Sunday, 25 May 2014

Fight Club, Feminism and Misogyny: A2 Film Studies Exam Answer

It's that time of year again when the A2 Film Studies exams are nearly upon us. As usual I'm doing lots of revision with my students and also practicing exam answers. Here is one I wrote on Fight Club and whether the film could be considered misogynist or not.

'Marla is at the root of it’, says Jack in Fight Club.  Discuss what this statement says about the film as a whole.

When Fight Club’s narrator Jack begins to tell his story, he believes that it all starts with how he came to meet and begin a complex relationship with a woman named Marla Singer. Played by Helena Bonham Carter, Marla is a gothic looking, free spirited, depressed and deviant woman who spends her time in support meetings for people with serious illnesses. Jack blames Marla for much that is wrong with his life and many have suggested that this makes the film misogynistic. However, it is far from that simple.

 In Fight Club, the protagonist who the audience is encouraged to identify with at first seems to hate Marla. She ruins everything for him once he finds that he can cry when in support groups and that this allows him to sleep at night. He calls her a ‘bitch’, a ‘tumour’ and finds her presence threatening and annoying. The viewer learns this through Jack’s voiceover and so audiences are encouraged to identify with his feelings of hatred. The fact she is dressed all in black, smokes constantly and steals clothes from launderettes also makes her appear to be a negative character, very similar to the femme fatale figure of film noir who often lures the male protagonist to his death. Later in the film, Jack treats Marla terribly, often being rude to her and trying to get her to leave his house. This is made all the more offensive to audiences when they learn the twist in the story and that Jack is actually having sex with Marla before sending her on her way.

 On the other hand the film could also be seen to be about men needing to mature in order to have a healthy and loving relationship with another person. Jack is like a baby when we first meet him, nursing at the giant breasts of a man who has had his testicles removed and now resembles a mother figure. Jack cannot deal with the fact he may like Marla and so creates an uber-masculine alter-ego who treats women poorly and distances them from him. The end of the film sees Jack rejecting Tyler and accepting Marla as an equal and potential partner when the pair hold hands to watch the destruction of credit card company buildings. This shows that by the end of the film, Marla is a source of happiness for the protagonist and after reverting to being a baby then acting like a rebellious teen with Tyler, Jack is now mature and ready for a grown-up relationship with a woman.

 Fight Club could be also be read as a film that attacks the feminisation and emasculation of men in modern society. While Marla is not a very ‘feminine’ woman, it could be argued that Jack has been feminised by his job and the commercial culture he lives in. He is a consumer who loves nothing more than buying from the IKEA catalogue and satisfying his nesting instinct. He has never been in a fight, hunted for his food and never had a father figure around to teach him to be a traditional man. The film answers this problem by giving Jack his alter-ego Tyler Durden who is fearless and tough, rejects advertising and material possessions and uses women only for his sexual desire. Tyler wants to return to a vision of the past where men were hunters and did not have to go to work and be treated poorly by bosses for low incomes that allowed them to buy comforts such as duvets. It could even be argued that Marla finds the masculine Tyler side of the protagonist more sexually attractive than the more feminine Jack side.

 While the statement ‘Marla is at the root of it’ suggests she is a major character, women in Fight Club are barely present and could be seen to be ignored or dismissed in the narrative. They do not participate in the fight clubs or Project Mayhem and Marla and Chloe are the only named female characters. Women are either not invited or do not want to attend fight clubs and we learn little of Marla during the course of the film. Chloe is a cancer sufferer and is made a bit of a joke out of as she wants to just have sex one more time before dying. Both Marla and Chloe are tied to the idea of sex and although Marla seems quite strong and fearless in many ways, she also keeps returning to a man who treats her incredibly poorly.

On the other hand the men in the film are also very negatively represented and actually Tyler appears to be the main cause of problems for Jack in Fight Club. The men in the film are at first seen as whimpering support group attending victims. They cry and hug and many have literally lost their testicles. The men who join the fight clubs and are later sucked in to Project Mayhem are easily lead followers. They become like a cult, never thinking or questioning anything they are told. They are silenced by Tyler and become terrorists and moronic. Tyler becomes increasingly thuggish and dangerous until Jack if forced to fight and then kill him. Even though women are negatively represented in Fight Club, Marla appears to be the sanest person in the film by the end.

Marla is indeed at the root of Fight Club but she is not the cause of all Jack’s problems as he originally suggests. When he meets Marla, his psyche splits and in order to deal with the fear of falling in love, Jack creates Tyler in order for him to become a mature man. The film ends with the protagonist rejecting the macho rebellion of Tyler and accepting Marla as a source of love and affection. Marla is at the root of his salvation and the film is therefore neither as misogynistic nor radical as some have suggested.

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