November 8, 1999
Volume 52, No. 11
Brown: Fight Club says more--and less--than Faludi
In an Oct. 25 Newsweek editorial, Susan Faludi reviews David Fincher's Fight Club. Faludi, author of Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Male, is famous for a number of scholarly accomplishments, such as her remarkable ability to oversimplify complex social problems while simultaneously inflating them into 800 pages.
Stiffed's premise is nearly as nuanced as its title. Whereas Faludi's first book, Backlash, revealed that women are oppressed, her latest adds another piece to the intricate gender puzzle: Now men are oppressed, too. Because Western society no longer values traditional rites of manhood, Faludi argues, today's men are faced both with an unrelenting pressure to be masculine and no clear codes by which to accomplish the task.
Faludi's Fight Club review, "It's Thelma and Louise for Guys," has one thing going for it that Stiffed doesn't--it's only a page long. Yet even brevity can't keep her from raising nearly all of the film's superficial questions-and none of its more interesting ones.
In keeping with her latest tome, Faludi argues that Fight Club, a macabre, in-your-bloody-face film starring Edward Norton, Helena Bonham Carter and Brad Pitt, reveals the plight of modern men in controversial yet potentially redemptive ways. It accomplishes for men what Thelma and Louise did for women, offering viewers a "consciousness-raising buddy movie" and an "incisive gender drama." When vile Tyler (Pitt) and insomniac Jack (Norton) build themselves a homoerotic underground of shirtless men who pound one another to a pulp every evening, Faludi finds in their behavior a "surprising message about how to be a man" in today's emasculating, cubicle-bound society.
For her, Fincher's movie is about men struggling to reclaim their masculinity from the consumerist clutches of capitalism. It's about finding one's identity--and, in the end, learning to do so without violence.
While Faludi rightly highlights the fact that male alienation is as salient a social problem as female marginalization, Fight Club prompts more questions than her article allows--or her book answers. Questions such as: Is there a connection between the violent and the beautiful? In the film's most graphic and sadistic scene, sallow-faced Jack, jealous of Tyler's attentions to a physically stunning member of the club, beats the newcomer nearly to death. When Tyler interrogates Jack for his behavior, excessive even by Fight Club standards, Jack gazes at him blankly. "I wanted to feel what it was like to destroy something beautiful," he says. Is the film intimating a link between the aesthetic and the violent, or between that which we deem beautiful and that which we violate? If so, what is this correllation, and what are its implications for gender and violence studies?
A second question: When does irony collapse into that which it purportedly criticizes? In a move both ingenious and ridiculous, Fincher hands his best-looking actor (the one once named the "Sexiest Man Alive" by People magazine) the task of criticizing the commodification of the male figure. Grimacing at the chiseled abdomen on an underwear advertisement, Tyler snorts, "Self-improvement is masturbation." Yet only minutes later we are treated to extended views of Tyler's own torso glistening with water and blood. Concerned feminists, think objectively: Can sweaty, half-nude, poster-boy Pitt really serve as a substantive warning against the temptations of objectification?
Third question: How does social location affect perceptions of violence? Or, more pointedly, why is it that while white men are increasingly allowed to demonstrate their "masculinity" through violence, men of color (and/or poverty) who commit violent acts are seen as demonstrating mere "animality?" Fincher would have done well to make more explicit his film's intended audience; this is a middle-class fantasy, intended for viewers largely sheltered from any sort of forced brutality or trauma.
Because for those born into families or neighborhoods where violence is not a choice, Jack's experience of subterranean bullying is not, as Faludi suggests, a move towards freedom. It's just another beating to survive, just another drunken husband to endure. Violence only excites those of us who haven't had to live with it.
Finally: How do we make peace with the abject? Fincher's film is psychologically complex. Its final twist suggests that what Jack despises most is ultimately not an external but an internal "other." Psychoanalysts call this hated object "the abject." We spit it out; we reject those parts of our psyche that nauseate us. In this framework, we become our own worst nightmares; we are our own worst enemies.
Fight Club ends with Jack destroying this part of himself in order to stay alive. But when he turns to the woman he loves, he suddenly finds himself without a voice. She can hardly hear him; we in the audience can barely understand his attempted speech. How are we to make peace with the abject? Can we only come to terms with ourselves by silencing those dimensions which remain unnameable?
"In the long run," Faludi writes, the film "renounces even the violence its lead character is drawn to." In Jack's ultimate rejection of the anarchy in which he had been immersed, Faludi sees a readiness "to begin life as an adult man."
I would argue otherwise. Jack isn't starting a new leaf; he's merely turned from violence against others to violence against self-something Faludi, with her work on eating disorders, should have sensed viscerally and immediately. And while Jack might appear to bid farewell to terrorist ways, his doing so is juxtaposed against an absolutely stunning shot of skyscrapers exploding, the kind of shot you want to experience repeatedly, like a drug.
Fight Club might not answer all of the questions it raises. But at least it doesn't spend 800 pages trying to do so.
Stacia Brown is program director for the Emory Center for Ethics.