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"I Fuck Like You Want to Fuck": Sexuality and Gender Oppression in David Fincher’s Fight Club

"I Fuck Like You Want to Fuck": Sexuality and Gender Oppression in David Fincher’s Fight Club

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An essay for the 2012 Undergraduate Awards Competition by Fionn Murray. Originally submitted for BA English with Film Studies , with lecturer Tony Fitzmaurice in the category of Modern Cultural Studies
An essay for the 2012 Undergraduate Awards Competition by Fionn Murray. Originally submitted for BA English with Film Studies , with lecturer Tony Fitzmaurice in the category of Modern Cultural Studies

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Published by: Undergraduate Awards on Aug 30, 2012
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05/13/2014

 
“I Fuck Like You Want to Fuck”: Sexuality and Gender Oppression in
David
Fincher’s
 
 Fight Club
 
This paper examines the discourse apparent in David Fincher’s 1999 film
Fight Club
(adapted from Chuck 
 Palahniuk’s novel of the same name) regarding masculinity, gender identity and machismo in the
modernindustrialized Western world. Specifically, it examines the discourse in the film regarding the pervasive sense of emasculation and changing senses of gender & sexual identity experienced by American members of the post-babyboom generation (
or “Generation X”
 , as it would later be dubbed), as a consequence of such disparate factors as
the women’s liberation movement, the decline in seco
ndary economic activities and the shift in the nature of theconventional American nuclear family. In the course of doing so, this paper will trace the lineage of the film fromearlier works examining similar themes (including the novels of Bret Easton Ellis and the films of Kevin Smith) and 
how it innovates upon these works’ examinations of the themes in question.
Said innovations include a greater interest in how male sexuality (specifically male heterosexuality) has become misdirected and perverted as aconsequence of the aforementioned emasculation, and the sophisticated metonymy, symbolism, visual metaphor and intertextuality the film uses to represent all of the above. Ultimately, this paper argues that 
Fight Club
is not,despite the common interpretation, a celebration of extreme masculinity and machismo, but instead an attack uponwhat that same masculinity has become in the modern era.
Keywords:
Transgressive, cinema, sexuality, Generation X, masculinityA perennial, and some might even say unavoidable, irony inherent with artists who wish to attack something bydepicting it in all of its (sometimes literally) gory detail is that, unless the artist in question is extremely heavy-handed, there will inevitably be members of the audience who interpret the thing being attacked as something thatshould be seen in a positive light: something to be celebrated, admired, glamorized. Viewers of anti-war films like
 Apocalypse Now
or
Saving Private Ryan
emerge from the cinema with a renewed sense of the power of state-sponsored violence to right societal wrongs; fans of gangster films like
Goodfellas
or
Scarface
promptly start to
imitate the mannerisms and vocal styles of the respective films’ most morally reprehensible
characters. And of course, film critics come out of screenings of 
Fight Club
and promptly deride the film as
nihilistic “macho porn”
(Crowdus, 2000, 47), while fans of the film start their own amateur fight clubs and gleefully go about the businessof bashing one an
other’s teeth in. But just as
 Apocalypse Now
does not really condone war, nor
Goodfellas
 organized crime,
Fight Club
is in no way a brain-dead celebration of machismo; it is at worst a critical examinationof, and at best a ferocious attack upon, modern masculinity and male sexuality. How the film goes about this shallbe discussed below.
 
“I
 
F
UCK
L
IKE
Y
OU
W
ANT TO
F
UCK
 2
The initial apparent theme of both
Fight Club
and its source novel of the same name was one that was byno means new to American literature and cinema of the 1980s and 90s. Novels like the works of Bret Easton Ellis
or films like Kevin Smith’s
Clerks.
were all focused to one degree or another upon the disaffection and apathyexperienced by members of the post-baby boom generation
1
 
(“Generation X”, as it came to be known, a term
popularized by Douglas Coupland in his novel
Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture
, a work with which
 Fight Club
exhibits many parallels). Typically, this disaffection was seen as a consequence of the gradual shift inAmerican culture to an increasingly materialist, consumer-driven paradigm (what
Fight Club
calls the
“Ikea nestinginstinct”)
, coupled with the decline of primary and secondary industries (specifically auto manufacturing) in favourof lower-paying, more unfulfilling and unsatisfying jobs in office work and the service industries (what Couplandsnidely calls McJobs:
A low-pay, low-prestige, low-dignity, low-benefit, no-
future job in the service sector”
[Coupland, 1991, 5]).
This overriding theme can be clearly identified in several of the film’s extended monologues(such as Tyler Durden’s description of the members of 
fight c
lub as “
slaves with white collars
” or 
observing that
they are “an entire generation pumping gas and waiting tables”).
 
Fight Club
’s chief thematic innovation in this
regard is thus suggesting that, coupled with theseoverriding feelings of directionlessness and disaffection, Generation X is also characterized by a pervasive sense of emasculation and feminization experienced by its male members. These sense of societal gender oppression leadsthem to indulge in stereotypically feminine pursuits like fashion, improving their physical appearances, andhomemaking
(specifically note the clever sequence in which the narrator’s apartment is transformed into a living
furniture catalogue). This was hinted at by previous works of the era (eight years before the film
’s release
,
Ellis’s
 American Psycho
envisioned cohorts of vain, fashion-obsessed investment bankers strutting like peacocks inabsurdly expensive designer clothing) but
Fight Club
places the same theme centre stage. The vain, self-absorbeddesire to accumulate material goods has left the members of Generation X bereft of any sense of their own
masculinity or sexual identity (“We used to read pornography. Now it was the Horchow Collection.”). The film’s
most grotesque invention has the character of Bob completely undone by his own vanity: his efforts to makehimself more physically attractive by ingesting massive quantities of steroids leads him to literally become awoman: he grows breasts and his testicles are removed. Thus, the film argues that the only way that thesedisenfranchised, emasculated members of Generation X can restore their own masculinity is by reverting topartaking in activities which are stereotypically
masculine in a primitive, “hunter 
-
gatherer” sense of the term,
namely by indulging in random, senseless physical violence in fight clubs.
1
 
This generation is typically said to encompass everyone born between the early 1960s and roughly 1982.
 
“I
 
F
UCK
L
IKE
Y
OU
W
ANT TO
F
UCK
 3
It is to the film’s credit that it
does not simplistically propose any single, neat reason as to why thispervasive sense of societal gender oppression exists, but rather suggests that it is a combination of several disparate,but closely related factors. First among these is the greater incidence of broken homes and divorce amongst theparents of the members of Generation X, which leads not only to the members lacking a concrete male role model
(“We’re a generation of men raised by
 
women”), but also a spiritual leader to provide them with moral guidance(“Our fathers were our models for God. If our fathers bailed, what does that tell you about God?”). Second is the
suggestion that the modern American consumer culture is emasculating
in and of itself (“Advertising has us chasingcars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need.”, “
I felt sorry for guys packed into gyms,
trying to look like how Calvin Klein or Tommy Hilfiger said they should”)
, a point emphasized by Fincher himself 
in an interview around the time of the film’s release
 
who observed: “We’re designed to be hunters and we’re in asociety of shopping… societal emasculation” (Smith, 1999, 61).
Finally, it is proposed that, unlike previousgenerations, Generation X has no guiding principle by which any member can define itself as masculine. Whilemembers of previous generations could prove their masculinity by enlisting in the armed forces or being a
 breadwinner for their families (“We have no Great War, no Great Depression”)
, Generation X cannot, because thereis no war for them to fight, and all of the members are too emotionally immature to raise and provide for a family(not to mention that the changing position of women in the workforce has fundamentally altered the traditionalposition of men as breadwinners).Of course, the fact that the members of fight club are too emotionally immature to raise a family ties intoanother of the core themes addressed by Ellis, Coupland and their ilk. The novels and films in this sub-genrefrequently depict members of Generation X going through a kind of extended adolescence, whether by choice (suchas the three main characters of 
Generation X 
, or
Clerks.
’s Dante, who voluntarily drop
s out of college to work adead-end job in a convenience store, nostalgically fantasizing about his high school girlfriend all the while) or as aconsequence of circumstance. This is a theme
Fight Club
affirms, most obviously in a scene near the middle of thefilm in which Tyler and the narrator discuss their respective fathers, and Tyler recounts how at various key points inhis life his father admonished him to, in turn, go to college, get a job and then get married, to which the narratorresponds:
“I can’t get married. I’m a thirt
y-year-
old boy.”
It might thus seem that the two key themes of the film arethat members of Generation X are experiencing a kind of widespread emasculation, and also that they areundergoing a prolonged adolescence which they are eager to escape and mature out of. But the film seems to implythat the two are in fact one and the same. Fincher explained his intentions for the film in the aforementionedinterview:
It [Palahniuk’s novel] seemed kind of like
The Graduate
, a seminal coming of age for peoplewho are coming of age in their 30s instead of their late teens or early 20s. In our society, kids

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