The Myth of Masculinity
An essay by: Witney Seibold
-The Foremen, “Hard Time to Be a Man.“
Masculinity is dead.
Oh sure, we still have plenty of things around us, here at the begining of the 21st century, that indicate what a man is: sporting events spring to mind, wars, drinking, going to Hooters, joining men’s clubs, drinking more, getting into fights, grunting, sweating, pissing while standing up. But there seems to be a crucial… mythology missing from said activites. Something epic is gone from it all.
Remember what a MAN used to be? Well, I can’t, but I seem to have this image – given to me from stories, attitudes, media, ads and that pesky oblique status quo – of what a man is. A man is a hero. A defender of the cave. A hunter and gatherer. A man wages war for noble things, and dies for noble causes. A man has integrity and strength and muscle and power. Ulysses. Alexander the Great. Christopher Columbus. General George S. Patton. Those were men. Boy were they ever. Heroes (one was gay, but who’s counting?). Artists? Philospohers? Scientists? Men of Faith? Well, they were all good too, and, as history will prove, most of them were very male as well, but they merely male, not MEN.
What happened to men? How did the throughline go from the hunter/gatherer, to the explorer, to the hero, to the conquerer, to the bully, to the jerk, to the grunting misogynistic truckdriver we have today? That’s easy: Feminism. While men were busy being MEN, they, uh, forgot about half of the population. Being a MAN meant, by definition, being sexist. And women would not stand for it.
The hero image that lasted, as far as I can tell, from the conquering of
America all the way through World War II. Beginning around 1959, the feminist movment started and being a MAN became something to be excused; an unfortuante social disease that needed to be overcome. The MAN became, if you will, castrated to a degree.
A generation passed. Wars were fought, the social strata changed, and the new byword in 1980s
America for men became “sensitive.” Men had to be sensitive. Consider feelings. Some men resented (or in some more unenlightened cases, still resent) feminism, caliming it emasculated them. Emasculated. What an appropriate word.
This causes frustartion in many.
People try to put us down (Talkin’ ’bout my generation) Just because we get around. (Talkin’ ’bout my generation) Things theydo look awful c-c-cold. (Talkin’ ’bout my generation)
Hope I die before I get old. (Talkin’ ’bout my generation)
Heh. Sorry. Had a Who moment there.
The generation of Americans born in 1978 were declared, upon their graduation from high school in 1996, that they would be the first generation of Americans to make less money that their parents. Encouraging words for the matriculating 17-year-olds.
The so-called Generation X in this country (as far as I can tell, anyone born from 1968 to 1975), very rightfully so, called themselves a “lost” generation. They were raised and grew up in the ultra-greed-saturated world of Ronald Reagan (see “Wall Street” for the full effect). They were the first generation to have entire industries devoted to marketing right to them. They had no major historical moment to latch onto; no point to unite them. Previous generations had depressions, great wars,
Vietnam. The children on the 1980s had… My Little Pony. Cabbage Patch Kids. New Coke.
So Generation X, my generation (I like to call us the “Post-Everything Generation”) and the current one are adrift in a world still controlled by older white guys who are still bleeding the dated 1950s economy (corporations operate on the same principles that they did back when, in the 1950s, America was a land of plenty) and marketing to us. We are for sale, and are defined by what we own. The only generations to wear product logos on their t-shirts.
And this cycle too is emasculating. It strips many of their power. People feel trapped. Those who are lucky enough to succeed in this dead-end economy with a dead-end job, well, they see the dead end coming up ahead. Some are able to find jobs doing what they love, but, thanks to that ineffable staus quo, many cannot see that. They’ve been raised to want things.
This causes frustration.
The avenue to success is the office job. I’m in a position where I’m trying to move from a wage-slave job to a higher-paying career. Many of my peers have moved into offices where they are currently doing petty crapwork for higher-ups, but for a lot of money.
I need not describe exactly how frustrating white-collar jobs can be. Just read “Dilbert.” Another gift we got from older generations is the belief that the office job is the only track to big-time success. Many of us can land such job, many can be successful in such jobs, but many may not be happy in such jobs.
So, no matter how much people move up in the office, there’s still a frustrating sense of futility. This is not a job to challenge me, this is not what I love, this is not where I pictured my 30-year-old self when I was 10 years old. This is just a way to make money to pay for stuff. I don’t even like my co-workers. I don’t know their names. This outfit is terrible. I hate ties. (And, if you’re a woman) I’ll never become boss of this place.
Men are emasulated by these petty jobs.
Who’s your daddy?
Well, I’m lucky enough to know my dad and see him on a regular basis, but recent generations are ones plagued with divorce, breakups, fatherlessness. The nuclear family exploded. A lot of people blame the social breakdown in large cities on the lack of family (it was really hip to have a “dysfunctional family” in the early 1990s).
So we have a generation of men who were raised by their mothers. Men who have no pwerful male role-models in their lives. Men who have been given nothing but , well, mom’s view on the world, and an overwhelming sense of gender guilt, if you will.
No dad. No male. A feeling of ebing emasculated.
This causes frustration.
These things are the mindset where we begin.
And now we meet our narrator (Edward Norton) in David Fincher’s 1999 film “Fight Club,” a man who is suffering from insomnia, is trapped and emasculated by all of the above points. He has no father. He has a job he hates. He’s trapped by what he owns. He has no generational identity. He’s not a man. Freud talked about repression a lot. Jung talked about embracing the dark. Our narrator, in order to deal with his frustration, his insomnia, his pain, takes both of their words to heart, and lashes out against all the rules he has.
“Fight Club,” despite its detractors and subculture of people who react negatively to its ultra-hipness (a lot of people were insulted at its “insistence” that it is hip. I don’t feel this way), is one of the better films of recent years. It is able to tell an intriguing story, introduce many relevant themes which tap directly into the fears, frustartions, and secret desires of an entire class of American men. And it’s able to do so with creative visuals, a sharp style, and (albiet a black one) a sense of humor. It tells the tale of a man so trapped by his various worlds, his job, his things, his lack of anyone in his life (read: love; also read: empathy), that he creates a fantasy self. Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt). A man better looking than him, better-dressed, and enacting all the secret destructive fantasies that seem to rest in more than one person.
The film’s three acts:
Act I: Support groups.
The narrator cannot sleep. When he complains to a doctor, the doctor tells him that the testicula cancer support group has a lot more pain than he does. He meets the large-breasted Bob there (rock ‘n’ roller Meat Loaf who had to wear special shows to make him look bigger than he he. He’s actually shorter than Edward Norton), and, throgh Bob’s crying, is able to sob. There is a catharis there. He is not able to feel any of his own pain, so he feeds off of others’. He becomes addicted to support groups. This works weel for him, and is funny, in a twisted way. The film avoids (some) tastelessness by explaining that the narrator is feeling something very real and very needed with these sessions.
All is well and good, but then Marla enters his life (Helena Bonham Carter gives a fantastic performance as a burnt-out, very disturbed young woman, which balances out some of her classier roles. She’s one of the only actresses I know that can play a Shakespearen heroine and an ape). She is another person addicted to support groups. “Her lie reflected my lie,” he says. But we, the audience, see that these two are quite possibly perfect for each other. They need other people in thier life. They need to talk. Something is obviously missing. But instead of being a cute romantic comedy about perfect people finding one another in a series of meet-cutes and delightful misunderstandings, the film admits that these are damaged people who need something a little more meaningful. They promise not to see each other again.
Act II: Fighting.
Let’s meet Tyler Durden. A bad boy. He hates the world so. He hates the rules. He hates everything. But rather than fretting about it to a therapist (therapists, I imagine, are, to
Tyler, a fad made to sucker the “sesitive” man), and trying to gut it out, he, witrh his every action, has decided to constantly emit an aura of “fuck you” to the world.
Let’s look at
Tyler for a bit before we move on.
Tyler is not real.
Tyler is an alternate personality created by the narrator, created so that the narrator could enact his destructive fantasies without guilt and without having to worry about other people. Pitt plays him in an over-the-top manner, often spewing aphorisms in between beatings, and leaping about, seeiming to tap into some deeply buried well of energy. “Our fathers were God, and our fathers abandoned us. So what does that tell you about God?”
Tyler represents all of the above-mentioned furies, condensed into one fiercly intelligent and destructive man. He not only speaks for the narrator, but I suspect an entire class of people who do not have the gall or the insight to leave their dead-end jobs, dead-end families, and dead-end lives. He kknows about bombs.
Tyler, in a speech near the end of the film, whispers his ultimate fantasy to the narrator. He envisions a world where people dress in leather, climbing the vines of abandoned skyscrapes, and layting out freshly killed venison on abandoned superhighways. He, essentially, dreams of the apocalypse. This is ultimate destruction for some, but for
Tyler, it’s a return to
There is a very real class of people out there, and
Tyler is their voice. Ultimately, the film teaches us, the destuctive fantasies we have are just that: destructive. Redemption lies elsewhere, but more on that later.
The narrator and Tyler meet on a plane. They have matching briefcases. They end up hooking up after the narrator’s apartment is destroyed. They have a rather funny convrsation about the things you own owning you. “Do you know what a duvet is? Why is it guys like you and I know what a duvet is? Is it importnat to our survival in the hunter/gatherer sense of the word?”
Tyler punches the narrator in the chest for the first time, we hear, on the soundtrack, his heart beating. It’s a nice touch.
The narrator and Tyler move in together. They live outside the system in a dilapidated house. The perfect place to hole away. They also soon discover that they are ont the only ones who’s hearts start beating when they take a punch. Fight clubs begin. Why fight? Why hurt yourself? Because it flies in the face of all that has been taught. And if you’re living a life where all you understand is making you miserable, break the rules. Rebel. Get dirty. Wreck stuff. “At the end of a fight, nothing was solved, but nothing mattered.”
Then, much to the narrator’s chagrin, Marla re-enters his life. Only to have rather noisy and violent sex with
Tyler, true, but its a presens that seems to be getting in the way of the narrator’s “awakening” (Or is it “denial?”). Marla is a very real presence in his life, and, apart from his mealymouthed boss (Zach Grenier), the only thing he seems to experience outside his newly formed nucleus of fighters…
Marla is definitely a damaged person. She attempts suicide, chain smokes, and sputters obscenities. She, however damaged she may be, however, seems to know herself. And when she meets her perfect match, I think she knows it. She’s frustrated by the dual nature of her “boyfriend,” and doesn’t see what’s going on, but how could she. She’s reaching out in the black void of her misery, and latching onto a kindred spirit. Some one, it turns out, is a little more screwed-up than she is.
The fighting gets larger and more intense.
Act III: Mayhem and redemption.
Project Mayhem begins and
Tyler‘s true intentions come to light. He didn’t just want personal redemption, he wanted world annihilation. He is a nihilist, after all. Like Macbeth, he believed in nothing: Life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury and signifying nothing. Destroy. Hit bottom. Then rise from the ashes, only able to go up.
Through a series of revelations, the narrator beings to realize the true relationship between himself and Tyler. The same man. A nameless numberhead needed escape. He needed an outlet. He needed one so badly, that he split himself. He can now destroy, beat, and vandalize to his heart’s content, and feel no guilt, an respondsibilty, no emplathy for what he’s doing. He desperately tries to stop what Tyler/he has done, but by then, it’s too late. An entire paramilitary cult has formed.
A word on the Cult mentality: there have been a few stories ion the news recently about cults who commit mass suicide, or hold out fortresses against the police. Most people, when I talk to them about these things, often ask “whay were the followers thinking? How could they be suckered into that?” I like to believe that any one of us can be “suckered” into a “messiah’s” cult, so long as it fulfills in us what we need. The people of those cults needed something most people, I think, basically have (human conection, or lack thereof, I think, is the basic culprit). But “Fight Club” points out that any of us, even those considered the most “average” can become a militant cult member if someone comes along with something new to say. And in a universe or white-collar workers and corpoarte slavery, where there seems to be nothing new, Tyler Durden, the destoyer, is the perfect leader.
The final scene of the film has the narrator finally overcoming his personality, and confronting Marla. It’s fitting that, waiting for buildings to fall (and this was in 1999 before the
Center incident, so the scene of buildings falling didn’t strike the same way), the narrator has to shoot himself in the head in order to expel his violent side. And, as the buildings are falling, chaos is reigning supreme, and his followers are fawning over how tough and manly he is, he reaches out and holds Marla’s hand.
The point here is that old adage of love conquering all. It does, really. Had he allowed someone else into his closed world, had he felt something for another person, had he experienced theings like love and, as a good friend and family member pointed out recently (hi Nora), emapthy for others. He was closed before. There was no one in his world. In a way, even he was absent. He has no name throughout the film, and only acts when influenced by Tyler or someone else.
Tyler was not a new person, and these weren’t new concepts that
Tyler introduced. They were things he was harboring within him. The only “real” person in his life was Marla.
Tyler is Macbeth (and if you’ll excuse another Shakespearean allusion), then (thanks again to Nora), the narrator is Prospero. A man isolated on an island planning petty things that mean nothing to himself. It’s not until faced with the realities of other human beings that he is able to escape. Break his staff. Think all the Freudian things that you will about that last comment.
He began to feel love, but, more importantly, he began to feel for another human being.
“Fight Club” opened to mixed reviews by critics and was only a mild box office success. People felt manipulated by its third-act trickery, and criticized its length (139 minutes, too long). Many people were truned off by its pervasive and rather constant violence. I think that all that we see in the film in necessary, and its points grealty outweigh any stylization is may indulge in. In fact, I’m rather fond if its style. It’s use of editing and colors and odd shots through a trash can, or pans across a room as furniture brand names appear in real space. It drew me in, and really allowed us to feel relaxed in this violent world. The violence is, while unpleasant, necessary, and stylized enough, I think, to skirt the edges of real pain.
“Fight Club” may not be your cup of tea, but I still put it on my 100-best list. It’s worth seeing, exploring and discussing. And it’s even kinda fun on the way.