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Does Fight Club critique or celebrate the extreme violence of men?

Last week marked the 20th birthday of the cult classic, but how has it stood the test of time?

There are terms that we use a lot these days that we didn’t back in 1999, when the film Fight Club was made. “Toxic masculinity” is one of them. So is “incel”. And so is “gaslighting”. 

That doesn’t mean that when David Fincher made Chuck Palahniuk’s 1996 novel into the brilliantly sick and twisted cult classic it is, he wasn’t thinking about these things. The film is about the fragility of masculinity, men’s mental health, and the way the two are interlocked. From the early scenes of the main character at a testicular cancer support group – where a distraught Meat Loaf cries “we’re still men!” – to other lines like “we’re a generation of men raised by women... I’m wondering if another woman is really what we need” – to, of course, the savage fight scenes, Fight Club is a raw portrait of what happens when male insecurity contorts itself into masculinity-in-overdrive, and an experiment in what men would do without social constraints. 

At the time of release, viewers questioned whether Fincher critiques or glorifies this. “Far from satirising the tiresome ‘crisis of masculinity’ stuff sloshing around the airwaves either side of the Atlantic, the film simply endorses it,” wrote Peter Bradshaw in his 1999 Guardian review. Twenty years on, when terms like “toxic masculinity”, “incel” and “gaslighting” exist precisely because Fight Club’s experiment has become a reality, it feels relevant to ask this question again. 

Fight Club tells the story of an unnamed but nihilistic narrator, played by Edward Norton (who one year earlier had played that other lost man, the kerbstomping neo-nazi in American History X). When he’s not ordering Ikea furniture and wishing he was dead, our narrator goes to support meetings for problems he doesn’t have. At these meetings, he encounters fellow meetings addict Marla, played by Helena Bonham Carter, and they forge a kind of relationship. By day, he works in insurance for a car company, and on a trip to examine a car crash, meets Brad Pitt’s character, the charismatic Tyler Durden. In the parking lot of a bar, Durden asks the narrator to punch him for absolutely no reason. This is how Fight Club, an underground sect of bored and frustrated men who beat the shit out of each other for fun, is born. Not before long, the club goes nationwide, the narrator can describing it as a “terrorist organisation”, its goal to totally disrupt society and scare the shit out of people. 

“The film has recently earned comparisons to Joker: both are, loosely, about disenfranchised men who suffer psychic episodes and turn to violence”

Fight Club has always been hard to watch – the narrator pulverising Jared Leto’s angel face, that famous scene with the slow acid burn on the hand, the multiple scenes where someone’s head has been blown open – but watching Fight Club back twenty years on, some moments definitely have not aged well: when Durden says to the narrator, after fucking Marla, “Do you wanna finish her off?” for instance. Particularly uncomfortable, in an age of epidemic gun violence in America, is the scene when the narrator threatens his boss with a mass shooting at the office. And I’d be interested to hear how mental health activists view the film, since it equates the narrator’s mental health condition – which we presume to be schizophrenia – with extreme violence. (Although it is, in a way, somewhat tactful that the film deliberately avoids labelling, or using the word schizophrenia.)

With these elements in mind, the film has recently earned comparisons to Joker – both are, loosely, about disenfranchised men who experience psychotic episodes and turn to violence. Both films have sparked debates about whether they will incite real world violence; according to a recent article in Indiewire, comparing their controversy, Fight Club was, at the time of release, labelled “irresponsible and appalling” while Joker was “a Category 5 cinematic shitstorm even before it won the Golden Lion at the Venice International Film Festival”. One Reddit thread even asks whether Fight Club is the origin story for Joker, basing the theory around the protagonists’ similar facial disfigurements. 

Over the years, Fight Club has found its way into Reddit threads often; it has been adopted as a film favourite by Men’s Rights Activists, alt right bros and people that we might now call incels, men who think they're owed sex, owed social status, and when they don't get it, they feel betrayed. An online forum popular with incels called Red Pill takes its name from The Matrix, also made in 1999, and the film’s idea of the red pill, which means being able to see reality, versus the blue pill, ignorance is bliss. In incel culture seeing the reality means understanding the true dynamic between male and female genders: that women are only attracted to certain types of men. In the Red Pill forum, Fight Club has been lauded as the perfect parable for achieving alpha male status. “It shows the struggles a man goes through when swallowing the red pill, it shows the denial and fear from straying from the beaten path,” writes one user, concluding: “If you haven't seen it yet, do. It's a great alpha example.” Users even adopted the film’s famous line “the first rule of Fight Club is you never talk about fight club”; a Red Pill adjacent Subreddit asks, of talking about Red Pill philosophy with others: “Am I breaking the First Rule of Fight Club?”

It’s easy to see the film’s appeal to these people; the narrator doesn’t seem to have any romantic prospects, finds a community of sad, frustrated men who feel the same, and they attempt to reaffirm each other’s masculinity. The narrator even begins to, as we would now understand it, gaslight Marla. It later becomes clear this is partly down to his specific mental health problems, which in turn lead to a spree of violence, as became the case in some extreme pockets of incel culture. The members of Fight Club worship Tyler Durden in the same way that many incels worship mass shooter Elliot Rodgers.

Fight Club is a lot about toxic masculinity, but it doesn’t necessarily approve of it: it paints the narrator as an ill man, for whom – without giving away too much – things do not end well, and it paints the army of men who follow him as nasty, alienated, cruel. Crucially, the film is also about so much more than the male pursuit of alpha status. It’s about anomie, the mayhem that ensues when you remove social bonds and value systems. Take for example the scene where Durden gives all of the men in Fight Club the task of going out and starting a fight with a stranger. Civil society basically operates on the unspoken rule that we do not act like assholes, infringe upon one another’s personal space, or hit people for no reason. Fight Club asks: if you take this away, what have you got? The answer is chaos. 

“The support groups are addictive because they offer connectivity, in what was a pre-social media age”  

It’s no surprise that a film about anarchy takes a punch at capitalism. In the explosion our narrator loses all of his “versatile solutions for modern living” before Durden warns him that “the things you own end up owning you”. Later, in a speech at Fight Club, Durden describes a generation of men “raised on television to think we’re gonna be millionaires and movie stars and rock stars” (again, reflecting incel culture, and the idea of male entitlement); when the men go out to cause trouble, they’re ruining dvds, smashing TV aerials, and trashing computers; at the end, naturally, they target banks. 

As in Palahniuk’s novel, Fincher works hard to craft characters that are suffering the effects of capitalism, too, socially isolated, living in a shitty prefab apartment, sitting in a little office, yearning for human contact from strangers. The support groups are addictive because they offer connectivity, in what was a pre-social media age. The Fight Club itself replaces the support groups in that it offers a more immediate form of physical human contact, in a time before you had the internet in the palm of your hand giving you access to a slow release of dopamine or adrenaline. Fight Club was a way to binge on these hormones. Chloe, a cancer patient at the cancer support group, perhaps best embodies the characters’ desperation when she talks about how she longs for physical touch before she dies. In a way, isn’t that all of us?  

And finally, Fight Club is a film about ennui. When narrator asks Marla why she visits the support groups she says it’s because they’re “cheaper than a movie and there’s free coffee”. Like our narrator, she is so nihilistic that the only thing that will jolt her into feeling anything is watching other people’s misery for sport. She takes Xanax in a suicide attempt out of apparent boredom. This is the female character, this is not gendered. The film asks us, gender aside, to interrogate our fear of death, and the influence this has on the way we live our lives, the choices we make, the risk assessments we do daily. Think of the narrator wishing a plane would crash. Marla standing in the middle of traffic, Durden crashing the car on purpose. It’s deeply nihilistic, but it also prompts us to ask ourselves the question of what we’re so afraid of. 

Overall then, while Fight Club is about toxic masculinity, it’s also about so much more than that. It’s about what happens when you remove social mores, take aim at capitalist structures, transcend your fear of death. The answer is, it doesn’t look good. At the end of the film, it becomes clear that Durden embodies the narrator’s ego – the side of ourselves that would be unleashed if our id wasn’t putting in the hours. In order to survive, the narrator must destroy his ego. Yes, Fight Club has aged badly in some areas (haven’t most films from 20 years ago?) and yes, it’s probably given birth to some awful things – ranging from white collar boxing clubs in the city to incel forum fodder, but that’s not necessarily its fault. As a piece of very well-made cinema it provides a brilliant enquiry into the human condition. To appreciate it is to reclaim it from creeps on the internet.