For centuries, toxic masculinity, a familiar and saddening trope, has plagued cultures across every corner of the world. In the film, Fight Club, director David Fincher clearly seeks to demonstrate how a society driven by consumerism worsens mental health problems and makes men vulnerable to the ills of toxic masculinity. The narrator, commonly referred to as Jack, suffers from severe insomnia and copes with it partially through hyper-consumption, making him susceptible to intense male insecurities. In essence, Jack falls victim to the fundamental flaws of modern American society.
Eventually, Jack’s insecurities manifest themselves into the alter-personality of Tyler Duren, who is handsome, confident, and most notably, toxic in his behavior towards women and men who did not strictly follow the hyper-masculine doctrine. In stark contrast, Jack is average and is dumbfounded when he is approached by Marla Singer, the only female character in the film that also shows an attraction for him.
At its core, Fight Club is a fervent criticism of how American culture perpetuates toxic masculinity through destructive gender expectations, hyper-consumerism, and an extreme glorification of violence.
From the very beginning, Jack is already breaking traditional gender roles by going to a testicular cancer support group where men come together to discuss the physical and societal consequences of having lost their “manhood.” At this support group, Jack meets Robert ‘Bob’ Paulson, a former “champion bodybuilder” who got testicular cancer and grew “bitch tits” as a consequence of abusing steroids in an attempt to achieve the muscular, hyper-masculine appearance.
Bodybuilders are traditionally viewed as masculine gender role models in American society and are often juxtaposed with skinny, half-naked women models who serve as a feminine counterbalance at bodybuilding events. Even putting one’s own health in jeopardy is one of the many consequences of the fundamental doctrines of toxic masculinity: to never give in or settle. In Bob’s case, his steroid abuse backfired by forcing him to not only be faced with testicular cancer but to move further from the traditional toxic perception of a masculine male as well. As a result, a charismatic, empathetic Bob, who deserves to be cherished and appreciated, is instead shunned from society and neglected by other men around him.
Similarly, when Jack was discussing his insomnia with his doctor, he denies Jack any prescription medication or therapy and tells him “if you want to see true pain.. go see the guys with testicular cancer,” as Tyler briefly appears behind him. The doctor, also a male, let toxic masculinity interrupt his already delicate profession by downplaying Jack’s traumatizing experiences with his mental health and telling him the medical equivalent of “man up.”
Tyler appearing during this moment for just one frame indicates that what the doctor had done was not only toxic but also the beginning of a spiral downwards into the rabbit hole of toxic masculinity that Jack had been a victim of his entire life. Ultimately, demoralizing gender expectations that men are supposed to be physically strong and ignore emotional hardship are often set and enforced by other men, strengthening the vice that is toxic masculinity.
Another crucial development in Jack’s life is how his hyper-consumption, fueled by the office job he despises, ends up radicalizing him by pushing him towards toxic masculinity. When summarizing his obsession with purchasing meaningless furniture, Jack reluctantly admits “we used to read pornography, now it was Horchow collection”. This is the first indication that Jack is frustrated with the direction society is headed: away from the primitive desires of men and towards the consumption of useless items that women are traditionally supposed to be in charge of, including furniture and other household items.
This revealing inner dialogue Jack has with himself indicates an innate sense of anger and defeat and growing frustration with a society that he is becoming increasingly tired of participating in. Hyper-consumerism is normally viewed as negative because of implications regarding class, but toxic men interpret societal issues from a lens that reinforces their fragile beliefs.
In the article, “The Men Who Still Love Fight Club,” author Peter Baker notices how Tyler is portrayed as “an alpha male” who does not conform to the temptations of consumerism while Jack is just another “frustrated white-color office worker.” Although Tyler, the main toxic masculine figure, is clearly against consumerism, he fails to recognize that hyper-consumerism has single-handedly enabled his existence. Had it not been for Jack’s innate hatred for mindless consumption, there would have been no demand for a charming, countercultural figure like him.
After Jack’s apartment mysteriously explodes, he meets with Tyler who famously opines the phrase “the things you own end up owning you” in response to his grievances about everything he lost and that they do not need many of the products they own in “the hunter-gatherer sense of the world.” More than anyone, Tyler expresses the greatest discontent for consumerism and is specifically hostile towards many products that are often perceived as feminine, but he also attacks pharmaceutical medication meant to assist men with erectile dysfunction, implying that men with sexual disabilities are not masculine.
Tyler’s hunter-gatherer comment is another toxic call for a return to a “simpler” society, void of technological and medical advancements that he believes feminized society. Ironically, hunter-gatherer groups were composed of peaceful egalitarians, demonstrating that many toxic men, almost purposely, ignore reality in order to justify their misogynistic mindsets. America’s hyper-consumerist society has managed to accumulate an intense, unanimous hatred amongst its citizens. This hatred has provided an opportunity for toxic masculine figures, such as Tyler, to deceive others by diagnosing hyper-consumerism as a consequence of a loss of masculinity rather than a series of issues engraved within our economic system.
Undoubtedly, the most notable manifestation of toxic masculinity is the violence within the fight club itself. After their discussion about consumerism in the bar, Tyler continuously urges Jack to “hit [him],” despite Jack’s protests that his request “is crazy” and “stupid”. Deep down, Tyler understands that there is no innate urge for violence within men, but rather that it is taught. Those who argue that violence is natural or innate to men only do so to provide a justification for their harmful behavior that has been taught to them from a young age. Jack eventually succumbs to Tyler’s violent influence and beats another man in the fight club almost to the verge of death.
In the article, “Does Fight Club Critique or Celebrate the Extreme Violence of Men,” author Amelia Abraham notes that the fight club is ultimately “a community of sad, frustrated men… [who] attempt to affirm each other’s masculinity” through the language of violence that American culture has taught them to speak. Almost exclusively within American society, there exists a glorification of violence from the cult-like obsession of military-grade weapons to the frequent masculine praise of violent sports. These obsessions have served as the basis for many male insecurities surrounding behavior and physical build, often causing those who have been marginalized by the glorification of violence to embrace it. Unlike hyper-consumerism, violence is a feature of American culture that has been enthusiastically embraced by toxic masculinity, therefore allowing it to serve as yet another gateway towards radicalization.
Fight Club is one of the most misinterpreted works of art of all time. Tyler Burden’s character has become a biblical figure amongst those who proudly idolize toxic masculinity and yearn for a society in which “men can be men”, void of everything in between like consumerism.
In an incredible twist of irony, Tyler’s effort to deceptively interpret the world from a narrow, misogynistic lens is identical to how toxic men force themselves to ignore the painfully obvious gender-liberating message of the movie in order to appreciate it. The film brilliantly utilizes the same traits of American society that have been weaponized by the culture of toxic masculinity to craft a beautiful critique of it. As a result, it is through the reception of Fight Club that we can best learn about the mindsets of ourselves and the society around us.
Title Image/Quotations: Fincher, David. Fight Club. Twentieth Century Fox, 1999.
A special thanks to Alessi Ayvaz for her amazing support in editing this article.