From the get-go, I'll admit that I haven't read the book from which Fight Club, the movie directed by David Fincher, was taken. I've heard some anecdotes about how the novel came to be, which are pretty dismissive of its message and worth. Not knowing the book, I can't speak about it, but from what I understand, the movie follows quite closely to the book's narrative. From here on out, when I mention Fight Club, I'll be referring to the film and not the novel.
As Latter-day Saints, we might be hesitant to consider such a film as Fight Club. It's form is admittedly crass and a bit too hype-driven for my tastes. But thematically it deals with issues that I find intrinsically linked to LDS perspectives and sensibilities.
The film opens with a dilemma. The group we're called to identify with and which gives us our starting point and groundwork for the film is a group of testicular cancer patients. The film's world is populated very literally and allegorically with de-masculinated males. The dilemma throughout the entire film is what should be done about this de-masculinization. The cause is unclear. On the one hand, as Meatloaf's character suggests, body building — striving towards the appearance of strength — has done the de-masculization. On the other hand, selfishness is to blame. One thing I'm glad to see is that the text avoids demonizing femininity and blaming it for the cause, as it would be so easy. There is of course the film's implied misogyny, but never does it assert that femininity is to blame. So whatever the cause, it is entrenched in the modernity and bourgeoisification of men, or as Tyler Durden states, a move away from the "hunter, gatherer" notion of masculinity.
I've written elsewhere on this site about Edward Albee's work and what he has to say about the ineffectualness of middle-class men and how that's led to the death of the American dream. I can't help but see similarities between the American dream, the 'rags-to-riches' story, and a Latter-day Saint journey to become more like our Father in Heaven. In a patriarchally-governed theocracy, we should be ever increasingly interested in sociological and psychological dilemmas that stand in the way of men becoming like their Father in Heaven. From my perspective, there are more and more families where the father is either absent or uninvolved, unable to lead or tyrannical. In the church, where the father's role as the head of the household is constantly reinforced and where the father's leadership in his home is a microcosm for all male leadership within the church, this seems to be a very fundamental theological dilemma. Likewise, our eternal goal, from an LDS perspective, seems to essentially have echoes of the American dream; a progression from the slothful natural man to the Christlike man "obtaining all that the Father hath" certainly has echoes of a progression from rags to riches.
Let me be clear here. My intent is not to profane King Benjamin's speech or our theology. Likewise it is not my goal to make any cultural ties to the gospel of Jesus Christ. I, too, am offended by the notion that our church is the "American church." Yet we might do well to acknowledge similarities between American cultural ideologies and ideologies within the gospel of Jesus Christ as told by Latter-day Saints. I say this mainly to suggest that when Arthur Miller and Edward Albee talk about the American dream, we should take interest from a theological as well as cultural perspective. It's in this framework that Fight Club becomes so fascinating to me.
Edward Norton's character, now a fragmented and de-masculinated, bourgeoisified man, describes for his counterpart, Tyler Durden, his efforts to overcome his state.
- His first attempt was to turn to pornography. This is mentioned only briefly, but a friend of mine pointed out that the remainder of the film's form follows suit and becomes pornographic. There is a CG sex scene where the sex is violence. This is a hot topic; the film gives little insight aside from suggesting that pornography is the first attempted remedy. Fascinating and tragic and horrifying and true. The following three attempted remedies for his de-masculinization are treated like abusive addictions, in the same vein that pornography is.
- The second attempt is materialism. Fincher exhibits his dazzling and satirical use of CG to associate glib materialism with pornography. Norton's character turns from smut companies to IKEA to fill his gender void. Several times his consumerism is described with phrases such as "It's what defines me as a person." I find it fascinating that this false bourgeoisie lifestyle is indicted for being unable to return one's masculinity. As though we weren't able to decipher the class references, the text is sure to point out that Norton's plates have "bubbles" to prove that they're made by blue-collar laborers, who are described as "honest, simple, hardworking" and "indigenous."
- The third method to regain masculinity is chemical dependency and pill-popping. The major scene describing this method has the doctor, despite Norton's requests for more drugs, prescribing "good, natural sleep," which leads to the most interesting method.
- 12-step programs, self-help groups, and new-age therapies of all kinds are implicated as not only failed remedies but as worsening the problem. In this framework, psychology is seen in terms of what it does to masculinity. The film's morality fascinates me in that my gut-reaction remedy to the loss of masculinity would be a "coming to terms with"/support oriented approach. It is these programs that are vilified as "touchy-feely" and therefore stepping further away from masculinity. Tyler Durden even goes so far as to say, "self-improvement is masturbation." In this light, self-improvement is self-destruction.
The second string to the solution the film presents is the destruction of consumerism: first by Norton's destruction of his material-laden condo and then a move to a decrepit and defunct, nearly condemned home devoid of materialism, and then finally the destruction of credit debt and by extension the idea of credit — a finance that cannot be touched. This second string is merely an extension of the first.
Far less time and clarity is sacrificed to these two solutions and by no means do I believe they could be described as literal suggestions for this very real dilemma. The suggestion is based in metanym and designed assuredly to be more of a provocation than a prophecy.
The film's misogyny
Tyler Durden says, "We are a generation of men being raised by women." He continues with, "I'm wondering if another woman is really the answer we need." Obviously a Latter-day Saint would differ here, on the one hand, as central to our doctrine is a committed and eternal heterosexual relationship. Yet on the other hand, I'm tempted to agree within this framework.
Once the fight club has started, the first major shift in the film illustrates what kind of femininity the film is discussing. Helena Bonham Carter calls Norton during a "cry-for-help" suicide attempt, the epitome of an emotionally needy/ 'high-maintenance' femininity. This passive aggression is placed in opposition to the violence, which is non-aggression. The masculinity-restoring violence also cures, in the end, this emotional manipulation and passive aggression. If this is what the film means by "needing another woman," then I must agree that passive aggression isn't the answer. But regardless, the film is shortsighted and misogynistic. In this world, the man is still the possessor and the woman the possessed, the man is the hunter and the woman is the hunted, sexually and otherwise.
No matter what aspect of femininity the film is attacking (or 'curing'), it is essentially misogynistic because it is the only portrait of women in the entire film (that they are reduced to being sick with emotional neediness and can only be 'cured' by a male sexual administration). This reduction has obvious negative implications and is in direct opposition to our view of temporalness as well as eternity.
This view of femininity also reveals the film's view of masculinity. The primary expression of the ideal post-modernity (as opposed to post-modern) male-male relationship is non-aggressive violence. Part of my goal here is to reassert that this violence should be viewed largely as a symbolic gesture toward something greater. The primary expression of the ideal post-modernity, male-female relationship is aggressive sex — suggested by the tongue-in-cheek rubber gloves and Helena Bonham Carter's falling off the bed in the background. The sex here, it is suggested, requires the male to be dominant and the female to be submissive to the degree that she falls off the bed.
Norton's character is only able to please Helena Bonham Carter (likewise a definition of what it means to 'be a man') when he becomes Tyler Durden, i.e. as a fractured, misogynistic man. Edward Norton's character can only become intimate with her on an emotional level, however, when he destroys the part of him which could please her sexually. Here, sexual pleasure and emotional commitment cannot coexist (that is, of course, unless Norton's character has absorbed Brad Pitt by this point, therefore allowing simultaneously for emotional commitment and sexual fulfillment. But my reading is that the film actually knows nothing about emotional commitment). The point is that the depiction of femininity reveals much about the film's assumptions about masculinity.
However crass they may be, the film also comes with references to Lorena Bobbitt. This reference has less to do with pop culture than with a long string of phallus references (Tyler Durden peeing in the food, splicing in images of male genitalia into children's films — as well as into our film, threats of neutering, not to mention countless crude gestures and phrases referencing the phallus), only this reference focuses on the woman as the aggressor. Here femininity is the cause of the demasculinization. The rest of the film doesn't express this point of view, but this reference furthers the misogyny as well as revealing its view of masculinity.
I've written before on this blog against escapism and how it seems in complete opposition to an LDS view of the purpose of mortality. (This, again, is one reason missionaries are not allowed contact with any non-canonical media.) So of course I take great interest when a movie of this commercial magnitude takes a stance against escapism.
I would say that the lye scene is the strongest argument against escapism that I know of. It is likewise the clearest illustrations in art of any philosophy that I know of. The form, both in movement and stillness, exhibits such precision and clarity that I am tempted to label it with complete harmony between form and content. We see through this dazzling piece of filmmaking, never gratuitous, just one example of why David Fincher has so many aficionados. The scene, then, suggests that a lye burn (the required branding that declares that that individual has overcome escapism) is a vital step on the personal path toward manhood. In other words, to be a "man," you must wholly reject escapism, facing your problems rather than running from them. Again, if nothing else, we might do well to discuss this scene or some remnant of it at our priesthood activities. That facing the pain required of us is intrinsically linked to manhood, or priesthood, if you like, especially when founded on the pattern of our Savior who "did not shrink," and drank the cup the Father gave to him, seems pretty right to me.
However, as the scene progresses, it reveals a temptation that comes with this great power once we shed escapism: to forsake God. Rather, the philosophy is that either there is no God, or that God has immense disdain for man, or that man is God. (I will refrain from drawing any parallels between an LDS world view and the last option, as that is far too complex and troublesome a topic for me). But this fragmentation, by definition, is agnosticism rather than atheism. Yet the dialogue should stand as a warning on all three fronts, that this pursuit of 'manhood' has contained in it some very twisted heresies if we are not vary. And more and more those ideas become a slippery slope.* While this perspective does allow for profound connection between our forefathers and our Heavenly Father, its outgrowth is perverse. It seems clear to me that whoever penned the question 'if our fathers gave up, what makes us think God didn't?' may be sincere (and it maybe a question worth asking), but that person doesn't know the God mentioned in the Gospel according to John, or the God mentioned by Joseph Smith. Though we can learn from the sentiment, we should never forget the truth we have obtained.
Modernity, filled with place-lessness, alienation, and corporate dishonesty, has formed an image of masculinity that is rightfully questioned here. One scene shows Tyler Durden and Norton's character as they view advertisements for Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger on a bus. They view the men's bare bodies and remark that they "feel sorry for guys packed into a gym." The statement adds extra weight as they are both more fit than the men on the advertisement. The models' fitness is bourgeois. The goal of Norton's and Durden's fitness is much more primal and pragmatic/holistic. They are prepared to assert and defend while having a need and Maslow-esque purpose. It's this distinction between consumerism and masculinity as well as the film's unique view of violence as non-aggression that gives us the proper frame work to understand their view of male historical figures or the history of masculinity.
Tyler Durden and Norton's character ask each other back and forth who they would choose to fight. Answers of authority figures, such as "my boss" and "my father," have hints of a challenge, true, but come more out of a need for connection with these figures. The protagonists desire to fight them out of respect and not disdain because they are only known in a modern and therefore completely disconnected world. This violence is essentially about respect and connection. The film's mentality is that violence brings male unity. In this context, we understand more the desire to share this violence with figures such as Ernest Hemingway, Abraham Lincoln, and Mahatma Gandhi. All three figures are great minds and important leaders or artists, but the last gives us the greatest insight: Fight Club is just as much about the non-violence Gandhi championed as it is about broken noses.
There are obvious differences between an LDS world view and Fight Club's world view. Definitions of hedonism might be the biggest distinction. However it takes as its central topic masculinity (something LDS scholars have taken specific interest in. I believe that BYU professors are the most predominant if not the only writers for journals on men's studies in the United States.) Likewise, the film rejects pornography, consumerism, chemical dependency (though the protagonists still frequent bars), and 12-step programs, all of which in one way or another have made their way into modern definitions of manhood. This alone should cause Latter-day Saints to take note. However, it is what lies beyond the metaphor of violence that intrigues me most, that there is something in the relationship between men that, through modernity, we have lost. That the key to unlocking that secret element might be in the separation between violence and aggression does not seem so outlandish to me.
I wouldn't suggest watching the film as a priesthood quorum, but I do think that if the ideas and dilemmas as well as the possibility for solutions were digested by members of our priesthood quorums, I think that each of us might be more ready and able to function in our priesthood quorums. It does seem to me that we might be more service oriented as well as being more prepared to lead if we reconsider what it means to be a man.
Obviously, I don't agree, and we can't agree, wholeheartedly with the film's definition of what it means to be a man, and certainly there is no room in our families or in our church for the misogyny alluded to, but our definitions of both might do well to be challenged by these positions.
*Also worth noting is that in the film's vocabulary, the 12-step programs had replaced church. The film's protagonists are coming from a place where pop-psychology programs are the meetings which have replaced worship of God.