Unmarked Men: Feminism in Fight Club
Fight Club is a layered, multifaceted storyline, leading to many different readings and interpretations. Prior analyses of Fight Club have not been adequate in explaining its masculinity, consumerism, or homoeroticism; by leaving out the examination of feminism, it leaves incomplete and oversimplifies the ideas within the movie. Fight Club is a walk through an insomniac’s daydream – reality is only fleeting. And these bits of reality are consistently carried in on the mark of the feminine.
And suddenly I realize that all of this: the gun, the bombs, the revolution… has got something to do with a girl named Marla Singer. (Fight Club)
With this line of narrative we are carried into the meat of the story. It seems an innocuous enough opening line, but the implications of this list are tremendous. When “all of this” is taken in the literal sense, Jack is referring to: the world (“all”); the phallic symbol of power (“the gun”); the phallic representation of satisfaction (ejaculation) through a detonation, or surge of power (“the bombs”); the upheaval of patriarchy (“the revolution”), and; the feminization of men, and the femininity of women (“Marla Singer”). This line signals to the viewer that there is a break in the traditional patriarchal pattern of thought – the story begins, not with Adam, but with Eve. Fight Club is to be viewed with a nonconformist, antipatriarchal eye; it takes on the feminist cause, working to destroy the hierarchy of power that oppresses women.
One of the largest visual representations of patriarchy is skyscrapers. They are a symbol of phallic power, and a generously endowed one at that. Originally, women were to be seen only within its walls as the pretty helper faces, the pretty faces that greet men in the morning, the pretty voice on the phone – or not visible at all, such as the women that clean the building after hours. Both are representations of women, but they are representations that encapsulate the male view of the “corrected” woman – one whose reality is not grounded in the feminine gaze, but tailored to the male gaze (Balsamo 225). In talking about Black Ice, Phelan says that because man, “believes he has the right to the entrances and exits of her body… she remains lost to her own body because of his desire to mark it as his” (Phelan 10). Taken in the light of an economic environment, women are not allowed to present themselves (in the office, for instance) as they would like, but must conform to the standards of beauty that are set up by men. In well powdered skin, and gender-specific attire, men have “marked” women as their possession, and as within male territories (McDowell 89, Phelan 10). Conversely, for a male to not work within the confines of these giant phalluses implies a lack of masculinity – even more so should they happen to work inside, but as “the help” – cleaning, secretarial, or otherwise. The gendering of particular positions makes it an exercise in social castration for men to take these positions of non-power.
As the economics of the U.S. have changed, more and more women have made it out into the workforce. But the ratio of pay (especially in white-collar jobs) is still disproportionate; women bring in only 59% – 63% of the wages that men would pull for the same job (Waldfogel 209, Phelan 11). Capitalism and patriarchy force the emasculation of men by paying women less: because women are paid less, men have to work more. As women become more highly educated, it places them into jobs that historically, men have held. This displacement / shift in the working environment means that men are taking lower paying service industry jobs, while women are entering the white-collar workforce, but being paid less (Strong-Boag, et al. 177). For the “normative” heterosexual pairing, this equates to women working harder, the household having less financial resources overall, and an emasculation of the “male-as-provider” man. Wealth, in such a hierarchal power system, is disbursed unevenly based on opportunities limited by class, race, and gender. To destroy this phallic oppressor symbolically castrates the capitalist culture and demands a redistribution of wealth with feminist ideologies in mind. Patriarchy pits one group against another to stay on top – for a truly equal system, all groups must be equal. This is represented in Fight Club’s end scene. Man and woman (the narrator and Marla) stand together holding hands, watching the unmarking of power in present civilization. The destruction of these structures leaves the world in a state of “not-all;” lacking its phallic power, the world is inherently marked as feminine (Phelan 18).
The toppling of the buildings can also be taken from an anti-consumerist perspective, as it is the financial institutions that are being destroyed. But the issues go deeper than the class wars that money produces. Financial institutions are built to empower men, but simultaneously, they marginalize women. They leave women without the finances to own a home or start a business, but enough money to go shopping – a culturally scripted female behavior (Valentine 96). It is common knowledge that women are typically the big consumer of the household. But this was not always the case – men placed this title of “conspicuous consumer” on women beginning around the 50’s, with advertisers recognizing the power of the female niche market. For instance, car manufacturers began encouraging women to buy a car that matched their dress (Peiss 9). They became the consumers for their household because, as a group, they were targeted in early marketing. With the arrival of radio and television, the traditional American stay-at-home wife had more opportunities to be reached by advertisements. Shopping became women’s domain.
Fight Club appears to argue against the feminizing of man through consumer culture (visually represented by the IKEA/pornography switch). However, it is men in advertising that labeled the market as feminine; therefore, consumerism is not a marker of femininity so much as it is a marker of patriarchal society. Thus, it is not consumerism so much as patriarchy that Fight Club works against – destroying the phallic power symbols unmarks the gendering of consumerism. In doing so, it dissolves a patriarchal label that keeps women subjugated to men. It (re)marks everyone as “not-all.”
Both female characters in Fight Club fully embrace their state of “not-all.” Chloe, the female cancer patient, is introduced as a very sexual character (though de-sexualized through her description as Meryl Streep’s mobilized skeleton). She is an allegorical female character who represents: femininity – through her public sexualizing of self; lack of phallic power – as her sex toys do not achieve the satisfaction she desires, and; feminist ideology – embracing the feminine perspective associated with the “not-all.” By her acceptance of death, and her lack of fear, she has distilled herself with the strength necessary to devote time to another way of thinking. In Chloe’s case, to devote herself to the preparation for dying. However, when positioned against the film Fight Club, Chloe represents the castration of men in Project Mayhem and their newly freed consciousnesses, now available to more feminine philosophies. As she has no phallic power to remove, her castration is literally her death, whereas the members of Project Mayhem give up their phallic power and gain the visibly feminine symbol of the scar. This marks them as feminine, thus, “not-all”
Marla is fully aware that she is “not-all.” As Ausberg states, “ideal representations of women have [become] normative, if not regulative, for our culture” (290). They are tough expectations to live up to, and Marla, having, “lost faith in herself,” impels us to agree with her statement that she is, “infectious human waste.” She is acting out her “rock bottom” identity as a form of resistance to societal norms; it is apparent she may not believe the legitimacy of the derogatory titles she bestows upon herself. By creating an identity for herself that works against the grain, she recognizes and rejects the patriarchal ideals of beauty, success, and happiness. This allows her to begin (re)marking herself how she wishes, and she begins by reclaiming her own phallic power (Phelan 17).
When Marla attends the “Remaining Men Together” meeting, she reinforces the idea of Marla-without-a-penis by stating to Jack, “I have more of a right to be there than you. You still have your balls.” She is given a phallic substitute later, when a dildo appears on her dresser, but it is, “not a threat to [Jack].” The dildo, in its representational form, is physically disconnected from, and as such, has already been castrated from Marla. It is not significant or substantial enough as a representation of a phallus to compete in a world of “unmarked” (or “unremarkable”) men, only enough to viably give her access to a group of castrated men (Phelan 17).
In her lack of a phallus, Marla assimilates the view of herself as seen by the outside, male gaze. Though she is re-marked as the “Other” in the male gaze, she fights the disadvantages this brings in a patriarchal society by giving up what society deems worthwhile. Giving up concern with the materials and ideologies of the physical, patriarchal world, Marla becomes one of the strongest characters in Fight Club. She is not presented as a “good” woman, but this can only be expected, as she is working to resist society’s normatives (Frisch 260). Marla stakes out her territory and stands up for herself when the narrator treats her in a way she doesn’t like. Her character, though strange, is not one of female weakness. Her strength helps the viewer to experience the film not as a male domination film working to subjugate women, but as one of women dealing with the confusion of men. She frequently brings in elements of reality, asking questions and moving throughout the movie according to her own opinions and whims. The imbalances of power in patriarchal societies are especially emphasized by Marla’s lack of appearances throughout the movie – she is visible rarely, and for short periods of time relative to the rest of Fight Club. Her absences reiterate the ideologies of Jack’s “man’s world” – there is simply no room for women. Marla represents the female understanding of the exploitations, inequalities, and disappointments that are rooted in patriarchal society.
The feminine hope for “reciprocity and equality” is embodied by Marla, and it is this hope that is ultimately let down; the reactivity of this failed hope, “then [producing] violence, aggresivity, [and] dissent” (Phelan). Attempts to resist the standardized norms are recognized by Tyler, who says, “I’ll say this about Marla: At least she’s trying to hit bottom.” He recognizes her choice in confronting the ideology of the phallic power, and her knowledge that it might influence, or “infect” others. She is the physical representation of Tyler’s feminist-gone-Zen statement, “It’s only after we lost everything that we are free to do anything.”
Women are more easily shifted to a position where they can embrace the “not-all,” as they are already excluded from the freedoms that are associated with the empowered maleness within a patriarchal social structure. Tyler’s statement promotes the castration of the phallic power. It fetishizes the idea of femininity itself, displacing the fear of castration with, “ambivalence and a blurring of gender or sexual categories to defend against the anxieties created by the breakdown of such categories” (Foster 82). The acceptance of this ideology is commemorated by burning and scarring the hand.
Leaving a scar that resembles lips (those of the originator, Tyler Durden, and of the female lips of the vagina) is a powerful semiotic. The use of a symbol that represents the womb solidifies the connection between reality and femininity. The burn creates a symbolic gateway; vaginal openings represent both (re)birth, and the passageway between life and death (or more accurately, non-life). Without being born, the fetus cannot act as an individual; its passage through the womb corresponds with an attaining of the first step in gaining independence – breathing one’s own air. In Fight Club, this “step towards independence” can be interpreted to be the understanding of a counter-culture ideology, and acceptance of it: As the saying goes, “It’s like a breath of fresh air.” The men of Fight Club (re)mark themselves with a symbol of the feminine, essentially cutting off their phallic power and reinforcing the directives of the feminine perspective. It creates a level of social organization that is akin to matriarchal societies, cultures driven not by the patriarchal capitalism and powers of oppression, but a communalism that is based on the more “female” attributes of socialism, communication, and working together (Spain 240).
On the surface, Fight Club seems to be an advertisement for masculinity, practically telling its viewers “how to be a man.” However, it is much more subtle than it would appear. There are deep running threads of homosocialism and homosexuality, which are not within the realm of heterosexual ideals. Homosexuality, by default, works against patriarchal ideals, as it is not heteronormative, and does not have a “natural” use, such as procreation (Frisch 265). By using feminine and homoerotic symbols as cues, Fight Club undermines the implied obsession with masculinity, showing its frivolity and lack of depth. While demonstrating the benefits of male bonding, it is done so homoerotically.
The feminizing of men, socially and physically, is represented by Robert Paulson, or Bob, the man with “bitch tits.” Bob’s feminized figure encapsulated the entirety of the male fear of castration – Bob is, “bankrupt… divorced, [and his] two grown kids won’t even return [his] calls.” Bob’s physical gendering had also changed from champion body-builder (the epitome of “manliness”), to having no testicles, an overabundance of estrogen, and a set of “bitch tits.” Not only did Bob’s physique change, but he became unable to perform the typically ascribed functions as the heteropatriarchal figure in the household – working (the chest-expansion program on late-night TV probably wanted another poster child; Bob’s chest hadn’t expanded in a way saleable to men interested in their physique), providing for his family (Bob went bankrupt), taking care of his children (who want nothing to do with him), and caring for and procreating with his wife (now ex-wife). Ironically, Bob has been left in this state for over-embracing his masculinity, using steroids to build the most muscular body possible.
Being a feminized character, he becomes a maternal figure to Jack. Jack is comforted between Bob’s “bitch tits,” enveloped in a state of pre-phallic awareness where he is able to, “let go. Lost in oblivion — dark and silent and complete. [He] found freedom. Losing all hope was freedom.” It is only through the use of a pre-phallic mental state is Jack able to sleep. It is clear that this interpretation is meant to be engaged by the viewer, as Jack states simply that, “Babies don’t sleep this well.”
Bob is one of the only “real” male characters in Fight Club, even if he is feminized. Jack, being schizophrenic, is completely unreliable as a narrative character; all subsequent ties to masculine figures and information gained through Fight Club are unverifiable, as the original source of the information is Tyler. This unreliability is emphasized with Fight Club’s cardinal rule, “you don’t talk about Fight Club.” The masculized participants become inaccessible, only those with feminine traits are possible avenues for interpretation of information. These sources of masculinity are not “real” – they are used as a backdrop for the development of feminist ideologies. The men within Fight Club act almost robotically, taking everything that Tyler has to say in its most literal sense, rather than questioning the meaning and drawing their own conclusions. For instance, when Bob dies, Jack tries to tell the men Bob’s name – telling them Bob was a real person, someone he knew. In Western culture, men have often been encouraged to stay in control of their emotions; overt expressions of emotions are deemed unacceptable, as “real men don’t cry.” As a result, “it is not unusual for people to be unaware of their emotional state or to deny it to themselves and others” (James 188). Thus, instead of inciting an emotional response which would normally corresponds to the death of a friend, they begin chanting, “His name is Robert Paulson.”
Ironically, by taking steps toward independence from America’s consumer culture, the members of Project Mayhem, “[cease] to be a mere individual with a mere point of view, […and become] the embodiment of a moral imperative” – a different flavor of the mentality that they were trying to escape in the first place (Steele 37). Bob is the only male character to break this “robot-male” motif – his very femininity sets him apart, visually provoking questions about the validity of patriarchy, and by approaching situations with a different mindset. As such, he is the only male character who affects Jack enough to bring him out of the fun-and-games “man world” of Fight Club and back to reality. It is only when Bob gets killed that Jack begins to question the reality that has formed around him.
The death of Bob’s feminine character becomes the vehicle which derails Jack from hyper-masculinity. Bob’s character, like Chloe’s, becomes an allegorical warning – his life of embracing masculinity led to feminization and then death. This is to be taken as the ending for all men who do not take action against the social order that “forces” them into positions of phallic power. Bob’s death is a direct representational mirror of man’s inability to remain overtly masculine – it can only be held in an unstable, temporary state of being. In a world of only men, patriarchy cannot survive – sociality as it is known crumbles. Jack’s desperate, last minute attempts to “unplug” Project Mayhem is a reflection of the male fear of castration, the fear of losing phallic power. By letting Project Mayhem succeed in neutralizing patriarchy, it would force a removal of the blinders that allow men to be “ignorant” of the inequalities of power. They may acknowledge their subjugation of each other (such as in the homosocial fight scenes), but they do not have to admit their power over other groups. To destroy patriarchy is to (re)mark everyone as “not-all” – an individual can choose how to (re)mark themselves, if at all. There is no longer a totalizing power; the clear binaries become blurred.
Project Mayhem attempts to break away from capitalist ideals that force individuals into the traditionally feminine role of serving others, but ends up repeating the capitalistic conditions preclusive to the hierarchal structuring of power. It is an ironic mirroring of capitalism. It still demonstrates socialized responses to interactions with domination and subjugation, the very power system that these male subversives are trying to bring down. Without women in the picture, the patriarchal system of men subjugating women transforms into a homosocial experience in which men can subjugate each other in order to explore their own femininity more freely. Identities defined by relationships, in a patriarchal system, are shown to be restrictive to the explorations of different masculinities and sexualities. Women are necessary in keeping the balance and equality that are intended as the end result of Project Mayhem’s vigilante feminism, thus, the last frames in Fight Club are shared by both man and woman.
By experiencing the different aspects of masculinity through homosocial experiences, the men of Fight Club learn about the fundamental forces behind patriarchy. As the consequences of patriarchy become clear, the subjugations inherent in this hierarchal power structure (creating disparities between men and women, men and other marginalized groups, and even between men and other men) become unacceptable. Feminist ideologies become imperative in correcting the over-emphasized phallic power, thus creating a more stable environment in which individuals can (re)mark themselves according to their own will, rather than their gendered birthright.
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© 2006 Michelle Ferris
English 498: Liu