A Generation of Men Raised by Women: Gender Constructs in 'Fight Club'

By Tori E. Godfree
2010, Vol. 2 No. 04 | pg. 1/2 |

Throughout history has existed a prevalent theme of men and women being reliant on one another, despite the significant—though changing, and usually artificial—inequalities in areas such as education, career power, and political influence.

Marc Antony of Rome stabbed himself to death after hearing rumors that his lover, Queen Cleopatra of Egypt, had committed suicide; she, after receiving news of his death, induced a poisonous snake to bite and kill her. Queen Victoria’s reign over England was highly influenced by her husband Prince Albert, and she went into mourning for 40 years after his death. Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, famous criminals during the American Depression, repeatedly faced a threat of violent death during their spree of robberies, and eventually were killed together as a result of their crimes. John Lennon and Yoko Ono collaborated on many musical and artistic projects until his death, after which she founded three major memorials for him (Biography.com).

These couples all display a similar trait: a certain degree of dependence on one another, suggesting that a combination of masculine and feminine qualities are needed in order for each person involved to achieve their full potential.

This notion is still present in modern culture, as evidenced in the film adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk’s novel Fight Club—a film which is, ironically, loosely associated with male independence. I argue in this essay that Marla Singer and the narrator’s (Jack’s) respective femininity and masculinity are dependent on that of the other. Jack cannot be masculine while Marla exhibits overly masculine traits; Marla cannot be feminine while Jack exhibits overly feminine traits. Thereby, this film exerts the necessity for long-established gender constructs, suggesting that two people of opposite sex cannot peacefully coexist while both display the same stereotypical gender traits, and that neither can achieve proper ethos until they are together and exhibiting their assigned traits.

This argument is presented in three points. First, I describe the film adaptation, its background, and my feminist methodology of representational critique. Second, I focus on three elements in the film: Jack’s feminine traits of borderline-obsession with furniture and the need to cry; Marla’s masculine traits of fearlessness and brazen obscenity; and their transformation together throughout the film. Third, I conclude with the implications of this argument on rhetorical theory, particularly in terms of traditional gender constructs.


The film adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk’s novel Fight Club features a protagonist narrator whose name we assume to be Jack: an average American white-collar male worker bored and disappointed with his life. On his doctor’s recommendation as a cure for his insomnia, he starts attending a support group for men with testicular cancer; he finds he can suddenly sleep again. He becomes addicted to support groups until he discovers a woman Marla, perennially high-heeled, foul-mouthed, and cigarette-smoking, is attending the same meetings. He is upset that someone else is doing the same thing he is; he confronts her and they agree to attend separate meetings.

Shortly after this, Jack encounters Tyler Durden—a man who is everything Jack is not: wholly unfettered, delinquent, and self-assured—on return flight from a business trip. Jack comes home to find his apartment burned down, and himself without a place to sleep. He calls Tyler, who takes him in and proceeds to wholly alter Jack’s worldview. They begin an underground “Fight Club” for men to come and brawl as a means of releasing their anger and embracing their innate violent tendencies as males.

Fight Club grows, as does Jack’s rebelliousness and disregard for the impressions of others. Marla calls to inquire why Jack has not been attending support groups, and to inform him that she has overdosed on Xanex. Jack leaves the phone off the hook and walks away while she is talking. Tylerpicks up the receiver and “helps” Marla her through her overdose by bringing her home and sleeping with her. Fight Club continues to grow and eventually morphs into Project Mayhem, a terrorist organization that spreads to most major cities.

Jack becomes uncomfortable with the group’s undertakings, attempts to stop them, and eventually learns (with the unwitting aid of Marla) that Tyler is actually his alter-ego who takes over when Jack is sleeping. The members of Project Mayhem come to view Marla as a threat, and Jack tries to send her to safety and stop everything that Tyler has set in motion. In the end, Jack accepts responsibility for his and Tyler’s actions, and gets rid of Tyler by shooting himself in the mouth. The movie ends with Jack and Marla holding hands at the top of a skyscraper, watching the buildings around them explode.

The feminist methodology that I will employ in this argument is representational critique. This methodology looks at the portrayal of females throughout culture, and especially in T.V. and film, and their reflection of or on societal norms. This methodology aids in my analysis by allowing me to examine the two primary male and female roles and to contrast their respective characteristics. Using representational critique, I will show how Fight Club reflects gender constructs in modern society.

When we first encounter Jack by himself, he is sitting on the toilet in his home, holding a cordless telephone between his ear and his shoulder, ordering “the Erika Pekkari dust ruffles” while staring at a furniture magazine. The camera spans to show the rest of his home, with assorted furniture and dish items popping into place on the screen (accompanied by their prices and descriptions) while he speaks about his fixation with them:

“Like so many others, I had become a slave to the lKEA nesting instinct. If I saw something clever, like a little coffee table in the shape of a yin-yang, I had to have it. The Klipsk personal office unit. The Hovetrekke home exerbike. Or the Ohamshab sofa with the Strinne green stripe pattern. Even the Ryslampa wire lamps of environmentally-friendly unbleached paper. I'd flip through catalogues and wonder, ‘What kind of dining set defines me as a person?’ I had it all. Even the glass dishes with tiny bubbles and imperfections, proof that they were crafted by the honest, hard-working, indigenous peoples of...wherever. We used to read pornography. Now it was the Horchow collection” (Fight Club).

Traditionally speaking, the home, including furniture and dishes, are considered to be within the woman’s sphere.

Our next initial encounter with Jack include him asking his doctor to prescribe some kind of sleeping pills for his insomnia (which the doctor refuses to prescribe), describing them in his narration as “red and blue Tuinals, lipstick-red Seconals” (Fight Club). Here, lipstick is another association with the feminine.

In the following scene, Jack is at a support group for men with testicular cancer (which he does not have). The group leader calls time for one-on-one conversations, and Jack meets Bob—a large male with what Jack calls “bitch tits”. He and Bob have a brief conversation, after which Bob cries, and encourages Jack to cry.

Jack does so, and that night he finds his insomnia to be cured. He begins attending other support groups for illnesses he does not have, so that he can cry and be comforted, and thus sleep. Here, Jack is blatantly disregarding the adage that “boys don’t cry”, and embracing what is often considered to be a stereotypically feminine indulgence in tears.

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