There are few things in life that scream “MALE” as much as the concept of Fight Club. It’s often hailed as an idealised version of masculinity, and on surface level, it’s easy to see why. Members of the club gather to physically fight, connecting over the violence and anti-conformist ideals perpetuated by the clubs’ founder, Tyler Durden.
In the novel, Tyler coins the phrase “space monkey” to refer to the people he regards as unquestioning and ready to conform to their given environment. In response, Fight Club starts as a community of sorts for the young men who don’t want anything to do with it. But as the club grows, the members themselves lose their identity, becoming faceless beings that start to look the same to the Narrator. Palaniuk deliberately doesn’t give them names; they are just “the mechanic”, or “the waiter”. Ironically, they fall victim to the conformity they criticised in the first place.
The thing is, it’s not because the men are stupid or passive that they turn into the “space monkeys” they once mocked. The character of Tyler is a conman, and an excellent one too. The actual words in his grand speeches aren’t insightful or even new- but he manages to use salesman chatter to tap into the internalised frustration that the members of Fight Club have long felt, but unable to express. And that’s the real danger of toxic masculinity: it does not allow men to access their emotions in a healthy way. Instead of allowing themselves to feel sad, upset or hurt, these men are forced to bottle it up in a grand show of being “manly”. The result is, of course, generations of emotionally stunted men who feel the world owes them something
If you’re a male reader who’s starting to get irritated by reading this, believe me when I say I already know “NOT ALL MEN-!”
But ENOUGH men.
The book has built up a cult following of mostly male readers who do not recognise it as a criticism and warning against toxic masculinity, but as a romanticisation of it. Chuck Palaniuk once stated that “all my books are about a lonely person looking for way to connect with other people.” So what does that tell us about his most (in)famous novel, Fight Club?
The character of Tyler Durden asserts his pseudo-doctrine of individulity, but ultimately it’s all just a con to trick directionless men into doing his bidding. Indeed, as the club members evolve from pulling silly pranks, to the terrorist-like organisation “Project Mayhem” with a plot to blow up banks across the city, it’s clear that his version of “masculine” is exceptionally dangerous. But I’m not referring to the bomb plot, I’m talking about the expectation that men should act a certain way in order to be regarded as “real” men.
Fitting then, that- spoiler!- the character of Tyler Durden is a mental conjecture of the Narrators’ mind. Even in a fictional book, “Tyler Durden”, just like his hyper-masculaine, anti-conformist manifesto, is nothing more than a failed supposition.
Despite this, many readers still seem to treat Tyler Durden as a “real character”, rather than the dissociative conjecture of the Narrator’s personality. In fact, after the 1999 film adaptation was released, dozens of young men even legally changed their names to Tyler Durden, an act which further underscores their complete misinterpretation of the themes in the book.
This is an aspect of feminism that doesn’t get talked about very much. We have generations of women who know they deserve to be treated better, but the same generations of men who aren’t taught the same. If we tell young girls that they have the choice to reject everything that society expects from them, then we need to tell young boys they have the same choice.
Ultimately, Palaniuk shows us that “Tyler” is brought down by his hubris: inevitably, definitively, he loses. When a culture of toxic masculinity is enforced, nobody emerges victorious.