David Fincher’s 1999 film, Fight Club, has been characterized in many ways: as a romantic comedy, an exploration of white, middle-class male angst, an existentialist search for meaning amidst the moral ruins of late capitalism, an anarchist manifesto, and so on. But common to nearly every reading of the film, critical and laudatory alike, is the assumption that Fight Club is indisputably a celebration of misogynistic, masculinist virility and violence. On its face, this assumption appears so overwhelmingly obvious as to render superfluous any argumentation in support thereof, and absurd any opposing argumentation. Consider the ubiquitous homoerotic adulation of the male body; or Tyler Durden’s (Brad Pitt’s) lamentation at being part of a “generation of men raised by women;” or the titular subject of the film – a self-help group for men only, founded on the principle of life-affirmation through physical pulverization; or the fact that, besides the momentary appearance of a terminally ill cancer patient, there is but one named female character in the entire film; or the obsessive fetishizing of male genitalia, coupled with anxieties over phallic substitutes and the concomitant fears of castration. From the opening scene – the narrator kneeling with a gun barrel forced into his mouth, to the film’s crescendo – the destruction of a dozen major credit card buildings, Fight Club relentlessly assaults the viewer with visceral images of shirtless, full-throated hyper-masculinity and violence, and with the quasi-philosophical misogynistic sermons of Tyler Durden. But in spite of all this, Fight Club’s thoughts on gender and violence are far more complex than they first appear. We should keep in mind that the film’s embodiment of hyper-masculine aggression, Tyler, is a projection of a suffering and fragmented subjectivity amidst a psychotic breakdown. His status as the film’s antagonist severely complicates any putative simple heroizing of Tyler’s character or philosophy. We would also do well to note that despite her singularity as the only named female character in the film, Marla Singer is arguably the most interesting and admirable character in the film, with an evolving character arc that does not easily conform to traditional gender stereotypes or to standard Hollywood conceptions of feminine love or beauty. She is both strong and nurturing, brazen and uncouth but beautiful, and by turns confident and independent, vulnerable and insecure. She is the catalyst for the narrator’s path to selfhood, without recapitulating the Western myth of the “eternal-feminine” – the pure, selfless, virginal ideal who, from her unattainable heights, motivates the “hero’s quest”. Marla does not “complete” him, nor he her. She conforms to no ideal, and she is neither a prize nor a simple plot device. Whatever else one might say about Fight Club, its attitudes toward gender and violence are not cut and dry.
This is the publisher's version of the work. This publication appears in Gettysburg College's institutional repository by permission of the copyright owner for personal use, not for redistribution.
Version of Record
Cisney, Vernon. “Something to do With a Girl Named Marla: Eros and Gender in David Fincher’s Fight Club,” Journal for Cultural and Religious Theory, vol. 18, no. 3, 2019, pp. 576-599.
Required Publisher's Statement
This article is also available through the publisher's website.