Everyone Misunderstands the Point of Fight Club
Rebecca Renner on the Forgotten Anti-Capitalist Message of an Unjustly Vilified Work
“The first rule about fight club is you don’t talk about fight club.”
“The second rule about fight club is you don’t talk about fight club.”
But the most important rule of fight club is: Fuck the rules.
One hot summer night in 1997, David Fincher caught Brad Pitt on the street below Pitt’s Manhattan apartment. Pitt was returning after a long day filming Meet Joe Black, an odd movie where Pitt plays the titular peanut-butter-obsessed embodiment of death. Now Fincher had a new concept for Pitt to embody: Tyler Durden, who is rule breaking, personified.
When Fincher handed him the script for Fight Club that night, he read it and related to it—not to the chaos or destruction, but to the existential dread of having everything you’ve been told to want and still feeling empty.
Pitt had already played some peculiar roles, including a cop in Fincher’s deadly-sins-inspired Seven. But it’s like fans glossed over the content of his movies. He had a reputation for being a pretty boy, an empty-headed heartthrob. He was dating Jennifer Anniston, America’s girl next door, and it seemed like his whole life was coming together.
“I’m the guy who’s got everything,” he said in an interview with Rolling Stone in 1999, the year the movie was released in theaters. “But I’m telling you, once you get everything, then you’re just left with yourself. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: It doesn’t help you sleep any better, and you don’t wake up any better because of it.”
Meanwhile, Edward Norton, who would go on to play the book’s nameless narrator (who fans sometimes call Jack), devoured the book in one night. Unlike Pitt, Norton zeroed in on the story’s black humor.
“The book was so sardonic and hilarious in observing the vicissitudes of Gen-X/Gen-Y’s nervous anticipation of what the world was becoming—and what we were expected to buy into,” Norton said, according to Best. Movie. Year. Ever., a book by Brian Raftery.
In interviews, Fincher was on the same page as Norton: he said he was making a satire. While I’m not sure anyone actually comes away from it laughing, what Fincher did do is manage to capture the disaffected Gen X essence of the novel, the iconoclastic ethos that has been enthralling die-hard fans like me for 20 years.
In the movie, Durden and the narrator are opposites; the narrator is an office drone who wears forgettable suits, whose scenes are cast in somnolent shades of blue, while Durden is flashy, marked by the color red, and as tan and swaggering as the narrator is sallow and thin. They first meet one night at a scuzzy bar. Later, in the parking lot, Durden delivers the line that wakes up the narrator: “I want you to hit me as hard as you can.” From there, their lives are connected. The narrator starts sleeping at Durden’s ramshackle house near the paper mill and going to Fight Club, a secretive, underground bare-knuckle boxing club that is strangely like the support groups the narrator used to attend, with more blood and sweat.
Officially, you’re not supposed to talk about fight club. But rules are made to be broken when you’re an anarchist like Durden who makes soap from stolen liposuction fat. Without broken rules, there would be no recruitment, which Durden needs to scale up his club of disaffected men into Project Mayhem, a group of anarchists who blindly follow Durden into chaos.
During filming, Fincher, Norton, and Pitt would hang out, drinking Mountain Dew, playing Nerf basketball and, “riffing on the film’s numerous bull’s-eyes: masculinity, consumerism, their aggravating elders,” according to Best. Movie. Year. Ever. That ranting inspired what would become some of the movie’s most famous lines, like: “Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate, so we can buy shit we don’t need. We are the middle children of history, raised by television to believe that someday we’ll be millionaires and movie stars and rock stars, but we won’t.”
Project Mayhem sets its sights on destruction. Sure, it’s literal anarchy for a while, but after that, it has a purpose: Durden wants to blow up the credit card companies, undo the American Dream, and set everyone free from their debt.
In Fincher’s vison, the devil truly is in the details. The movie is rife with Easter eggs, including cigarette burns and sudden phallic flashes that are often too quick to see.
Fincher watched UFC fights to study the blood and the movement of broken bodies. Norton and Pitt took tae kwon do—and they really learned to make soap. Cinematographers played up the grit with cheap lighting. Designers created sets with holes, smoke, and leaks, making the grungy, dripping, shadowy, disgusting places that seem like the grossest parts of our own subconscious rendered on the screen. Combined with the fractured cinematic techniques, the flashbacks, spliced-in images and imagined scenes, the film feels like a slow descent into madness, a fever dream with Durden at the wheel.
For a rallying cry against capitalism, Fight Club had appropriately humble beginnings. Chuck Palahniuk wrote the novel in snippets while on the job at a truck manufacturer. The meager first printing sold just under 5,000 copies. Even optioning the movie was a steal, at about $10,000.
Things didn’t get much better after the movie was released. Fight Club was a flop at the box office. People didn’t want to see it, and it was panned by most critics.
But other people got it. Millions of other people. It just took us a while.
Fight Club came to DVD in 2000, and in the decade that followed, it sold more than six million copies. I bought one of them. I watched it and re-watched it.
In 2007, a year deep in the heart of the recession, I was a senior in high school. My dad had canceled our cable package so we’d still have some crumbs left to buy books, including this one. I read it sitting on our lawn within view of no less than eight for-sale signs; a third of our neighbors’ houses had been foreclosed.
There was a gaping hole where the American Dream was supposed to be. While my dad and I were eating one-dollar-a-box pasta for dinner in a house with almost no furniture, in school, I was studying American literature. The books we read—The Great Gatsby, Death of a Salesman—said the Dream was broken. But it was Fight Club that showed me the Dream was a lie in the first place , and the people who shilled for it were all selling something.
So I didn’t understand why it seemed like I was the only one of my friends who loved it. Not only that: loving Fight Club made me weird. The only other people who liked it were guys, but the more I talked to them about it, the more it seemed like we were watching two totally different movies.
Most of them were dazzled by the violence, the gross-out motifs, or Brad Pitt’s low body fat percentage. They thought the story was about how men should be able to take out their aggression however and whenever they want. To them, Fight Club wasn’t anti-capitalist; instead, it catered to their entitlement.
“In the decade and a half or so after its release and reception as a cult classic, Fight Club has been embraced by the loose collection of radical online male communities (known as the ‘manosphere’) as a kind of gospel text,” Paulie Doyle wrote for Vice. “The manosphere’s affinity for Fight Club stems from a common central, biologically deterministic claim: Men are naturally predisposed to being violent, dominant hunter gatherers, who, having found themselves domesticated by modern civilization, are now in a state of crisis.”
The “manosphere” thinks Fight Club is telling us we need to reprogram ourselves. The weird thing is they’re half right, but it’s like they’ve all watched the movie on mute.
The problem in their logic comes when they want to strip away the consumerist programming Fight Club is so against, and replace it with more programming in the form of old-fashioned gender roles, destructive caricatures of masculinity, and patriarchal privilege.
“While both the manosphere and Fight Club believe that a lack of ‘heroic’ roles for men in society has caused a generalized male malaise,” Doyle writes, “these online communities add one crucial, misogynist caveat: Women are the ones to blame, and they need to be brought back in line to solve the problem.”
Instead of consumerist culture, MRA Fight Club fanboys want power, silent women, and—wait for it—the American Dream, just by another name. In other words, they’re a bunch of rule-followers trying to remake the world in the way they’ve always been told it should be.
That kind of ethos is completely against the point of Fight Club, which recognizes that the patriarchy hurts men as well as the rest of us. The patriarchal establishments that make up our country also created the American Dream; they told us what we should want and gave us the (often quite rigged) rules of how to get it. That’s what people latch onto in the book and the movie: the repression and a hyper-masculine way of expressing anger against it.
Fight Club’s real philosophy: fuck the rules. The Dream isn’t worth the struggle, our freedom, our souls, or the time we have on this earth. Be who you are, whether that looks like traditional masculinity or not. Don’t forget one of the most important characters in the movie has breasts. “His name was Robert Paulson.”
If this story was happening today, Project Mayhem would be rounding up incels and turning them into anti-capitalist freedom fighters, men who try to destroy the patriarchy instead of bending to its will and lining its pockets.
The movie has a lot of added flourishes and details, of course, that aren’t in the book. But the book has something the movie doesn’t, and it clears things up a little: In the end, the narrator meets God.
I’ve met God across his long walnut desk with his diplomas hanging on the wall behind him, and God asks me, “Why?”
Why did I cause so much pain?
Didn’t I realize that each of us is a sacred, unique snowflake of special unique specialness?
Can’t I see how we’re all manifestations of love?
I look at God behind his desk, taking notes on a pad, but God’s got this all wrong.
We are not special.
We are not crap or trash, either.
We just are.
We just are, and what happens just happens.
And God says, “No, that’s not right.”
Yeah. Well. Whatever. You can’t teach God anything.
Maybe this isn’t God. Maybe the narrator’s in a psych ward. It’s Fight Club. Why can’t it be both?
The real lesson, regardless, isn’t about how to be a hypermasculine bro or Übermensch hero. It’s that the world doesn’t owe you shit. So stop listening to gods, fathers, and advertising agencies; be yourself, and you’ll be free. Fuck the rules.