FIGHT CLUB At 20: Masculinity Is An Unreliable Narrator

David Fincher used your default assumptions about male protagonists against you.

Spoiler Warning: If you’ve somehow gone this long without seeing Fight Club and for some reason are reading an anniversary article that is all about how the film twists your perceptions, you should probably be prepared to have one of the most infamous twists of recent cinematic history spoiled for you.

We all know the identity of Tyler Durden at this point. The nameless Narrator invented Tyler as an idealization of masculinity, a raw force of assertive power that is so far removed from who the Narrator is in his daily life that it threatens to destroy him from within as the persona consumes him. We’ve been chewing on David Fincher’s adaptation for the twenty years since Fight Club has come out, and on Chuck Palahniuk’s novel for even longer, focused on the deconstruction of the toxically masculine and, unfortunately, witnessing the unironic adoption of Durden’s nihilistic cult by those who choose to ignore the thematic implications of the film’s twist reveal. It’s because of these misinterpretations of the intent and execution of Fight Club that it’s important to look at how the film sets up and pays off its examination of identity, and why the film’s defiance of convention leaves it open to misinterpretation.

As audiences of Western narratives, we are trained to identify with and root for the protagonists of stories, who are often male and are designed to feed into our cultural norms of how a rational, normal person would react in a given situation. The Narrator takes this assumption to the extreme in how he isn’t even given a name, so the audience is given subconscious permission to insert themselves into the first-person monologuing that permeates the film’s structure. However, we’re told from the beginning that the Narrator is having trouble distinguishing reality from dreams, due to his insomnia. To replicate this sensation, Fight Club cuts quickly between scenes and disparate thoughts, maintaining a kinetic energy that allows you to hold on to the idea that you can distinguish between the Narrator’s life and his fantasies. You’re set up to think of the Narrator’s struggles with insomnia as a relatable struggle, but the scenes of a talking penguin or of planes colliding are so outlandish that you know they’re false.

You’re also set up to think of pain as a measure of strength, and that the greatest measure of pain a man can face is the destruction of his traditional and physical masculinity. When the Narrator goes to the doctor to get treatment for his insomnia, the doctor straight up tells him that his pain is inconsequential, especially compared to men with testicular cancer, a completely unrelated condition that only matters if you assume that pain is on a linear scale that terminates at the loss of culturally-mandated manhood. And by attending support groups - the testicular cancer group most highlighted among them - the Narrator finds solace in people accepting his unspoken pain. He’s exploiting the conditions of people whom he doesn’t share a struggle with, but that doesn’t make his pain any less real. He lives in a culture where a man is only allowed to express sorrow if his life or testicles are at stake.

This is where Tyler comes in, introduced initially as a random too-cool passerby at the airport before showing up as an actual character in the airline seat next to the Narrator. His first line is a random bit of trivia about how oxygen masks get you high, denoting a fatalistic streak to the character but also betraying how Tyler essentially functions as a fount of random factoids, bits of intelligence later shown to have been rattling around in the Narrator’s subconscious. Another stylistic choice that foreshadows Tyler’s fictional reality is that the Narrator is the one to tell us about Tyler’s improbably rebellious side jobs as a porn-peeping projectionist and a piss-peddling wait server. We’re meant to implicitly trust that the Narrator is giving us a retrospective look into the history of an important character, but not only does he not do this for any other character besides Tyler, he also interacts with Tyler within the flashbacks, providing a subtle hint that this fast-paced, loose use of cinematic language may not just be a flashy way to keep our attention, but is in fact a purposeful distraction from the fact that the Narrator is breaking our perspective from objective reality.

And of course, with the establishment of the actual Fight Club, you see how that unreliable set-up pays off in heightening and cataclysmic ways. There are odd moments that go by so quickly that they hardly register on a first viewing, such as when Tyler “speaks for” the Narrator during a doctor visit, yet the Narrator literally repeats what Tyler says. The Narrator and Tyler never speak in conjunction when confronted by groups of people, with one of them always cloaked in shadow and other characters’ eyelines only ever tracking one of them at a time. But, most importantly, there starts to be this duplicitous treatment of the Narrator by the members of what evolves into Project Mayhem, with Tyler disappearing into the background of the narrative as the Narrator suspects that he is being cut out of this skinhead cult of masculinity; in actuality, he’s being cut out of his own life by his alter ego.

What is often overlooked, though, is how Marla, the Narrator’s support group-hopping antagonist and Tyler’s casual sexual parter, is framed early in the film as a crazy person, engaging in the same Pain Olympics as the Narrator, erratically stealing clothes from a laundromat for a quick pawn shop buck, and generally living the kind of shithole squalor that befits her poverty. This allows the Narrator, and therefore the audience, to handwave away Marla’s behavior around the Narrator, which is often confused and angry, particularly after a night of sex with Tyler. Of course, knowing that the Narrator and Tyler are the same person recontextualizes these scenes and makes Marla’s confusion understandable, but they also reveal to us something about the value of the film’s only major female character in her suspicions. She is the only person with any inkling that the Narrator and Tyler are disparate personalities, perhaps because men see the Narrator’s adoption of the Tyler persona as an actualization of his masculinity, no matter how blatantly disconcerting it is. In other words, Marla is set up to appear like the crazy person, because feminine hysteria and poverty are commonly accepted indicators of poor mental health from the default masculine cultural perspective, but in actuality Marla is the closest this story has to an objective voice, detecting the instability in a man who is able to provoke that same instability in others until their collective masculinity threatens to collapse the whole of society.

And the tragedy of this story is that the forces of self-destructive masculinity turn out to be unstoppable. Though the film ends on a supposedly fulfilling note as the Narrator kills the monster within himself, Tyler’s plans still go into effect, senselessly destroying the economic basis of American society to potentially disastrous consequences. Those who see that climactic shots as triumphant fail to understand why Tyler needed to be defeated, why he was created in the first place, and why they were initially tricked into accepting him as a positive influence. Fight Club is a film that needs the men in its audience to engage with some level of introspection, to look past the shallow coolness of a hypermasculine idol and realize how the cult of masculinity has the potential to destroy everything. The Narrator may have saved himself, but he only did so by snapping out of his self-delusion and killing the part of himself that was a threat to others. It’s now up to the audience to recognize how they’ve been tricked, what that deception means for how they exist in the world, and to enter a post-Durden life.