Image Credit: 20th Century Fox
Editor’s Note: The following article features both spoilers and sexual references
Fight Club is known for its hypermasculinity, exemplified by Brad Pitt’s iconic portrayal of Tyler Durden. However, it is not difficult to see the numerous homoerotic references and images within the film; it begins with the evident phallic symbol of Tyler’s gun in the Narrator’s mouth. Viewing the film through a queer lens provides an opportunity to explore these elements, and evaluate whether we should consider Fight Club a problematic film. Interpreting the film this way complicates critiques which focus on its portrayal of toxic masculinity, but also introduce new issues in how homosexuality is presented.
One way to interpret the ‘Fight Club’ in Fight Club, is that it is a way for men to therapeutically express their masculinity that they have been concealing, through violence. The film depicts this as a liberating activity; a way for the men to reclaim their masculinity. In contrast, a queer interpretation is that the Fight Club is an alternative, or an analogy for homosexual sex. There are clear parallels: fighting in the film is a physically intimate, expressive act which appears to form bonds between the topless male fighters. Infamously, the “first rule of Fight Club is that you do not talk about Fight Club”; the fighters do not acknowledge the Club in day-to-day life. This could reflect how gay men, especially in circumstances in which gay activity was the subject of persecution, often have not lived as openly gay. Moreover, fighting is a way for the men to be physically intimate with each other, whilst still conforming to traditional forms of masculinity which regard homosexuality as unmanly.
Fight Club also links masculinity to misogyny. In the first act, the narrator is shown as weak and feminine. He works in a boring office, where everything is planned, which the film implies is due to the feminization of modern culture: the men, in contrast to their activity in the Fight Club, are instead deciding the colour of an icon as “cornflower blue.” In the second act, the narrator meets Tyler Durden, a man who embodies the traditional ideal of what a man should be; he is physically attractive, confident, has a rebellious, anarchic attitude and has a dominating presence, captivating the viewer’s attention in every scene with his charisma. In Tyler’s words, “all the ways you wish you could be –that’s me.” Tyler treats Marla, the only significant female character of the film, in a sexually exploitative manner. The narrator complains about not being able to sleep, and we hear the loud, exaggerated noises of them having sex. In the morning, Tyler tells the narrator to “get rid of her” and leaves the room, indicating his sexual objectification of her. Additionally, he expresses an anxiety of castration, frequently mentioning “balls” and saying “a woman could cut off your penis while you’re sleeping and toss it out the window of a moving car.” This reinforces the theme of women as villains. Tyler creates a narrative of anti-consumerism, aligning it with the feminization of America, and instead advocating rebellion because “it’s only after we’ve lost everything that we’re free to do anything.” This exciting, seductive philosophy is attractive to the viewer, making them sympathise with Tyler’s message, despite its underlying misogyny.
Additionally, Tyler is heavily eroticised; he is played by Brad Pitt, who was called the “sexiest man alive” by People Magazine in both 1995 and 2000. We frequently see Tyler’s unclothed, sweaty, gym-toned, muscular body in the fight scenes. Tyler is not only an ideal example of masculinity that the Narrator wants to live up to, but also an object of sexual and romantic desire. Soon after meeting him, the Narrator moves in with Tyler (instead of Marla), and they quickly form a marital-like bond, fighting (again, an activity alike sex) and bathing together. Moreover, when Tyler shows attention to other characters, like Marla or Angelface, the narrator quickly becomes jealous, going so far as to brutally attack Angelface. In the final scene, the narrator kills Tyler, and holds hands with Marla, perhaps suggesting a rejection of homosexuality in favour of heterosexuality. However, this is followed by a spliced-in image of a penis, putting into doubt the finality of this rejection. Arguably the film sends a homophobic message, equating Tyler, and by extension homosexual activity, with destruction, but this is complicated by how initially liberating Tyler’s Fight Club is for the narrator.
Another interpretation of Fight Club is that it portrays a male coming-of-age story. The first act could represent pre-adolescence, with the Narrator being weak and crying onto Bob’s large breasts, mirroring the image of a baby crying into his mother’s arms. Also, the Narrator tells Tyler he is a “30-year-old boy” shortly after meeting him, suggesting he believes he has not matured into an adult. The second act, where the Narrator meets Tyler, could represent adolescence, with Tyler symbolizing the aggressiveness, (homo)sexual experimentation and rebellion. The third act represents the transition away from adolescence to adulthood, as the Narrator begins to disagree with Tyler’s violent and rebellious actions, and finally kills him. Fight Club, being a male-only space, could represent an adolescent rejection of women. Furthermore, this arguably (and problematically) equates homosexual activity with an abandonment of women, which men need to ‘overcome’ by becoming heterosexual.
Is it possible to salvage a positive queer interpretation of Fight Club? Perhaps what Fight Club is aiming to critique is not the feminization of modern society, but it's heteronormativity. The Fight Club is liberating because it allows for the expression of the repressed sexuality of its members. However, it is also dangerous because, along with Tyler, it is an unhealthy form of this sexual expression, being associated with toxic masculinity. At the end of the film, the Narrator kills Tyler, not as a rejection of homosexuality, but as a rejection of toxic masculinity, and holds hands with Marla, not as an acceptance of heterosexuality, but as a healthy embrace of the Narrator’s feminine side, in contrast to his earlier misogynistic rejection of it.