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.