Academic journal article Genders

Feminized Men and Inauthentic Women: Fight Club and the Limits of Anti-Consumerist Critique

Academic journal article Genders

Feminized Men and Inauthentic Women: Fight Club and the Limits of Anti-Consumerist Critique

Article excerpt

[1] From the moment of its release, David Fincher's 1999 film Fight Club has provoked a great deal of theorizing about gender both inside and outside of academia. Such a cultural event, interesting wide swaths of the movie-going public, media pundits, and academics is rare enough, but when the topic at hand is gender and, more specifically, the pull of gender on men, the response to the film becomes almost as interesting as the film itself. Response to Fight Club focused attention on the question of violence, as audiences, critics, and academics debated whether the film recommends violence as a solution to a perceived crisis in the lives of a generation of American men who lack the power to find meaning in the wastes of consumer culture. Critics and fans alike, however, accepted the underlying premise of the film; whether arguing for or against the oppositional potential or effect of the film, everyone seemed willing to accept the "fact" that we are experiencing a widespread cultural crisis, that that crisis most poignantly affects men, and that the cause of that crisis is a consumer ethos that reduces identities to brand names and replaces meaningful work with status-oriented consumption. Men, the film insists, are feminized by consumer culture, an insistence that seems to have raised very little objection in the ample commentary that greeted the film's release and the dozens of scholarly articles that have been published in the intervening years. While many scholars have challenged the film's retrograde version of a violent masculinity rooted in the male body (S. Clark, J.M. Clark, Krister, and Friday), and others have analyzed, both positively and negatively, the film's critique of late capitalist, consumer culture (Ta, Lizardo and Giroux) no one has directly challenged the film's articulation of its anti-consumerist critique through gender. Omar Lizardo claims that "beneath the gendered readings of Fight Club lies a more compelling and important story" (241) about the contradictions of capitalism, but even his reading accepts the "feminization" of men as the condition produced by those contradictions. As Suzanne Clark notes in her comments on Fight Club, "it is particularly important to realize that gender plays a part in rhetoric when struggles over issues seem not to be about gender. This is not because gender necessarily organizes cultural history in predetermined ways, but because gender has defined so much of American cultural history. Thus, it determines the rhetorical force and implications of arguments at a level that could be called a 'gendered unconscious'" (416). If the issues at the heart of Fight Club "seem not to be about gender," it is perhaps because the logic and rhetoric of American social critique has for so long relied on a metaphorics of gender that we can no longer even see its functioning.

[2] Rather than critique the film's representation of masculinity, then, I will argue that the film's articulation of its anti-capitalist rebellion as a fight against feminization not only relies on and perpetuates a stable, transhistorical idea of gender difference, but also imagines contemporary social realities as serving the needs of women at the expense of men. Agreeing with Henry Giroux's point that consumerism is represented in the film as "an ideological force and an existential experience" rather than an economic or political system (14), I will analyze the deeply problematic form the film's critique takes. I locate the film's version of anti-consumerism in a long history of countercultural critique that depends on posing masculine protest against feminine conformity. The Cold War produced a particularly rich body of writing concerned with the feminizing forces of communism, bureaucracy, consumerism, Momism, and other large, systemic threats, as Timothy Melley, James Gilbert, and Michael Davidson have argued; but the tendency is far older than that. What narratives about feminization all have in common is that they imagine the individual as an autonomous, self-determining agent who battles against a "society" or vaguely drawn array of social forces that always aims to curtail his autonomy and agency. …

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