As the 20th anniversary of the Chuck Palahniuk adaptation approaches, its lead character has become an unironic poster-boy for men’s rights, writes David Barnett.

When David Fincher’s movie of Chuck Palahniuk’s 1996 novel Fight Club was released 20 years ago, it polarised the critics.

Many people just did not know which way to jump on this twisted allegory about an American wage slave, played by Edward Norton, who is a cog in the capitalist economy and does his bit to keep all the other cogs turning. He assesses insurance claims for a living and in turn spends the money he earns on things he thinks he needs from the Ikea catalogue.

Yet the character – often referred to as simply the Narrator, but who likes to call himself ‘Jack’ in the film – has a growing disquiet at his place in the machine. Unable to sleep at night, he fakes a variety of medical and mental health conditions so he can join support groups for sufferers of testicular cancer or sickle cell anaemia, finding some comfort and release in the physical and emotional pain of others.

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However, he still has a void in his soul – until he meets Tyler Durden. Tyler is everything The Narrator is not… for a start, he’s Brad Pitt. Charming, beautiful, ripped and totally off-the-grid. Tyler is on a one-man revenge mission against the world, relieving himself in the soup in fancy restaurant kitchens and turning human fat stolen from liposuction clinics into soap – which he then sells back to the rich women it came from in the first place.

Fight Club the movie is brutal, sexy, violent, stylish and has a powerful message

Tyler shows The Narrator that the rampant consumerism in which he’s enmeshed is a pre-millennial affliction that must be denied. And he demonstrates that the only way for men to really feel anything is to beat the living hell out of each other in underground fight clubs. At first, there are just two of these in existence; but as the story progresses, ‘Fight Club’ becomes an out-of-control movement that spans the US.

Fight Club the movie is brutal, sexy, violent, stylish and, superficially at least, has a powerful message: the things we own end up owning us. But is that the message at all, in fact? Is it really an anti-consumerist statement, or something else entirely?

Perhaps its ambiguity was one of the things that made it a hard sell. For while it now regularly makes the lists of the best movies of the 1990s, if not of all time, it fared less well on its autumn 1999 release. After a splashy premiere at the Venice film festival, which set the industry abuzz, it failed to set fire at the box office and critics were extremely divided.

Peter Travers at Rolling Stone loved it: “Fight Club pulls you in, challenges your prejudices, rocks your world and leaves you laughing in the face of an abyss,” he said. “It’s alive, all right. It’s also an uncompromising American classic.”

Fight Club is the most frankly and cheerfully fascist big-star movie since Death Wish – Roger Ebert

However, the renowned reviewer Roger Ebert hated it. “Fight Club is the most frankly and cheerfully fascist big-star movie since Death Wish, a celebration of violence in which the heroes write themselves a license to drink, smoke, screw and beat one another up,” he fumed. “Sometimes, for variety, they beat up themselves. It’s macho porn.” Peter Bradshaw of the Guardian was also none-too enamoured, remarking, “By the end, it has unravelled catastrophically into a strident, shallow, pretentious bore with a ‘twist’ ending that doesn’t work.”

Although he wasn’t a fan, Bradshaw perhaps got to the nub of it better than many of its champions. For while many positive reviews applauded Tyler Durden’s attack on capitalist culture, Bradshaw understood it as a different beast – highlighting that Fight Club at least starts off as a satire on what he calls the “bogus contemporary ‘crisis of masculinity’”. It is this element that is perhaps most pertinent – and, many would argue, misunderstood – two decades on.

The crucial twist

The big twist that Bradshaw refers to is, of course, that The Narrator and Tyler Durden are one and the same. The first has created the second as an avatar who can say and do all the things he is too scared to. The Narrator is emasculated, beaten down, paralysed, while Tyler is his subconscious escape tunnel – even though he doesn’t realise it until the climax of the movie.

The turning point for The Narrator comes when he realises that Tyler – before he knows they are one and the same – is directing the energy from the Fight Clubs into something very different: militia group Project Mayhem. Tyler has turned the men who have found both a release and a purpose from knocking hell out of each other into a private army, with plans to launch a devastating terrorist attack.

The Narrator travels the country to try to stop the operation… only for it to finally dawn on him that he is Tyler. The battle lines are drawn between The Narrator and the creature from his id.

As for the audience? Though we might have cheered Tyler on in the middle of the movie for his Robin Hood-like tendencies (he wants to blow up all the credit card companies and erase the debt record of millions of Americans), by the end we – like The Narrator – realise that Tyler is the villain, a Frankenstein’s monster running amok.

Not everybody thinks Tyler Durden is the bad guy of the piece – many consider him the hero

Or at least, that’s one reading of it. Because the thing with Fight Club is that not everybody does think Tyler is the bad guy of the piece… in fact, there are many people today who still consider him the hero.

Fight Club came out when the internet was in its infancy, a good decade before most people began to join social networks such as Twitter and Facebook. But, with its alter-ego conceit, the movie, and Palahniuk’s book before it, anticipated a time when people could create their own online personas to hide behind, from which they could say the things that they might never be bold enough to voice in real life.

A Reddit obsession

So it’s perhaps unsurprising that that ultimate aggrieved macho fantasy figure Tyler Durden has become something of an unironic poster boy for Men’s Rights Activism. The men’s rights movement has been around for decades as a riposte to feminism, but really found its feet in the internet age – and if you tune into conversations between its followers on the news aggregator and discussion forum Reddit, you can see Fight Club, and Durden, are two of its clear obsessions.

Consider this, posted just two months ago by user The Motte: “Men are suffering today because they are inherently unsuited for the social demands of modernity. Evolutionarily, men were developed to hunt, to fight, to kill, to survive only by the force of their own muscles and instinct…The modern world has completely removed this aspect of life and replaced it with soft, decadent, consumer capitalism. Not only are men not supposed to be violent, aggressive, and driven by their very real biological urges, but they are told that these aspects of themselves are barbaric, evil, and worthy of condemnation… I do think Tyler Durden’s philosophy hits at real issues that all men feel to some degree. I think it’s possible that men feel unfulfilled without a real sense of stakes in their lives, like the sort that mortal combat would have given them in the past.”

Because Tyler Durden wasn’t just about sticking it to the establishment. He wanted to rip down the whole structure of man’s apparently emasculated place in the modern world, constrained by marriage, kids, and white collar careerism. In a long speech Tyler rails against the undermining of masculinity, observing: “We’re a generation of men raised by women. I’m wondering if another woman is really the answer we need.”

Hero or toxic narcissist?

‘Toxic masculinity’ wasn’t the buzzword in 1999 that it is today, but Tyler Durden certainly seems to be a prime example of it. But what of the fact that he has become a hero to many – and if it is an error to perceive him that way, is that the film’s, or the audience’s, fault?

Laurie Penny is a feminist journalist and writer, and author of the book The Bitch Doctrine. Despite her own anti-capitalist stance, she looks at Tyler Durden as a feeble type of social justice warrior. “He’s angry about consumerism on a purely aesthetic level – he does not, in fact, have any sort of social programme, and one of the climactic scenes is him holding a gun to an Asian restaurant worker’s head and explaining that the guy should be grateful because this will make him feel alive.

The film has so much fun with Tyler Durden as a mad phantom from the id that it forgets that he’s meant to be frightening – Laurie Penny

“That’s not how that works. That guy isn’t working a restaurant job because he’s a loser and a consumerist shill. He’s doing it because he needs the money, and now he also has PTSD because a violent narcissist assaulted him in an alley. Great job, Tyler.”

However, if not a fan of Durden, Penny says she is definitely a fan of the story: “I adore Palahniuk’s writing,” she says, and claims that she loved the movie when it was first released. As has time has gone on, however, her feelings have changed about the latter. In particular she sees a problem with the fact that, in the film’s interpretation of the story, Tyler’s message, and charisma, is stronger than the idea that he’s actually wrong. “The film has so much fun with Tyler Durden as a mad phantom from the id that it forgets that he’s meant to be frightening,” she says. “Honestly, the problem is that a lot of young men really do believe that misogyny itself is a form of brave social rebellion. They associate womanhood with oppression. Hence the ‘generation of men raised by women’ nonsense. What generation of men hasn’t been raised by women?

“I don’t think toxic masculinity is a revolutionary force of social change. I don’t think Palahniuk does either. Clearly, parts of the internet disagree.”

Does this supposed ‘bad fandom’ mean that the film version, at least, is irretrievably tainted for her? “I don’t believe there’s any one correct way to interpret a piece of art, but it’s certainly harder for me to enjoy the shiny set-pieces and the cool soundtrack now than it was when I was 13. Or maybe it’s just that I grew up, and punching strangers in the face because you don’t like consumerism doesn’t seem so cool any more.”

The view from the author himself

Perhaps the person to make a definitive call on how we should regard Tyler Durden is Chuck Palahniuk himself. However, when BBC Culture asks him, the author demurs to give anything like a solid answer. “My policy has always been to not give a definite meaning or intention to my work or characters,” he tells us. “That would preclude the reader's participation. As if I were presenting a Rorschach test and asking, ‘Would you tell me what this picture of a blood-sucking vampire bat looks like?’ That might sound evasive, but why spoil the fun?”

However, it’s certainly interesting to note some of the differences in the detail of Durden’s character between the book and the movie. In the latter, Uhls adds in elements that serve to enhance his heroic credentials: for example, his so-called ‘Project Mayhem’ is a much bigger deal, and its plot to destroy the credit card companies makes him seem almost philanthropic.

I've always felt the story was about fixing one person rather than fixing society – Chuck Palahuniuk

“Jim Uhls thought there ought to be a greater, tangible goal to the madness,” says Palahuniuk. “[But] I've always felt the story was about fixing one person rather than fixing society.” He draws a parallel between Durden and Jordan Peterson, the controversial Canadian psychologist and writer, who has become a self-help guru for men with his philosophy that they have been hobbled by gender politics and need to toughen up again. “I've always thought Tyler was a tough love-type of [life] coach, created to bridge the gap between the narrator's obedient boyhood and an autonomous adulthood. Tyler would be what Joseph Campbell called a ‘secondary father’ figure, such as a teacher, coach, minister or drill instructor, who challenges a person more than a biological father would dare.”

Writer Neil Strauss released a notorious book in 2005 called The Game, in which he championed the rules and techniques of pick-up artists who use pseudo-scientific techniques to seduce women. One of the most notorious PUAs he featured went by the name Tyler Durden. Real name Owen Cook, he went on to co-found a ‘pick-up’ website called Real Social Dynamics, passing on his ‘tips’. BBC Culture approached Cook for this article but he did not respond.

Surely this co-opting of Tyler Durden must annoy Palahniuk? Once more, Palanhuik remains determinedly neutral. “Again, can a person misread a Rorschach test – or a mirror?” he says. “Neil Strauss used the name Tyler Durden in his book and made far more money from it than I ever have. Imitation is the most sincere form of… fill in the blank.”

In the novel, as well as being less altruistic, Tyler Durden is also more psychopathic and murderous, a true dark side to The Narrator. And there’s definitely no mention of the kind of obvious physical attributes possessed by Brad Pitt, which undoubtedly have contributed to film Tyler becoming much more of a role model than novel Tyler. For Palahniuk, however, there’s no question that Pitt is Durden.

Brad Pitt was the obvious choice, perhaps the only choice, like Clark Gable as Rhett Butler – Chuck Palahniuk

“Pitt was the obvious choice, perhaps the only choice, like Clark Gable as Rhett Butler,” he says. “Director David Fincher wanted that meta level of meaning when Pitt said lines like, ‘I look the way you want to look. I fuck who you want to fuck.’ Could any other actor have pulled off such lines in 1998, when the film was made? No Brad, no movie.”

And no movie, no hero figure for the men’s rights movement in the shape of Tyler Durden. Who, ironically, would probably have no truck with those on the internet who essentially want to be Brad Pitt. In Tyler’s big, state-of-the-union monologue in the film, he bemoans the lack of a defining moment like the Great War or Depression in modern men’s lives, adding, “We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars, but we won’t. We’re slowly learning that fact.”

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