Whom do you fight?

The limits and excesses of masculinity in Fight Club

How to Cite

Iocco, M. (2003). Whom do you fight? The limits and excesses of masculinity in Fight Club. M/C Journal, 6(1). https://doi.org/10.5204/mcj.2144
Vol. 6 No. 1 (2003): Fight
Published 2003-02-01

David Fincher’s Fight Club (1999) is an extraordinary film that explores an often-violent intersection between the conditions of late-capitalist consumer society and contemporary masculine identities. Through examining examples of “fighting” in Fight Club, the article will discuss male bonding through homosocial (and somewhat homophobic) relations, and the blurring of “good versus evil” by an examination of problematised male subjectivity and representations of “inner” conflict. The article’s title “whom do you fight?” reminds us of a particularly powerful message in Fight Club about the workings of difference. The desire to create “others” and to fight them demonstrates a culturally specific failure to adequately address the psychical and physical issues of individuals, and cultures as a whole. Similarities and differences between Fight Club, the events of September 11 and it’s anti-terrorist backlash ensures that issues raised in Fight Club about fighting are now, more than ever, powerfully relevant in white western industrialised context.

“Cut the foreplay and ask:” Male Belonging, The Homosocial and Homophobia

In Fight Club, the male body is a site where the meanings, limits and excesses of contemporary masculinity are tested, defined and redefined. The afflicted male body in Fight Club—bruised, bloodied, broken, weak—is constructed as the more “masculine” or more “real” body in the film, in contrast to the clean white, crisp, upright, besuited male body of Jack’s boss. Bruised eyes, cut lips, and broken noses all produce modes of recognition, a group identity, and a sense of belonging between the men when they are outside of Fight Club. In daylight hours, fellow members nod and wink to one another in recognition and in tacit acknowledgement of shared belonging and secrecy of the club. Fight Club demonstrates the ways in which the fight-worn body is directly involved in struggles of power and claims of “authenticity” and identity.

These vulnerable and excessive male bodies actively construct heterosexual masculine identity that depends upon, as Jonathan L. Beller notes, the “delimitation of homoeroticism via the narrative-prohibition of homosexuality” (Beller 1999). The continuum between the homosociality and homophobia has been well documented by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick in Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (1985). Sedgwick’s exploration of “male homosocial desire within the structural context of triangular, heterosexual desire” (16) is also relevant to the ways in which Jack and Tyler’s love interest, Marla Singer, provides a channel for, or disruption of, male homoerotic desire and homosocial bonding.

The highly physical fighting that works to bind Jack and Tyler together is evocative of an unrealisable homosexual desire between the two men. The film self-consciously and humorously explores the homosexual undertones in a scene outside Lou’s Bar. When Jack wonders where he is going to stay the night Tyler states, “cut the foreplay and ask.” After their first fistfight outside the bar they sit next to each other exhausted, satisfied and content. Jack suggests “we should do this again sometime” while Tyler leans back, smoking a cigarette. When Tyler takes Jack back to his place, he leads Jack to a mattress. Pointing to separate rooms Tyler states “you, me, toilet, ok?” The scene of Tyler and Jack’s first fight is one of highly charged physicality, bodily contact, bloodletting and sexual references. When paralleled to the “you, me, toilet” dialogue it is suggested that now they are in a different and more personal environment (inside and private rather than outside and public), their bodies and fluids should not mingle. These adjacent scenes exemplify an idea that continues throughout the remainder of the film—that male physical bonding, even in the illegal and physically charged confines of Fight Club, is ultimately a heterosexual affair. When Jack becomes jealous that Angel Face (a member of Fight Club and Project Mayhem) may replace him as Tyler’s favourite, Jack viciously beats his face almost to the point beyond recognition. When Tyler questions Jack about the beating of Angel Face, Jack replies simply, “I felt like destroying something beautiful.” Hence, Jack not only “fights” to reassert his position in the masculine hierarchy of Fight Club and Project Mayhem, but also jealously ensures that Tyler (and thus himself) will not find Angel Face sexually and physically desirable. By making homoeroticism forbidden in the context of Fight Club, fighting works as an outlet for this desire. Fighting in Fight Club simultaneously draws attention to and attention away from homoeroticism.

In another scene, the direct transmission of fluids between men, particularly blood, proves particularly powerful and horrifying. Tyler takes a violent beating from Lou, the owner of the bar where Fight Club is being secretly held. With his last ounce of strength Tyler pulls Lou down onto the ground spitting and spraying blood from his mouth onto Lou’s face, screaming, “you don't know where I’ve been, Lou! You don't know where I’ve been!” Out of horror, fear and revulsion, Lou and his sidekick beat a hasty retreat agreeing to let Fight Club stay in the basement of his bar. In this case, Lou’s fear of Tyler’s blood (in the wake of AIDS and other blood related diseases) is stronger than Tyler’s physical weakness at having been beaten savagely. This scene demonstrates the fine line between the acceptability of male bodies and fluids merging in a fight or brawl, but the horror of blood and other bodily fluids transmitted so blatantly between men.

“Not my head, Tyler, our head:” Good Versus Evil or Inner Conflict?

When Jack discovers that Tyler is he (and he is Tyler), he decides to put a stop to Tyler’s plan to blow up the buildings of major credit card companies. Here, the fight turns to one of good versus evil characterised by the idea of inner conflict. Tyler begins to function more recognisably as Jack’s doppelganger or “bad-self”; a villainous figure that must be found, destroyed and expelled from Jack’s head as well as the film’s narrative to give closure. Although Jack becomes a “good self” with moral conscience once he realises who Tyler is, his horrific, violent battle with Tyler is physically and psychically a battle with himself. Shots of Tyler and Jack fighting as two “separate” people, and then of a solitary Jack beating himself up and throwing himself down a flight of stairs captured by security cameras, demonstrate the complexity with which the fight between good and evil becomes a graphic struggle within a divided “self.” This is reminiscent of an earlier scene between Jack and his boss. In order to manipulate and blackmail his boss, Jack beats himself up by making it appear that his boss was responsible. In these two examples “fighting” works to suggest that the narrator is his own worst enemy. It implies that constructions of “otherness” (i.e. the flamboyant, hyper-masculine Tyler or Jack’s peevish, effeminate boss) in narrative cinema are projections of the narrator’s fears and desires; these characters exist only in relation to the narrator. The narrator needs these “others” in order to have a notion of “self”—but in this case the narrator’s self does not become stronger by fighting his enemies. In fact, the film explores how he is inextricably part of their construction. It demonstrates how much Jack is a part of the system and subjectivity he wants to fight.

Fight Club 1999 and September 11, 2001: Whom Do You Fight?

In 1999, Andrew O’Hehir said that the idea of destroying credit-card companies in the name of some form of liberation was, although a good idea, very unlikely. The likelihood of this happening, however, became apparent on the morning of September 12th 2001, when I told by a friend to turn on the news. “It’s like Fight Club!” I was assured. I am sure I was not the only one who noticed the disturbing parallels between the exploding buildings of Fight Club’s finale and the burning Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre in New York. The similarity was thematic as well as visual. In both cases, “covertly” trained “terrorist” groups, populated by disaffected, disenfranchised young men with a hatred for capitalism, aim targets at symbols of U.S capitalism and economic prosperity. While the potential problems, complexities and controversies of comparing a “fictional” film, such as Fight Club, with a “real life” event such as on September 11, are beyond the scope of this article, there are perhaps some ways in which the fight in Fight Club might inform how media constructions of the “war against terror” might be unpacked post-September 11. In Fight Club, the U.S gaze was turned inward and on itself, marking a moment that examined the conditions under which a violent retaliation against consumer capitalism might occur. It is worrisome that the same cultural reflexivity seen in Fight Club seems to have given way to renewed desires to fight the “other,” to name and identify “evil,” to declare a war on peoples and practices that seem foreign to some white western ways of life. It seems that the gaze that was momentarily turned inwards in Fight Club has now, in an act of psychic and cultural self-defence, turned outwards onto a Middle Eastern “other.” Perhaps now, more than before, Fight Club’s complex, multi-layered and self-reflexive examination of “fight,” and its ever-shifting relationship to the construction masculine identities in contemporary societies, is of particular cultural importance and relevance.

Works Cited

Author Biography

Melissa Iocco