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Fight Club: What Makes a Man

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We've spent a lot of time refuting myths about women, but what have we learned about men? Let me tell you.

I finished reading Fight Club last night while sipping from a giant glass of whiskey. I ran out of fingers, so I can’t tell you how much I drank.

The burn felt appropriate; I didn’t feel like I should be physically comfortable while reading about someone getting their face bashed into the floor. The whiskey also made me fight to stay coherent, chasing Tyler Durden to the finish line.

Would he reveal himself before I was too drunk to care? 

I’m one of the many thousands of men who came to the novel years after having seen the film. Knowing ahead of time what Tyler Durden’s real identity is, while not the way the author, Chuck Palahniuk, initially intended Fight Club to be read, arguably makes reading it that much more interesting. You’re not going to forget who Tyler Durden is, especially after David Fincher’s adaptation with Brad Pitt (and more specifically, Brad Pitt’s abs), but his identity in the book is nuanced and clear when you know what to look for, and for me, it added another level of awe to Palahniuk’s writing. You’re in on the secret, a co-conspirator in the ruse.

At its core, Fight Club is about a group of guys who are trying to figure out what it means to be a man in the world today. We’ve spent a lot of time refuting myths about women, but what have we learned about men? 

The fight club allows the characters to express their masculinity in the most primitive way possible: it forces you to abandon all intellectual operations to simply react and behave on a visceral level.

Perhaps it was my theatrics in reading Fight Club while drinking, but it made me want to be reckless. It made me want to fight in a feral dog sort of way. It ignited that base-level animal desire for the sensation of smashing your fist into someone’s eye-socket, their cheek, their chest. I wanted to fight, but more than that I wanted to win. I wanted to see someone bleed and know that I was the cause.

Let me be clear, I am a kind person. I hold the door open for strangers; I volunteer every week for a non-profit. But there is, and always has been, the desire to work out one’s aggression in a physical way. Biologically, women relate to the Pinterest-world of inspirational quotes and positive affirmations, and men relate to anything that will force their heart to beat a little faster, i.e. a fistfight. These are just the facts. 

The characters in Fight Club are empowered by their fights. 

Think of it like jumping out of a plane. The first one or two times are going to scare the crap out of you, but after that? You’re going to enjoy it: a potentially life-threatening act that you’ve completed on your own. Now consider walking into a bar with the knowledge that you’ve survived a fight and would survive a future one. You’d carry yourself differently. You’d enjoy that feeling, that power, knowing that you were solely responsible for it being there. 

Though as appealing as a fight might be, we’re a long ways removed from 1997 when Fight Club was written.

Our reality as men has changed so suddenly that it’s become impossible to absorb and embody this new nowness. For so long, men have had everything; we were the heads of the country and the heads of our families.

Now women are occupying the spaces through which men have classically experienced their masculinity.

This isn’t a bad thing. Yes, women should be occupying these same spaces as men, but as they do, as men look around and see that that which used to define them is now shared, we are tasked with finding new ways to exert our masculinity.

It’s important for us to be able to still feel like men, and it is just as vital to still be perceived by others as men.

That said, the way that we choose to embody our masculinity is, for the first time ever, up to us. There’s no longer any one, single way to be a man.

You don’t have to like sports; you don’t have to be homophobic; you don’t even have to be assigned male at birth. You’re allowed to be vulnerable with your loved ones, to share your feelings and show emotions other than anger.

My masculinity is something that I’ve always tested and tweaked. Can I hold my shoulders far enough back to reflect a natural assuredness? Can I force my voice to stay low throughout the day, the way it sounds when I first wake up? When I first meet someone, can I be enjoyable at a distance, to appear friendly, yet not overly eager?

What can I specifically do in order to prove to myself, and everybody else, that I am a model of masculinity – or at the very least, masculine enough?

These examples fit the classic tropes, yet when I’m alone, I will still experience paralyzing fear if I see a spider in my apartment.

Baby steps, ya know?

Palahniuk’s characters normalize traditional views surrounding masculinity, and it’s appealing, and thrilling, certainly, but masculinity has become indefinable. That freedom in our expression of gender is both beautiful and terrifying. What makes a man and how do we exert our manhood? Today, right now, it’s ambiguous and ultimately up to us as individuals to figure out. For Palahniuk, he takes all that energy and confusion and provides just enough rules to let you harm yourself and another, and still feel safe. 

About the Author

Jeffrey Masters is the Editorial Director at Roman Fitness Systems. He's an avid reader and also interviews authors for Book Circle Online. He is an Eagle Scout. Follow him on Twitter: @jeffmasters1.

  • Yakubtheswinemerchant

    Cheers bro, you nailed it: Brad Pitt’s abs *are* unforgettable. No homo

    Ch’yeahh

  • Lanny Littlejohn

    Great article Jeff and I hope your were drinking single malt. One of the most interesting aspects of the development of our culture has been that the latin root for “man” which is Vir or Virtu (see Virility) has led Virtue to originally mean “manliness” but under the influence of a specific philosophy Virtue has passed from meaning manliness in a man to chastity in a woman. I enjoyed delving into this point with a short blog post on excellence http://www.healthandperformanceupdate.com/arete/

    Keep it up, I love reading like minds!

    Lanny Littlejohn, MD

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