The Profound Misunderstanding of ‘Fight Club’

I have a love/hate relationship with Fight Club. This has less to do with the actual movie and everything to do with the film’s reputation 20 years later. Fight Club, in author Chuck Palahniuk and director David Fincher’s own words, is a satire. But to a certain subset of men, it’s a pro masculine movement that crowns man as the alpha being in the universe a.k.a. “the manosphere.” Consider all of the men’s rights activists and anti-feminist circles that coddle Fight Club as a handbook, or worse, a BIBLE.

I am Jack’s cold sweat.

Like many movies, I saw Fight Club when I was too young to understand it. From what I could glean, I saw it as a comedy—a dark and twisted comedy.

When Edward Norton becomes addicted to attending cancer support groups because it helps him sleep at night, it was the first time I laughed while wondering if I was going to Hell. When Brad Pitt splices a dick pic into the reel of a kid’s movie, or when he gets beat up by Lou then coughs up his own battered blood onto Lou’s face, I HOWLED. My absolute favorite bit is when Mr. Norton beats the living shit out of Jared Leto.

A consequence of growing up on late-night HBO standup, Monty Python, and Mel Brooks movies. All the perverse parodies and absurd one-liners gave me a better handle on Fight Club than I would realize at the time. Namely, it taught me the difference between joking about something and advocating a belief system.

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I wasn’t aware of the cognitive dissonance until I got to college and saw all the dude-bros who had posters of Fight Club on their walls. Now, I’m all for movie posters as room décor, and I wouldn’t say shit if someone had a poster of The Matrix strung above their bed, which came out the same year. But Fight Club seemed so strange to me as something one would promote as part of their identity as opposed to a DVD you had in your collection.

Then I’d go to the gym and work out next to others who wanted “Tyler Durden abs” and curiously not Brad Pitt’s? Or I’d go to film class where there was always one person every semester asking why Fight Club wasn’t on the syllabus, which according to them was better than Citizen Kane. (The gall to say this to a film professor. I wish I was joking.)

I’m all for people loving the movies they love. Fight Club is also a David Fincher movie, so on the one hand, respect ✊. But I couldn’t stop wondering, why is a 1999 movie about a schizophrenic madman so… idolized?

It all came into perspective while playing Call of Duty and a friend quoted the movie in the party chat. For the life of me I can’t remember the exact quote, only the dialogue that followed, which I have transcribed below to the best of my recollection (with our gamer designations because it makes the conversation funnier, or maybe sadder).

Havok (me): really, you’re quoting Fight Club rn?

Spartan: why not? it’s the best fucking movie

Havok: that’s your pick?

Emperor: BRO

Havok: ok why?

Emperor: why what?

Havok: why is it the best movie ever and not, idk, The Godfather

Spartan: because Tyler Durden is the man. he speaks truth

Havok: …..you know he’s not real, right?

Spartan: i know it’s a movie-

Havok: no i mean he’s not real in the movie, he’s imagined by Edward Norton

Emperor: but he’s Tyler Durden at the end

Havok: when he shoots himself? because he’s fucking nuts?

Emperor: it’s a rebirth. he becomes Tyler Durden

I am haunted by this exchange every time I put on a headset. I had to look up the plot summary afterward just to make sure I wasn’t going insane. Now, I don’t like telling people that their interpretation of a movie is wrong, nor do I try to police people’s thinking. Movies are subjective and based on feeling, so interpret all you like.

That being said, this “manly resurrection” interpretation of Fight Club is SO batshit wrong it’s demented.

I am Jack’s raging bile duct.

*

Some circles of men worship Fight Club as the journey of a beta male who becomes the alpha. Edward Norton’s nameless character is stuck in a revolving door of copy machines, Starbucks, Chinese takeout, and 3AM infomercials. Enter a superior male figure who upends his mundane, superficial existence and breathes purpose into his life.

Tyler Durden, in this view, is a serious role model— an ideal to aspire toward, whose survivalist journey is one that the modern emasculated man ought to live out for themselves like a path of righteousness, or “manliness.” This interpretation makes Fight Club’s homoerotic themes MORE explicit, and yet these manly men misogynists still believe it’s their God-given right to pick up women. (If it sounds like researching this shit combusted my brain, that’s because it did. RIP me.)

The narrator of Fight Club – sometimes referred to as Jack – is just that: the narrator, not a hero. He’s not a savior in the same way Neo is the savior in The Matrix, nor is Tyler Durden a guiding Morpheus-figure. Because the narrator and Tyler are the same person.

The grand irony that Fight Club hinges on is that the narrator is fucking insane. So insane he’s not aware of the depth of his delusion. He works 9 jobs because he’s an insomniac, imagines the ultimate male persona because he’s so dissatisfied with his flaccid self; makes soap, hatches a bombing plot, becoming a cult leader in the process, and blacks out all of this until the dueling psyches can no longer play tug-of-war with the narrator’s mind.

Despite this major twist – which calls everything beforehand into question – devout believers have propped up Fight Club as some kind of middle-finger rebellion against the establishment; against their hardass of a boss, against women who don’t take their husband’s last name, or against the rules of society. But I don’t know how rebellious a movie of all things can be, especially when a movie funded by a major studio involves committee oversight by definition.

Fight Club wasn’t a spontaneous act in the universe either. It was a book, a labor that took some years to write, then turned into a movie which took a couple more years to make. Yet Fight Club gets passed around in masculine circles like a Molotov at a city hall protest, while the split-personality Tyler Durden gets praised as the messianic figure of this testosterone-fueled revolution.

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Some might like to think of Fight Club as being pro-alpha male, but the movie isn’t pro anything. It’s anti-capitalist. And it’s amazing how some can misinterpret this messaging as a sermon for male entitlement, or a plea for a return to traditional gender roles. The intended target of the film’s climactic bombing plot isn’t an abortion clinic or a feminist landmark, it’s the credit card companies. Saying Fight Club is pro-masculinity is like saying it’s pro-pretend you have a terminal illness for the emotional support.

Women aren’t the chief target of Fight Club’s sendup either. It’s Generation X. “Our great war is a spiritual war,” Tyler says to the legions of followers that have exploded the weekly brawls in a basement to city-wide anarchy via Project Mayhem. These men, branded as “Space Monkeys,” idolize World War II as a crucible that shaped real men, as if violence and killing and battle-worn trauma were the things that made you feel alive, not day-to-day life experience.

Trauma, of course, wasn’t the goal of WWII. Trauma and PTSD were the result. The Space Monkeys yearn for something the world does not owe them, so dead inside from working service jobs that they resort to beating each other bloody just to feel anything. They’re desperate for the kind of brotherhood forged in warfare, for an enemy to rail against because they didn’t turn out to be millionaires or rockstars, for a major conflict that will make their lives matter in the universe.

And what do they surrender to by joining the ranks of Project Mayhem? More service jobs. Making soap, scrubbing Tyler’s house clean, farming and fertilizing in the backyard, and carrying out orders while living in cramped bunks. The Space Monkeys might dress up in berets and guerilla army attire, but Tyler Durden isn’t so much their drill sergeant than he is a micro-managing CEO of his own growing venture. He’s shown with a megaphone in one scene where he repeats life mantras for them to adopt, like he’s indoctrinating them into soul-crushing workplace mindset. He may as well say, “This isn’t a job. We’re a family.”

When the narrator, still unaware that he and Tyler Durden are one in the same, goes around in search of Tyler and sees all the brawls taking place in every city he goes, he wonders to himself, “Was Tyler setting up more franchises?

Project Mayhem becomes a brand in and of itself, capped with a smiley face – an image borrowed and borrowed REPEATEDLY in ads, t-shirts, motivational posters, plastered in work environments, etc. (If you think that smiley face symbolizes anarchy, I’ll just point out that Tyler quotes Forrest Gump at one point and I’ll let you figure out the rest.) The whole thing is borrowed, commodified, and sold to more and more recruits. Tyler’s great rebellion against corporations and IPs is by… wait for it… creating his own startup company. And these men can’t tell the difference.

That’s it. That’s the joke, the catch-22 of Tyler Durden’s/the narrator’s revolution. But I wouldn’t blame you if you weren’t consistently laughing the entire time.

*

Fight Club says it outright that Generation X is lost in a sea of existential angst and empty lifestyle branding. They’re fucked, basically, and this indictment has only gotten worse as the term “Millennial” has become a catch-all phrase and insult for both Millennials and Gen X, a result of ignorant Baby Boomers referring to anybody younger than them. Thus, the very erasure Gen X’ers feared already came true. Chuck Palahniuk has less in common with the self-stylized pickup artists who behold his book like the Ten Commandments. Rather, Palahniuk shares satirical penmanship with George A. Romero, who all but condemned Baby Boomer’s mindless mini-mall materialism in Dawn of the Dead – the same culture of consumerism that Gen X inherited.

So if Fight Club is a movement of some kind or a monolith for a generation of men, then Fight Club is ultimately a satire of a movement, and a controlled demolition of said generation of men. To be fair, I don’t think Palahniuk could’ve predicted incel culture or the sheer droves of men who feel emasculated daily. On that note, the soulless characterization of the Space Monkeys as entitled fringe dwellers who resort to violence in the face of rejection is incredibly prescient, and fairly tame now in the 21st century. The more people literally buy into the notion of the alpha male, the less exaggerated Fight Club seems.

Never mind the dick that flashes in the final frames of the movie which exposes the whole thing as a joke. (Because now the image has been woefully misinterpreted as “asserting manhood.”) In the end, you can’t contend with belief. Some men want to believe in Tyler Durden’s philosophy; they want to blame women for the terminal dissatisfaction of their lives, or call out liberal education as the reason men can’t pick up girls anymore, or use a picture of Harry Styles in a dress as indicative of the toxic feminism plaguing society.

I get it. I get why you think Tyler Durden is a great motivational speaker (most cult leaders are) and I get why you’d think that a bunch of Jackass-level pranks are a suitable foundation for a rebellion.

I am Jack’s complete lack of surprise.

I’ll just say this: it’s okay to be entertained and inspired by a film. It’s especially okay to quote a movie and put up posters in your room. But movies are NOT gospels or instruction manuals or viable ways of life. (I enjoy Fight Club too, but my god if I lived like this…) It’s just a movie, the same way Tyler is just a character, or a fictional character’s fictional creation.

Perhaps the purveyor himself David Fincher offers the final word on his own movie: “When my daughter was about nine years old,” says Fincher, “I went to a school function, and she said, ‘Oh, I want you to meet my friend Max. Fight Club is his favorite movie.’ I took her aside and said, ‘You are no longer to hang out with Max. You’re not to be alone with Max.’”

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