Fight Club: Don’t Aspire to be Tyler Durden
Contains spoilers for Fight Club (1999)
In 1999, three years after the release of Chuck Palahnuick’s novel, Fight Club was adapted to the screen by revered filmmaker David Fincher. Contrary to the current admiration of the film, the initial release received little praise. In addition to being a box office failure, Fight Club was one of the most controversial film releases of the year due to its humor, violence, and twist ending. Yet, twenty-three years later, the film is considered a cult classic. In the years since its release, Fight Club has garnered an audience that praises the film for all the things it was condemned for, alongside sustaining a masculine identity that was believed to be lost. When you google what the meaning of Fight Club is, you will be met with this answer: Fight Club “presents social commentary about consumerist culture, especially the feminization of American culture and its effect on masculinity.” I don’t believe that this interpretation is completely incorrect, but I do believe it is positively skewed. There is no question that Fight Club presents audiences with commentary on masculinity, however, I doubt whether or not the film is advocating for the kind of masculinity that its character’s portray.
Fight Club follows two characters, the Narrator, a depressed insomniac working an unfulfilling office job, and his friend Tyler Durden, an eccentric soap salesman. As the two get to know each other, the Narrator learns more and more about autonomy through Tyler’s personal philosophy and pulls himself out of his depression. In an effort to do the same for others, the two form an underground club where men go to fight each other and release their pent up emotions. Despite the club’s most important rule: “don’t talk about Fight Club,” the group continues to grow, eventually becoming a nationwide phenomenon. As the group becomes increasingly popular, Tyler is praised for creating the group and reaps all its benefits, despite it being a mutual effort between him and the Narrator. As their relationship becomes more strained and the actions of the Fight Club more extreme, the Narrator decides that Tyler needs to be stopped; it’s revealed that Tyler never existed. Instead, he was a manifestation of everything the narrator wanted to be.
Tyler Durden is the antithesis to the Narrator. When they first meet, Tyler is cool, confident, and stylish, which completely contrasts the mundanity of the Narrator’s own life. While both characters are likable, Tyler captures the attention of not only the characters within the film, but the audience. His offbeat personality and confidence about life is captivating. Even his philosophy, “It’s only after we’ve lost everything that we’re free to do anything,” despite its extremity, is easy to go along with if you believe that someday you could be just as content. Fight Club was a space for men to connect in a way that they couldn’t in their public lives. Though this connection required them to beat each other up, the club provided those men with genuine camaraderie. Being with other men who were also struggling in life caused some to realize that they needed help, and pushed them to actually go out to receive that help and become better people; it gave a large group of men the push they needed to assert autonomy in their lives. At first glance, the club is effectively good. That said, the men who decided to join Fight Club were in a vulnerable position. Not only were they living in a society that ridiculed them for expressing their emotions fully, but they were then presented with an option of releasing that emotion in a way that didn’t require any true thought or self-reflection.
As the Fight Club develops, we know as the audience (at least upon rewatch) that the Narrator and his followers are metamorphosing into Tyler, into this idea of the “ideal” man. But as the Narrator becomes more assured, the Fight Club becomes increasingly violent; members begin to commit various crimes, and a man dies as a result of their activity. It’s only when “Tyler’s” actions have reached this point of severity that the Narrator decides that something must be done. Once he realizes that all of the violence that’s ensued was his own doing, he does everything in his power to stop it.
The masculine identity that Fight Club presents is violent, selfish, and completely nonautonomous. The men in Fight Club may feel more confident in disobeying their boss in the office, but they’ve simply replaced their loyalty to their work with loyalty to Tyler. In creating an army of “masculine” men, Tyler also created an army of hypocrites. In the last act of the film, during the reveal of the twist, Tyler tells the Narrator “All the ways you wish you could be me, that’s me. I look like you wanna look, I fuck like you wanna fuck, I am smart, capable, and most importantly, I am free in all the ways you are not.” That was the point of all this, wasn’t it? Freedom? But Tyler isn’t truly free, at least not in the way he claims. The issue with Tyler’s “you want to make an omelet, you gotta break some eggs” philosophy is that it relies completely on the sacrifice of others, and never on himself. Tyler Durden, I think, is not only the paradigm of traditional masculinity, but a prime example of why being like him is not something that should be strived for. It isn’t until the Narrator makes the biggest sacrifice that he could at the end of the film, taking his life, that he has truly taken complete advantage of it. It’s that quality, selflessness, that should be aspired to.
In an interview with the Guardian, Chuck Palahniuk says “If I write something really didactic, it’s resolved, it’s gone. But if I write something that people can really argue about, that thing is going to be in the culture forever. For example: is Fight Club good or bad? It’s consensual, but it’s violence. I’m trying to create this dazzling spectacle that’s not meant to perpetuate or generate anything, but to be a sorbet that allows you to taste the next thing. To be a little more present in the next thing.” In his words, “resolution is death.” Meaning is completely subjective, and by criticizing a popular interpretation of the film I don’t mean to make my understanding of the film any kind of resolution to the conversation around this work. Instead, I’d like to pose the question of whether or not the actions of the characters can, and more specifically, should, be justified. The next time you sit down to watch Fight Club, instead of viewing it as an endorsement of traditional masculinity, look at it as a depiction of the potential consequences of maintaining this ideology. I hope that by presenting this perspective, I’m able to generate new conversation that perpetuates this ever-growing conversation surrounding this wonderful film. If nothing else, I ask that the next time you feel a masculine urge to blow up a credit card building, consider going to therapy instead.