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August 6, 2004

Fight Club and Masculinity

In response to my somewhat frazzled recent post about (among many other things) my paper on Fight Club, David (blog) mentioned Gail Bederman's Manliness and Civilization, in which, as David puts it, Bederman

deals with the ways in which white American men defined their masculinity through identification with (consumption of [?]) the heavyweight championship in boxing. If I remember correctly she spends at least some time discussing the transformation of the American workforce from farmers and other types of self-employment into clerical workers in stores and in office places and how this transformation led to new notions of manliness.
While in the GSU library this afternoon, I forgot to track down Bederman's book, but I did come across an essay on FC by Suzanne Clark in JAC that makes a similar connection. In "Fight Club: Historicizing the Rhetoric of Masculinity, Violence, and Sentimentality," Clark writes,
If the film Fight Club reasserts a masculine identity threatened by the feminization of American culture, then it reiterates a theme more than a hundred years old. Theodore Roosevelt took up the manly sport of boxing at Harvard when he was an undergraduate and recommended western ranch life in the 1880s to ward off the dangers of feminine sentiment and a softening of manliness. (413)
Clark goes on to note that Roosevelt was careful to make visible this notion of masculinity by hiring film crews to capture images of Roosevelt's Rough Riders in Puerto Rico. The primary point that Clark makes (and it's an important one) is that "it is important to think about how gender conventions operate historically and how they are mobilized in the film" (413). I'm still working through Clark's article, but I think it will help me to shore up some of the questions about historicizing gender representations that I tried (somewhat unsuccessfully) to convey in class discussions with my students and that I have been trying to work through in my article.

Update: Check out Terry Lee's essay, "Virtual violence in Fight Club: this is what transformation of masculine ego feels like" from Journal of American & Comparative Cultures, Fall-Winter 2002.

See also Adrienne Redd, "Masculine Identity in the Service Class: An Analysis of Fight Club."

Posted by chuck at August 6, 2004 7:31 PM

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I may be missing something here - having not read the original articles you mention - but the kind of 'historicizing' reading of Fight Club as reinscribing masculinity strikes me as a short-circuited understanding of the goal of textual reading. After all, FC self-consciously thematizes the masculine identity of its characters and is trying to comment on it almost as much as the film scholars are. And even playing armchair sociologist, I can guess that the film's prime appeal is not the coequal with the appeal of boxing as a sport. In other words, the interesting thing to objectify sociologically and historically is the text's - and, secondarily, the audience's - cultural attitude toward an activity which is socially 'other'. That attitude certainly certainly corresponds to historical (and let's not forget class-based!) cultures of gender, but it's a second-order historicization that's called for, not a first.

Are my gripes off the mark? And do these observations apply to the themes of globalization, which the film also treats somewhat self-consciously?

Posted by: Chris in Boston at August 9, 2004 9:43 AM

I don't think I'd say that Figght Club reinforces traditional masculinity. There's certainly a level of satire there (or "self-consciousness," as you point out), and that's one of my beefs with some people who have interpreted the film. And I also think that the film satirizes the triumphalist narratives of globalization, using (on teh most familiar level) some of the techniques used by Adbusters-style culture jammers.

The article is about teaching FC, and when I taught the film (and novel), my goal was to ask students to treat FC as an argument alongside Henry Giroux and Imre Szeman's and Geoffrey Sirc's (among others). But the film does invoke a certain image of masculinity that is very intentionally seductive (at least for the first half of teh film). The men within the film do feel emasculated by consumer culture, and whether FC is self-conscious of that or not, it's tapping into corresponding narratives.

I think you're right about the film's positioning itself self-consciously (hence Tyler's occupation as a projectionist being so crucial to the narrative/plot), but the choice of fighting (as metaphor? as image?) seems crucial to the hypermasculinity that the film and/or the critics target. Does that make sense?

Posted by: chuck at August 9, 2004 1:48 PM

Indeed. And I wasn't criticizing your take on the film so much as addressing the argument from Suzanne Clark you quoted in your post. I don't think I'm misrepresenting it to say her argument doesn't see any difference from FC's masculinism and turn-of-century American boxing culture. At the very least, that's not even living up to her goal of historicizing gender conventions, that's treating such conventions as monolith.

But if I took her as straw man argument, it's because it represented a regrettable tendency (in my eyes) of some strains of film studies to confuse the thematics of a film with a generalized historical condition. One needs to ask the question: if the film was a sublimated embodiment of a collective unconscious of masculinity crisis (and I could be persuaded, given the right evidence), why was it not better received? Those who thought it "too violent" rejected it, and those who wanted the more facile spectacles of violence that action films provide stayed away. Boxoffice certainly isn't the end all of textual meaning, but here, as index of taste differentiation, it's telling.

This whole discussion reminds me just why I find it so difficult to write about or to teach contemporary cinema. I'm impressed by those who do!

Posted by: Chris in Boston at August 9, 2004 3:51 PM

To be fair to Clark's arguments, I think she successfully historicizes them in the full article. My quotation probably takes her argument a little out of context.

I think the box office question is a tough one, something I struggle with when writing about contemporary film (or reception of the popular in general). For FC, my main argument about its popularity is its incredible cult status, illustrated by FC's extended position on best-selling DVD lists (Office Space had a similar popularity trajectory--bad box office, great DVD sales).

The bad box office could be explained by poor marketing (both FC and OS would be hard to sell via previews) and the tendency for studios to back off of films that have a poor first week.

Not sure I can convincingly address your more difficult comment regarding film studies, "a regrettable tendency (in my eyes) of some strains of film studies to confuse the thematics of a film with a generalized historical condition." I do think that individual films can be seen as reflecting "something" about our contemporary historical condition, but I don't think it's ever pure reflection. These films also "frame," to use Lakoff's term, how we think about our historical condition. And, of course, the reflection is always "impure" in some sense. But I'm not sure this addresses your question....

Posted by: chuck at August 9, 2004 4:09 PM

I'll have to think more clearly about what my question/complaint is. Maybe it boils down to whether one seeks to posit some Lacanian/Althusserian basis for textual reading of not, which is a bigger methodological issue. The jury is still out for me, as I'm not willing to deny that texts can be read as some "reflection" of historical condition. So I'm in agreement with you there. But I think that one of the things that has to be brought into connotative reading are more systematic modes of knowledge - history, economics and particularly sociology - so that readings more adequately capture a text's importance.

To take example of FC (about which you're clearly more knowledgeable than me... I don't think I've seen it since it came out in the theatres): your point about the cult status seems crucial to me. Any claim about a generalized regime of gender or masculinity crisis WITHOUT FIRST considering the likelihood that the regime of gender belongs to the sociological fractions from which the cult audience comes strikes me as being dishonest in its "historicization." I admit I am dealing in straw men, not having read the articles on the film, but feel confident I could pull up such arguments given a little effort.

Posted by: Chris in Boston at August 9, 2004 4:38 PM

I'd say that most of the old school Lacanian/Althusserian approaches to film have been revised consierably in the last few years. As I understand, most contemporary Lacanian film theorists (I don't really count myself as a Lacanian) would probably argue that Mulvey's mirror-stage-inspired reading of the male gaze was based on a misreading of Lacan. I might be wrong here, but I'd guess that not that many theorists would see ideology in film operating in such an overarching way.

More recent film criticism, in my opinion, has also been doing a better job of incorporating other "systematic modes of knowledge." There's some great work, for example, on the history of cinema-going practice in Britain in the 1930s by Annette Kuhn. Her work includes archival research and interviews.

For FC, especially, I'm pretty cautious about making generalized claims about its reception. That being said, there are plenty of popular culture texts that point to a "masculinity crisis" of sorts (even something like the religious movement Promise Keepers might support the existence of this crisis, or at least narratives proclaiming the existence of a crisis).

Hmmm...Tyler Durden and the Promise Keepers. Never thought I'd discuss them in a single sentence.

Posted by: chuck at August 9, 2004 6:02 PM

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