America remains resistant to the kind of stereotypical defining of its culture that plagues other countries. This is partly due to America’s relative youth and partly due to its multicultural population. Lacking any strictly defined culture created by shared ethnicities and traditions America has always been fragmented, more a collection of individual identities. This fragmentation may be one of the reasons that an underlying theme of American fiction has been the search for an identity. This search has almost reached the point of obsession as authors and filmmakers have consciously set out to explore what it really means to be an American. Just as most Americans construct their opinions of other countries through media representations, so it is probably true that foreign audiences construct their opinions of America through Hollywood movies. Fight Club engages the two primary aspects of American society that define the country for most foreigners, extreme violence and extreme capitalism, and succeeds in showing how these factors are intertwined in the formation of American consciousness.
Fight Club takes its title from activity engaged in by its characters in which groups of alienated young men literally beat each other senseless in an effort to endow some kind of meaning to their lives, turning it into a metaphor for how America used violence to create an identity. The very idea of willfully engaging in violence to create a meaning to one’s life may seem horrendous, but in fact the fight club is merely a metaphor for how war has defined generations. America itself was borne from the result of bloodshed; it’s meaning cemented by the willingness to fight for freedom. A later generation was defined by its willingness to fight for or against owning human beings. Violence is hardly a uniquely American trait, but it has proven to be a vital component in how the population views itself. Gun control as practiced among most other developed nations is unknown, and the love of guns may stem more from the image of the heroic cowboy with a six-shooter strapped to his waist than it does from the Second Amendment, which is usually misinterpreted wildly by supporters of gun rights. The continued use of capital punishment is abhorrent to many foreign citizens. The implicit message behind the idea that identity is forged through violent encounters is the unsettling idea that there is no other recourse; Fight Club presents a view of American as a society incapable of solving problems without resorting to violence. Some critics, like Michael Medved, complain that Hollywood distorts the reality of America by presenting an image that is far more violent than statistics bear out. And, yet the movie now seems disquieting in its prescience. It is almost impossible to watch the scenes in Fight Club today where the characters pick fights with people for no reason without immediately thinking of George W. Bush and his struggle to define his Presidency by picking a fight against Iraq for no reason. The America of the latter half of the 20th century and, even more intensely, the opening of the 21st has often been viewed as a bully using force to impose its beliefs upon others in the name of protecting its citizens from having the beliefs of foreigners imposed upon us, but equally true is the argument that American imposes itself upon others by selling the idea of America.
For those who don’t see America first as a center of inexplicable violence the prevailing opinion might be that it is a country made up of people who believe they can buy and sell anything, even an identity and Fight Club takes up this idea by presenting its characters as ordinary Americans trapped in a web of rampant consumerism where status is determined not by what you make, but by what you consume. The crux of the plot is what happens when the consciousness of this empty existence is revealed. The main character Jack begins his journey toward self-actualization at the point that his resistance to a life based on accumulation begins to break down. The lack of a traditional shared cultural heritage has given way to the idea of buying an identity based on clothing that sport corporate logos. The America of Fight Club suggests being an American is synonymous with being a block of marble that can be turned into an individual only as a result of the work of sculptors dressed in smocks with logos of companies like Nike, Ikea and Starbucks on them. The underlying message is that if you are born in France or Japan you come pre-installed with a certain “French-ness” or “Japan-ness” but if you are born in America you are constructed later to exhibit a certain “Nike-ness” or “Starbucks-ness.” In essence, the film is saying that there is no encompassing American identity but only a collection of uncompensated shills for America, Inc. The solution to the question of how to establish a true identity leads back to violence, not surprisingly.
Fight Club’s story combines the view that America is obsessed with violence and consumerism and pushes forward to a climax that merges both obsessions in the realization of its message. The America in Fight Club is not the jingoistic image typically presented by Hollywood, but rather one that cuts closer to the bone. It is true that gun rights have been perverted to allow violence not experienced in other countries and it is true that wealth determines status. Fight Club is not original in presenting these facts, but it does engage the international suspicions about these aspects of American society to determine a solution. If the foreign perception of Americans is one of a people that solve their problems with violence, and the other major defining aspect of American culture is the influence of capitalist excess, then how better to deal with the obstacle to generating a true identity than to turn the violence against the very ideological behemoth that has constructed the false consciousness?
One of the misconceptions about America that foreigners may get from Fight Club is that the country is as homogenized as it is presented. While it is true that extreme political views do not gain as easy access into the corridors of power as they do in other countries, America does still make room for radical dissent. The violence that erupts in real life when Americans come face to face with the reality of the American system are usually directed not at the source of the unfairness, but ironically at one’s own door. For instance, the rioters following the Rodney King verdict didn’t take out their frustration on the white power base responsible for such a miscarriage of justice, but rather on local businesses owned by their neighbors and friends. That so many Americans turned to violence to deal with that frustration is a key point of Fight Club. But the characters in Fight Club direct their violence not against their own best interests but against the architects who have built the edifice of what it means to be an American upon a balance sheet. Unfortunately, the movie is all too realistic in its depiction of the dissenters as a small band far outside the mainstream that have no real impact.
The view of America from the outside is as diverse as it is from the inside. Despite this, the country has always has to answer questions from critics concerning its regular eruptions of violence. In addition, America no longer actually produces much anymore; everything from auto factories to television factories have disappeared and will never come back; men and women who once made things that Americans actually needed are now handing carts with a smile at Wal-Mart so that Americans can buy things nobody ever has or will need. What America excels at now in place of producing products is selling the idea of products. Every item advertised today carries with it not so much information about how it can improve one’s life, but how it can improve one’s status. Fight Club presents an America that is defined by violence and consumption and concludes that the only way to end the cycle is through redirected violence.