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Fight Club was the “Bin Laden Determined To Strike In US” of this whole MAGA/Proud Boys/GamerGate/MRA/brocialist/dirtbag left moment, a warning cry from the last moments of the 20th century to the 21st, gone unheeded.
More than unheeded it went profoundly misunderstood; the very people it was warning us about took it to heart and saw it less a cautionary tale and more an instruction manual. Like the film’s Space Monkeys they flocked to the cult of Tyler Durden, unaware of his hollowness. It can be no coincidence that two of the most subversive movies of 1999 – Fight Club and The Matrix – spawned memes and trends that appeal to the most toxically masculine, despite neither film coming from the imagination of a cishet man. The Wachowskis, trans women, gave the alt-right and friends the idea of “Red Pilling,” and Chuck Pahlahniuk, gay man, gave the trolls Project Mayhem. We can never actually get to post-irony because we’re so fucking steeped in it.
But it wasn’t just the damaged men who took Fight Club wrong; Roger Ebert saw it as a call to fascism. Watching the movie 20 years later it’s crazy to think that’s what he saw (it was crazy in 1999, to be honest, but 20 years distance REALLY highlights the badness of his take); Fight Club goes so far out of its way to tell us that Tyler Durden is wrong, just as the Narrator desperately travels the country trying to convince the Space Monkeys that Project Mayhem is an awful idea.
(By the way, watching the slightly befuddled but impressed Fight Clubbers deal with their leader, who is spouting what seems like gibberish, takes on new light after Trump’s deranged CPAC speech. His base, like these Space Monkeys, look at the garbled nonsense and clear signs of insanity and find a way to say, “You’re a genius, sir.”)
Fight Club is about a spiritual disease infecting America in the 20th century, one that has reached full malignancy as we barrel towards a frightening 2020 election. That spiritual disease is multilevel, but what the film mostly focuses on are the twin terrors of consumerism and the death of traditional masculinity. A consumerist culture that exists only for material things, that has no sense of love or meaning beyond owning objects, is a culture that cannot make people within it happy. It’s literally impossible – nothing you own will ever make you happy. And yet we live our lives more and more defined by the pursuit of ‘stuff,’ we are rapt watching fix-em-up home shows and we elected to the presidency a man who represents the gaudy cartoon vision of being wealthy.
The Narrator (who we’ll call Jack for the rest of the piece for convenience) understands that the world of products cannot make him happy. He understands that his perfect Ikea home is a millstone, not a comfort. But he has nothing else with which to replace it; he lives in a society where God isn’t dead but rather absent, and the space where God used to exist is now filled with tasteful home decor.
There’s no meaning to anything in this world; Fight Club was released when people were seriously talking about “The End of History,” that weird post-Cold War, pre-9/11 moment when it seemed like the classical liberal model had conquered the entire world. This unmoored reality, that of a society without an ethical or moral center beyond ‘Get yours,’ reacts like Mentos dropped in a bottle of Diet Coke when the third post-masculinity generation came of age. The Industrial Revolution forever altered what men are and what we do, taking away autonomy and self-sufficiency and replacing it with labor and wages. Millennia of social engineering for males suddenly hit the wall of a society that doesn’t really need traditional male qualities in the same way. A couple of global wars helped keep things from getting too weird by giving male aggression a focus, but once WWII was over it was all downhill for traditional masculinity.
This isn’t a problem. The problem is that no one came forward with a new model that was accepted. And so first the Boomers and then Gen X and finally the Millennials fell into these increasingly misogynistic, angry and violent cycles. We’ve seen it peaking in the last few years, starting with the organized hate campaign that was GamerGate and metastasizing into lots of movements defined by angry young men acting like assholes, or, in the case of increasing mass shooting massacres, worse.
Put the emptiness of consumerism together with the fragility of wounded masculinity and you come up with a recipe for violence. In Fight Club the violence is literal – men gather in the basements of bars to punch and be punched, the spiritual void in them being filled for a few moments by the sharp pain of knuckles splitting lips. Pain, inflicted and accepted, adds meaning to their lives, but more than that Fight Club talks about the seductive ways that community can be built around the worst things.
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