Fatherlessness, Fight Club, and the Fabric of Masculinity

Last week I wrote a post about Donald Miller’s books Father Fiction and Scary Close. They were part of research for a project I am currently working on. I have been thinking further about each of those books and the problems that Miller seeks to over come in them while I consider another book on my research list—Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club. Before it was a cult hit film starring the then up-and-comers Brad Pitt and Edward Norton, Fight Club was a short story of apostolic fiction, a kind of modern Great Gatsby. Whereas F. Scott Fitzgerald sought to call attention to decadence of the 1920’s, Palahniuk sought to draw attention to a crisis and epidemic that would not come widely acknowledged for another five years. As Palahniuk points out in the afterwardhe wrote Fight Club “Before The Weekly Standard announced ‘The Crisis of Manliness’.”

Today, the crisis of masculinity is nearly a universally acknowledged problem. Part of the reason for this is a growing accumulation of research and writing on the change in, or disappearance of, men. The last nine years have seen the publication of Leonard Sax’s Boys Adrift: Five Factors Driving the Growing Epidemic of Unmotivated Boys and Underachieving Young Men (2007), Kathleen Parker’s Save the Males: Why Men Matter, Why Women Should Care (2008), Michael Kimmel’s Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men (Understanding the Critical Years Between 16 and 26) (2009), Richard Whitmire’s Why Boys Fail: Saving Our Sons from the Educational System that is Leaving Them Behind (2010), Kay Hymowitz’s Manning Up: How the Rise of Women Has Turned Men into Boys (2011), Helen Smith’s Men on Strike: Why Men Are Boycotting Marriage, Fatherhood, and the American Dream—and Why It Matters (2013), Hanna Rosin’s The End of Men and the Rise of Women (2013), and Man (Dis)connected by Philip Zimbardo and Nikita Coulombe (2015). That is only a sample of the texts by reputable sources one can find at Amazon. Then we can consider the countless articles in The New York Times, Religion News Service, The Atlantic, National Review, and others. Everyone from Ph.D psychologists, sociologists, and historians to journalists in the nations top publications to comedians from the lowest to highest brow have taken note and contributed criticisms, voiced concerns, and provided some plausible solutions. That said, Fight Club must be recognized as one of the first voices on this issue.

Fight Club in book, audiobook, and (to a lesser extent) film medias continues to speak into the growing chasm between guys and the masculine identity they desired but had no idea how to attain:

Me, I knew my dad for about six years, but I don’t remember anything. My dad, he starts a new family in a new town about every six years. This isn’t so much like a family as it’s like he sets up a franchise…What you see at fight club is a generation of men raised by women… Fight club is not football on television. You aren’t watching a bunch of men you don’t know halfway around the world beating on each other live by satellite with a two- minute delay, commercials pitching beer every ten minutes, and a pause now for station identification. After you’ve been to fight club, watching football on television is watching pornography when you could be having great sex…Fight club gets to be your reason for going to the gym and keeping your hair cut short and cutting your nails. The gyms you go to are crowded with guys trying to look like men, as if being a man means looking the way a sculptor or an art director says… Fight club isn’t about winning or losing fights. Fight club isn’t about words. You see a guy come to fight club for the first time, and his ass is a loaf of white bread. You see this same guy here six months later, and he looks carved out of wood. (50-51)

Do you here the echo of insecurity, “men raised by women” and “guys trying to look like men”. There is a clear undercurrent that communicates that the world outside fight club is failing to engage and propagate authentic masculinity. Instead beer commercials, action movies, and alike display a kind of superficial mask of masculinity that, due to the lack of the real thing, is sought in gyms, frat houses, and the passive—even vicarious—viewing of competition and sexual conquest. This same sentiment is echoed in sociologist and founder of The Journal of Men and Masculinities, Michael Kimmel’s 2010 book Guyland:

In an effort to prove their masculinity, with little guidance and no real understanding of what manhood is, they engage in behaviors and activities that are ill-conceived and irresponsibly carried out. These are the guys who are so desperate to be accepted by their peers that they do all sorts of things they secretly know to be not quite right. They lie about their sexual experiences to seem more manly; they drink more than they know they can handle because they don’t want to seem weak or immature; they sheepishly engage in locker-room talk about young women they actually like and respect. These are the guys who want to do well in school but don’t want to be seen as geeks; the guys who think they can’t be cool and responsible at the same time; the pledges and pledgemasters whose hazing rituals are frequently disgusting, sometimes barbaric, and occasionally lethal. With no adults around running the show, they turn to each other for initiation into manhood. (19)

Notice that both Kimmel and Palahniuk have hit on a similar roots to the masculinity crisis, and it parallels the root of Miller’s existential crisis as well—fatherlessness. Kimmel notes that guys (a term intentionally chosen as it indicates the aging out of boyhood without the maturing into manhood) seek to “prove their masculinity, with little guidance and no real understanding of what manhood is.” Where, we should ask, would we expect the primary instruction and modeling of masculinity come from? Similarly, Palahniuk bookends the above explanation of fight club’s origins in fatherlessness:

The first night we fought was a Sunday night, and Tyler hadn’t shaved all weekend so my knuckles burned raw from his weekend beard. Lying on our backs in the parking lot, staring up at the one star that came through the streetlights, I asked Tyler what he’d been fighting. Tyler said, his father. Maybe we didn’t need a father to complete ourselves. There’s nothing personal about who you fight in fight club. You fight to fight. You’re not supposed to talk about fight club, but we talked and for the next couple of weeks, guys met in that parking lot after the bar had closed, and by the time it got cold, another bar offered the basement where we meet now. (52)

The fictional events of Fight Club are birthed when a six years-old boy’s father leaves and he feels incomplete, powerless, and lost. In fact, I don’t think it is an accident that the story teller is nameless. It is from our fathers that we gain our name and identity. Think about your friends, if they are like mine a brief overview of their surnames might look resemble a list like this: Carpenter, Eiriksson, Fisher, Hurst, Johnson. Notice that two of the names are professions of a now long dead patriarch (Carpenter and Fisher), two of the names are literally the first first name of a patriarch supplied with the gender of the descendant (Eirik + Son and John+Son), and the final is a description of where a male relative hailed from (Hurst is a old english word for a wooded area). It is from our fathers and grandfathers that we receive our surnames in most cases. Without a father there is no passing along of names and without a name there is no grounded identity.

Maybe you think that was true in a previous era, but not today in modern America. After all we have seen the arrival of feminism and the birth of the sexual revolution—we have broken from the antiquated ways of those who came before us. I can understand such a sentiment, but alas I do not believe this is so. The sexual revolution in many cases is one of the major catalysts in the decline of masculinity and often feminism is twisted into a poorly failed chauvinism that continues to subjugate women to men—has abortion really opened up new possibilities for women? Has pornography and promiscuity really increased equality?—This is in part because feminism lacks coherence, consider the division in feminism concerning transgender issues. Many feminists have fallen in line behind the advancing transgender activism seeing it as rooted in the feminist desire for increased freedom to define oneself. Many of the older feminists, however, have rejected transgenderism as logically incompatible with the ideologies of feminism. Feminism is not a strong enough or coherent enough force to alter the deeply embedded structures surrounding the family without causing massive rending of the fabric of humanity. Feminism although it has made a substantial cultural footprint, has created just as many cultural refugees as revolutionaries because it lacks the creative power to establish a new status quo that will promote human flourishing.

The reason modern feminism has failed is because it set itself in opposition to the way God designed the world to function. God designed the family to be led and defined through the sacrificial service of the husband/father. This is visible in Genesis 3, consider these aspects which reflect God’s intention and establishment of the husband/father as the head of the family:

  • Genesis 3:9-10 – God seeks Adam, not the couple together or Eve (though she was the first deceived), after the initial act of disobedience.
  • Genesis 3:16 – In cursing the woman he curses that which is central to her design: child birth and the willingness to submit to her husband.
  • Genesis 3:17-19 – In cursing the man he curses that which is central to his design: provision and work (consider how provision establishes headship).
  • Genesis 3:23-24 – Refers to things that clearly happened to both Adam and Eve as if they were just happening to Adam.

God designed man to lead, though lead sacrificially. Fatherlessness, in the way we are seeing it in our society today, however, seems to flow from irresponsibility. If we want to fix the crisis of masculinity, which would also go along way in repairing neighborhoods of minorities or low income families, we must start by fixing the state of fatherlessness.

Thanks for reading,

t.d.h.

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