I have friends earning Women’s Studies degrees, and friends with film degrees. This post was inspired by them, and by an article I read last night that is supportive of the #yesallwomen awareness movement that has been growing over the past week. The article in question was from a guy who used to believe that women are either passive and grateful receptacles or bitches who bring men down, and he implied that Fight Club could be partly to blame for his fear that the female world is trying to emasculate men. Say what? That threw me for a loop, and I immediately responded with “saying that Fight Club promotes [that attitude] is like saying Trainspotting promotes heroin. Both movies show the allure of their respective vices, but then they tear them apart to reveal how ugly and dangerous and absurd they really are.” I would have continued, but I didn’t want to derail the conversation any more than I already did. The article wasn’t actually about Fight Club.
I’m going to talk about the movie here because, while I have read the novel, I only read it once, and I’ve seen the movie a bunch of times. Also, I mostly talk about screenwriting on this blog.
Spoiler warning. Do we really need spoiler warnings on a movie that has been out for fifteen years?
The movie opens with Tyler Durden holding a gun in the Narrator’s mouth. To get out of the framing device and into flashback mode, the Narrator says that his “current situation has something to do with a woman named Marla Singer.” Then in flashback we learn how he meets and initially hates Marla. Why did he hate Marla? Because she told the same lies that he did. When he tells her off, she calls him out on his double standard. Their shared lie allows them both to participate in support groups for people with serious illnesses that they don’t have, like the testicular cancer group, which introduces the question of what it means to be a man.
Enter Tyler Durden, which is really just a facet of the Narrator’s mind and attitude. Tyler is what the Narrator believes a man should be. Tyler takes what he wants, bullies people (bullying someone into feeling better about their lives is still bullying), and sees Marla as both a toy and a threat. The Narrator, and a whole gang of men looking to prove themselves, follow Tyler’s lead. When the Fight Club evolves into Project Mayhem, Tyler teaches the guys to not only be more like him, but also to never question what they’re doing.
The Narrator starts having doubts about their way of thinking, but he does nothing about it until someone he cares about ends up dead. It’s telling that the victim is Bob, a man who has breasts. He didn’t measure up to Tyler’s standard of masculinity, and he died for it, his identity glossed over by all but the Narrator, and buried in the yard like a dog. That kind of plot device would normally be problematic, with the more marginalized character sacrificed so that the emotional stakes are higher for the protagonist, but the scene doesn’t become about emotional stakes. Instead, it’s the Narrator’s wake-up call about the wrongness of what’s happening in his world. He changes his point of view.
When Tyler’s sees Marla as enough of a threat that his followers have to get rid of her, the Narrator warns her to run away and hide. Of course that suggestion pisses her off. She did nothing to deserve the punishment of exile. Making it her responsibility to hide from the world doesn’t even keep her from danger. The Narrator saying sorry doesn’t solve anything either. In the end, the Narrator has to straight-up destroy Tyler, the part of himself that sees women as objects to play with or stamp out, the part that punishes men for not being masculine enough. He kills his own misogyny.
It’s interesting to note that when the Narrator destroys the part of himself that is a danger to Marla, he earns her friendship, and not necessarily her bed. They don’t kiss at the end. They don’t even have a tearful breathy embrace that you see in movies when lovers are reunited. They don’t even flirt. Marla and the Narrator show concern for one another and hold hands as the buildings across the street implode. What those two characters are to one another in the end is ambiguous, and that’s okay.
Speaking of Marla, she’s a complex, three-dimensional female character. Sometimes she has trouble coping. Sometimes she’s strong. She doesn’t become strong because a hero cheered her up, she’s just a person dealing with her life. Marla is a survivor of sexual abuse and she’s outspoken about it, even when that makes other characters uncomfortable. She isn’t apologetic about who she is or what she’s been through. There is only one other female character really, and they don’t speak to one another, thus making the film fail the Bechdel test, http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/UsefulNotes/TheBechdelTest?from=Main.TheBechdelTest but Gravity also failed that despite being entirely about a woman’s perseverance against all odds… Anyway, the other character, Chloe, is a terminally ill woman who actively seeks out sex. She does so not because she wants someone to like her, but for her own pleasure simply because she wants it. The scene is played for dark humour, but the humanity in the actress’ performance asks the audience to think about why it bothers them.
I find it weird to think that people have watched all that and only take Tyler’s rants to heart. Sure they’re spoken by a mostly shirtless Brad Pitt, and some of Tyler’s dialogue is downright poetic, but there is an entire story here, and “manly men must rule the world” isn’t exactly the message.
Of course we also live in a world where white supremacist groups will unironically sing the song “Tomorrow Belongs To Me” even though that was originally from the musical Cabaret, a story in which the Nazis are clearly the bad guys, and they aren’t even represented by an important character. So yeah, bigots are dumb.