Fight Club, art, and meaning

I re-watched the film Fight Club by David Fincher recently. I did so because of a comment I heard about Fight Club being a “satire of toxic masculinity”. This didn’t resonate with me and I needed to take another look. It’s easy to dismiss new ideas and interpretations of art – especially if it’s art that you love – and to be fair I do like Fight Club (both the movie and the original book by Chuck Palahniuk).

But is it still relevant in this age of #meToo and calling out bad male behaviour?

Some art does not age well. Enquiring minds (well mine anyway) would like to know if this is the case with Fight Club…

WARNING – spoilers ahead. If you haven’t watched Fight Club, then do so BEFORE you read this. I will most likely reveal major plot points below. You have been warned.

I also discuss the TV series Sense8 and Mr Robot and may spoil them too, so…

Lets be clear, movies are art – as are paintings, music, advertising etc. Any media designed to communicate is some form of art. It may be “commercial” art, like advertising, but it still has aesthetic qualities and purpose, from which we derive meaning.

So I’m prefacing this discussion by saying that yes a movie is art and as such has to be interpreted through that lens (no pun intended). Why does that matter? Firstly, because interpretation is personal and contextual. Ultimately there isn’t any “right” or “wrong” to interpretation. There’s just meaning to whomever is viewing the piece.

There is a scene in the Christmas Special episode of the TV series Sense8 that describes this better than I ever will (BTW – if you haven’t watched Sense8, you really should – if for no other reason than it features some of the best produced and directed sex scenes you will ever see on screen).

In the scene, the character Lito’s secret boyfriend Hernando Fuentes, a university art professor, is teaching a class, when photographs of him and Lito having sex are made public on the internet and his class finds them. The quote below was written by Nivea Serrao in this article:

A student says: “Is this art, Mr. Fuentes?” before calling it porn.

Ever the consummate professional, Hernando turns this into a teaching moment. He points out viewers will always see what they want to see – if you consider this porn, you’re looking for this to be porn…which, in turn, says a lot about you. He ends the lecture declaring, “Art is love made public.”

So what do we see in Fight Club? What do I see in Fight Club?

Re-watching this movie, I was struck a new by the overt and graphic violence. It’s absolutely visceral. And not at all unexpected from David Fincher (the creator of movies like Se7en and The Girl With The Dragon Tatto). I can well imagine (channeling Hernando here) that people could look at that graphic violence as toxic masculinity. And lets be honest, violence by men, especially against women is a real problem in our society, so a movie that appears to celebrate seemingly pointless violence is going to press a lot of peoples’ buttons, with good reason.

I personally though, feel this is a shallow reading of the movie. There is more to see in this movie than the eponymous “fight club”.

The most blatantly obvious is the movies criticism of modern consumer culture and the “wage slavery” that is required to satisfy it. Back in the year 2000 when Fight Club was released we weren’t talking about these things nearly as much as we are now. These days the perils of consumer culture and the debt trap that rules so many of our lives are widely understood – and sadly still seen as virtually obligatory. So what we may now dismiss as obvious in Fight Club, was at its release a more relevant and important statement (than it is now).

What some might see as toxic male behaviour (the fighting and violence) others can view as a repudiation of consumer culture that requires conformity and infers status through wealth and possessions. The fighting is ludicrous and over the top in its excess, but that simply serves to further highlight how awful and soul crushing the world of the narrator “Ikea Boy” is – that fighting is better than the living death of corporate life.

Tyler Durden, his masculinity, and his rejection of the safe, conformist world that we are pushed into is meant to make us look at ourselves and how we live – that is, as passive consumers and employees. Not look at him – because his hyper masculinity is absurd.

The fighting, the violence, the tribalism of Fight Club and Project Mayhem is a tool to set people free. It calls attention to what we refuse to look at about our lives by going to an opposite extreme.

Durden wants to “reset” everything. He wants to clear the debt that locks people up and stops them from experiencing the true pleasures of being human. He wants people to actually know what matters to them, what they really value and to pursue that instead of things we are told we need by people who want to make money from us:

“Tyler Durden: Guys, what would you wish you’d done before you died? [while driving on a highway and allowing the car to drift into oncoming traffic]
Ricky: Paint a self-portrait!
The Mechanic: Build a house!
Tyler Durden: [to Narrator] And you?
Narrator: I don’t know. Turn the wheel now, come on!
Tyler Durden: You have to know the answer to this question! If you died right now, how would you feel about your life?
Narrator: I don’t know, I wouldn’t feel anything good about my life, is that what you want to hear me say? Fine. Come on!
Tyler Durden: Not good enough.”

The Narrator hasn’t truly let go. Despite the fighting. Despite the rejection of his work and responsibilities, he still hasn’t embraced his true self (as embodied literally by Tyler Durden):

“Tyler: All the ways you wish you could be, that’s me.
I look like you wanna look, I fuck like you wanna fuck, I am smart, capable, and most importantly, I am free in all the ways that you are not.”

As an aside here – this quote has become a favourite among sex workers.  It speaks to us, as a group who mostly live and work outside of “acceptable” society and are therefore no longer constrained by it in the ways that the average person is.

The fighting is a literal depiction of the internal struggle of the main character to break free from the bondage of work/debt/consumption.

So, to come full circle – you can watch Fight Club and see a satire on toxic masculinity, but that would in my opinion be a trivialisation of what I believe is the more obvious and – at the time of its creation – more relevant message.

As was pointed out to me – Fight Club has the exact same premise and twist as the very recent show Mr Robot (even down to the main characters’ mental health problems). And despite the violence of that story, no-one is calling Mr Robot a satire on toxic masculinity. The artistic tools that Fincher uses (of exaggeration and shock) in Fight Club are just another way to grab our attention and – like Tyler pouring lye on The Narrator’s hand and making him accept and submit to the pain of the chemical burn – make us stop denying the reality of consumer culture and the harm that it causes.

Good art transcends its original context. When Fight Club was made society at large wasn’t having the conversation that we are now about “toxic masculinity” – the term didn’t even exist and call out culture wasn’t a thing. But the fact that this movie can still be viewed today and spark debate about its meaning and message without looking hopelessly archaic and naive is a testimony to it’s quality as “art”.


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