Published: May 1, 2011 By

[1] From the moment of its release, David Fincher’s 1999 film Fight Club has provoked a great deal of theorizing about gender both inside and outside of academia.  Such a cultural event, interesting wide swaths of the movie-going public, media pundits, and academics is rare enough, but when the topic at hand is gender and, more specifically, the pull of gender on men, the response to the film becomes almost as interesting as the film itself.   Response to Fight Club focused attention on the question of violence, as audiences, critics, and academics debated whether the film recommends violence as a solution to a perceived crisis in the lives of a generation of American men who lack the power to find meaning in the wastes of consumer culture.  Critics and fans alike, however, accepted the underlying premise of the film; whether arguing for or against the oppositional potential or effect of the film, everyone seemed willing to accept the “fact” that we are experiencing a widespread cultural crisis, that that crisis most poignantly affects men, and that the cause of that crisis is a consumer ethos that reduces identities to brand names and replaces meaningful work with status-oriented consumption.  Men, the film insists, are feminized by consumer culture, an insistence that seems to have raised very little objection in the ample commentary that greeted the film’s release and the dozens of scholarly articles that have been published in the intervening years.  While many scholars have challenged the film’s retrograde version of a violent masculinity rooted in the male body (S. Clark, J.M. Clark, Krister, and Friday), and others have analyzed, both positively and negatively, the film’s critique of late capitalist, consumer culture (Ta, Lizardo and Giroux) no one has directly challenged  the film’s articulation of its anti-consumerist critique through gender.  Omar Lizardo claims that “beneath the gendered readings of Fight Club lies a more compelling and important story” (241) about the contradictions of capitalism, but even his reading accepts the “feminization” of men as the condition produced by those contradictions.  As Suzanne Clark notes in her comments onFight Club, “it is particularly important to realize that gender plays a part in rhetoric when struggles over issues seem not to be about gender.  This is not because gender necessarily organizes cultural history in predetermined ways, but because gender has defined so much of American cultural history.  Thus, it determines the rhetorical force and implications of arguments at a level that could be called a ‘gendered unconscious’” (416).  If the issues at the heart of  Fight Club “seem not to be about gender,” it is perhaps because the logic and rhetoric of American social critique has for so long relied on a metaphorics of gender that we can no longer even see its functioning.

[2] Rather than critique the film’s representation of masculinity, then, I will argue that the film’s articulation of its anti-capitalist rebellion as a fight against feminization not only relies on and perpetuates a stable, transhistorical idea of gender difference, but also imagines contemporary social realities as serving the needs of women at the expense of men.  Agreeing with Henry Giroux’s point that consumerism is represented in the film as “an ideological force and an existential experience” rather than an economic or political system (14), I will analyze the deeply problematic form the film’s critique takes.  I locate the film’s version of anti-consumerism in a long history of countercultural critique that depends on posing masculine protest against feminine conformity. The Cold War produced a particularly rich body of writing concerned with the feminizing forces of communism, bureaucracy, consumerism, Momism, and other large, systemic threats, as Timothy Melley, James Gilbert, and Michael Davidson have argued; but the tendency is far older than that.  What narratives about feminization all have in common is that they imagine the individual as an autonomous, self-determining agent who battles against a “society” or vaguely drawn array of social forces that always aims to curtail his autonomy and agency.   The social force against which  Fight Club’s male characters rebel is figured as a consumer or corporate culture that promotes phoniness over authenticity, the pleasures of indulgence over the rewards of self-denial, mass psychology over individual will and agency, and dependency over self-reliance.  These forces are coded as “feminizing” not because women are phony, self-indulgent, dependent, or will less, but because American ideologies of individualism have a deep and stubborn attachment to the idea that only the normative, unmarked citizen has a claim to individualism and the corollary idea that the individual can only emerge in contradistinction either to those citizens marked by gender and other differences or to a “society” that is radically at odds with his needs.  In important ways, the very act of protest against feminization becomes the guarantee of remasculinization and, in turn, the resuscitation of a stable gender order.  The rhetoric of feminization and the protest it produces, thus, functions as a primary technology of gender.  Claims about the feminization produced by consumer culture, or men’s and women’s participation in it, need not be substantiated, since the narrative about the feminization of the (masculine) individual by (feminine) social forces is a seductive fiction that has the force of ideology—that is, it is not understood as ideological because it has been naturalized as “reality.”  And, as we will see, one persistent and unavoidable effect of the logic of masculine protest is a willingness to entertain the possibility that women—embodying consumerism—threaten a masculine authenticity and are, thus, eradicable.

[3] Echoing countless social critics who bemoan the emasculating effects of consumer culture on once self-defined and autonomous individuals,  Fight Club clearly delineates the lure of commodities and the false promises of a therapeutic individualism. “We are a generation of men raised by women,” the charismatic Tyler Durden claims, and the effects of this feminization are everywhere evident: in male characters’ obsession with shopping, in the dominance of a therapeutic model of affect, in the passivity produced within a bureaucratized white collar workplace. The temptations of consumer culture are amply represented in a striking early scene of the film.  The scene has the narrator sitting on the toilet and then wandering around his apartment, phone attached to his ear, ordering “the Erika Pekkari dust ruffles.” While the voice-over tonelessly itemizes the commodities he’s purchased for his home, his apartment becomes a virtual catalogue, with individual items, their names, prices and capsule descriptions appearing on the screen: “Like so many others, I had become a slave to the Ikea nesting instinct.  If I saw something clever, like a little coffee table in the shape of a yin yang, I had to have it. . . . I’d flip through catalogues and wonder, ‘What kind of dining set defines me as a person?’”  From the beginning of the film, the feminization produced through an acceptance that commodities can define the self is posed against an ideal of authenticity that promises to ward off that feminization and to lead the narrator back to the “real.”  Mimicking the promises of virtual reality to improve upon “real life,” this sequence functions to emphasize the narrator’s lack of contact with anything not mediated through consumer culture.  In the logic of the film, these commodities are fetishes that hide the narrator’s lack of identity, his addiction to shopping his lack of purpose; as Tyler Durden teaches the narrator, being a consumer—“the byproduct of a lifestyle obsession”—deprives him of any relation to authenticity and, thus, separates from him masculinity.  Tyler makes this point perfectly clear in his response to the narrator’s plaintive cry about losing his apartment and its accoutrements: “You know it could be worse—a woman could cut off your penis while you are sleeping and throw it out of the window of a moving car.”  Castration is simply a more literal form of the emasculations produced by a fantasized consumer culture aligned with vicious women intent on maiming men.

[4] Fight Club bases its social critique on the premise that a feminizing consumer culture destroys authenticity.  The film is obsessed with ideas about authenticity and fakeness. The narrator comments again and again about the absence of the real in consumer/corporate culture, and the film continuously defers both the narrator’s and our access to that real.  In the first part of the film, we learn that the “real” is a horizon always out of reach because consumerism and its processes of feminization have replaced the real with simulacra.   The real that the narrator yearns for is an emotional release that might enable him to escape his chronic insomnia and get a good night’s sleep.  “With insomnia,” he tells us, “nothing’s real; everything’s far away.  Everything is a copy of a copy of a copy.”  His physician corroborates the narrator’s sense that he suffers from inauthenticity when he refuses to prescribe drugs, instead counseling the narrator to take herbal remedies; “good, healthy, natural sleep is what you need,” he says.  When the narrator complains that he’s in pain, the doctor prods him to discover the difference between his pain and real pain by suggesting he visit the support group for testicular cancer sufferers.  These guys, the doctor says, are in pain.  The doctor’s cure works, but not for the reasons he suspected; the narrator is able to find a real emotional release—evidenced by tears—in the support group, and this emotional release enables him to “sleep like a baby.”  The malady caused by the dominance of the inauthentic in his life is cured by an authentic release of emotional pressures.

[5] Therapeutic culture does not, however, offer the narrator the rebirth and refreshment he needs because it, too, is inauthentic.  The film’s nameless narrator is represented as completely removed from any clear sense of identity, authenticity, or individual autonomy.  Although nearly everyone who discusses this film refers to Edward Norton’s character as “Jack” (because he reads from a children’s book that anthropomorphizes parts of the body, as in: “I am Jack’s colon”), such a naming works against the film’s representation of him.  The credits list him as “The narrator,” and I would argue that the “I am Jack’s” conceit, far from identifying him as an individual, testifies to his psychologically flat, affectless state; indeed, he signifies not an individual with an individual history, but an Everyman whose generalized or representative emotional and physical state fails to compensate for his lack of individual uniqueness and autonomy.  As his twelve-step tourism indicates, one self with one history is easily interchangeable with another self with another history, and such inauthentic selves cannot harbor authentic emotion.  It is this cultural condition that will, eventually, be eradicated through fight club.   The later fighting scenes contrast the earlier scenes in which the narrator and Marla Singer (Helena Bonham Carter) spar over ownership of the various support groups they visit. ­When the narrator cries at the testicular cancer survivors’ meeting, he is merely faking emotion, thus exacerbating, rather than curing, his condition.  When Marla appears on the scene, and her support group “tourism” exposes his for the sham it is, he tells us “Her lie exposed my lie.  I couldn’t cry, so I couldn’t sleep.”  Participation in this twelve-step tourism suggests a culture of inauthenticity taken to its extreme limits, a fact driven home by Marla’s participation in the testicular cancer support group.  No one in the group seems disturbed by a woman’s presence and, as Marla herself insists to the narrator, she has just as much right to be there as he does—more, in fact, because, unlike the narrator but like the “real” members of the group, Marla has “no balls.”  Gender is meaningless in this therapeutic culture, reduced to a tautology that fails to illuminate experience or reverse the effects of feminization.  The men hug each other and intone “Yes, we are men; men is what we are.”

[6] It is no accident that the film dwells on the testicular cancer support group, or that it uses Marla’s participation in it as the narrator’s breaking point.  Both the narrator and Marla are faking all the illnesses whose support groups they attend; neither has blood or brain parasites, neither has tuberculosis, neither has any form of cancer.  But, what makes Marla’s faking of testicular cancer particularly galling to the narrator and significant to the film’s logic is that it proves that gender itself can no longer be authenticated.  Later, after the narrator has given up support groups for the “release” found in bare-knuckled fighting, he tells Marla that he has “found something else” to replace his support-group fix, and triumphantly announces that “It’s for men only.”  Unlike “that testicular thing,” fight club is something that Marla can’t fake because fight club reinstates a real masculinity.  Further, this real masculinity is rooted in the body and even “feminized” male bodies (like Bob’s) embody it; whereas Bob can be said to “perform” femininity through his bodily attitude and emotional display, Marla cannot perform masculinity because, according to the film’s logic, masculinity is that which cannot be performed or faked.  It is the culture of inauthenticity, represented by a feminizing consumerism and its “self-help” ideologies, that snuffs out masculinity.

[7] Fight Club does not simply argue that an authentic masculinity needs to be rescued from the wastes of an inauthentic and feminizing consumer culture; it argues that we need to think about masculinity asoutsideof culture itself.   The logic goes something like this: while femininity is a social construction—and, thus, “fake”—masculinity, rooted in the male body and its elemental sensations and desires, is a brute fact of nature.  The film pursues a masculine authenticity, rather than an authentic masculinity, and masculinity, thus, becomes the location of the real, the authentic.  What this logic produces is a closed circle in which the ideal of masculine authenticity becomes the only goal of anti-consumerist, anti-capitalist, counter-cultural critique; and only men can articulate that critique because women are the very embodiment of the problem.  That this inauthenticity is understood as contagious, spread by the feminizing effects of consumer culture, means that women are positioned with/in the forces that always threaten to undermine masculinity and cultural authenticity itself.  Such a logic feeds into a fantasy of constructing a world without women, a world where the feminine disappears, along with consumer culture, in a spectacular display of destruction.

[8] This fantasy seeps into Fight Club not only through the narrator’s hostility toward Marla, but also in Tyler Durden’s discourse on women, inauthenticity, and consumerism.  One particularly troublesome example of this comes in the scene where the narrator and Tyler break into the yard of a liposuction clinic to steal human fat to make their high-end soap.  Tyler’s delight at the idea of “selling rich women’s fat asses back to them” in the form of designer soap seems a clever exposure of the ironies of consumer culture. But, this is not just “human” fat, it’s women’s fat.  This detail makes it clear that the film’s critique of consumer or late capitalist culture cannot be separated from its insistence on a crisis in masculinity.   The joke here depends on the audience’s acceptance of the premise that body-conscious, self-indulgent, fake women embody the ills of a consumer culture drunk on “self-improvement,” and deserve to be duped by these masculine, svelte, working men.  The target of this clever, highly ironic critique might be the inauthenticities of consumer culture, but the fact that this critique is articulated through a giddy image of female bodies mutilated in the service of “self-improvement” exposes the film’s pleasure in the possibility of eradicating women along with the consumer culture they embody.  The silly self-mutilation of rich women, the epitome of inauthenticity and quite literally the butt of the joke, contrasts with the serious self-destruction of hungry young men in the quest for authentic experience in a false world.  The ills of consumer culture are embodied not only in the “rich women’s fat asses,” but in the “feminine” value of self-improvement, and the men who trick the women are positioned as producers, not consumers and, thus, their own implication in the consumer system goes unremarked.

[9] Imagining a masculine authenticity as always endangeredauthorizes a set of cultural meanings and practices that continuously reiterate a normalizing opposition between masculinity and femininity regardless of specific historical and political context.  That is, the argument that men are feminized by consumerism, capitalism, celebrity culture, white collar bureaucracy, the service economy, even “society” itself, locks us into a binary logic that will always undermine feminist aims—and, not incidentally, undermine the power of counter-cultural critique.   The film’s logic depends on the assumption that, like masculinity, “authenticity” is not socially constructed—that is, authenticity is a pure ideal, outside of culture.  Culture, or more specifically, consumer culture, is what endangers masculinity, rather than what might be said to produce it.  The effort to locate masculinity outside of culture, outside of history, is a characteristic of narratives that depend on the feminization thesis to explain the causes of cultural crisis.  One particularly relevant example of this can be found in Susan Faludi’s Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man, which was released the same month as Fight Club.  Stiffed repackages a venerable narrative about the feminization of American culture in arguing that the current crisis of American manhood stems from the fact that men have become consumers instead of producers, passive reflectors of consumer culture rather than active participants in it. That narrative links consumer culture with women and the “feminine” in a binary system that identifies authenticity, autonomy, individuality, and creative originality with the masculine.  The anti-consumerist discourse articulated by Faludi’s informants can be traced to decades of feminist analysis that has insisted that femininity is socially constructed.  Such analysis suggests that masculinity, too, is socially constructed, and the worry that masculinity might be “fake” fuels a great deal of the anxiety evident in the pages of Stiffed.

[10] Of course, as Judith Butler reminds us, understanding gender as socially constructed does not necessarily mean that it is any less “real.” Fight Club avoids such theoretical nuances by pursuing a fantasy of destroying everything “fake,” a fantasy that involves evacuating women almost entirely and purging the world of the “feminine” trappings of consumer culture. Like Faludi’s “stiffed”  men, who can accept the idea that women’s identities are constituted through the practices of consumer culture, the fight clubbers battle the possibility that men’s identities might be so constituted because such a possibility endangers both “authentic” masculinity and masculine authenticity.  The fact that this hackneyed narrative about the feminizing effects of consumer culture persists into the twenty-first century, despite massive challenges to our understandings of the relationships between individual and society (or subject and structure) testifies to the seemingly irresistible pull of transhistorical master narratives in a postmodern age when such narratives are supposed to have lost their legitimacy.  The tensions between the transhistorical and the historical can be seen in Faludi’s Stiffed, which manages to imply that the commodification of men and masculinity at the cusp of the twenty-first century is both particular symptom of postmodern, postindustrial, celebrity culture—a recent development that underlines what men have lost through recent social, economic and political changes—and a contemporary version of a timeless, ahistorical “truth” of gender.  Such contradictions cannot be resolved as long as we insist on coding anti-consumerist critique in the language of gender.

[11] Fight Club’s efforts to reinstate an ahistorical truth through its pursuit of a masculine authenticity depend on what T.J. Jackson Lears identifies as a persistent strain of “antimodernism” in U.S. culture, one of whose chief manifestations is a martial “fascination with pain” as an “attempt to move beyond the pleasure principle of a democratic, industrial culture” and a “groping for transcendence” (118).  Such an anti-modernism expresses a desire to escape from history and contemporary cultural systems, as we can see inFight Club’s celebration of pre- or anti-consumerist spaces.  The film’s social critique and its masculine protest is most clearly articulated in Tyler Durden’s didactic pronouncements on the state of modern masculine selfhood: “We are the middle children of history, slaves with white collars, an entire generation pumping gas, waiting tables.  Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need.”  The “middle children of history” are outside of history, stuck in a moment of stasis, looking back nostalgically to a (fantasized) moment when masculinity and authenticity were guaranteed, and forward longingly to a moment of rebellion through which that masculinity and authenticity might be restored. The film implicitly identifies that earlier masculinity and authenticity with the working classes and suggests  that the middle-class narrator’s malaise can be cured by downward mobility.

[12] The film’s protest against feminization and its search for a masculine authenticity outside of culture and, even, of history, is both literally and metaphorically rendered.  The film proceeds by a relentless narrative and visual movement downward and backward, encapsulated each time we see the narrator, Tyler and other characters descending toward the dark, dank basements in which they fight and make bombs, and encapsulated, as well, in Tyler Durden’s credo that “hitting bottom” is the prerequisite for rebirth.  The backward movement of the narrative works on two levels: in the structure of the film, which begins at the end and several times backs up explicitly and dramatically; and in the thematic concern with an “evolution” that is actually a regression that leads to nihilism.  The film, like other late twentieth-century attempts to find the “inner warrior” in men, draws on an anti-modernism that aims to find “character” behind the veneer of “personality.”  The same opposition, as Tom Pendergast argues, is at the heart of the “tragic paradigm” that had early twentieth-century critics of consumer culture posing an authentic Victorian against an inauthentic modern manhood.  “The changes associated with the emergence of modern masculinity appear to such critics as defeat, for they appear to deter men from achieving an authentic form of selfhood.  Modern masculinity thus appears to consist of the leftovers, the sad remainders, of a viable masculinity that had once existed in a more stable cultural environment” (261).  The narrative of feminization depends on an anterior order against which the contemporary disorder can be posited.  Fight Club finds that anterior order in the raw, physical culture of fighting and the homosocial bonding it promotes; the real is reinstated in these exclusively male spaces where gender difference—that is woman’s difference from man—can be reasserted.  The authenticity of what the men experience in fight club is explicitly contrasted with the falseness of their everyday lives; if “everything is a copy of a copy of a copy” outside of fight club, within it, life is “real, not like TV.”  “After fighting,” the narrator reports, “everything else in your life got the volume turned down.  You could deal with anything,” including a “smarmy” boss with his “primary action items.”

[13] The film, of course, resides fully within the realm of consumer culture, itself forwarding corporate interests, despite its cool aura of hip critique.  In the late twentieth-century consumer culture that is the ground of Fight Club’s representation, locating authenticity outside of, or prior to, consumerism requires a concerted effort to ignore the ways in which authenticity itself is the primary commodity marketed by consumer culture.  James Gilmore and B. Joseph Pine II, in a book published by the Harvard Business School Press and titledAuthenticity: What Consumers Really Want, offer advice on how to market authenticity in an economy where mass production and simulation are the rules. Gilmore and Pine argue that advertisers and marketers can and should enter the breach created by “the rise of postmodern thought,” “our eroding confidence in our major social institutions,” and the “emergence of the Experience Economy,” to provide consumers with the authenticity they find lacking in everyday life (10-13).  This smart analysis of the contradictions endemic to a consumer culture that markets mass-produced authenticity makes it difficult to uphold a naive belief in a politically charged opposition between corporate culture and countercultural critique. Fight Club’s anti-modernist stance is dependent on the idea that consumer culture (including business culture) endangers authenticity, but such a stance seems nostalgic, at best, disingenuous at worst.  As one reviewer suggested,  “when the movie, after satirizing the gym-enhanced bodies of men in Gucci subway ads (‘Self-improvement is masturbation,’ Tyler pronounces), cuts to the impeccably lean and cut body of its leading man, it is in the grips of a style-content contradiction that this slick denunciation of surface values battles throughout” (Ansen 77).

[14] While this comment is meant to chide the film for bad faith, it falls into the same trap as the film by reproducing a nearly mythic narrative based on the opposition between countercultural rebellion and capitalist social forms.  As a number of recent studies of the relationship between consumerism and countercultural critique have suggested,  American discourses critical of capitalism and consumer culture have been repackaging this myth for quite some time, despite constant and rapid changes in the global economy.  Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter, for example, argue that the dominant narrative of social critique in post-war U.S. culture has remained unchanged since the 1950s.  That dominant narrative holds that the “individual” is endangered by the rise of “mass society” in general, and consumerism in particular.  Heath and Potter humorously debunk the foundational notion of a countercultural rebellion speaking out against consumerist conformity and instead argue that the countercultural stance has not only been co-opted by consumer culture, but has, in fact, driven consumer culture since the 1960s.  Their challenge is worth quoting at substantial length:

Do you hate consumer culture? Angry about all that packaging, all those commercials?  Worried about the quality of the “mental environment”?  Well,  join the club.  Anti-consumerism has become one of the most important cultural forces in millennial North American life, across every social class and demographic.  Sure, as a society we may be spending record amounts of money on luxury goods, vacations, designer clothing and household comforts.  But take a look at the nonfiction bestseller lists.  For years they’ve been populated by books that are deeply critical of consumerism: No LogoCulture JamLuxury Fever,Fast Food Nation.  You can now buy Adbusters at your neighborhood music or clothing store. (98)

The critique of mass society has erred, according to Heath and Potter, by identifying consumerism with conformity.  Social critics—including academics and popular writers of all political persuasions—have, as a result, “fail[ed] to notice that it is rebellion, not conformity, that has for decades been the driving force of the marketplace” (99).

[15] Thomas Frank offers a more in-depth analysis of the same phenomenon.  Like Heath and Potter, Frank undertakes to debunk the dearly held idea that there is a “real” counterculture mimicked and diluted by its “fake” commodified version.  Rather than offering another lament over the co-optation of rebellion by consumer culture, Frank analyzes how business culture, particularly advertising, has played an essential and complicated role in the history of counterculture in the latter half of the twentieth century.  Underlining the irony of a mass society critique “adopted by millions of Organization Men,” Frank argues for a more nuanced understanding of how co-optation has actually worked.  The standard “cooptation thesis”—like the standard “feminization thesis”—is recognizable in a wide range of discourses and representations.  “According to the standard binary narrative,” Frank writes, “the cascade of pseudo-hip culture-products that inundated the marketplace in the sixties were indicators not of the counterculture’s consumer-friendly nature but evidence of the ‘corporate state’s’ hostility.  They were the tools with which the Establishment hoped to buy off and absorb its opposition, emblems of dissent that were quickly translated into harmless consumer commodities, emptied of content, and sold to their very originators as substitutes for the real thing” (16).  Analyzing the rise of “hip consumerism,” and its architects, Frank notes that “in the counterculture, admen believed they had found both a perfect model for consumer subjectivity, intelligent and at war with the conformist past, and a cultural machine for turning disgust with consumerism into the very fuel by which consumerism might be accelerated” (119).

[16] This is not the story of a powerful corporate entity destroying the counterculture and imposing mindless consumerism on brainwashed “mass man,” as the critique of mass society would have it; it is the story of the complicity if not collaboration between a counterculture that is invested in imagining itself “outside” of the dominant order and a corporate culture invested in transforming that dominant order by making outsiders the primary subjects of its address.  The official website for Fight Club provides a perfect example of how “hip” consumerism functions as countercultural critique.  This tongue-in-cheek spread has much in common with the advertising Frank associates with the “Creative Revolution” in the sixties and seventies, which functioned, ironically, to reassure consumers that, unlike the great unwashed masses, theycould see through the tactics of “malicious robber barons and their unscrupulous Madison Avenue minions.”  Using the Volvo ads created by Scali, McCabe, Sloves (a firm in the forefront of  the creative revolution in advertising) as an example, Frank takes note of a cynical strategy which “spoke to consumers who were aware of the discourse of advertising, of the marketing strategies of the Big Three [automakers], and, most important, of the mass society critique and its understanding of consumer culture as a vast fraud” (145).   The website for Fight Clubfeatures “Additional Fashions” for Jack, Tyler, and Marla, as well as “Home Furnishings.”  Tyler’s “Huggybear Silk Shirt” ($125, “handcrafted in an Indonesian sweatshop by Frida, a single mother of seven whose monthly salary is equivalent to six american dollars”) and “Retro Leather Jacket” ($725, “made from the hide of an 8 month old Jersey calf.  These calves are bred for the sole purpose of supplying leather for the production of bags, belts, shoes, and this exquisite jacket”) are described as the products of exploited third-world workers and genetically engineered calves, suggesting that the film offers a critique of the political and social effects of a malicious global capitalism; however, the website also suggests that it is “cool” to participate in this kind of edgy anti-consumerist consumerism by telling us that “Tyler prefers an aged Chianti and Lou Rawls record with his veal.”

[17] These are not real commodities and the website isn’t actually selling them; what it is selling is a relationship to consumer culture that evades feminization.  Viewers are invited to imagine themselves, like Tyler, as consuming rebels against consumer culture and its politically suspect practices.  The website, thus, performs the same kind of critique that the film does.  As Henry Giroux argues, the film is “less interested in attacking the broader material relations of power and strategies of domination and exploitation associated with neoliberal capitalism than it is in rebelling against a consumerist culture that dissolves the bonds of male sociality and puts into place an enervating notion of male identity and agency” (5).  That male sociality is reinstated within the film by fight club and, later Project Mayhem; but it is also, I would argue, reinstated by the relationship the film builds between the film and an audience schooled in the modes of (masculine) rebellion against the feminizing forces of consumerism and other social structures.  The masculine protest that leads to fight club, like all forms of social critique, produces insiders and outsiders; those in the know, and those in the dark.  The film plays on this effect of rebellion by showing that only true members can recognize each other, as happens in the many scenes when men salute in each other the “badges”—the Band-Aids, the black eyes, the swollen noses—of authenticity that come from participating in this secret society.  The fact that actual fight clubs started showing up around the United States after the release of the film suggests that its mode of masculine protest was not limited to what happens on the screen.

[18] Although neither Heath and Potter nor Frank undertake a gendered analysis, such an analysis is long-overdue, for a metaphorics of gender has long functioned within countercultural narratives.  The dominant critique of mass society—so powerfully articulated by William Whyte and his brethren in the 1950s and David Fincher in 1999—is a form of masculine protest against the threatened erosion of gender difference.  Worries about authenticity accompany anxieties about the erosion of gender difference, suggesting, again and again, that what guarantees authentic experience and authenticity per se is the evacuation of all things feminine—including women, but also, those forces and operations understood to threaten men and masculinity.  Whether the threat is to creative genius, rugged individualism, or the competitive spirit, diagnoses of the feminization of America all take off from an assumption that any attempt to reimagine or even merely recode America as something other than traditionally and monolithically “masculine” heralds the destruction of the gender order on which the concept of American individualism and exceptionalism rests.  As Heath and Potter suggest, such diagnoses and the countercultural protests they produce have changed very little in structure or even in rhetoric over the past fifty years. While any number of examples could be cited here, Frank’s allusion to William Whyte’s highly influential The Organization Man, prompts me to look briefly at its articulation of social critique as a protest against feminization.  This book, perhaps more than any other, exemplifies social critique as masculine protest and simultaneously demonstrates the limits of the anti-consumerist stance adopted by so many countercultural critics.

[19] Whyte’s target is the changing business culture in the United States in the 1950s, which he locates in the more general rise of collectivism over an older model of rugged, competitive, creative individualism.  Writing for Fortune magazine, Whyte is firmly located within the very business culture that youthful critics in the sixties will identify as the culprit in their own, generational, form of masculine protest.  For Whyte, the problem with the collectivism spawned by organization culture—what he dubs the “Social Ethic”—is that it goes against the grain of American individualism based on private property, competition, and the subordination of the larger social good to the individual’s well-being.  However, throughout The Organization Man, Whyte is hard pressed to identify just what is wrong with what, at times, appears to be a welcome social alternative to a competitive individualism that produces social inequalities.  Indeed, he is often at pains to point out that the Protestant Ethic—the opposite of the Social Ethic—can be taken too far, and that an extreme individualism can produce the “unrestrained self-interest” that marks the thinking of the “right wing”: “Even more than those who preach the Social Ethic slough over the individual’s rights against society, the right sloughs over the individual’s obligations to society,” he admits (and this is why the right “has remained a comparatively negative force in American thought”) (443).  Rather than pause to think through the possibility that the Social Ethic might produce a progressive alternative to competitive individualism, Whyte, like many others, couches his jeremiad in terms that invoke an opposition between a strong America characterized by self-made manhood and rugged individualism and a weak America characterized by the individual’s subordination to a social system that renders him passive and feminized.  Opting for masculine protest over any other form of social critique, Whyte makes it clear that the primary problem with the Organization is that it threatens to make men more like women: weak, dependent, focused on the collective instead of the individual, willing to please at all costs, focused on getting along rather than getting ahead.

[20] Whyte is more subtle in his reliance on gendered categories than other social critics of the time, but he nevertheless relies on ideas about masculinity and femininity to create a picture of a civilization and culture under threat.  The problem with the Organization is that it endangers the Organization man’s autonomy and agency.  There are no “Organization Women,” (only organization wives), but more importantly, the new Social Ethic threatens to make everyone, men and women alike, into “objects more acted upon than acting” (437).  While women are perhaps accustomed to occupying this feminine position, men are not, and what Whyte objects to is, thus, not only the demise of the masculine values of rugged individualism but the threatened erosion of the entire structure of difference that gives meaning to the terms “object” and “subject,” “passive and active,” “feminine and masculine.”  The Social Ethic threatens to dissolve the difference between masculine and feminine, that is, to eradicate gender as the primary mode of making sense of the individual’s place in relation to his social system.  Rebellion against this system, thus, requires a kind of remasculinization and, with it, a resuscitation of the gender system that underwrites the ideology of competitive individualism.

[21] Whyte, along with C. Wright Mills, David Reisman, and others, are responsible for constructing a picture of a feminizing system as the basis of their countercultural critique.  As Robert Corber points out, Mills “bequeathed to the New Left a critique of postwar American society whose categories and assumptions were deeply masculinity. . . . Mills bemoaned the reorganization of work because he thought it inserted men into feminine subject-positions” (31).  It is hard to overestimate the impact that this theoretical model has had on social criticism in the United States, and versions of it can be read in virtually all anti-consumerist or anti-Establishment rhetoric in the post-war period.  Rebellion against the feminizing effects of large systems has worked to limit the forms that countercultural critique can take, and to delegitimate any social critique that does not fit into this mode.  Feminist attempts to shift the terms of new left critique is a case in point.  As David Rossinow argues in his The Politics of Authenticity, feminists aiming to shift the terms of countercultural critique in the sixties came up against “the whole tradition of existentialist politics that had developed throughout the cold war period.  The longing for an authentic masculinity was one of that tradition’s pillars.  Men who pursued authenticity in the realm of politics had, explicitly and repeatedly, equated a strenuous sense of self and a vigorous citizenship with masculinity, just as they equated alienation with emasculation” (16).  More than a simple masculine bias is operating here, however; as Rossinow concludes, “because not enough radical men wanted to join a left not built on the pursuit of masculinity . . . . feminists discovered one of the limits of the American culture of dissent” (18).  While Rossinow is more interested in analyzing the existentialist character of the rebellion that did happen, I want to highlight the importance of the rebellion that did not happen.  The “limits of the American culture of dissent” are the limits of gender—or, rather, the inability of countercultural critique to get beyond a narrative about feminization or emasculation.  The tradition of masculine protest has produced a national mode of dissent that is impoverished, perhaps most strikingly by its inability to shift its own terms and to imagine new narratives of dissent and countercultural critique.

[22] This impoverishment is evidenced by the denouement of Fight Club.  As the masochistic pleasures of self-destruction in fight club give way to the mechanized destruction of Project Mayhem, the film suggests that the regenerative powers of violence can be taken too far.  In fact, the film appears to be suggesting that the remasculinization enacted by fight club leads into another feminization, as the newly de-individualized foot soldiers of Project Mayhem find themselves right back where they started: in thrall to a system or organization that cares nothing for individual will and initiative and everything for conformity to a collective vision.  Critiques of what ails American culture have constructed American cultural history as an unending cycle of feminization, followed by masculinization, followed by a new mode of feminization; any system that threatens to subordinate the (masculine) individual to a larger (feminizing) social system, or to curtail individual agency, also threatens to dissolve gender difference by making active, strong men more like passive, weak women.  As Jennifer Barker notes, Fincher represents Project Mayhem as a fascist organization; like his version of corporate capitalism, his version of fascism renders the masculine individual a passive conduit for its values.  However, Project Mayhem is not the same thing as the consumerism the narrator leaves behind at the beginning of the film.  It is the creation not of some nameless bureaucratic entity, but of a fully masculinized, charismatic individual. Despite the narrator’s eleventh hour renunciation of Tyler Durden and the organized violence he engineers, the film never wavers from its worship of Durden or its pleasure in the spectacle of violence it proffers as a cure for what ails modern man.  Edward Norton never comes close to the power emanating from Brad Pitt, and even though the narrator ultimately exorcises Tyler, the film nevertheless ends with an aestheticized spectacle of destruction that pays tribute to that alter ego.

[23] The film demonstrates what T. J. Jackson Lears notes in an earlier version of anti-modernism in American culture: “desperate quests” for “primal irrationality” and “pristine savagery” do not offer a way out of the dilemmas of modern, consumer culture, but instead end up simply reaffirming a nihilistic acceptance of that culture; the “militaristic obsession with authenticity, like other cults of risk-taking” can become “a circular and self-defeating question for intense experience—a characteristic mode of adjustment to a secular culture of consumption.  Reacting against therapeutic self-absorption, the cult of martial experience prove[s] unable to transcend it” (138, emphasis added).  The aestheticized and commodified spectacle of violence at the end of the film is as much sanctioned by consumer culture as is the equally aestheticized and commodified spectacle of an upscale furniture catalogue come to life.  But the film insists that there is a difference between the two, and that difference is a gendered difference.  Even if Tyler Durden goes too far in pursuing his vision of exploding consumerism, the film still insists, along with him, that “guys like us” should not know “what a duvet is” because such knowledge is not “essential to our survival in the hunter-gatherer sense of the word.”  Ikea has been exorcised, and there are no duvets in the narrator’s future.  Much has been made of the film’s clever twist and its possible meanings, but does it really matter if Tyler Durden is just a figment of the narrator’s imagination?  The film is a fantasy with a certain critical self-awareness; but representing the violence of fight club and Project Mayhem as an hallucination does not in any way change the film’s ideological investment in a mode of social critique that figures virile, anti-capitalist rebels purging the world of the inauthenticities of the feminine and a feminizing consumer culture.  While the film does not direct its violence against women, the gendered logic of its anti-capitalist critique begs the question of what happens to women when a masculine authenticity triumphs over the feminizing forces of consumer culture for a “generation of men raised by women.”

[24] Masculine protest against the alienating and feminizing forces of consumer capitalism should be critiqued for its unthinking reproduction of an ahistorical because constantly reoccurring narrative.  That narrative works to resuscitate and stabilize a seemingly unchanging gender system, but it also works to obscure other historical realities.  Fight Club underlines how seductive this mythical narrative remains, and how the unchanging belief in the dangers of feminization have so shaped social critique that masculine protest has been reiterated again and again as the only legitimate form of social protest against institutions—whether those institutions be identified as bureaucracy, capitalism, business culture, or their effects identified as the Organization man, the willless consumer, the inauthentic poseur.  Tyler Durden expresses the limits of the film’s social critique when he lectures the narrator on what really matters and what is worth rebelling against: “Murder, crime, poverty.  These things don’t concern me.  What concerns me are celebrity magazines, some guy’s name on my underwear, rogaine, viagra, oloestra.”  Like so many other attempts to intervene into the “feminization” of American culture, Fight Club settles for a countercultural critique that is blindfolded by its own allegiance to a narrative that pits the masculine individual against the feminizing forces of any and all systems that place any limits on a masculinity and an individualism that naturally expresses itself as unfettered power and self-determination.  Reviewing Fight Club for Newsweek, just weeks after the release of her own work on masculinity in crisis, Susan Faludi endorses the film’s underlying premise: “Behind the extremities of [the narrator’s] character is the modern male predicament: he’s fatherless, trapped in a cubicle in an anonymous corporate job, trying to glean an identity from Ikea brochures, entertainment magazines and self-help gatherings.  Jack traverses a barren landscape familiar to many men who must contend with a world stripped of socially useful male roles and saturated with commercial images of masculinity” (“Thelma and Louise for Guys,” 89).

[25] The claim that American men are “stripped of socially useful roles” is questionable in a number of ways, and Faludi’s Stiffedcontains many hundreds of such claims.  Are men (and not women) “stripped” in this way?  Is there such as thing as the “modern male predicament,” and, if so, how is it different from the predicaments of “feminized” masculinity decried in earlier eras?   Faludi is seduced by the feminization thesis and, thus, despite her own feminism, endorses a model of social critique that is ahistorical, simplistic, and dependent on a binary notion of sexual difference.  The limits of this form of American dissent include a lack of interest in crime and poverty and a lack of interest, as well, in challenging a gender order that requires a rigid masculinity even as it imagines feminine contagion everywhere.  It is time that we abandon the idea that men are feminized by consumer culture and the idea that any blurring of the boundaries between masculine and feminine produces a crisis in American culture.  Narratives about the feminization of men and of American culture have been useful in propping up a gender system always under threat.  We continue to use the language of feminization not because it best describes how consumer culture functions to create gendered subjects, but because it is one particularly powerful way to insure that gendered subjects continue to be produced at all.  Perhaps it is time to resist the seductions of the feminization thesis and the countercultural critique it structures and think differently about the possibilities engendered by a social order that makes men more like women, and, perhaps, women more like men.

Works Cited

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