Fight Club is a film that lends itself to study from a vast number of critical approaches. Each approach reveals a new way of looking at the film and new ways of interpreting its messages. Fight Club is a complex and subversive film and though it can be studied in many ways, I will focus on how useful feminist, psychoanalytic and genre approaches have been in reading the film as I believe considering gender representations is the most interesting way to read Fight Club.
Fight Club is a film that many have accused of being misogynist for its depiction of men who reject women and feel emasculated by modern society. Its representation of women is limited with only Marla being the main female character. The men in Fight Club appear to reject not only women but also the apparent feminisation of modern society. Tyler encourages them to forget their past ties to their homes and possessions and join a men only cult where they do not care about how they look, what they wear or the comforts of modern life. Tyler specifically questions if his generation of men ‘raised by women’ actually need another woman. He seems to suggest that because the fathers of many modern men have been absent from their son’s lives, the boys have grown up to be weak and too influenced by their mothers and femininity. Also this generation of men feel emasculated due to the impact of feminism and modern women being able to take control of their own lives. Men are threatened in the workplace, in education and even in reproduction as they have become less important and powerful now that women have the freedom to do more in society. Marla is one of only a few women in the film and is represented as unhinged, suicidal and as the root of all the protagonist’s problems. By encouraging the viewers to identify with Jack, it also encourages them to hate this woman that causes problems for him. However she is also revealed as the sanest character in the film by the end though she keeps coming back to Jack for his affection, she is also quite carefree and independent.
On the other hand others have claimed that the film is in fact not at all misogynistic and could actually be considered to be more about rejecting capitalism and the maturation of boys to men. Though Fight Club is all-male, the eventual goal appears to be to bring down capitalism rather than just reject women. The target of Project Mayhem is companies and banks that hold too much wealth in the world and by attacking them, Tyler and his followers aim to bring about increased equality. Jack is initially in awe of Tyler and his monologues, actions and world view but eventually by the end of the film, Jack learns that he must reject Tyler in order to live a happy and healthy life. Though Tyler criticises the capitalist economy, excessive marketing and inequality in society, he also acts like a terrorist and does not seem to have a well thought out or realistic plan for the future of society. Jack by the end rejects Tyler and instead realises that he appreciates Marla and as the credit cards explode in front of them, he holds her hand, showing that he has developed from the angry little boy of earlier in the film to a responsible mature adult who accepts that growing up and finding a partner is the way forward to a happy, healthy life. Fight Club is therefore not about rejecting women but about growing up and accepting traditional ways of living (such as heterosexual, monogamous relationships).
A psychoanalytic reading of the film also suggests that Fight Club is about growing up and finding a sense of self by learning to reject basic desires and external influences on a person’s personality. Freud theorised that within the brain was the part he called the id that was infantile and just held unconscious desires that we struggle to control. The super ego is the part of our brain that is influenced by external factors such as society and particularly our parents. In Fight Club, Jack’s personality splits and Tyler is like a manifestation of both his id and to a lesser extent his super ego. Tyler does whatever he likes; he is confident, has lots of sex, rejects basic comforts like duvets but also smokes and fights. In this way he is Jack’s id, unleashing repressed desires and acting upon them. However he is also a bit of a father figure to Jack and imparts his wisdom that Jack takes on board and learns from. Jack looks up to Tyler and learns how to speak and act from this mighty father figure but what he mostly learns is how to act on his repressed desires. Jack has been rejected by his father and other authority figures like his boss and is exploited by Tyler. Tyler is not simply his id but because he has values and beliefs to explain his wild, childish actions, he is also the super ego to an extent. Either way, Jack grows up through the fantasy of Tyler from childlike aggression and lashing out at other men to acceptance of a normal stable relationship with a woman.
Fight Club is also hard to classify in terms of generic conventions but analysing it in terms of a genre approach reveals it to share many of the characteristics of the romantic comedy, albeit a very dark one. Though Fight Club many have many of the generic conventions of action and crime films, it is really a film about a man and a woman who first despise each other and then begin a strange relationship that eventually blossoms into love. Romantic comedies pit a man and a woman together after a meet-cute. Jack and Marla meet at a testicular cancer sufferer’s support meeting. Jack immediately hates her but has to talk to her in order to separate their support groups. There is a fundamental misunderstanding at the centre of their relationship that causes conflict and once resolved allows them to be together. It has witty dialogue, the relationships (and love triangle of sorts) is at the centre of the story and love wins out over violence in the end. Fight Club is above all a very dark romantic comedy about a man and a woman getting together and the differences between men and women in modern society.
Fight Club is a rich text to study, taking any number of approaches. What it reveals about those approaches is that there is often some overlap and each approach can be useful to in order to ascertain what the messages and values of the film are. In the case of Fight Club, by using feminist, psychoanalytic and genre approaches, the film reveals itself to be a romance that is most critical of men rather than women and all approaches seem to suggest that Fight Club is actually a film about maturation and learning to embrace a healthy relationship with another person, rather than rejecting any gender, culture or way of life and examining it through these approaches is key to understanding the film fully.
For more posts on Fight Club:
Is Fight Club a film about power and control rather than liberation? (written version)