Sitting at work avoiding work is an American specialty. I have privilege there. I can afford to take breaks and bullshit around not only for my mental health, but the mental health of my students. For the most part my students need to pass state regulated Regents Exams. They are stressed and rightfully so. The exams assess skills no real adult actively uses in their adult life. I would know – I am a real adult (I think). Sadly, students are not the only people subjected to these tedious exams to hopefully one day be allowed to graduate high school and get a job that pays them a livable wage. Teachers are also in the same boat. The difference is since we are real adults (they think) we are expected to pay the Big Brother-esque company Pearson hundreds of dollars for a variety of certification exams and the edTPA. Unlike my students who may fail and retake classes at no cost, exam re-takes can run educators up to $500+, not including study time on top of, you know, like doing their regular fucking jobs.
Teaching in a non-private school in New York State is literally a thankless job. Every now and then I may receive some cheap gift bought in bulk off Amazon or a scribbled note from a student with a heartwarming thank you; but as a person burdened with student loans, the result of a private education from Fuck You University, I like my rewards to come in the form of a direct deposit or Venmo payment. I’m not bitter, but I am angry, and I often find myself in Google holes trying to figure out what others have said or done to make Education and Economic Reform a reality for people like me and my students.
The other day I ended up on the Wikipedia page for the 90’s favorite film Fight Club. Growing up, Fight Club was an edgy, hyper violent, hyper sexual, hyper confusing movie. Naturally, I bought into every minute. I mean, it was basically an instant cult classic that divided critics and, for some, is still the perfect office water cooler conversation topic. For most white collar workers, the focus is on the idea of letting off steam, beating the shit out of their boss or office rival, or simply wanting to slug someone without the risk of criminal charges. For others, the focus is on the twist ending and trying to notice how the Narrator and Tyler interacted throughout the movie to find the obvious clues leading up to it. For the sane and reasonable (aka me) I focus on Tyler’s fucking genius plan to flip dissatisfied toxic masculine white men into agents of the revolution. The story’s attempt to erase the societal debt for any and all people (aka me) is the real progressive undercurrent theme of Fight Club.
Seeing critics call the movie morally ambiguous makes me laugh. I don’t need to click on the names of the authors of these reviews, but I can almost guarantee what demographic they belong to. The idea of revolution always seems like a moral ambiguity in amerikkka when it asks those in positions of power to give up some slight freedom, especially financial. Life, however, is a spectrum and Tyler ‘Don’t talk about Fight Club’ Durden understood that. He knew that when he was fucking Marla for the fun of it, despite the fact she was clearly riddled with mental health issues and he was abusing her by taking advantage of her state of mind (this toxic masculinity topic never gets talked about in review. I wonder why?????). Tyler knew that when he was working overtime to fly across the country to Fight Club recruit belittled and angry white men whose Viagra prescriptions did not make them feel more complete, and the concept of physically destroying things was all that was left to give them any form of hard-on. He knew that when he was willing to let his own physical container in the Narrator die. Tyler was a true martyr and you have to look no further than any American sporting event full of pomp and spectacle to support our troops fighting unjust wars, to see that martyrdom sells tickets and views. Shout out to the OG Jesus Christ.
The homoerotic undertones of Fight Club are important and progressive, but, to me, not as important as the main message that the film is presenting: society is imbalanced and the only way to fix it is to even the playing field through the manipulation of the traditional gatekeeping white man. Time and time again these men decide where the societal line should be drawn. Grammy winning comedian Dave Chappelle was both dragged and applauded for his famous bit on no one caring about trans rights until white men began to transition to trans women.
While I honor the courage it takes to live in this world as a trans person, Chappelle hit the nail on the fucking head. Tyler Durden, much like Bane and the Joker in The Dark Knight series (though I don’t think they ever list their gender identifiers), takes white male terrorists who the audience sympathizes with and often root for in one form or another and makes them figureheads for economical terrorist themes. Contrasted with a terrorist like the Asian Fake Ra’s al Ghul from Batman Begins who no one gave a shit about, these characters are often as memorable and canonized as the protagonist of these films. Other films predominately featuring “cool” white terrorists include Mission Impossible series and Die Hard series. Often the only time American audiences are entirely against terrorists is when they are POC, from 2012’s Red Dawn and 2014’s American Sniper. By the way, any terrorist film from the Cold War Era does not fucking count. That is a whole other beast we could spend a lifetime discussing, but I will note that it is funny Communists were called Reds, another negative use of color that was once used (and sometimes still is in Cincinnati and Washington) to describe Native Americans.
In researching Hollywood films with POC terrorists, the list is scarce of any notable brown or black bodies. This holds especially true when the terrorist is also the protagonist. The idea pervades that white terrorism can be an entertainment piece whereas the brown or black terrorist strikes a legitimate subconscious fear in white American audiences. Even the mention of the word reparations, a tactic meant to combat the oppressive forces of white supremacy, often incites fear, and therefore a disconnect, within a listener without even hearing the form of reparations an advocate may be mentioning. The idea of a white man being able to “destroy” a system will always be more relatable to a vastly white audience that Hollywood clearly still panders to.
Gatekeeping is nothing new and something I see happen every day in my professional environment. I find it brilliant that Chuck Palahniuk was somehow able to mesmerize a generation of white men, (particularly the FDNY who are famously known for having an underground Fight Club) into thinking that the concept of Fight Club was about beating the shit out of each other before going back to their cubicles to continue to suckle the teet of capitalism. This is while they continue to be complacent to the wealth gap that alienates not only POC but blue collar workers who are still seeking their value in the not-so free market economy which is becoming more and more uneasy– especially with the rise of Artificial Intelligence (AI). I mean, James Cameron tried to warn us of the dangers of AI in The Terminator 35 years ago, but sadly all we got out of it was a mixed franchise with more lows than highs at this point.
I could blame audiences, but it is not their fault that they are not critically thinking enough to pick up the nuances in storytelling. It goes all the way back to educational reform and the price we pay to give students the necessary skills to live successful and sustainable lives with a livable wage. Based on reports of economic insecurity in the millennial generation and a rise in mental health and anxiety issues, it is obvious that something is not entirely connecting in the healthiest way. Whether or not the government is unjust is not an argument that needs to be had. Look no further than a zip code being a stark qualifier that determines whether or not you will have a traditionally successful life. As long as massive corporations like Pearson continue to buy influence in the NYS DOE, funneling out hard-working individuals who don’t want to jump through endless hoops for a tiresome job many people do not want or quickly leave because of burn out, more and more viewers will misunderstand the messages that films like Fight Club and The Dark Knight make explicit to audiences: those in power are not like us and do not have our best intentions.
Channeling the frustration of a broken society into something more than performative social media posts and basement dwelling fight clubs would be a start. I’m not saying you should sucker punch your boss in the middle of the staff meeting to impress the water cooler crew, but maybe try a show of solidarity with the workers of the world next time you decide want to rage against the machine. A few screws can always be replaced, but removing whole parts is what makes a carefully run system crumble effectively.