The First Rule of Fight Club

I am Jack’s complete lack of surprise. 

Rather, I was actually Jack’s quite the opposite when I watched David Fincher’s Fight Club for the first time. I’m sure we’re all familiar with the film’s reputation: a sexist, violent, nihilist piece of incel propaganda that is revered by film bros along with the likes of Pulp Fiction and The Wolf of Wall Street. While it has certainly been monopolized by these themes, my interpretation of the movie was very different from the one I’d been led to adopt in my common media understanding. After all, just because a movie contains certain elements doesn’t mean that they define the movie. 

I suppose I’m already breaking the club’s first rule by talking about it, but it’s not like I would have been welcome anyway, so I might as well just dive in. Fight Club is a movie about masculinity. The very beginning sees the narrator attending support groups for illnesses and ailments he doesn’t actually have. At a particular support group for men with testicular cancer, a rather distraight attendee utters the line, “We’re still men.” This dilemma, I quickly realized, is the entire crux of the film. 

The narrator works for a major company verifying car crash claims. He spends his days as a self-proclaimed “slave” to an unsatisfying consumer society, buying IKEA furniture he doesn’t need and feeling utterly stuck in his life. If traditional masculinity confounds a man’s value with his success as a breadwinner, the narrator is a deeply disenfranchised victim to this system. 

In comes Tyler Durden. Durden seems to succeed in every area where the narrator fails. He is handsome, confident, sexually capable, and free in his eclectic career full of odd jobs. Quite literally, Durden is an exemplification of hegemonic masculinity: the trend by which one dominant form of masculinity subjugates all other gender performances, including both femininity and lesser forms of masculinity. It’s characterized by strength, assertiveness, emotionlessness, independence, and even aggression, and it remains dominant because society legitimizes its position. 

Together, Durden and the narrator form the Fight Club: a group of men dedicated to reclaiming their masculinity through extreme displays of violence. They gather in basements and alleyways to mercilessly beat each other until someone wins. Like the narrator, they’ve all been disenfranchised, as Durden explains:

Man, I see in Fight Club the strongest and smartest men who've ever lived. I see all this potential, and I see it squandered. God damn it, an entire generation pumping gas, waiting tables — slaves with white collars. Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don't need. We're the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our great war is a spiritual war. Our great depression is our lives. We've all been raised on television to believe that one day we'd all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars, but we won't. We're slowly learning that fact. And we're very, very pissed off.

In one way or another, each has been ostracized by society for not accurately conforming to hegemonic masculinity. The man from the support group has been symbolically robbed of his manhood. Others are trapped in dead-end jobs that make them feel small and impotent. In Fight Club, though, they’re able to be free. 

Except, that’s not exactly true. Durden’s rule quickly morphs into a totalitarian society where members are expected to practice blind faith and are routinely robbed of their individuality. Heads are shaved, birth names are abandoned, and verbal abuse is commonplace. In trying to escape from a system that didn’t care about them, the men in the movie have run right into another. However, this oppressive subgenre is even more dangerous.

The club takes on the persona of Project Mayhem: a domestic terrorist group bent on seeking revenge and destroying society with bold strokes. Only through violence and aggression can the men feel complete. Not only that, but they gain power in reaffirming their masculinity by bringing down women in the process. Both the narrator and Durden, but especially Durden, treat the film’s only female character, Marla Singer, with immense disrespect. She is an object to him, and he isn’t afraid to make that clear. But thus is the fitting view of all women in his eyes. Durden once tells the narrator, “We're a generation of men raised by women. I'm wondering if another woman is really the answer we need.” He sees women as disposable and unnecessary, and he simultaneously declares them as part of the reason for men’s suffering. 

What does it all mean? Though Durden initially serves as a foil meant to challenge the narrator’s complacency, he quickly comes to represent much more. The following discussion will reveal the film’s most significant plot twist, so read with that in mind

Tyler Durden does not exist. He is a mental creation: a secondary dimension to the narrator’s own psyche that seeks to accomplish all that he never could. But if Durden isn't real, then the ideologies he touts as reality lose their footing. He’s no longer a man with a message but an idealized romanticization of what the narrator, and perhaps society at large, thinks a man should look like.

There’s no question that this movie has been misinterpreted since its origin. Misogynists have often used it as a handbook for how to return to the intended manifestation of masculinity: think alphas and betas, or the forceful domestication of a naturally predatory faction. An article discussing Durden’s place in problematic spaces like the pick-up community — sites like Real Social Dynamics are a prime example — stated, “Their believers treated forums like a place to preach The Good Word—only not of Jesus Christ, but of their very own Lord and Savior, Tyler Durden.”

At the end of the day, we shouldn’t want to be Tyler Durden. Fight Club is a satire, first and foremost. Durden is meant as a cautionary tale, and his ideology should be seen as so preposterous it couldn’t possibly be listened to. Just like Valerie Solanas’s infamous SCUM (Society for Cutting Up Men) Manifesto, the incel movement is an exceptionally severe outcome: a product of society’s more damning missteps when it comes to empowerment and validation of a select few. 

Though I’m generally a proponent of Roland Barthes’s “The Death of the Author,” or the concept that a creator’s own interpretation holds no significant weight in discussions of a piece  of media once it is out in the world, I do believe there’s something to be said for original intent. That’s not to say my own interpretation is anything new. An Empire article from the time the movie was released celebrated it as possessing “a great deal of sick humor at the expense of masculinist ideals and white-collar society.” Still, this understanding definitely isn’t the dominant one. 

However, this is also not the first time a piece of media has been woefully separated from its original goal. Fincher’s own film adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl saw a world of controversy over the antagonistic Amy Dunne, who seems as good a counterpart as any to Durden’s hypermasculinity with her extreme agenda mistakenly disguised as feminism. While I hesitate to say there’s such a thing as an incorrect interpretation, I think it’s important to understand that there certainly can be harmful ones. 

Durden’s story isn’t supposed to be replicated, but it should be listened to. It’s not about mimicking or even redefining the ideal, but essentially eviscerating it. There should be no wrong way to perform masculinity — though recent backlash to Harry Styles’s dress-wearing Vogue cover would suggest this is not yet a reality — and masculinity shouldn’t be prioritized at all. Gender presentation should be about an individual’s preferred identity and nothing more, because Fight Club shows us just how dangerous it can be to punish people when they are inevitably unable to achieve an impossible ideal.