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.

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