watch

Fight Club’s Eerie Relevance - How Its Predictions Came True

Did Fight Club kind of predict the future we’re living in? Though it’s long been a cult-classic, the 1999 movie directed by David Fincher and based on the novel by Chuck Palahniuk has, in much of pop culture, been reduced to – or misread as – a simplistic argument for violence and validating male frustration. But this whole conversation – and the film’s co-option by elements of the alt-right “manosphere” – loses a lot of what the movie was actually saying.

TRANSCRIPT

“Our great war is a spiritual war. Our great depression is our lives.” - Tyler Durden, Fight Club

Did Fight Club kind of predict the future we’re living in?

“We were raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires and movie gods and rock stars, but we won’t.” - Tyler, Fight Club

Though it’s long been a cult-classic, the 1999 movie directed by David Fincher and based on the novel by Chuck Palahniuk has, in much of pop culture, been reduced to – or misread as – a simplistic argument for violence and validating male frustration. But this whole conversation – and the film’s co-option by elements of the alt-right “manosphere” – loses a lot of what the movie was actually saying. Fight Club follows an unnamed narrator who’s struggling to find meaning amid his late-90s consumerist wasteland, until he meets the charismatic, radical Tyler Durden.

“In Tyler we trusted.” - Narrator, Fight Club

Tyler’s philosophy is a total rejection of the unchecked capitalist system that was making people like the narrator miserable and stealing the precious moments of their lives. The movie actually stops short of embracing Tyler’s mission to destroy capitalist society – instead, it turns him into a villain and ends on a more simple love story. But today, Tyler’s complaints about the spiritual costs of turning ourselves into consumers instead of people feel more prophetic than ever – so do any of his solutions make any sense, too? Here’s our take on the surprising relevance of Fight Club and what it predicted about today.

“You’re not your job. You’re not how much money you have in the bank.” - Tyler, Fight Club

Hyper-Capitalist Buyer’s Remorse

Throughout the first act of Fight Club, the narrator is fixated on the things that he owns, and sees his value through the lens of what he can afford. So Tyler’s ideology is a reaction to the narrator’s empty consumerist lifestyle.

“The things you own end up owning you.” - Tyler, Fight Club

In the end, we find out the narrator’s psyche creates Tyler – because the narrator is depressed due to having no greater meaning in his life, and doesn’t know how to escape this trap as himself.

Narrator: “You’re a f****ing hallucination. Why can’t I get rid of you?”

Tyler: “You need me.”

- Fight Club

Tyler laments how the lifestyle of his time has managed to brainwash the average person into a vicious cycle, and in his mind this has fundamentally changed our identity – so we’re no longer humans (or men and women).

Tyler: “What are we then?”

Narrator: “We’re uh, consumers.”

Tyler: “We are by-products of a lifestyle obsession.”

- Fight Club

The trends Tyler bemoans have greatly accelerated since the film – if anything, the consumerism of the narrator’s era seems pretty tame, quaint compared to today’s hypercapitalism. Now, workers feel ever-more trapped into jobs they hate through constantly rising costs of living, and are defined more than ever as “consumers.” Even Tyler’s predictions about corporations leading space exploration have been proven true by SpaceX and others.

“When deep space exploration ramps up, it’ll be the corporations that name everything… the Microsoft Galaxy, Planet Starbucks.” - Narrator, Fight Club

It’s notable, too, that the companies he names here are still players. The movie is littered with allusions to Starbucks, the most visible icon of 1990s consumer culture – Starbucks cups feature in countless frames to convey the ubiquity of a major corporate presence and how it threatens to homogenize our lives. Director David Fincher described wanting to target Starbucks because, even though Fincher personally liked Starbucks coffee, the company was “too successful.” At the same time, in today’s context, Fight Club’s conception of the consumerist problem seems too focused on things and buying products. It doesn’t foresee just how today’s hypercapitalism problem would go far beyond that, and how many of us don’t feel we have much of a choice to follow in Tyler’s path of leaving it all behind.

While in a modern context the narrator’s entitled boredom might seem not so bad, Tyler’s rejection of materiality warned us to stop chasing that materialistic dream at all – even if we do obtain the prosperity we’re trained to pursue, it won’t fulfill us. Because this whole system is turning us into fundamentally more superficial, less human creatures.

How to Survive This World

So what happens after the narrator has abandoned his material aspirations? Tyler’s dream for the world, and for his terrorist group Project Mayhem, is to return to a primitive state of being, where humanity—and men in particular—can cast off the trappings of modern civilization and go back to being animals.

“In the world I see, you’re stalking elk through the damp canyon forests around the ruins of Rockefeller Center.” - Tyler, Fight Club

Fight Club concluded by making Tyler a villain to be defeated, closing on the narrator rejecting Tyler’s way and instead finding love with Marla. And the point when we saw Tyler’s endgame vision of hunter-gatherers in the ruins of our urban centers was framed as a key signal he’s going too far – that actually, his plans were disturbingly nihilistic and he had to be stopped.

This is bullshit, I’m not listening to this, you are insane!” - Narrator, Fight Club

Today, though, while his violent methods are still disturbing, Tyler’s hunter-gatherer imagery can arguably be interpreted as utopian. Not only do many echo Tyler’s desire to return to a simpler, more natural lifestyle, but we’re also confronted with accelerating “code red” climate change, which could make it impossible for anyone to effectively live on the planet’s surface feeding on a natural ecosystem. Tyler’s ideals suggest that it’s necessary to destroy society in order to rebuild something else.

“It’s only after we’ve lost everything, that we’re free to do anything.” - Tyler, Fight Club

Once that struck most mainstream viewers as too extreme, but today many do feel that some very major change is needed.

Fight Club actually does manage to offer some hope in this respect. Our collective recollection glosses over one of the most radical and least discussed elements of Fight Club: Tyler’s plan succeeds. The movie’s famous ending finds Marla and the narrator watching Tyler’s bombs go off, demolishing financial centers and apparently ending wealth inequality.

“Out these windows, we will view the collapse of financial history. One step closer to economic equilibrium.” - Tyler, Fight Club

That larger threat to the global economy might help explain why the ending is one of the parts of the movie that has been most actively censored, particularly in China, where the streaming version of Fight Club ends with a title card suggesting that the police stepped in and stopped the plan. Though this assault on the financial industry might actually be the most intriguing part of the movie, it’s not the one that has had the longest-lasting political impact. Instead, that would be Fight Club’s atmosphere of generic masculine bravado.

A Crisis of Masculinity

Fight Club diagnosed a crisis of masculinity, especially in men with white-collar jobs. In recent years, it also became a self-fulfilling prophecy: many of the groups in what came to be known as the “manosphere,” which imagine a world in which men are oppressed by women, have been inspired by the originally satirical example of Tyler Durden. Rather than motivating these men to move into the woods en masse, Tyler Durden instead became a role model for a community of pickup artists who saw Tyler as a “successful” man capable of sleeping with lots of women while still operating within the achievement-based system he fights against. Even Tyler’s language—like calling people snowflakes—has become part of the broader political vernacular in ways that weren’t intended.

“You are not special. You are not a beautiful or unique snowflake. You are the same decaying organic matter as everything else!” - Tyler, Fight Club

Where the political language of calling people “snowflakes” now commonly tries to cast younger people, people of color, and queer people as overly sensitive, in Fight Club, Tyler is actually talking to his own followers in this way—and his lesson is different: to remind us that no one is an exception to the rule of mortality, and so we need to get going and live our lives.

In the “manosphere” reading of Fight Club, the movie’s true villain is actually Marla. As Paulie Doyle wrote for Vice, “While both the manosphere and Fight Club believe that a lack of ‘heroic’ roles for men in society has caused a generalized male malaise, these online communities add one crucial, misogynist caveat: Women are the ones to blame.”

“I realize that all of this, the gun, the bombs, the revolution, has got something to do with a girl named Marla Singer.” - Narrator, Fight Club

In fact, many of Fight Club’s Manosphere adherents ignore the actual ending of the movie where the narrator “kills” Tyler, and is about to develop a real relationship with Marla. As The New Yorker observed, some rationalize that the ending is “a thematic flaw, or a sop to the demands of big-studio moviemaking,” and suggest that Fight Club should have concluded with the narrator rejecting Marla.

What does it mean to take this lesson from the movie? Crucially, it misses Fight Club’s fundamental point that capitalism is the enemy. In an essay for LitHub called “Everyone Misunderstands the Point of Fight Club,” Rebecca Renner writes that “The problem in their logic comes when they want to strip away the consumerist programming Fight Club is so against… MRA Fight Club fanboys want power, silent women, and—wait for it—the American Dream, just by another name.” But if you watch the movie itself, Fight Club connects re-empowering men with detaching from the materialistic game that is truly to blame for why males (and all people) feel disconnected from themselves.

“I felt sorry for guys packed into gyms, trying to look like how Calvin Klein or Tommy Hilfiger said they should.” - Narrator, Fight Club

As more and more pop culture serves as an indictment of the very idea of work and the structures of capitalism that underlie it, characters often grapple with what it means to reclaim the idea of manhood, and Fight Club feels like a more and more important landmark for contemporary movies and TV. One of the most iconic TV characters of the past 20 years, Breaking Bad’s Walter White, responds to his own despair and emasculation by turning to hyper-masculine acts of violence and crime in order to live up to the “American Dream” ideal of “providing” for his family. But while owning his power makes him feel good, in the end, he realizes that his self-serving actions have destroyed his family.

Conclusion

So where did the ideals of Fight Club wind up? In Palahniuk’s sequel comic book series Fight Club 2, the narrator has fallen back into a bland, empty life in the suburbs, unhappily married to Marla, the type of man that many Fight Club fans would disdain. But it’s possible to take away a different set of lessons from the movie, to not be the narrator or Tyler—but to be yourself. While Tyler himself embraces aggressive, violent means, as a character he can operate as a spark motivating people to follow their original goals and dreams, rather than simply becoming cogs in the machine. Tyler’s entire function is to do this to the narrator.

“You were looking to change your life. You could not do this on your own.” - Tyler, Fight Club

Nowhere is his influence more apparent than in the piece of pop culture most indebted to Fight Club: Mr. Robot, which similarly follows a disaffected white-collar drone who creates a new personality and eventually brings down the world’s financial system. But rather than ending with a full confrontation between the personalities, Mr. Robot finds Elliot befriending his alternate personality, Mr. Robot, and coming to accept all of the different parts of himself, rather than destroying them.

It makes sense that Fight Club ends with the narrator no longer needing Tyler. Because ultimately, while some aspects of Fight Club’s rejection of conformity can feel a little outdated, its eventual solution—to own and consciously decide what to do with your life—remains as relevant and urgent as ever.

Sources

Baker, Peter C. “The Men Who Still Love ‘Fight Club.’” The New Yorker, 4 Nov. 2019, https://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/the-men-who-still-love-fight-club.

Burke, Jason. “Fight Club Remains a Relevant Piece of Pop Culture Even 20 Years Later.” FanSided, 15 Oct. 2019, https://fansided.com/2019/10/15/fight-club-20-years-later/.

Doyle, Paulie. “How ‘Fight Club’ Became the Ultimate Handbook for Men’s Rights Activists.” VICE, 5 Jan. 2017, https://www.vice.com/en/article/paeg89/how-fight-club-became-the-ultimate-handbook-for-mens-rights-activists.

“Fight Club: What You Never Knew About the 1999 Movie.” News.au.com, 1 Aug. 2017, https://www.news.com.au/entertainment/movies/fight-club-what-you-never-knew-about-the-1999-movie/news-story/3fac012317a22228765ceaeee2f59220.

Marchese, David. “The Disruptive World of Edward Norton.” The New York Times, 7 Oct. 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/10/07/magazine/edward-norton-interview.html.

Renner, Rebecca. “Everyone Misunderstands the Point of Fight Club.” Literary Hub, 25 July 2019, https://lithub.com/everyone-misunderstands-the-point-of-fight-club/.

Rogers, Kate. “Starbucks Hit with Sweeping Labor Complaint Including over 200 Alleged Violations.” CNBC, 6 May 2022, https://www.cnbc.com/2022/05/06/starbucks-accused-of-more-than-200-labor-violations-in-nlrb-complaint.html.

Zhou, Viola. “Cult Classic ‘Fight Club’ Gets a Very Different Ending in China.” VICE, 24 Jan. 2022, https://www.vice.com/en/article/k7wgea/fight-club-alternate-ending-china-censorship.