In this Man of Character column, Man of Many takes a look at some of popular culture’s most notable male protagonists. We discuss the origin of the character and why they have had such an enduring influence on the popular consciousness.
‘I see in fight club the strongest and smartest men who’ve ever lived. I see all this potential, and I see squandering. God damn it, an entire generation pumping gas, waiting tables; slaves with white collars. Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need. We’re the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War’s a spiritual war… our Great Depression is our lives. 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. And we’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off.’ – Tyler Durden
It’s not outrageous to suggest, despite the obvious incongruity, that the popularity of counter-cultural figures more often than not exceeds that of their more conventional peers. From John Lennon to James Dean, our fascination with those seemingly unburdened by common propriety pervades our cultural identity. Yet, there are few fictional characters who have come to so easily define the rebellious male archetype quite like Fight Club’s Tyler Durden.
The meta-fictional protagonist-come-antagonist of the cult 1999 film (and Chuck Palahniuk’s novel), Durden’s cultural impact continues to resonate to this day, joining the iconic ranks of the likes of Scarface as the cinematic embodiment of aggressive, transgressive masculinity.
Played by a jacked, crazed Brad Pitt, Durden is the alter-ego of Edward Norton’s antisocial everyman: a psychological construct through whom he can resist and fight back against the numbing confines of his postmodern existence. He personifies the increasing tension between man’s natural violent tendencies and his emasculation through mindless consumerism.
As Durden, Norton’s Narrator (the character is never given a name in the film) eventually forms the underground cult Project Mayhem with the express aim of destroying the pillars of modern civilization. What begins as the titular fight club – a place for marginalized men to reclaim some of their primal purposes – evolves into a destructive, all-encompassing ideology: a battle of ego versus id and the perfect cure to the debilitating ennui of late 2oth century society.
Now, almost two decades later, Durden endures as a symbol of manliness for those who were barely born when the film was released. His image adorns the walls of grown men and teenagers alike, and many of his quotes have become part of our collective cinematic lexicon. Despite relative failure at the box office, the film, and Durden, found a receptive audience in the home entertainment market, where he became the poster boy for masculinity for the new millennium, built on machismo and latent rage.
He was adopted as somewhat of a patron saint by the pick-up artist community and, more recently, the Alt-Right and Men’s Rights movements. As gender politics become ever more embittered and toxic, Durden’s type of anarchic philosophy continues to be cast as both the problem and solution to our engendered culture wars. Either way, it’s persuasive evidence that he’s arguably more relevant today than ever before.