Posted in Film
August 20, 2019

Something To Do With A Girl Named Marla – Eros And Gender In Fincher’s “Fight Club”, Part 3 (Vernon Cisney)

The following is the third installment of a three-part series.  The first can be found here.  The second is here.

Something to Do With a Girl Named Marla

The most significant shortcoming of Tyler’s pure yang energy, however, resides in the fact that it is powerless or unable to love. As we’ve seen, in his explicit reflections on women, Tyler expresses disregard and disdain, and Fight Club is specifically dedicated to the re-masculization of society’s men. It is therefore little surprise that Tyler repeatedly uses Marla to discharge his sexual urges, only to afterwards treat her with contempt. In spite of the fact that Marla clearly has feelings for him, she embodies for Tyler what Stark calls “toxic femininity”, and is useful only as a vessel of libidinous gratification.

During one particularly rambunctious session, the narrator approaches Tyler’s bedroom door, and Tyler answers, wearing durable rubber gloves, the kind one might wear when cleaning a bathroom. At the end of every sexual escapade between Tyler and Marla, when he has exhausted his desires and his physical stamina, Tyler loses all interest in any further contact with her, leaving to the narrator the task of dispatching her. Tyler, as pure activity, is constitutionally incapable of love.

What of it?, we might wonder. As pure activity, Tyler likely doesn’t suffer from the fact that he is unable to love Marla. He is likely perfectly happy in his ravenous, animalistic carnality with her, so why does it matter? There are two responses we can give. First, whether or not Tyler is aware of this incapacity is irrelevant. Marla highlights with respect to the narrator the limitations constitutive of his activity. She demonstrates an inherent weakness in the notion of pure activity, in the following way: love, insofar as it opens the self to vulnerability, requires a willingness to be weak; and it takes tremendous strength to be weak in this way, just as it takes tremendous strength to be weak enough to forgive, or to be weak enough to trust. As pure activity, Tyler is not strong enough to be weak.

Second, this inability is directly problematic, in that Marla was the primary catalyst for the subjective rupture that produced Tyler in the first place. Nancy Bauer writes that Tyler is a “massive flight from his [the narrator’s] panic in the face of his feeling for Marla, which, since it’s his feeling, constitutes a flight from himself.”(128) As passive, the narrator was incapable of initiating a relationship with Marla; and this psychic disharmony at last emerged as the projected Tyler. Tyler is indeed successful at the sexual level, in a way that the narrator never could have undertaken on his own. But when it comes to meaningful relationality, of the sort for which the narrator expressed desire in his first discussion with Marla, Tyler is powerless. Hence, Tyler alone fails at his appointed task.

As pure passivity, the narrator is also incapable of love. He is first unable to express his romantic interest in Marla. As they part company after their first conversation, he snidely says to her, ‘Well, let’s not make a big thing out of it, OK?’ He is afraid to ask her directly for her phone number, and does not even give her his name. He calls her for help when his condominium is destroyed, but hangs up without speaking to her.

Then, when Tyler and Marla begin their sexual relationship, his suppressed jealousy of both Tyler and Marla manifests in the callous disregard that he demonstrates towards Marla’s feelings, because in his passivity, he is incapable of expressing his emotion in any way other than passive aggression. His parting words to her after their sexual exploits thus come across to Marla as the cheap shots they are, designed to inflict the maximum amount of emotional sting that they can deliver.

And Marla’s reactions assure us that they are effective. As distinct embodiments of activity and passivity, Tyler and the narrator are incapable of love. We should note that it is Marla who effectively ends the tenuous and schizophrenic relationship with Tyler/narrator. Just before the final showdown with Tyler, Marla says to the narrator: “There are things about you I like … but you’re intolerable… you have very serious emotional problems, deep-seated problems for which you should seek professional help… I can’t do this anymore… I can’t… I won’t… I’m gone.”

Only when the narrator comes to understand his relationship to Tyler can he begin to forge the path that will result in his attainment of a selfhood based upon essential complementarity, and it is only when this point is reached that he is capable of embarking on a meaningful relationship with Marla. This brings us to the final moments of the film, which pick up from the film’s beginning. When the narrator at last tracks Tyler down, and the final decisive battle begins, the narrator is operating under a misunderstanding. Though he may cognitively recognize the oneness of self and Tyler, he has not yet embraced this reality in full. We know this because he is still, by turns, purely passive and purely active. In his purely passive moments, we see Tyler dragging the narrator by his collar, just before a security camera shows us this moment as it actually looks, without Tyler.

In some moments of this battle, however, the narrator assumes the role of activity, treating Tyler as someone who is actually external to himself. He fires the gun outwardly, in the direction of his projected image of Tyler. Of course this accomplishes nothing because, strictly speaking, there is no Tyler, and the purely outwardly directed focus of the narrator’s attack betrays his persistent misconception of an ontological distinction between the two of them. The narrator can only overcome the dualism of self and Tyler when he embraces the fact that he must become, at one and the same time, active and passive. He accomplishes this when he fires the gun into his own mouth, sending the bullet out the side of his face. This is the decisive moment that effectively terminates the externalization of Tyler’s character, establishing the play of activity and passivity within the narrator himself.

With this, he has become a self, and as a result, he is free to embark upon a relationship with Marla. We must note, while Marla is the catalyst for the rupture that launches his path to selfhood, Marla does not play the role of selfless savior to him, nor he to her. Her love does not “fix” him, nor does his fix her. His own complementarity is the condition of his ability to love. The narrator has become a play of passivity and activity, feminine and masculine, that Marla has embodied since we first met her.

Thus, it is at precisely this moment that he and Marla join hands, watching the culmination of Project Mayhem’s plans unfold. But again, we cannot overstate this, the yin and yang polarity that is embodied in the relationship of the narrator and Marla is not restricted to the fact that the two sexes, male and female, have found harmony in a heteronormative relationship. Rather, each character is, by themselves, a complex play of activity and passivity, and it is only for this reason that they are able to begin a relationship with one another. Thus in the final analysis, despite Tyler’s overtly masculinist philosophy, Fight Club motions toward a conception of gender fluidity, bordering on ambiguity. This becomes more evident when we look once more to the final scene of the film, were the narrator and Marla hold hands as the credit card buildings collapse.

Earlier we looked to this shot as evidence in favor of the “love story” aspect of the film. But a closer look reveals something else. The narrator has lost his pants in a tense interrogation scene with the police, while beside him, Marla stands in a dress that falls at about her knees, wearing platform shoes that make her approximately equal to him in height. Aside from their slight differences in hairstyle, Marla and the narrator are almost indistinguishable. Nothing clearly marks her as “feminine,” nor him as “masculine.”

This ambiguity derives from the fact that, by the end of the film, both are beings who, to quote Lao Tzu, support yin and embrace yang. This last shot of the film seems to suggest a final, harmonious restoration of balance. Yet, to conclude our reading at this point is to ignore one glaring problem: namely, the fact that this image is broken momentarily by the single-frame insertion of the pornographic image – a close-up of male genitalia – that we had earlier seen Tyler splicing into a family film in his role as theater projectionist. By way of conclusion, let us now address this problem.

The Phallus in the Machine

I must admit that the reading of Fight Club that I have here offered is somewhat counterintuitive, for all the reasons laid out in the outset of this paper – the homoerotic obsession with masculinity, the pervasive violence, Tyler’s misogyny, the lack of female characters, etc. But the insertion of the phallus into the final moments of the film is a whole other kettle of fish, because where many of the earlier problematic aspects could arguably be chalked up to a specific character in the film, the final assertion of the phallus is indisputably carried out by David Fincher who apparently, in this moment, adopts the guise of Tyler himself. How can this possibly align with my reading?

In her excellent article Lynn Ta summarizes the problem nicely:

In the final scene, the camera zooms in on Jack and Marla as they grasp hands and watch corporate buildings blow up. As this scene fades into the credits, an image of the penis Tyler had spliced into family films flickers in the same fashion across the screen. The film up to this point has indeed provided a sophisticated and critical diagnosis of male disillusionment, but at the end, heteronormativity and phallic power are once again reinforced. While the crumbling of the phallic-shaped skyscrapers might imply that corporations and consumerism, as they have been erected by men, need to be the new enemies to take down in the battle for masculinity, the reinsertion of the penis at the very end suggests that the phallus, the heteronormative phallus, will continue to overwrite any meaningful gender relations.(275-76)

For Ta, this moment is singularly problematic, as it undercuts what had, until this point, been an effective critique of masculinism. Her challenge demands a response.

Ben Caplan provides one possible response, that of the ‘empty self-referential gag.’ In his piece, “Never Been Kicked,” he writes:

The intercut image of a penis is a self-referential gag, like showing a changeover dot in the upper right-hand corner of the screen in a scene in which Tyler points to that part of the screen and explains what a changeover dot is … Sometimes these gags are clues to what is not really real. … But sometimes they are merely gags … The intercut image of a penis is, I think, merely one of those gags.(147)

The reality is, I think, more complicated. Clearly the insertion of the phallus in the end is a self-referential nod, and clearly it is a reference to Tyler’s earlier exploits. But the question is not what it is, but rather, what it means. I think that this subliminal reminder is Fincher’s way of acknowledging a truth that women have known for millennia, and that many men still refuse to accept: that the public sphere is phallically structured and coded, such that patriarchy and masculinism provide the categories and lenses through which most of our public interactions transpire.

Throughout the entirety of the film, Fincher provides numerous indicators that the film is self-consciously an egregious example of the very things that it sets out to critique. First, consider the film’s critique of consumer capitalism. Tyler expresses this anti-consumerist philosophy when he says, “we reject the basic assumption of civilization, especially the importance of material possessions.”

But the film is filled, arguably more so than most other films, with explicit advertisements and close-up images of brand-name goods and corporate labels such as a Starbucks coffee cup.  And of course, we the viewers recognize that such strategic product placement is necessary in order to defray the extreme financial costs of film-making. So Fight Club employs capitalist advertising in its mission of critiquing capitalist consumerism.

Second, the film mocks the objectification of the body, the sort of objectification that one might see in a magazine or film. One prominent example is when we learn Bob’s history, that it was his excessive steroid use that resulted in the development of his breasts. Another is when Tyler and the narrator board the bus and ridicule the men in the Gucci advertisement. Yet the film stars Brad Pitt who, in 1999 when the film was released, was one of the preeminent male sex symbols in Hollywood, and the film takes advantage of that fact by putting his shirtless, chiseled body on clear display a number of times.

Third, going along with the film’s critiques of consumption and vanity is a subtle critique of celebrity worship, as when we are given glimpses of the hoarded stacks of what are apparently celebrity magazines, soggy from years of neglect and leaky ceilings (figures 15 and 16)..

Yet, the film draws direct attention to the centrality of the star power of its cast. In one particularly revealing scene, we are given quick glimpses of two movie theater marquees. One contains the film title, Seven Years in Tibet, a film that starred Brad Pitt. The other, far in the background, contains two movie titles: The Wings of the Dove, (starring Helena Bonham Carter), and The People vs. Larry Flynt, (starring Edward Norton). Here is another “self-referential gag,” but one that is designed to make us aware of the film’s self-consciousness with regard to its complicity in the systems that it seeks to critique.

Finally, the film attempts a critique of ‘corporate art.’ Bob is shot by a police officer while fleeing the scene of one of Project Mayhem’s assigned missions – to destroy a piece of corporate art, as well as a franchise coffee bar. Yet it is difficult to imagine an art form more bound up with corporate bureaucracy and the capitalist calculus than the art of film. Any major film, crafted by a skilled and prominent director, starring numerous highly-regarded actors, and distributed by a major studio, requires massive financial investment and, like any major capitalist investment, the shareholders want to ensure the maximum possible return on their investment.

However critical it may be of corporate art, Fight Club is subject to the same laws. And Fincher gives us no shortage of explicit reminders that what we are watching is, indeed, a film. Most salient of these indicators are the repeated fourth-wall breaks on the part of the narrator. But beyond these, we have the movie theater scene, in which the narrator explains to the viewer the technical operation of film projection using multiple reels – the subtle mark in the upper right-hand corner that indicates that it is time to switch reels – at precisely the moment in the film (Fight Club) when such an indicator appears.

In addition, during his notorious ‘crap of the world’ soliloquy, Tyler looks directly into the camera, as the film strip seems to jostle slightly loose of the reel, reminding us once again that what we are looking at is a film. So to bring this back to the question of the subliminally interjected image of the phallus at the end of the film, it seems probable that it may be one more acknowledgment on the part of Fincher that what we are watching is itself guilty of the very thing that it seeks to critique.

I have attempted to demonstrate throughout this paper that contrary to popular intuitions, Fight Club does not celebrate or valorize toxic masculinity, misogyny, or violence. It does not, in fact, espouse gender essentialism, much less the traditional embodiment of patriarchal gender roles and relations. It does not embrace Tyler’s sexist philosophy that suggests that women are to blame for a supposed ‘feminization’ of modern men.

Instead, it attempts a critique of toxic masculinity, and presents a complex and nuanced image of gender, as fluid and constituted by mobile flows and interactions of activities and passivities, embodied by all persons, regardless of their anatomical sex. And yet, make no mistake, Fight Club is a piece of corporate art, directed by a white man, centered on the anxieties of mostly white men, starring America’s white male quarterback, and manufactured in an industry where mostly white men have ruled, and where they have long exploited.

Vernon Cisney is Assistant Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies at Gettysburg College.  He is the author of Deleuze and Derrida: Difference and the Power of the Negative (Edinburgh University Press, 2018) as well as Derrida’s Voice and Phenomenon: An Edinburgh Philosophical Guide (Edinburgh University Press, 2014).

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