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Fight Club…for Feminists?

Guest blogger, Kate Robinson


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Fight Club. The title alone steers the mind from considering it a feminist read. However, when we look past the cover by which we might judge Chuck Palahniuk’s book, we find feminist principles. In the novel, the narrator/Tyler Durden’s dialogue distinctly identifies gender as a socio-cultural construct.* Gender roles are questioned as we are challenged to determine which character, the narrator or Tyler Durden, is the epitome of manhood. We are asked to define manhood and manliness. In so doing, we must thereby question our assumptions about all gender roles.

On Feb. 15, 2011, Laura Cude wrote an article about The Handmaid’s Tale that led to reader comments about dystopian literature. When I made a comment about Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club in particular, further discussion ensued, and I was asked to contribute something more formal concerning my thoughts about Fight Club as representative of feminist literature.

For most of the book, the narrator disparages Marla Singer, the main female character. Fifty or so pages in, two male characters bemoan being raised by women because of their fathers’ absence at work or through divorce, and wonder, “if another woman is really the answer I need.” We cannot let Marla off the hook for her own negative self-talk. She refers to herself, more than once, as “infectious human waste” and views aging as when “she’ll have fewer and fewer options.” Arguably, Marla is not the usual or easily identified feminist character. As a result, the feminist reader might dismiss the novel as misogynist.

However, if we examine the characters and their relationship in the novel as a whole, we find something more complex and worthy of further consideration. Despite her suicide attempt, Marla has not given up on life, or the narrator. Due to the fact that the novel is told from the point of view of the narrator, who is unaware of his split personality for most of the book, we are not presented with the details of shared self-mutilation incidents, such as cigarette and lye burns since these occur between the Durden character and Marla. Instead, we discover them much like the narrator who comments on the physical scars he shares with her. This is a literary construct and tool, not an attempt to gloss over the issues of violence and domestic abuse. The self-inflicted wounds are part of the two searching for life’s meaning, for feeling, for enlightenment and connection. This search is due to the characters’ dissatisfaction with the consumerist society in which they live where there is little connection or relationship and where work duties, such as the travel the narrator undertakes in his job, keep people from developing meaningful relationships.

As flawed a female character as Marla is, she remains her own person throughout the story. She does not so much as put up with the narrator/Durden, as seek to understand the two and her self at the same time. At the end of the text, she tells the narrator that she prefers his personality to that of Durden. Thus, we see that she is not tolerant of the abuse, and that she had hoped all along that the narrator would integrate, what they both come to realize, as dual personalities. She finds herself and discovers hope and love (or something resembling it in the messed up world of Fight Club) through their relationship. She is not willing to let that go, despite suffering the Durden personality at times.

Self-mutilation is something many of the characters pursue in an attempt to “feel” something due to the lack of emotional connection that is otherwise the status quo in the consumerist society in which they live. This, of course, mirrors our own culture wherein people cut themselves because they lack emotional feeling and connection. It has been documented that “cutting” as it is known, is often undertaken by people suffering from depression that is marked by an inability to feel emotion of any kind. The cutting and self-infliction of pain serves to allow the person to physically, if not emotionally, feel and experience sensation.

Feminist scholars propose relational theory as an alternative to the stages and individualized, trajectory-like developmental models put forth by (mostly) white, Western men. Relational development theory posits that we grow and develop in relationship and in relation to others in our lives. This theory views development as more circuitous and as the result of interactions.

The hope, healing and love Marla’s character finds through her relationship with the narrator seems stereotypical on the surface—the woman bound to her self-destructive and abusive male partner. However, the narrator is healed through his relationship with Marla, as well. At the beginning of the novel, the narrator develops multiple personality disorder. Upon the death of his friend Bob, which is the result of a prank instigated by the narrator’s Durden personality, the narrator decides he must stop his destructive alternate-personality. The Durden personality has set up safeguards against this, and because of these, Marla’s life is endangered. Due to his feelings for Marla, the narrator is determined to find a way to extricate himself from the entanglement of multiple personality disorder. He realizes that destruction and violence only create feelings of desolation, rather than the equanimity and self-worth the narrator seeks. Instead, he finds these not only with Marla, but also because of her. Thus, the narrator’s and Marla’s healing, growth and development are the result of their relationship.

It is interesting that a male author wrote this book, and yet I cannot imagine a female author for it. Women authors are not known for producing works that detail violence, or for writing mostly unlovable female lead characters. Marla is not a female lead with whom women might easily identify. Even as we witness her suffering due to the multiple personality disorder of the narrator, she retains her sense of self, her wit and her strength so that she is never crying over the loss of the narrator as a partner. Rather, she deals with so much of is erratic behavior and then determines she is better off moving on without him. As the text comes to a close, the narrator determines that his Durden personality was partly due to his desire for a relationship with Marla. He states, “I know why Tyler has occurred. Tyler loved Marla. From the first night I met her, Tyler or some part of me had needed a way to be with Marla.” Marla, too, confirms her approval of and desire for the narrator’s personality as opposed to that of the Durden personality. As he is taken away to be committed to a mental institution, she says, “No, I like you…I know the difference,” indicating her recognition of the narrator as separate from the Durden personality.

As we reflect on what constitutes feminist literature, a novel like this challenges us. In Fight Club, we see that men also suffer under the modern manifestation of patriarchy. However, my argument for the novel as feminist is not because it presents a lament for men’s suffering akin to that of women, and it certainly does not offer what we would normally consider a healthy or admirable female image. Rather it is the treatment of gender roles as socio-culturally constructed and the presence of relational development that convince me of the merits of Fight Club as feminist literature.

In interviews, Palahniuk claims he is not writing feminist literature when he is asked about whether these elements of Fight Club are intentional. The fact that he wrote a novel that incorporates relational theory and challenges gender roles without setting out to do so says something about the reach of feminist thought in our society. The author allowed his main character to find growth and healing through relationship, and helped forward the discussion on gender roles. While the focus was mostly about answering, “what makes a man?” If we answer that, we must always consider women’s roles, as well. Palahniuk’s final answer is that a man is a dichotomous person, someone who is at times weak and at other times strong. Rather than cold-hearted and calculating, a man is one who cares deeply for others. We see that this is also what defines a woman. Thus, the author offers a new way of thinking about gender as liquid, as fitting the situation at hand.

*Plot spoiler: the narrator of the book suffers from multiple personality disorder. Tyler Durden is the narrator’s alternate personality.


Photo by Chris Robinson

Kate Robinson is a writer and artist who lives in Wrentham, Massachusetts. She earned a bachelor’s degree in art and communications, as well as a Master’s degree, from Lesley University. Kate enjoys reading, writing and exchanging artist trading cards. She also works in e-commerce and instructs medical students in physical and gynecological exam skills. Kate is in the research stage of a book about women’s identity and development within relationships.

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Kate Robinson
Kate Robinson, M.A. adult learning and development, is a Master's in Social Work candidate at Bridgewater State University. She lives south of Boston with her family. Kate enjoys writing, reading, collage and felting. She also works in medical education and as a counselor at a women's health clinic.
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4  Comments
  • Kate Robinson

    Hi Tone: I sent you an email privately, just comment again if you did not receive it for some reason. Thank you!

  • Tone

    Hi! My name is Tone, and I am a filmstudent at University of Southampton. I am currently writing my dissertation on ‘Fight Club’ and I was wondering if I could get permission to use your post as part of my research? I am having a closer look at the reception of the film. Your name will not be used at all in the dissertation if you don’t want to, I will be referring to my subjects by using character A,B,C etc. Your post will be useful for me in analyzing the reception of the film, and I would really appreciate it.

    Kind Regards,
    Tone

  • Kate Robinson

    Thanks for the comment, Lindsay! When the movie was first out (before I read the book) I never wanted to see it. I kept telling my husband I did not want to watch guys beat each other up for two hours. We finally saw the film, which inspired me to read the book. I’ve introduced it to a lot of feminists over the years now who love it.

  • Lindsay

    Wow, Kate, I never thought of Fight Club that way. I’ve always liked it, but never thought it particularly feminist, mostly because women were not allowed to join Fight Club and the narrator thought no woman would ever want to. (Reading it, of course, I thought I might want to join. So I was mystified by this omission — I do not think there is anything men do that no woman would ever want to do).

    But I think you’re absolutely right about relationships, and Palahniuk’s critical look at masculinity.

    Great analysis.

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