October 2, 2023

What Fight Club Really Says About Modern Masculinity

The movie Fight Club is beloved by many across the political spectrum, but also seen with many perspectives. The mainstream (incorrect) interpretation says it critiques toxic masculinity: that repression in man’s expression of his feelings is what causes the main character to act out in the way that he did. This interpretation is correct that the film in some way is pertaining to critiquing toxic masculinity, but what I would view as toxic masculinity is different from what the mainstream would consider so. 

The mainstream portrays normal masculinity, the expression of self through action and struggle, as toxic while upholding what has been truly dilapidating to modern men: applying feminine self expression as the universal and healthy way for a human to conduct themselves in society. Healthy femininity does not become healthy masculinity. In one interpretation I read, the author invokes the exact mainstream portrayal of what I mentioned above using the main character’s patronage at various different support groups as evidence for the main character’s need for emotive self expression. This argument makes no sense as we listen to what the main character’s inner monologue gives as a reason for coming to the meetings—not for letting his feelings come forth but actually being able to feel something.

The various people he meets in these support groups struggle with an affliction which could lead many of them to death. From brain parasites to testicular cancer, what holds these groups in common is the trauma most experience from being so close to death. The main character’s fascination with the support groups comes from their closeness to death, the possibility that at any time, the people he is speaking with can die and never come back. This breaks the cycle of mundanity the main character has fallen into. He goes to these meetings not for expressing repressed emotions, but because being this close to death finally gives him a grounding into life; he begins to slowly break out of the boring illusion of what his life should be. 

This is why he is unable to sleep; he needs to put himself in a place that reminds him of his mortality, i.e. slipping into his alter ego Tyler Durden. As the Tyler Durden personality becomes embedded into his everyday personality, his need for real risk, a real chance at death begins to escalate. It begins when he imagines himself fighting Tyler in the parking lot, then inviting onlookers to join them, leading to the formation of the official fight club. Once a week turns into three times a week, one club turns into many. The main character’s desire for something real, something that really proves that he exists as an agent in the world begins to escalate into organized terrorist cells with an efficient decentralized structure aiming at destroying the conditions inflicted by the modern world. 

Being close to those who are at death’s door no longer becomes enough for the protagonist; he must now become the one to take action and meet Death himself. What inevitably holds him back from going along with this unconscious goal is his former existing personality who becomes terrified of what he has developed into. The protagonist cannot live with the fantasy he unconsciously developed into reality for himself and perhaps could explain why his mind created an alternate personality; Tyler Durden would become a vehicle in which he could put these anti-social tendencies into without him caving to the societal guilt and pressure that holds down the original personality of the protagonist. 

Tyler Durden himself was not what disturbed the protagonist. What disturbed him was the fact that Tyler Durden originated from his own mind, that everything the protagonist scorned about Tyler was really just a part of himself. Here, we see a true problem within modern masculinity: the inability for one to self-reflect on themselves and the tendency we as a society have to ignore the darker corners of our own nature, causing it to bubble up into a destructive outburst against society itself. The “sinister” and action oriented portion of the protagonist’s psyche was desperate to express itself to the world and that is precisely the moment it created itself into Tyler Durden. Toxic masculinity is not the repression of emotion, rather the repression of man’s drive to action that is the most definitive part of what it means to be a man. 

Our contemporary, rationalistic world which abhors any sort of conflict cannot allow young men to truly express who they are because it limits the way in which these young men can express themselves. Feminine expression through emotional dialogue is held as the universal conflict solver while completely neglecting the masculine expression through action as another effective means of conflict resolution. The modern world will only continue to suppress this mode of expression and uphold the other until precisely the moment when the pendulum must correct itself and swing into action’s absolute extremity. Fight Club should not be seen as a warning around the toxicity of true masculine expression; it is a warning against holding feminine expression as the universal way people must carry themselves in the world. A world that truly wishes to settle conflicts of the future is a world that recognizes the importance in holding both the masculine and feminine expression as suitable means to show themselves in the world, not hold one as better than the other.