Fight Club: Mythopoetics and the Crisis of Masculinity
In 1999, the David Fincher-directed Fight Club was released, a movie based on Chuck Palahniuk’s 1996 novel of the same name. Though the film was produced by 20th Century Fox with a sixty-three million dollar budget, it endeavored to stay faithful to the anti-consumerist tenets of Palahniuk’s tale. Both the film and novel attempt to embody an anarchic ethos while advancing a traditional and, on occasion, contradictory view of white middle-class masculinity. Fight Club’s infamous relationship with violence may not constitute a problematic gender analysis, but there is an uncomfortable kinship between the story’s covert adherence to conservative narratives of masculinity and the nineties-era men’s movements that also claimed those ideas. While critical opinion splits on the nature of this relationship, a single question lies at its heart: what to do about the destructive angst of the bourgeois white man? Though Fight Club attempts to ask and answer how rapacious capitalism impacts white men, the story itself is a product of the paradoxical gender discourses generated by and interlaced with American neoliberalism.
Fight Club, both the novel and film, is the story of a nineties-era “everyman” narrator with a chaotic, dissociative personality named Tyler Durden. Tyler begins to exert control over the Narrator’s waking life by engineering an underground fight club for disaffected men. Each fight night, Tyler leads the gathering and recites the club charter–beginning with the infamous line “the first rule of fight club is that you don’t talk about fight club.” As the club escalates and transforms into a fascistic cult of personality, with Tyler at the center, the Narrator attempts to break free of Tyler’s increasingly corrosive influence. While the film ends on a cheerfully dated note, Tyler vanquished and the female love interest secured, the novel concludes with a more complex moment. In Palahniuk’s book, the Narrator learns he will never be free of Tyler; what Tyler created, he too created. Tyler’s burdens and responsibilities are the Narrator’s own. The novel ends with the Narrator’s love interest and cultish acolytes loving him for his connection to Tyler. The white masculine angst that lies within Fight Club’s heart connects to a broader American cultural male identity crisis of the nineties that continues on today. In hopes of subverting this toxic inheritance through generative and subversive masculinity, three questions must first be answered: What is neoliberalism? How does the Fight Club franchise embody an American neoliberal paradigm? Why is it important to understand how capitalism shapes white men?
Jamie Peck, Professor at the University of British Columbia and Canada Research Chair in Urban and Regional Political Economy, wrote the 2010 book Constructions of Neoliberal Reason. In Reason, Peck defines neoliberalism as “the capture and reuse of the state, in the interests of shaping a pro-corporate, freer-trading ‘market order.’” Peck’s definition identifies the social and political mechanisms of neoliberal control that have taken root in America, a strategy that has alternately refracted and reflected our culture’s relationship with gender, violence, and race. An example of neoliberal phenomena, in which government-controlled and government-regulated public services are reverted to private corporate control, is the 2008 American housing crisis and recession. Due to laws that favored corporate interests by way of bank deregulation, intertwined banking and investment corporations were able to operate in the market with relative impunity. Consumers, bearing the brunt of unscrupulous lending practices, lost their jobs, homes, and savings. Though government intervention occurred in the form of a business bailout for corporations considered “too big to fail,” and mild regulatory reform took shape through the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010, this intervention was imperfect. The bailout rested upon the continued complicated presence of systemically important financial institutions, and Dodd-Frank continues to depend upon its interpretation and application by regulators. The state and private business, post-bailout, are arguably more intertwined than ever. Thus neoliberalism is “paradoxically defined by the very unattainability of its fundamental goal—frictionless market rule. Rather than the goal itself, it is the oscillations and vacillations around frustrated attempts to reach it that shape the revealed form” of the system.
Just as contradiction is American neoliberalism’s defining character trait, Fight Club’s story (the film and novel) is shaped by its links to contemporary market paradoxes and regressive gender norms. In 2015, multiple news outlets reported on the release of an iPhone application called “Rumblr”. The app’s website utilized imagery from Fincher’s film to build a social media presence, and the app’s developers described it as “Tinder for fighting.” Consumer familiarity with Tinder—a ubiquitous presence within the world of dating and hooking up—provided Rumblr with a marketing strategy: a free-spirited, puckish air that masked the truism that everything can and will be commodified. Rumblr was structured as a platform for fighting enthusiasts to match with strangers for casual bouts or to develop long-term sparring partners. Though Rumblr provided an option for female opponents, the app was predominantly geared towards men through graphics, screenshots, and marketing campaigns that presupposed a male user base. Rumblr’s debut encountered widespread interest, and sites like Vice and New York Daily News cautiously reported on the app’s impending release. Rumblr’s developers, in a Medium post about the project, intensified the drama surrounding the app by stating, “We can’t just ignore the fact that boys, men, they all fight. We’ve always fought for the life of humanity. So why can’t we just provide them a way to do it more efficiently?” As Rumblr’s public release inched closer, it was revealed as a marketing ploy for von Hughes, a startup venture-capital investment firm based in New York City.
Von Hughes has since rebranded as Howler AI, a consulting agency designed to run automated PR campaigns. While Howler AI’s aim sounds like a bot regurgitating tech bro buzzwords, it illustrates a shift in how people interact and connect through media platforms. Utilizing imagery from Fincher’s Fight Club not only engages people but also reinforces Fight Club’s presence within this symbolic market moment. Almost twenty years have passed since Palahniuk’s Fight Club was published—the rules have seemingly changed. The first rule of Fight Club was once “you do not talk about Fight Club,” but Rumblr’s approach was a slick marketing appeal for social media influencers to engage with exciting new content. It promised connection, a way to constantly talk about Fight Club ad infinitum. Yet, a sleight of hand is hidden in this appeal, since whether people talk about it or not, the “content” of Fight Club remains the same–our culture’s embodiment of and reaction to white masculinity.
Since our society is crafted to both reflect and accommodate the comfort of the white male subject, the structural reverberations of their desires have a profound impact on everyone. American imaginaries of whiteness and masculinity metastasize with political and economic oppression; ideas of white masculinity possess the seeds of their own demise. This revved-up death drive repeatedly asserts itself within the world of Fight Club and our own political moment. In response to each of the mass shootings that have already occurred this year (to name a few: San Jose, South Bend, Virginia Beach, Charlotte, Highlands Ranch) conservative NRA pundits position gun ownership as a right under siege for “forgotten Americans.” Who is this forgotten class?
Brookings Institute Senior Fellow and author Isabel Sawhill popularized the idea of a forgotten class in her book The Forgotten Americans: An Economic Agenda for a Divided Nation. According to Sawhill, this group composes thirty-eight percent of the working age population, is in the bottom half of the US’s income distribution, and lacks a college degree. Fifty-three percent of this group is white. A majority of the forgotten voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 American general election and continues to compose his support base. While Sawhill argues that an intersecting web of reasons form the relationship between the forgotten American demographic and Trump support (party loyalty, dislike of the alternative, resentments against immigrants or other groups, and voter manipulation) one reason in particular cannot be downplayed: racial resentment. This idea of racial resentment reveals a deep-seated investment in a mythic idea of whiteness; a narrative communicated through coded dog-whistle mentions of “traditional values”, and “real America.” While racism is inextricably intertwined within American history, the rise of Trump support coincides with a rise in white nationalist activities, a development that current FBI Director Christopher Wray calls “a persistent, pervasive threat” to domestic security. Though white women are active participants in white nationalist organizations, and benefactors of structural racism, it is the combustible intersection of whiteness and masculinity that forever echoes within our popular culture.
At one point in Fight Club, both the novel and film, the Narrator’s boss discovers the Narrator’s club manifesto and the Narrator tells him that whoever wrote it “could probably go over the edge at any moment in the working day and stalk from office to office with an Armalite AR-180 carbine gas-operated automatic.” The Narrator threatens his entire office instead of constructively fighting his boss, opting not to forcibly smash the corporate boundary between the two men. This scene stands out: it illustrates how oppressive white masculinity reinscribes authority through destructive violence. Though the Narrator and Tyler Durden claim their generation is undergoing a “great revolution,” revolutionary status is only afforded by the whims of the Narrator and Tyler. Within both the novel and film, the intersection between whiteness and maleness is left unspoken but bluntly rendered–from the Narrator’s parking lot sessions of self-flagellation to the hordes of shaved head acolytes congregating at Tyler’s industrial boneyard, Fight Club could not exist without the privilege whiteness affords. This is a story of white male malaise, how it impacts others and how it sees itself.
Fight Club was born during the height of a widespread cultural identity crisis. The nineties were defined by ambivalence towards and confusion about contemporary American masculinity. The decade’s domestic policy shaped this gendered anxiety through a racialized lens. The Clintons’ 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act dedicated $9.7 billion to funding and expanding prisons, solidified three-strike life sentencing, and expanded the criminal offenses eligible for the death penalty. This legislation disproportionately impacted men within communities of color, intensifying the effects of mass incarceration resulting from Reagan’s war on drugs. Coupled with criminologist John Dilulio’s racist rhetorical invention of “superpredators” to categorize young African American men, the decade’s domestic policy isolated black and brown men from social and economic opportunity. In response to the socioeconomic challenges specifically faced by the black community, the Nation of Islam, headed by Minister Louis Farrakhan, organized the Million Man March on the National Mall in Washington DC in 1995. Parallel to the predominantly white men’s rights movements of the time, the Million Man March espoused a message of Black male acceptance and self-help that shrouded its elements of dated misogynoir and homophobia. While similar conversations were occurring in both black and white communities on masculinity, racist barriers kept these two dialogues mostly separate.
For instance, men’s rights activist and author Warren Farrell wrote in his infamous 1993 book The Myth of Male Power: Why Men Are the Disposable Sex that the American male was the new “n-word.” Farrell’s argument implies difference through his use of loaded language–by invoking the structural oppression and anti-blackness signified through the n-word, as a white man writing on misandry, Farrell was addressing an audience categorized through race. Farrell’s insinuation that this “new” oppressed class does not intersect with the original oppression he references is a subtle shift that excluded black men from the conversation.
These dialogues were an attempt to answer an impossible, anxiety-inducing question: what did the American man look like? Fight Club seemed to be an effort to throw out this entire dialogue and embrace ownership of the messy imperfections of identity, but underneath this call for rebellion are dated notions of white paternalism. Fight Club’s men are aligned with ideas born of the era’s “mythopoetic” men’s movement.
The mythopoetic movement was composed of men’s therapeutic groups and social organizations that emphasized men’s rights and wellbeing, founded by authors who were influenced by Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell. The movement’s founders were particularly interested in how Jung’s psychic archetypes and Campbell’s work on mythic narratives and identity could help modern men in crisis. Similar to Betty Friedan’s analysis of upper-middle-class white women suffering from the “problem with no name” in her 1963 work The Feminine Mystique, the mythopoetic movement addressed affluent white nineties men who, as corporate capitalism bloomed, began to feel anxious about their social status. One of the mythopoetic movement’s founders, poet and essayist Robert Bly, attempted to name this problem and provide men a roadmap by which they could reclaim a sense of agency and power. Bly’s book Iron John: A Book About Men became a foundational text of the mythopoetic movement and parallels Fight Club’s portrayal of male bonding and intimacy. University of Iowa Associate Professor Brenton J. Malin, writing about the nineties “crisis of masculinity,” notes that Iron John, and by extension the mythopoetic movement as a whole, was a “fairly radical call for homosocial ritual and intimacy…accompanied by an equally extreme call for traditional notions of masculine authority and power.”
In Iron John, Bly framed the movement’s efforts as a wish for men to claim their “Zeus energy.”
There’s a general assumption now that every man in a position of power is or will soon
be corrupt and oppressive. Yet the Greeks understood and praised a positive male energy that has accepted authority. They called it Zeus energy, which encompasses intelligence, robust health, compassionate decisiveness, good will, generous leadership.Zeus energy is male authority accepted for the sake of the community.
Bly’s invocation of Zeus energy as aspirational masculinity is an ill-informed attempt to motivate men, epitomizing a mythopoetic failure to meaningfully engage with the intersections of race, class, and gender. In Greek myth, Zeus’s Olympic authority symbolized the critical importance of paternal influence in ancient Greek society. Bly asked men to follow the lead of a figure that had little patience for human frailty and represented an entrenched, authoritarian power structure.
Fight Club and the mythopoetic movement, were all products of the same time period in American neoliberalism. Thus the paradigms Bly develops in Iron John can be applied to Fight Club’s narratives in order to better understand the period’s limiting myths of white masculinity. Fight Club’s protagonist, referred to as “the Narrator” in both the book and film, is an insurance adjuster for an unscrupulous corporation. Our Narrator’s dissatisfaction in life mirrors the harm Bly sees in corporate capitalism. Bly cites corporate life as the primary factor in collectively traumatizing the father-son bond, stating “the fragmentation of decision making in corporate life…the prudence, even cowardice, that one learns in bureaucracy—who wants to teach that?”
In the film and book, the Narrator suffers from insomnia. In an attempt to cure his insomnia, he begins attending a variety of support groups for ailments and trauma he has never experienced. At a group for testicular cancer survivors, the Narrator meets both Robert “Bob” Paulsen and Marla Singer. Bob is a former bodybuilder and cancer survivor now suffering from gynecomastia: a hormone imbalance that causes biological men to develop breasts. Bob’s kindness during a group exercise causes the Narrator to weep into Bob’s chest: an emotional purging that seems to cure his insomnia. The Narrator’s unconventional therapy is jeopardized by the appearance of Marla Singer, a foil to the Narrator who reflects his own deep-seated unhappiness. They exchange phone numbers with a promise to split up the groups and then they part ways.
Repressed and angry, the Narrator boards a flight for a business trip on which he meets Tyler Durden: a rogue soap maker, cater-waiter, and film projectionist. Though it is eventually revealed that Tyler is a hallucinated personality, the Narrator’s thwarted id come out to play, Tyler functions as a mentor to lead the Narrator through a masculine initiation. According to Robert Bly, narratives of male initiation traditionally begin with two events–the first being “a clean break with the parents, after which the novice goes to the forest, desert, or wilderness. The second is a wound that the older man gives the boy.” At several points throughout the novel and film, both the Narrator and Tyler express anger at their father’s early abandonment, a rage that takes shape during the beginning of the titular club. Mothers are also absent in both Fight Club iterations, but this pain is not so keenly felt. A mysterious explosion soon destroys the Narrator’s condo; he in turn reaches out to Tyler. Tyler offers the Narrator a bed at his house, an abandoned estate located on the city’s industrial periphery, with the condition that they first fistfight.
Once the Narrator begins living with Tyler, as a protégée, their now-regular parking lot fistfights expand to an organized club. Men join Fight Club through word of mouth, a playful violation of Tyler’s original directive to “not talk about Fight Club.” Cancer support-group Bob even finds his way to the fighting, his unconventional body once more a site of joy. Applying Bly’s schema, readers and viewers can witness the beginnings of the Narrator’s apprenticeship with Tyler’s “warrior energy.” The tenor of the fighting project soon shifts, however, with the reappearance of Marla Singer. While the Narrator believes Tyler and Marla begin a sexual relationship, in actuality the Narrator is pursuing and sleeping with Marla while disassociated (as Tyler). The Narrator’s experience of misplaced sexual jealousy and repression align with Tyler’s desire to remodel and intensify Fight Club. Tyler signals a change to Fight Club with a ceremonial chemical burn, a lye kiss on the Narrator’s hand. In the film and the novel, the Club is here on out referred to as Project Mayhem—a cultish organization that only answers to Tyler. This change symbolizes a distinct shift in the Narrator’s relationship to his own psychic archetypes. The Narrator is no longer the apprentice, and he must defeat Tyler in order to complete the final stage of mythopoetic initiation: union with his female counterpart, Marla Singer.
Palahniuk doubles down on Fight Club’s connections to mythopoetic masculinity in his graphic novel Fight Club 2: The Tranquility Gambit, published by Dark Horse Books in 2016. In Tranquility Gambit, we meet the Narrator ten to fifteen years after the events of the film and novel. The graphic novel is more indebted to Fincher’s sixty-three million dollar film, however, than Palahniuk’s own source material. Tranquility Gambit’s cartoonish violence and overreliance on dated gender tropes fail to transcend any boundaries. Rather, the graphic novel’s unnecessary existence and its casual changes to the canonical Narrator/Tyler relationship (i.e., Tyler has been in the Narrator’s life since childhood and is responsible for the death of his parents), blatantly mark it as a product manufactured on behalf of a Fight Club franchise. In comparison to Tranquility Gambit’s neoliberal franchising, Palahniuk’s original novel resembles something akin to a white man’s earnest, cautionary fairy tale. In Tranquility Gambit, the Narrator spends his days in a medicated stupor, in and out of analysis sessions in an effort to prevent Tyler’s return. When Tyler unexpectedly appears during a session, the Narrator’s analyst tells him, “Tyler is an archetype…like a superstition or prejudice. He becomes part of the lens through which you see the world….Tyler survives across time by infecting one generation after another.” The precarious situation soon erupts and the Narrator returns to Tyler’s house, the lonely birthplace of Project Mayhem. It is here where the Narrator encounters an assembly of the Project’s followers, including Palahniuk himself. As his character in the graphic novel, Palahniuk remarks that “the way Campbell explained it, young men need a secondary father to finish raising them” and that in the absence of this mentor there grows “a generation of apprentices without masters.”
Are white men condemned to wait, raging, for their Godot to finally appear? Neoliberal masculinity is built upon contradiction, and it contains both destructive and constructive potential. This potential for a constructive, defiant maleness is reflected within the mythopoetic margins of Fight Club’s dominant narrative: the hermaphroditic body of Robert “Bob” Paulsen. Keeping with the mythopoet’s desire for “Zeus energy,” Bob’s breasts, in conjunction with his biological maleness, evoke the blind prophet Tiresias from Greek mythology. Unlike Zeus, Tiresias traversed the fringes of Olympic power as both a man and woman. Notably, Tiresias earns wisdom during the time he spends as both a man and woman: as a woman, he created a family and passed his prophetic gifts on to his descendants. Bob encapsulates the possibility of “Tiresias energy” from his first Fight Club film and book scenes with the Narrator. In the testicular-cancer support-group, the audience learns of Bob’s past bodybuilding career and his trouble with steroids. While Bob’s ill, gender-non-conforming body could be a source of shame and pain for one heavily invested in the traditional trappings of masculinity, Bob subverts all expectations. Bob’s body is simply that, his body. Bob speaks to the Narrator about his wish to become a better person and reunite with his estranged family. It is not a coincidence that Bob is killed in Palahniuk’s novel, Fincher’s film, and brought back only to be murdered again in Tranquility Gambit. Positioning Bob as an insurgent masculinity in no way mitigates the persist harm of toxic power structures that reflect and reinforce Fight Club and Tranquility Gambit’s impossible male imaginaries.
So what, if anything, has changed for white men? Are they, as Palahniuk believes, still searching for this second father, no matter how destructive or ill-equipped their chosen champion might be? Since Tranquility Gambit’s 2016 publication, America has had two and a half years of a Trump presidency. Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian election interference and obstruction of justice recently concluded. Mueller will publicly testify on his findings to Congress in the near future. Children are being neglected and abused at federal government border facilities. The 2016 Brexit referendum, crafted to support a nationalist, anti-immigration racist sentiment, and containing its own toxic, limiting narratives on what a man looks like and how whiteness perceives itself, still looms. Even with no coherent plan for the country’s future, former Prime Minister Theresa May is stating “nothing has changed” for Great Britain. And without a persistent, rigorous investigation into the cultural norms that mirror and support systems of oppression, nothing will change for white men either.
 Jamie Peck, Constructions of Neoliberal Reason (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 9.
 Peck, 16.
 Von Hughes, “How We Hacked the Media and Landed Six-Figure Contracts in Four Days”, The Mission, January 21st 2016, https://medium.com/the-mission/how-we-hacked-the-media-and-landed-six-figure-contracts-in-four-days-96ea4aca4eef
 Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club (New York City: Henry Holt and Company, 1996), 88.
 Brenton J. Malin, American Masculinity Under Clinton: Popular Media and the Nineties “Crisis of Masculinity,” ed. Toby Miller (New York City: Peter Lang Publishing, 2005), 8.
 Malin, 150.
 Robert Bly, Iron John: A Book About Men (New York City: Random House, 1992), 22.
 Bly, 96-97.
 Bly, 28.
 Bly, 181-182.
 Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club 2: The Tranquility Gambit (Milwaukie: Dark Horse Books, 2016), 152.
 Palahniuk 2016, 64.