs are whose in the tangled mess their bodies make. They are not only lovers, but a psychological mixture of Jack’s two desires. When Tyler and Marla have sex, the audience is watching Jack, and with him becomes disturbed with him by their carnal screams. If Marla is a sex object, she is Tyler’s and his alone. The one time Jack attempts to look in on them having sex, it is Tyler, not Marla, that we see naked.

Suggestions of homoeroticism begin to pop up all over the movie. Jack refers to his relationship with Tyler as “Ozzie and Harriet.” Before Tyler burns Jack with lye, he slowly kisses his hand. Tyler’s very occupation is suggestively feminine: he makes and sells extremely expensive soap. After almost every fight scene in the movie, the two shirtless fighters hug and clasp their sweaty and beaten bodies together. In this way, even hand-to-hand fighting, arguably the most basically masculine action possible, becomes homoerotic. When Tyler pays too much attention to another character, “Angel” (played by Jared Leto), Jack gets extremely jealous and beats Angel to a hideously deformed pulp, explaining, “I felt like destroying something beautiful.” This is the only time the word beautiful occurs in the movie in reference to anything, and it refers to a man. Gender confusion continues to abound in the form of Bob (played by Meat Loaf), a former body builder who developed testicular cancer after years of steroid use, and now has “bitch tits,” because his body “upped the estrogen.” Bob is in this manner the very embodiment of the castration complex, right out in the open for the viewer to see.

Mulvey also makes a point about “the brilliance of the shifting patterns of light and shade on the screen,” which help “promote the illusion of voyeuristic separation” (2184). Aside from the fact that the audience is continuously bombarded by direct acknowledgment from Jack, Fight Club is hardly dominated by what anyone could call “brilliant patterns of light.” Fincher’s style is practically film noir, in that he detests stage lighting, and prefers to use natural light whenever possible. When a considerable portion of a movie takes place either at night or underground in a dim basement, the patterns of light become fewer and fewer, and the darkness in the auditorium mixes with the darkness on the screen, drawing the viewer further and further into the action of the story.

In these ways, Fincher takes Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema and creates his vision of the book Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk step-by-step using Mulvey’s ideas and themes to create a feminist work in an almost entirely male-dominated plot.


All citations are from the Norton Anthology of Literary Criticism
Response to Apollyon: dude. I dig it. And you're right. I didn't believe it when I wrote it, and my professor didn't believe it when he read it, but it was a lot of fun to take something like Fight Club and try to make this argument. You shouldn't have worried about my reaction--I like discourse.

Imagine a film where, in the final shot of the last scene, a man stands with his back to the audience. Although he is wounded, he takes the time to look over the remains of an empire he has conquered through the power of his will alone. He commands an army of men who would give their lives for him. He is holding hands with the only girl he has ever loved; she loves him back.

Just before the film fades-out a gigantic penis fills the screen.

Now tell me that Fight Club is feminist drama.

I rest my case.


No, wait. Back up. Let me start again

Men are failing at school, work, and families. In theory because the modern knowledge and skill-orientated world is largely testosterone-intolerant…While man's strength and aggression were useful in establishing the modern world, they're an impediment to its smooth day-to-day operation, a task better suited to the instincts of females.1

The above is a description of society that appears in Chuck Palahniuk’s biography in the DVD special edition of Fight Club. It describes one sex failing to find a useful place within a society. It describes what most men are coming to terms with; that they are the new second-class citizens of the west. Regardless of whether you consider this to be true or not, Fight Club has come from a mind that believes that men are going through a crisis of identity as society changes to become more feminine. Fight Club is about a man’s struggle against emasculation more than any other theme.

My contention is this:

Fight Club is an archetype of Masculist cinema.

This should be one of the easiest arguments to make ever. Read on if you want to see how quickly I can make a tit of myself and say something sexist.

make a tit of myself.”

Home effing run.

Bob. Bob had bitch tits.

I said in the introduction to this piece, that it doesn’t matter if you believe that society is feminised or not. Personally I do, however Fight Club does not take that chance. The writers have included hints, particularly at the start of the movie, that the society the characters live in has been feminised.

Just to run through it quickly: A male character is growing breasts (literally the addition of a female symbol to a man); mail order catalogues have been fetishized into pornography; a duvet is ‘comfort’, not simply a blanket and Martha Stewart is the figurehead for society. Equally they have also kept the power of men in society from the gaze of the audience, no men at the start of the film are powerful or satisfied. In this way the writers have cleverly attached the concept of femininity to society. This will allow the contrasting dichotomy to be established and exploited later in the film: the idea that being anti-society is masculine.

I think it will be useful to explain the differences between the two organisations in Fight Club and define them further in terms of why they are important to the development of the masculist nature of the film. Or to put it more simply: Why is it believable that some men would find Fight Club and Project Mayhem satisfying?

Afterwards, we all felt saved.

Fight Club is a loosely formed organisation based around rejection. Its members push feminised society away. The people who join it are mostly from ‘buttoned down’ jobs where political correctness is the order of the day and there is no advantage in being aggressive. Fight Club is filled with people who want to “lose the tie”.

Nobody seems more into Fight Club than Bob. His wholehearted transformation from a pathetic blubbery mass to a roaring large-breasted masculine figure is one of the most appealing of the many character changes of the film. In the mind of an audience member Bob’s ability to reclaim his masculinity despite looking like a woman inspires us. Bob shows us that the traditional way men deal with their problems (get over it, pull yourself together and move on) still works.

Fight Club is portrayed as almost completely benign. I suspect that it might even be legal so long as no-one presses assault charges. Even the homework assignments are fun. The idea of going into a zoo to shave monkeys cracks me up every time. In short, Fight Club is an almost totally positive influence on every character’s life.

Like a Space Monkey, ready to sacrifice himself for the greater good.

Project Mayhem however is a highly-structured, sacrifice based organization. The day to day work involved in Project Mayhem is no different to that in an average menial job. They are sacrificing the freedom they found in Fight Club, risking imprisonment and death because they believe in their unarticulated aim. I believe that this aim is to make a society with masculinity at its centre:

“In the world I see - you are stalking elk through the damp canyon forests around the ruins of Rockefeller Center. You'll wear leather clothes that will last you the rest of your life. You'll climb the wrist-thick kudzu vines that wrap the Sears Tower. And when you look down, you'll see tiny figures pounding corn, laying strips of venison on the empty car pool lane of some abandoned superhighway.

Tyler’s dream for the future of America is one with no protection from the police or army, because there is no military or police force. People would need to gather around strong characters and fighters for survival. This truly anarchistic vision simultaneously encourages structurelessness and nostalgia for a former time, one that was male dominated.

This is the vision that Tyler is working towards, and in the best traditions of men since history began the Space Monkeys will sacrifice anything to achieve it. In a way Tyler’s dream becomes a new patriotism, something men can protect, rally around, and die for. It has traditional masculinity written all over it.

I hope you can see that although they are closely linked, the spirit of the two organisations is totally different. I am far more attracted to Fight Club than Project Mayhem. Critical studies of Fight Club often conflate these two different organisations. This makes involvement in masculism seem more extreme and inaccessible than it really is.

If there is a warning about conformity in this movie, as is claimed by the makers of Fight Club, Project Mayhem is where it comes from. Edward Norton, Chuck Palahniuk, David Fincher as individuals find the idea of Project Mayhem horrifying. But that doesn’t mean the audience will agree with them. The film doesn’t give any real condemnation of Project Mayhem as a lifestyle choice.

We're a generation of men raised by women.

The explication of the main characters adds the next level of masculist interpretation. Let us start with the two most fucked-up characters in the film. Jack and Marla.

Marla is a masculine Woman. She has, like many post-feminist women, fallen into stereotypically masculine habits. She is sexually voracious; aggressive (but not violent); she steals; she has little empathy for others; she smokes; she tries to commit suicide she is lonely and alone. Feminism allowed women to act like men, and now here she is.

Jack is the emasculated man. He has had his will crushed entirely by society. He works in a depressingly immoral, menial and emotionally numbing job, but never complains, he spends his free time shopping, he is incredibly house proud; he drinks but doesn’t smoke; he is a hypochondriac; he is lonely and alone. Women said that they wanted a modern man, and now here he is.

Then Fight Club happens. Jack is no-longer lonely, he has beliefs he has power, he can sculpt his body in the fire of combat, he has discovered his own therapy.

You fuck me, then snub me. You love me, you hate me... You're Dr Jekyll and Mr Jackass.

Jack’s reaction to Fight Club isn’t surprising, Marla’s reaction to Jack and Tyler however…well… isn’t all that surprising either.

I don’t want to talk about the relationship in terms of the subconscious so I will phrase it in a way everyone can understand, Marla and Jack hate in each other what they hate in themselves. Edward Norton describes the relationship like this: "She’s too much like him, he sees, he sees himself reflected in her too much2". The movie shows the transition from their initial antagonistic relationship through to the affection and love they have for each other at the end. Both the love and the hate are based around the similarities they share.

It is Tyler who restores Marla’s femininity. Tyler knows how to treat women correctly and Jack doesn’t. When Marla is around Tyler she is affectionate, subservient and childlike but above all she is happy. When she is around Jack she is confused, aggressive, cold and above all unhappy. In the mind of a male viewer this could not have a clearer message: "Be like Tyler and you will get all the women you want."

I’m wondering if another woman is really the answer we need

Lets finally introduce the main attraction: The beautiful, sexy, tanned, six-packed, iconic, Brad Pit:

And how gay Tyler Durden is in this movie.

Don’t worry, I only did that for dramatic effect.

I do however have a serious point to make. Just as women have suffered from female on female sexism, Heterosexual men force each other to conform to certain stereotypes without any encouragement from the opposite sex as well. One example of this encouraged behaviour is being rampantly anti-homosexual. Although Jack and Tyler never have sex, their brotherly love for each other is enough to cause misunderstandings. This is quite depressing in itself. It implies that some critics find it more realistic for two men to be gay than to be close friends.

Let me briefly describe the salient aspects of an ancient culture that could have helped inspire Fight Club.: The Spartans. The Spartan male youth was separated from, what was for its time, a feminised society at an early age. He was usually given to an older Spartan who would train him for combat and use him for sexual gratification.3.

I hope I don’t need to tell you how hardcore the Spartan phalanx was.

My point is this: So what if Tyler and Jack were gay? They’re still masculine, they’re still men. It wouldn’t have mattered if Fight Club had turned into a massive gay sex orgy half way through, it would still be masculist cinema. You can be gay and masculine at the same time. Furthermore, you will not hear a single utterance of a homosexually derogatory swearword in the script. It would have been easy for the writers to establish a masculine tone by being anti-homosexual, this film is a product of forward thinking masculism.

However with apologies to my homosexual brethren I must reassert that Fight Club is not gay.

I fuck like you want to fuck I fight like you want to fight.

Back to Tyler Durden.

Tyler is our hero. Every other character revolves around him, he is in total control of everything, he literally has worshipers and disciples. Throughout the whole film he never loses. In comparison to Jack and Marla, Tyler has his life in order.
He might be the most glorious characterisation of masculinity ever to be put on screen. He beats Bond, Maximus and Rambo hands down in this author’s opinion.

Slowly but surely you are becoming Tyler Durden.

The final scenes of Fight Club are about the reunification of Tyler into Jack. Tyler and Jack become one personality at the pull of a trigger. Some people think that Tyler dies at the end of Fight Club but the reactions of the other characters imply that this isn’t true. The Space Monkeys, who for the whole film could tell the difference between Tyler and Jack, now obey Jack’s commands. Even Marla, who has every reason to be angry with him, takes care of Jack instead.

To realise why this happens we must examine the reason why Tyler exists.

I didn’t create some loser to feel good about myself. Take some responsibility.

Tyler’s purpose, his motivation for everything he does, is tied into helping people become greater than they are. He helps Raymond K Hessle follow his dream to become a Vetinarian. By inventing Fight Club he becomes the therapist-messiah to hundreds of disenfranchised men. Through Project Mayhem he hopes to cure society as a whole.

But above all he is trying to help Jack. Jack created Tyler as a mould to grow into. He is a tool, to help Jack become an effective human being. Blowing up his condo, Fight Club, Project Mayhem, the lye scar, the car crash, they were all carefully planned attempts to turn Jack into Tyler.

Using Marla to prompt Jack into action was the one that finally worked. Marla arriving just in time, the fight in the basement, the gun, all of that could have been prevented if Tyler wanted to retain the status quo. He could have just ordered the Space Monkeys to lock him in a room. It was an innocent woman being threatened that moves Jack to overcome his fear of death, and finally open his eyes.

Therefore when Jack proves that he doesn’t need Tyler anymore it is a victory for both of them. Tyler can only disappear if Jack becomes just like him. Jack becomes our new hero in the space of a scene, but he is the same hero we were worshiping a second ago. Outwardly there is no longer any genuine difference between what Tyler was and what Jack has become.

Tyler’s power lives on in Jack, and we love him for it. Our narrator and our protagonist become one just before the moment of their ultimate victory. We have enough time to empathise with them fully and admire them as a single personality before the buildings explode.

Now that’s one hell of a climax.

I think this is about where we came in.

In summation: this node has tried to show that as well as being a masculine film, Fight Club is a showcase for modern masculist principles, and shows them in a positive light.

Fight Club and Project Mayhem are very specific and stylised examples of possible approaches a masculist might use to improve his life. These examples are presented as having a positive effect.

Fight Club shows how both men and women can be adversely effected by a feminised society. Through Bob, Marla and Jack we are shown that masculism can be used as an antidote to this situation.

Finally Fight Club gives us a masculist icon, in both Tyler before the recombination, and in Jack afterwards.

I still can’t think of anything

In conclusion, Fight Club is a terrifying film. It does promote violence. It does promote masculinity. It is anti-society. For some people this is about as scary as it gets.

That’s why there have been attempts to subvert its meaning using unsuitable and weak criticism. The feminist and homosexual interpretations hope to alienate the male fan base. Condemnation through claims of extreme-sexism, and neo-fascism are designed to make people feel guilty for seeing it. The post-modern critical body has tried to corrode the message of Fight Club to irrelevancy by claiming that it is intended to be taken ironically.

The fact that critics have slammed this film because of their own fear, tells us how impressively powerful this film is. Deep down they know that the literal, and the most likely interpretation of Fight Club is the masculist one. Fight Club scares them so much that they have tried to twist and weaken its message.

I’m glad it didn’t work.




References

1Masculinity in crisis, (Author undisclosed) The Economist Nov 4th 1999,
2From the commentary on the DVD Special Edition. Scene: Outside Jack’s apartment building, as he phones Tyler for the first time.
3 Article on Spartan homosexuality



A message to nocodeforparanoia: The above is in no way a dismissal of your essay. I enjoyed your essay and I found it thought provoking. It is a much better essay that mine. I realise that you were writing a reaction paper and so your node is based around another’s views which you may or may not agree with. I realise that you have covered yourself from this type of response in the line "Fight Club, a seemingly (and actually) masculine movie". If it’s any consolation I held off posting this node for about a year due to these concerns.

I have tried to write this so that it would stand on its own; I can make no apologies for its Fight Club content.

This is now being used as an example of non-conformist essay writing by my friend who teaches English in India!

Log in or registerto write something here or to contact authors.