“Fight Club”, “Fleabag” and The Battle Against Toxicity

Fight Club Brad Pitt & Edward Norton in Fight Club (20th Century Fox)

A look back at the movie that inadvertently launched a toxic movement & the TV series that better understood postmodern pain.

It is a truth universally acknowledged by single women everywhere that if a man says his favorite movie is Fight Club, you run in the opposite direction. This is not necessarily because of the film itself, it is a byproduct of experience. It’s meeting too many men in too many college bars who, despite never have ever seen Clueless or Mean Girls, are still happy to shout, “what do you MEAN you’ve never seen it?” with full-on incredulity, all before launching into a lengthy diatribe. It makes for an intense experience. Not only is this the kind of come-on that only works if you’ve already said “well, why not?” it’s also a fairly standard warning sign of the way they interact with the world. Again, I say it playfully, but this is the truth universally acknowledged by all women. 

That is, of course, unless they happened to have met me at 17.

I didn’t see the film until 2004 when I happened to walk into my hometown video store, which featured a bin of $1 VHS tapes. This wasn’t the kind of independent video store that had quirky teenage clerks or Fellini posters on the wall, but you could rent Austin Powers for about a dollar less than you could at Blockbuster. This was its only real charm. 

But in rummaging through the bin, I found a box with a sickly green cover, featuring Brad Pitt holding out a bar of bright pink soap. I’d never seen it before. In fact, I’d never even heard of it, nor its surrounding hoopla. But for some reason, I bought it without thinking.

I watched it and loved it immediately, passionately, and fervently. It was a frothing-at-the-mouth kind of love. I immediately read the book. I showed the film to every poor soul that happened to admit they hadn’t seen it. I memorized the dialogue down to the inflection. I scrawled my backpack with quotes in red Sharpie, made my own fan T-shirts, and even wrote multiple papers on it, much to my AP English teacher’s dismay (Sorry, Ms. Porri!). I couldn’t help it. It was the epicenter of my pop culture understanding. And it was how I thought I understood society at large and its relationship to my own coolness. 

The obvious question is “why?” Why would a young woman fall so hopelessly in love with a film that was beloved by the same men whose love of it would send her running for the hills? The truth is that it was all part of a false bargain that I would only come to understand with time.

Toward the end of college, my obsessive fervor for the film had begun not so much to die down but to settle. It was no longer at the foreground of my life. At the same time, with several women’s studies classes under my belt and my interest in advocacy and activism growing, I had learned about the seams of my own reality. Suddenly, the aspects of Fight Club’s philosophy I’d been blind to snapped into focus. It got harder to shrug off its casual misogyny, from Bob’s “bitch tits” to the much more problematic assertion by Tyler that a generation of men being fucked up by their mothers means we need a world without women (unless it’s for sex). Even the film’s violence started to seem so much more senseless than I remembered as if it had suddenly gone from pointed commentary to something secretly being celebrated. And in just a few short years, the rise of Red Pillers on Reddit would throw these feelings into stark relief, revealing the darker side of the film’s fanbase: those who loved the movie almost as much as they hated me. 

Why would a young woman fall so hopelessly in love with a film that was beloved by the same men whose love of it would send her running for the hills?

The obvious embarrassment began to seep in, even a sense of shame. But I couldn’t face it because there was just too much to unpack. So I decided right then and there that I’d never watch it again. I’d keep my love of the film safely tucked away in my memory. I honestly didn’t want to see it through older, wiser eyes because I didn’t want more embarrassment on top of that which already existed. And so a decade would pass and that shame would lessen. But now, in honor of its 20th anniversary, I figured it was finally time to pay the piper.

The rewatch confirmed many things, starting with obvious: David Fincher has always been an assured filmmaker. The film somehow even feels slicker today, taking its gritty subject matter and neatly arranging it within frame, all before being glossed over with the shiny blue and green hues of Fincher’s impeccable eye. Even the CGI has barely aged. But everyone in this film is playing right on cue, too. Edward Norton effortlessly embodies that disaffected Gen-X attitude, while Brad Pitt gets to have a ball. The whole film cackles right alongside him, like a devilish imp. But looking at it now, there are several levels of disconnect between the film and its intended thesis. 

At its core, Fight Club wants to be a skewering of both modern life and toxic masculinity. After all, in the end, the narrator not only rejects Tyler and his philosophy in favor of Marla and a future where he takes responsibility for his actions, he kills him. Tyler and his violent misogyny are rejected. Tyler dies. This is text. But it just can’t help but feel like a half-hearted attempt at that text. In trying to skewer toxicity, it replicates it so seductively. Part of it is inescapably in the way Brad Pitt’s magnetism radiates on screen. But Tyler also keeps offering these efficiently quotable little nuggets of violent anti-consumerist philosophy (many of which would later go on to be used by the alt-right).

It’s the Brad Pitt complex, really. In casting an ideal, they cast the genuine Adonis. Earlier, we see the narrator and Tyler look at an underwear ad with a male model on display and he asks “That’s what a real man looks like?” But that is what Brad Pitt looks like. A little blood splatter here and there can’t hide the fact that he could just as easily be in that ad himself. Brad Pitt isn’t just the narrator’s ideal vision of himself, though, it’s likely what a good number of men in the audience wish they could be, too. As much as you might enjoy Norton’s performance, he’s not who you want to be. You want to be Pitt. You want to be Tyler. Every man I talked to who saw it at about that age fell for it, too: “Yes, I absolutely wanted to be Tyler.”

Edward Norton & Helena Bonham Carter in Fight Club (20th Century Fox)

As much as the film wants to criticize this desire, it yearns for it, too. Worse, it offers no real alternative. There’s no real empathy in the film for Norton’s growth, nor is there any real change in his character, he just keeps echoing the same vague notions that all this has gone “too far.” So, of course, his words end up ringing hollow. Especially for a film that “kills” Tyler, but then still has him with us in a meta sense as he sneaks a few frames of a penis into the final shot. And it’s all part of the reason the ending can’t help but feel like a get out of jail free card; a limp in-text defense for a movie that’s hellbent on having its cake and eating it too. 

But in 2019, we know we can’t make these bargains. Because we know exactly what happens when a white, middle-class man gets fed up with the system or his life and wants to cause destruction. We live in a world where once every few weeks, he grabs a gun and shoots up a mall or a movie theater or a nightclub or a school. While Tyler and Project Mayhem concentrate specifically on property destruction and anarchy while keeping their violence “in the club,” this can’t help but feel like an uneasy lie at the center of the mentality. It’s the bargain of someone trying to keep the lid on their real urges, which is no wonder their revolution ends up turning violent. Its violence is in the fear they instill in those they encounter. Its violence is in the implication that “we don’t want to hurt anyone, but we will if we have to.” It’s the giving themselves permission.

This instinct cannot be denied. It is the very core premise of the film: the men of Fight Club are desperate for violence. It’s why when Tyler first asks the narrator to hit him, he says he doesn’t want to die without any scars. It’s the pervasive idea that modern life has made us soft. That men’s masculinity has been denied to them. That if only they could embrace it, they will unlock a sense of power over society that they so richly deserve. And as I say those words, I can’t help but be struck by the uncanny way that all these same topics were explored by one of the biggest pieces of pop culture to hit the small screen this year.

That would be Fleabag.

Yes, Fleabag. The beloved Phoebe Waller-Bridge vehicle wherein a nameless narrator talks to the camera, just like Ed Norton, but it goes deeper than such aesthetic similarities. There are countless thematic undercurrents between the two, from taboo crossing, to subverting society’s expectation of us, to running a blue streak at authority. But the true link between the two gets crystallized a scene in which Fleabag meets a successful businesswoman named Belinda (Kristen Scott Thomas) and the two then grab a drink together. The scene eerily mirrors Tyler and the narrator’s drink at the tavern after the narrator’s apartment explodes, only this time, we get the same discussion of violence from a female perspective. 

Belinda tells us with abject clarity, “Women are born with pain built in… We carry it within ourselves all our lives. Men don’t. They have to seek it out.” It is this core ethos that completely disarms the entire film. Fight Club argues it’s skewering toxicity, but it doesn’t understand toxicity (it just vaguely knows we shouldn’t really embrace it). Nor does it have any idea how to actually solve it. That’s because there is no real vulnerability on display. Their disaffected revolution of Project Mayhem isn’t an answer. In fact, it is the same stoic, unemotional bullshit that men use to protect themselves from real pain. They’re not seeking to feel pain. They’re seeking to master it. And the film isn’t interested in the real emotional pain that drives them, it’s too busy trying to make their surface pain seem sexy.

Phoebe Waller-Bridge in Fleabag (BBC)

But the pain of Fleabag is not sexy. It’s achingly vulnerable, always awkward, and often hilarious. Yes, she is a mess, but she has no sense of malice. She injures the emotions of others through the sheer, inescapable realities of having her own emotions; from the desire to take up the smallest modicum of space and have positive experiences. She’s a woman who injures other people because she actually has the ability (and humanity) to see other people as people. And all the while, she never feels like she is owed a goddamn thing. The show even takes time after time to empathetically consider the broken world of men, best exemplified in her ongoing relationship with the bank manager.

In the end, the crushing difference is that Fight Club can’t even be bothered to consider a woman’s point of view. Marla, no matter how good Helena Bonham Carter is (and she’s great), ends up feeling like a series of affectations. A mere prize pushed between two men who are actually the same men and god that’s an unwittingly crushing metaphor. Fight Club wants to dramatize the same behaviors of Fleabag, but there’s no digging deep. No understanding. Even Marla’s childhood trauma is a one-off joke that elicits nothing more than a casual glance. But it all brings me back to that same question, “Why?” Why did I love this film once upon a time?

The reason why is because when I was 17, I didn’t understand any of this. I was just a high schooler looking for anything I felt could set me apart, whether I was doing it consciously or not. With two sisters close in age and only one bedroom for the three of us, carving out space of my own was one of the only things that mattered to me. When I found Fight Club, it was something I wanted to own. It was mine. It was all the cool, dark, and dangerous things that had no place in my real life.

At best, I was safely exploring my repressed capacity for masculinity and malice. At worst, I fell for its seduction the same way lots of people did. Only I was seeing freedom in a patriarchal notion that honestly didn’t give a fuck about me. But in that fantasy, I was Tyler, too. And I wanted the power. But it was all part of the false bargain, because what I wanted to overthrow was something else.

Right below all of it sat an unnamed depression. Add to that deep issues with self-esteem, scars from lost friendships, and the same traumatic experiences with men every woman collects over the course of her life—this was the pain that was built in. This was the real pain. And there’s nothing all that seductive about it. Which is why Fight Club seemed like an answer even to me. It was probably allowed to flourish because of that same loneliness, no one present or interested enough to challenge it. 

The understanding wouldn’t come until years later, where shows like Fleabag could teach me what pains I need to heal and why. And looking back, yes, my love of Fight Club is and will always be a little embarrassing, but there are far worse things in this world than being embarrassed, especially about our growth. The only real regret I have about my Fight Club fandom is a tragic realization, one that I’m sure could even be shared by the men at the center of that story…

I spent so much time reaching for a pain that I already had within.

Fight Club Trailer:

Liked it? Take a second to support The Spool on Patreon!