That Little Bitch Marla Singer:
A Cultural Critique of Sexism in Fight Club
by Logan Phillips (aka syntax_)
ENG110: Rhetoric In Media Dr. Laura Gray-Rossendale 3/26/02

In the dirty dim basement of a Miami bar on the wrong side of town, bleeding men are circling each other. They are here to purge the demons they carry from years of living in an uptight modern society. They have discovered man-to-man fist fighting as a means to escape the numbness instilled by constant conformity. They are not content to keep their views to themselves, either. This group will recruit other middle class men to their cause, with the ultimate goal of bringing down the system that breeds their numbness to begin with. They will do this through using explosives to make strategic strikes at highly visible and symbolic buildings and structures. Does this sound extreme? It is the world created in the movie Fight Club, released in 1999 by Twentieth Century Fox. Based on a book written by Chuck Palahniuk, the story’s unconventional style and values created a national buzz. The theme of cultural revolution through male violence struck a chord with many.

The plot follows an unnamed character through his transition from what it is called “the condo life:” a cubicle office job and large excessively furnished apartment into an all-male world of revolt. This character, for practical purposes referred to as Jack, is spurred along this course by Tyler Durdan, a character who later turns out to be an alter ego of the main character himself. Jack invents this split version of himself at the same time he meets an equally desperate woman named Marla Singer. The three interact throughout the movie as Tyler and Jack start underground boxing clubs which evolve into a cult-like group of middle class men. Project Mayhem, as it is called, begins a revolution through acts of mischief, and ultimately, terrorism. The end of the film sees the group succeed at demolishing the headquarters of all major credit card companies in an effort to erase all financial debts.

Though Fight Club masquerades as a bold bid for an anti-consumerism revolution, it actually trivializes real life efforts towards a less material society by its use of sexism, exclusion of women, and unrealistic tactics. What has potential to be a truly original political statement becomes just another Hollywood blockbuster filled with stereotypes and misrepresentations. In this essay I will display the inherent sexism in Fight Club, and how it acts to undermine the valuable social commentary that the movie seems to attempt to make. Specifically, I will first look at how the character Marla Singer operates in the film, then discuss the representation of women on a larger scale, and finally look at what effect these things have on the film.

“The guns. the bombs, the revolution all have something to do with a girl named Marla,” Jack tells us while narrating the first few minutes of the film. The character of Marla Singer is a complex one, a woman who is as desperate and isolated as Jack himself. We are given glimpses of her life and surroundings, which purposely set up an image of Marla without a complete look at her. There is nothing inherently wrong with this, but it important to recognize the image of her that is constructed. Early in the film she is shown as uncaring, insane and evil. Later as she becomes more involved with Jack/Tyler, the more human aspects of her become visible.

We first meet Marla as an antagonist, interfering with Jack’s visitation to support groups. It is OK with the audience for Jack to loathe Marla, because we are shown she is not a good person. For instance, the scene in which Marla steals clothes from a laundry mat and sells them to a pawn shop illustrates Marla as dark and casts her as someone who should be not be trusted. This is by far the main view of her character, also shown as uncaring about her own safety by walking straight across speeding traffic. These scenes exist to detach Marla from more compassionate parts of the audience’s psyche. She seems irrational, so our rational emotions don’t as readily apply. Though Marla is shown in situations that might elicit caring from the audience, such as the suicide attempt, the audience has already been influenced to think of her as the villain.

The way Marla is presented and portrayed is important because she becomes an excuse for most of the sexism in the film. After being shown as dark and irrational, the audience isn’t offended when Tyler tells Jack that he is “sport fucking” her. Because of how we are already thinking about Marla, this seems less offensive than it should. When Jack ponders confronting Marla about her presence in support groups, he says to himself, “I’m going to grab that little bitch Marla Singer...” Jack, a passive character, never refers to any of the male protagonists, such as his boss, in such a belittling manner. During a scene when Jack interrupts Tyler and Marla having sex, Tyler asks Jack if he wants to “finish her off.” Marla asks who he’s talking to Tyler tells her to “shut up.” Later, Jack is told to “get rid of her.” The language adds up.

It isn’t until the end of the film when it is revealed Jack and Tyler are the same person does the whole picture become clear. Jack disrespects Marla while Jack and Marla frequently have sex. From her view, both Jack and Tyler are the same person, and this explains much of Marla’s seemingly irrational behavior. But by this time, the damage has been done.

On a wider scope women don’t fare any better in Fight Club. Little bits of sexist slang and attitudes peppered throughout add up to support an incredibly sexist whole. Bob, who Jack meets in a support group for men with testicular cancer, has “bitch tits” from too many years using body building drugs. An employee at the airport informs Jack that his suitcase was confiscated because it was vibrating, and whispers to him that every once and awhile it turns out vibrating luggage is caused by a “dildo.” He goes on to explain that it is company policy not to imply ownership of the “dildo.” It is telling that a vibrator is such a secretive taboo while pornography is presented as harmless. Even Marla is not above these type of commentary, in one scene she likens her thrift store bride’s maid dress to “a sex crime victim, underwear inside out, bound in electrical tape.”

What makes the sexism in Fight Club most ironic is how clearly it comes in conflict with the main characters’ philosophies. Tyler explains to the Commissioner of Police that “The people you are after are the people you depend on. We cook your meals. We haul your trash. We drive your ambulances. We guard you while you sleep.” Are we to believe women serve none of these functions in our society? It is also ridiculous and naive to think that any revolution could be as successful as the one depicted in the movie without women, who comprise half of the population, after all.

It may be argued that Fight Club is a movie about modern male issues, and does not deal with women for this reason. However, by bringing in gender issues and conflicts so obviously without including any type of second perspective, Fight Club draws an inaccurate picture. An example of the gender issues brought in to the film can be found in the bathroom scene when Tyler and Jack discuss their past. Tyler and Jack preach: “I can’t get married, I’m a 30 year old boy. We’re a generation of men raised by women. I’m wondering if another woman is really the answer we need.” At the same time Tyler tells a story of being let down by his father failing to provide the answers on what Tyler should do with his life. The scene comes across as blaming women, but the characters hint that it is not that simple. It is a larger misconception that male issues can’t be worked out without shifting all of the blame onto the opposite gender.

Imaginary and unnecessary lines are drawn dividing the sexes with the type of language and attitudes prevalent in the film, as in most Hollywood movies. The film succeeds in undermining its own credibility by contradicting itself. Not only with the role of women, but also with the presence of bulging designer muscles and flashy clothes in a movie that claims, as Tyler puts it, “Self improvement is masturbation.” While Tyler says this it is hard not to notice his perfectly groomed and styled hair.

Fight Club has the potential to be an interesting look at our complex modern society. However, it falls into the same traps as most Hollywood films by relying on preconceived stereotypes to help tell its story. An important question that could be asked is: why exactly does it operate in this way? Is it just the influence of Hollywood, or was it a conscious decision to marry violence and a certain representation of women? It is also worth looking at the relationship these decisions have with the target audience of young American men. Does this audience swallow the bitter pill of sexism for its candy coating of other radical views? Or is the sexism in Fight Club obvious, but a necessary trade for other progressive views? Cultural criticism as a genre has the goal of taking a closer look at aspects of the media we take as a given. Perhaps in applying this type of closer analysis to Fight Club, attention can be drawn to the sexism thereby separating it from more valuable themes of the film. Cultural criticism uses attention of the audience as a tool to disarm the harmful aspects of media. With acknowledgment of these types of problems, Hollywood may be less likely to incorporate them in the future.

node your homework!

I think 'syntax', like most people who saw this movie, missed the point of it.

Tyler Durden, and all the anger and hate both he and the protagonist show to women, society, and themselves throughout much of the movie are not the 'answer' Fight Club puts forward.

While much of Fight Club suggests that violence is the answer, the critical part of the movie occurs after 'Jack' (the protagonist) realizes that he is Tyler. At his point, Jack rejects the violence and the nihilism of their 'fight club', and tries to reverse the damage he's done - to his 'army', and to Marla.

There's a reason Tyler dies at the end of the movie. All his rebellion is ultimately shallow - as syntax rightly points out. Jack's true rebellion comes when he refuses to become Tyler. Tyler 'talks the talk' but his rebellion is merely a reflection of what he hates: where society tells Jack that all violence is bad, Tyler decides that violence is good. Because Jack feels rejected and unworthy of women ("I can't get married. I'm a 30 year-old boy"), Tyler is misogynistic, and violent towards women.

Essentially, Tyler is the antithesis of Jack's personality when the movie begins. And when Jack is finally able to destroy that antithesis, it is because he has found a third way - one in which he doesn't have to be a corporate drone or a nihilistic rebel.

Fight Club isn't sexist. Marla's initial demonization is through Jack's eyes: he hates her because she is like him, and because he wants her, and so she is portrayed as nihilistic femme fatale. Many of the characters are sexist, but one of the themes of the movie is that this only makes them more unhappy. Jack only becomes happy at the end of movie when he's told Marla that he likes her, and is standing with her watching the office buildings collapse.

Now it is certainly arguable that most of the people who saw this movie came out of it with Tyler's beliefs reinforced in them: certainly some of the people I know who saw the film enjoyed the mindless violence and misogyny, and ignored the fact that the movie did not really promote either. That said, I think the solution is for people to pay closer attention to the construction of the story.

Fight Club is not a sexist movie at all in regards to women. In a backwards way, (as everything is in Fight Club) it really actually holds them in high regard.

If you read the author's biography on the special edition DVD, there is a quote that stands out;

'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 it's smooth day-to-day operation, a task better suited to the instincts of females.'

We cannot rely on what the narrator himself is saying. He gives a description of his world as he slowly goes insane. In fact many of the notions he puts forward in theory and practice are hypocritical. (For example; the whole anti-establishment agenda, and then blackmailing his boss for a year's worth of salary, a computer, etc - that's a major one) Therefore, his answers to the problems he is facing aren't really to be taken aboard as the message of the actual film. What the film is saying,(amongst many other things..)is this kind of behaviour is pretty fucking stupid.

Also it's not hard to notice in the movie, while The Narrator rejects and abuses Marla, he is consistently unhappy. He fills his life with material possessions; he loses everything, and goes a little off his rocker. At the end when he finally embraces Marla Singer and they hold hands as the buildings crash down before them, he finally seems fulfilled.

Yes, the men in the film are sexist, mysoginist assholes. But there in lies the point of it - fault is placed squarely on the shoulders of the men in the film for treating women this way. (The film's message, however, is far more complex than who's to blame).

Fight club is definitely a sexist movie. Although the film's major thesis is the emptiness of modern culture, with its focus on consumerism and social isolation, unfortunately it also squarely correlates the rise of the strong independent woman with the emasculation of men as the cause.

In the beginning of the movie, the Marla character is the evil/self reliant/independent/ emasculating woman, showing up at all kinds of places she doesn't belong (i.e. men only support groups)-- demanding, by her very presence, equal access to a man's world, and by so doing, destroying Jack's feeble attempts at control. Once Jack has his psychotic break, empowered by the overtly misogynist Tyler part of his personality, he can begin to put women in their rightful place (according to the sexist framework), by diminishing her to a plaything (a sport fuck), and excluding her from the "club" (men only, even if they have bitch tits). Finally as the movie reaches resolution, Jack rejects the misogynist and violent attitude towards Marla, and instead takes on a more paternalistic role. He saves Marla from her suicide attempt, and puts her on a bus (for her own protection).

But this paternalistic relationship to women is just as sexist. Marla is reduced from being an intellectual threat in the beginning of the movie (an equal in the game), to an infantilized subordinate in the end -- the movie ends with Jack putting his arm around Marla, who looks up at him in bewilderment, telling her everything is going to be alright...

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