Tuesday, April 7, 2009

"How much can you know about yourself if you've never been in a fight?"

Watching Fight Club from a feminist perspective has been a rather enlightening experience for me. As a young, white male in American culture, I understand my role in the target audience of the film – a status which I embraced eagerly. As an adolescent deep in my own search for identity when the movie was released in 1999, Brad Pitt’s vision of masculinity resonated loudly and clearly amongst my own confusion. His philosophy of a life driven by testosterone and instinct was appealing. The violence, explosions, and crude sexual humor were all added bonuses for a sixth grader trying to break free of the sheltered, suburban existence I found myself in.

However, my most recent viewing of the film has given me the opportunity to understand the issues in a much more developed way. While the validity of the male perspective should not be understated, watching Fight Club from a feminist stance has deconstructed my own views of virility and opened me up to new ways of understanding the film.

While almost every scene of the movie deals with what it means to be a man in American culture, I would like to focus on one of the early scenes in the film in which the narrator loses all semblance of his former life. After a massive explosion destroys Edward Norton’s apartment, he becomes lost – without the material possessions that he has allowed to define his existence, the narrator turns to a fictitious character that symbolizes virility to the extreme. Enter Tyler Durden.

The dialogue that takes place between these two characters is some of the most direct language about masculinity in the entire film. At one point, Tyler tells the narrator of his vision of man: “We are products of a lifestyle obsession…Let’s evolve; let the chips fall where they may.” While this philosophy is new and appealing for a man dealing with loss, a feminist would surely question the validity of this form of masculinity. Is fighting – physical pain, both inflicted upon others and upon the self – what should really define masculinity? How is this sort of masculinity valuable to a society? The answer is clear: Project Mayhem is a destructive entity that puts man on level of animals, literally struggling and fighting for existence. In the words of Sally Robinson, this sort of virility represents an alternative view, but it still holds strongly to the traditional view that men are cold and “unnurturing.”

As a final thought, I find Robinson’s idea of masculinity as a category very fitting for this film. Edward Norton’s character, as an individual, “never easily measures up to an impossible standard of true masculinity.” That is left to the alter-ego, Tyler Durden. Still, as categorized by Project Mayhem, masculinity (albeit extreme in the Fight Club example) grows by reproducing itself throughout American cities – as if all men are looking for a new way to define themselves as true men.

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