Masculinity Through the Lens of “Fight Club”

Nigus Getahun, Staff Writer

An attack on masculinity has taken root in our society.
As a result, a lack of masculinity exists as men are told to embrace their softer, feminine side and neglect their innate feelings of protectiveness, competitiveness, and assertiveness. The result is that men are essentially left to wander into a hole of nihilism, a place where they are deprived of meaning and responsibility in society.
Into this maelstrom of confusion and fleeting masculinity, I give you the 1999 film Fight Club. The film, based on Chuck Palahniuk’s 1996 book of the same name, is both a criticized and praised film that follows a man who has fallen into an existential crisis and has spent his time engulfed in consumerism and insomnia. He later meets a man named Tyler Durden who helps him escape the depressing life he is leading by creating a “fight club” where men come in and fight together. The symbolization of the club runs deep and illustrates masculinity in a time where there are no great wars, frontiers, or mysteries for men to solve or fight. Tyler is the lost father figure for, as he says in the film, in “a generation of men raised by women” who does the heroic job of guiding the men of fight club. Tyler and his club give these men meaning and shape them into who they truly are. Fight club is where they come to life. The emotions they feel – the pain, anger, and excitement – is what life meant for them not that boring social constructed life they’ve been living for the sake of living.
Why bring “Fight Club” into this conversation? I bring it in because I often hear people talk about the negative aspects of what they refer to as masculinity when what they really mean is “toxic masculinity” – which is on display in the film. My understanding of masculinity is that masculinity itself isn’t toxic. What is toxic is the unhealthy version of masculinity that rears its ugly head. The aggressive, violent, domineering elements of masculinity are what bring it down. These elements are introduced in “Fight Club” and are critiqued both by the book and film.
Just as the term “toxic femininity” would refer to an unhealthy version of femininity – one that is defined by materialism, narcissism, and manipulative behavior – so too is the case with “toxic masculinity.”
Masculinity and femininity are just a set of traits we tend toward as a result of testosterone or estrogen. Testosterone makes one more willing to take risks, to be opportunistic, to fight, to take hard measures, and to impose unity. Estrogen makes one more empathic, cautious, spatially aware, detail oriented, and abstract.
In the culminating scene of the film, Tyler says: “who you were in fight club is not who you were in the rest of the world,” which means that men need a sense of self that is not defined for them by society but that is defined by them. In a fictional world, “fight club” provided an outlet for men; it provided a place like nowhere else at a time when the men in the story were being devoured by consumerism and conformity. It was a platform for them to band together and to find who they are and deprogram themselves.