My Love Affair With Fight Club

Or, Why Everything You *Think* You Know About Project Mayhem is Wrong

Everything was simpler and more innocent in 1999…right? You could get on an airplane without having to remove half of the clothes you were wearing. Most people were eating gluten, and didn’t seem to care.

And in 1999, you could make a movie where a rag-tag group of ne’er do wells in trench coats and ski masks plan to blow up buildings while beating each other to a bloody pulp in their leisure time, and everyone was like: yeah, okay, we’ll show that on the big screen. There were also no outrage-fueled Facebook rants about the film’s nearly pornographic violence. Everybody won!

But those who were cognizant of film in the 1990s, and who are on the internet now, still remember David Fincher’s cinematic interpretation of Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club. The reviews — as they flow into the annals of film history — are mixed.

But I am not here to report what the different groups of critics think of the film. I am here to talk about what the film means to me, or rather, what it means to Stephen M. Tomic and me. Actually, take both of us as representative men of a certain generation — let’s call them the Lost Generation, v. 2.0 — and take my assessment as canonical.

Dispelling Misconceptions

I’m going to dispel some myths and misconceptions about Fight Club as quickly as I can here. I’ve given some version of this spiel to nearly every woman I’ve dated or been friends with (always trying my best to never mansplain, of course), so it should go quickly.

1. Fight Club is not about fighting.

Yes, you probably knew some douche who either started his own “fight club” or talked enthusiastically (drunkenly?) about it. It’s not — it simply is not about fighting, or starting a club where people fight. It is about a group of people — young men specifically — who felt out of place, uncertain, confused, and needed an outlet. It’s also about how many wrong ways there are to explore those feelings and vent them.

Okay, metaphorically, it is kind of about fighting — fighting against your more basic desires and intellectually laziness. But that kind of fight is best fought without throwing a single punch.

2. Fight Club features only one woman, and only in the role of a love interest — but not for the reason you think.

Yes, the film scores poorly when in comes to the Bechdel Test. But I submit this: it does so on purpose, and its act of doing so aids in furthering the feminist cause. Hear me out (and comment if you find that I’m mansplaining).

When I was a teenager (which was when the film came out), young men were being encouraged to pursue women as trophies, accessories to a better-looking life, and as part and parcel of building an identity. This should sound familiar to many women, who were (and are) encouraged to pursue men as necessary for their lives and identities. In fact, this is pat of the reason for the Bechdel Test in the first place (as I understand it).

Now, women obviously have a more complicated relationship with societal norms because oppression is involved — they still don’t have equal rights. Men weren’t (and are not) being oppressed in their pressure to use women as objects to define themselves and display status — except they sure were oppressing each other and women by doing it. When Fight Club came out, I was on the border of swallowing that sweet, sweet concoction of misogyny, chauvinism, and low self-esteem that was being passed around at the time. Because I was smart enough to look beneath the surface of the film, I got the message. That message, to me, was this: you have a lot of work to do on yourself before you can go bringing a lady into your mess. Define who you are — fight that fight with yourself — before you go forging relationships. A woman is an equal partner, not a way for you to define your success or identity.

3. Fight Club is not advocating the violent overthrow of society.

During the film, the dudes who were enthusiastically beating the hell out of each other the day before begin what they dub “project mayhem”. It involves malevolent and destructive pranks aimed at businesses and certain types of art. There are threats of personal violence against public officials, and ultimately the planning and carrying out of the explosive destruction of several large commercial buildings. It’s all done in the name of one man’s vision to rid the world of commerce and capitalism as we know it. To those who have been watching Mr. Robot, the message is familiar — hauntingly so.

But if you really watch the film, there is explicit skepticism about this movement from the very man who helped it begin. He perceives the plan as having gone way too far past the initial harmless rebellion and fellowship. He sees the blind following of a charismatic figurehead, and hears the dogmatic chants of the disillusioned young men (though their chant is not about making America great again, it seems familiar). He comes to understand that it’s not the right path, and works to shut it all down.

To me, this was important. I learned that no dogma, no “simple” solution, no slogan will save you from having to deal with uncertainty and fear about what you will do with your life. No externally provided and neatly packaged answer — especially not from a charismatic pitchman in disguise — will make the pill of existential angst any easer to swallow. The answers are never simple, and if someone tells you they are, they’re not giving you the real answers. Tyler Durden was just a different kind of Hitler, a different kind of Donald Trump.

Love and Mayhem

If you’re a skeptic about the film, maybe I’ve made you think a bit more about it, or maybe I haven’t. But I had (and still have) an abiding love for the film. It came at the right time in my life, at the right time on the American timeline, and it cemented the bond of a friendship in the most formative period of my life.

But I can’t write off my love of the film as the result of nostalgia or subjectivity. I came to love it, and still do, because it presents an original view of both issues that exist in society, and a unique response to them. It also presents a still-relevant critique of dogma and demagogues.

I still love Fight Club — the mayhem, the bloody fists, the Edward Norton — all of it. And I hope that perhaps this small offering can help others do the same.