Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk was a rare cultural phenomenon when it was first released. It was a literary work of trade fiction that became a best-seller because of its ability to tap into a cultural obsession of its time, namely the idea that masculinity is a threatened commodity. In the novel, a group of men create a secret club where they attempt to demonstrate their primal masculinity by engaging in bare-fisted brawling. This is portrayed as a way for men to find their identity in a faceless, placeless world where the traditional methods for men to prove themselves have been stripped away. Fight Club exemplifies a recent trend in contemporary attempts to construct a form of primitive masculinity that idealize a primordial past, absent of women and embodying an essentialized views of manhood.
The narrator of Fight Club has no name, underlining his lack of identity. He has a nondescript job at an unnamed car company. However, his frustrations at his life are clearly seeping through at the beginning of the novel. His only outlet is going to support groups for the terminally ill, even though he has no terminal illness himself. The novel suggests that he is, in a way, 'ill.' He is sick with the purposeless nature of his existence. Eventually Fight Club evolves into another organization that is determined to tear down all aspects of hyper-consumerist culture. However, as radical as the agenda of Fight Club may be, ultimately it is founded upon the premise that men are weakened, rather than strengthened by women. It is more reactionary than revolutionary. "What you see at fight club is a generation of men raised by women...Fight club gets to your reason for going to the gym and keeping your hair cut short and cutting your nails. They gyms you go to are crowded with guys trying to look like men, as if being a man means looking the way a sculptor or an art director says" (Palahniuk 50). However, the masculinity on display in Fight Club is just as much a performance. It strives to be elemental because one of the 'rules' is that the fights occur without shirts and shoes, but it is equally cloaked in gender stereotypes, despite its veneer of radicalization.
According to Deborah Tannen's essay, "There is no unmarked woman," real-life women just as much as the men of Palahniuk's novel are obsessed with proving that they belong to a particular gender. In fact, according to Tannen, performance is even more manifested in femininity, given that even when a woman does not change her name after marriage or dresses like a Plain Jane, she is seen as making a statement (Tannen 411-413). Women must always be hyper-conscious of how they look and the social impressions they make, because they are going to be constantly judged upon them, more so then males. However, Fight Club suggests that a man who ignores the demands of his body and ignores the need to 'prove himself' a man is making a statement, and is somehow less than a man. Simply wearing a tie or going to the gym is merely performing one's masculinity, rather than truly being male.
Unlike Tannen, the men of Fight Club believe that there is something 'real' about their gender that they must discover and prove, even though their associations with what constitutes such masculinity are highly constructed, just as much as the high heels of the women Tannen is observing. Tannen sees masculinity as neutral, but applying the idea of performing one's gender to Fight Club suggests that there are no 'neutral' status for either males or females, and both genders are constantly judged to the degree to which they embody perfect masculinity or femininity.
Feminist Deborah Blum would be more sympathetic to the obsessions of the members of Fight Club in demonstrating their masculinity. Versus Tannen's view of gender as more purely socially-constructed with clothing and hair, Blum points out the biological aspects of gender. Blume views gender as both genetically and biologically shaped. Quite simply, Blum sees men as more innately violent than women. She saw this when her son preferred carnivorous dinosaurs to herbivorous ones -- and when little boy bite their toasts into gun shapes (Blum 679). Genes and biology are in dialogue with the environment. Thus, founder Tyler Durden's fascination with fighting in Fight Club is not simply a culturally-conditioned response, but a product of masculinity that is hard-wired into his biology -- his testosterone is at work, not simply his idealized view of what it means to be a man. The other men who follow him have a similarly untapped need to exercise masculine dominance that is at the heart of what it means to be truly male.
However, even Blum notes that biology can be shaped by culture. Someone who is malnourished as a child will be shorter vs. someone with the same genetic makeup who is properly nourished. Similarly, a man who is encouraged to 'be a man' by lashing out at things with his fists as a child may have a more stereotyped idea of masculinity in his mind than someone who is raised in a more gender-inclusive environment. Yet in the behavior of her own children Blum notes that her boys, despite her efforts at socializing them, still engage in more violent play than girls. What society 'does' with gender may vary. But the hormonal influences of the womb cannot be ignored. Biology does have an influence in a manner that transcends pure culture. Children may have a more wide-ranging conception of gender when they grow up in gender-inclusive households, but they still enter into conventional gender roles, albeit at an older age, than in the cases of children in more traditional homes (Blum 682-683).
Implied in the masculine ethos of Fight Club is that, just as modern society does not allow for sufficient expression of male aggression, greater female aggression is somehow threatening to maleness. "As patriarchy has reserved active expressions of power as a masculine attribute, femininity must be expressed through modes of dress and movement. Speech and action which communicate weakness dependency, ineffectualness availability or sexual or emotional service, and sensitivity to the needs of others" are construed as feminine (Devor 674). Significantly, Fight Club is an all male group, much like an all-boys club with a sign 'No Girls Allowed.' The men communicate with one another by relating to each other in a purely physical sense, but not in a way that communicates tenderness but violence. "Fight club isn't about words" (Palahniuk 51). The atmosphere is 'unpolluted' by femininity (Devor 665).
Feminists such as Aaron Devor would contend that Blum's stress upon the biology of difference is itself a social construction, and has long been used as an excuse to justify the creation of barriers that divide men and women and deprive women of power. "These requirements reflect the patriarchal ideology that masculinity results from an excess of testosterone," rather than the fact that it is connected by culture to a particular kind of body and set of ideals that seeks to disempower females (Devor 665).
The idea that masculinity is somehow fragile can be seen in recent debates upon the education of males and females. Despite the relatively recent upsurge of 'second wave' feminism, as more and more women gain power in society, some people are viewing women's new-found success as going 'too far' already in terms of its potential effects upon males. In Great Britain, a nation which has an even more long-standing tradition of same sex education than the United States, one headmaster of a London school argued that: "hundreds of thousands of young boys are left to struggle in lessons because of the 'feminization' of the curriculum, the rise of coursework, the lack of male primary school teachers and the loss of competition between pupils" in dual-gender schools (Paton 2011). Despite the dominance of males in politics and finance, the fact that girls are gaining parity or exceeding boys as a group in school is seen as a cause for alarm, not celebration of their intelligence. Fight Club's ethos functions as a way of undercutting women's ability to shine in the intellectual realm and other areas where brute force is not helpful. By creating a society in which all that matters is fighting, men are 'on top' once again.
In modern society, we thus see a paradox. On one hand, gender categories seem far more flexible than ever before. More women are occupying positions of power and more males are willing to engage in activities traditionally gendered as female, such as staying home to take care of their children. One 2010 study found that "more than a quarter of dads (26%) gave up work or reduced their working hours after the birth of their children" (King 2011). However, it is not insignificant that this figure was obtained in the wake of the recent…