In speaking about his role in Fight Club, Edward Norton defended the violence in the film; “Art has always reflected society . . . art doesn’t invent violence” (Moses, 2004, par 4). A causal relationship between art and societal violence is debatable, but it is clear that there is at least a correlational relationship between seeing violence and being violent. However, the causal or correlational relationship between art and violence is not the only point of societal concern regarding the influence art such as film holds for a society. Through film, ideas and themes are embedded into public consciousness. Films like Fight Club have the power to desensitize the public to troubling concepts of acceptable behavior and reproduce the power relations that exist in society while denying that the “other” is being marginalized as a result. Because of that, it is critical that film is used as pedagogical tool to recognize and identify societal power relationships in order to challenge them.
Mass media like film has the power to influence society even if they do not immediately result in a mimicry of the extreme action portrayed; “Terrible things, by continuing to be shown, begin to appear matter-of-fact, a natural rather than man-made catastrophe.” (Giroux, 2001, p. 73). bell hooks (2006) elaborates on the “production of moral indifference” (Giroux, 2001), explaining how repeated exposure to something like violence against women may not make a man believe that it is acceptable to rape a woman, but may make the woman believe that violent or derogatory behavior is acceptable. When people are constantly exposed to violent or disturbing images and behaviors, one may become desensitized to them. As a result of desensitization, society may even begin to view them as acceptable. Violent, discriminatory, and marginalizing behavior portrayed in film is worth questioning in order to prevent that attitude from becoming acceptable in society.
In addition to desensitization to troubling behavior and messages and film, all films must be questioned because they are still controlled by one dominating segment of the population: the white man. Regardless of the content of the film, it still must be made by one of the dominant white, man filmmakers for it to be produced, critically acclaimed, and accepted by the public (bell hooks, 2006) as the recent Oscar nominations evidenced, despite deserving films created by women and persons of color. As an example, bell hooks (2006) cites the example of Braveheart, a film that brought attention to national liberation struggles. It took a white filmmaker, a movie, and a white man struggle for national liberation struggles to be accepted as valid and worth public concern. It took white masculine privilege to do what news stories about genocide in Rwanda and Iraq did not, despite the immediacy of the genocide taking place there (bell hooks, 2006). White men control what films are made and considered by the public to be valuable. As such, they hold the power to legitimize civil rights struggles and challenge the inequalities created by capitalism, but rarely choose to do so.
Even films that claim to be liberating or anti-capitalist still reinforce what bell hooks calls the “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy” (bell hooks, 2006). One example of this is seen in the film Fight Club: “a subgenre of cult film that combines a fascination with the spectacle of violence, enlivened through tired narratives about the crisis of masculinity, along with a superficial gesture toward social critique designed to offer the tease of important social issues” (Giroux, 2001, p. 5). The narrator in the novel Fight Club further re-asserts man dominance; “The goal was to teach each man in the project that he had the power to control history. We, each of us, can take control of the world” (Palahniuk, 1996, p. 122). This concept, a white man who needs to reminded of his own power, is an absurd joke. Both the novel and the movie market the message that the white, middle-class man is oppressed and must be liberated, but white, middle-class men already hold the power. Fight Club is not revolutionary or even anti-consumerist. In reinforcing the need for violence from the white man, it is an example of how film serves to reinforce and even rebuild the existing dominance of the white man. It also led to a Trump presidency.
By reinforcing white man privilege, Fight Club is also an example of how society avoids discourse about the dominance of the white masculinity and men through violence. In an interview about the movie Fight Club, the author of the novel Palahniuk called criticism of the violence of the movie as just an excuse to trash the movie and directed the conversation away from violence by stating that “the system is more frightened of our anti-consumerist message than they are of our violence” (“Palahniuk, 1999, par 8). Instead of questioning violence and truly challenging consumerism, Fight Club reinforces traditional gendered roles. It steers the conversation away from the shocking violence in the film, which further legitimizes it as a representation of maleness. David Fincher said that violence was a metaphor of feeling and that “Brad Pitt’s character represents every idea about what masculinity is” (par 5). Fight Club asserts the dominance of whiteness and masculine values and justifies violence through the guise of anti-consumerism. As a “teaching machine”, Fight Club reproduces public pedagogies instead of challenging them (Giroux, 2001). Fight Club is an example of how film acts to reinforce and even exacerbate inequalities that exist it society. It must be critically examined and questioned.
If white men control the messages portrayed in film and supposedly liberating films promote the interests of capitalism and white men, how is society supposed to respond? Foucault advocated that the role of scholar was to become a critic. We must teach our students to become critics as well. Our role as educators is to ensure that our students develop the critical thinking skills and have the opportunity to critically evaluate film. This means “developing forms of public pedagogy that critically engage how language, images, sounds, codes, and representations work to structure basic assumptions about freedom, citizenship, public memory, and history” (Giroux, 2001, p. 78). It is imperative that the messages made overtly by a film, actors and filmmakers are identified and challenged so that they are not ignored and reproduced.
As a powerful and influential form of media, film is also successful to illustrate the concepts of marginalization that are replicated in society. bell hooks (2006) explained that she uses film to help her students to grasp theoretical paradigms through the power of pop culture, which she calls becoming an “enlightened witness.” The insidious nature of film to embed its message(s) into public consciousness is valuable in the classroom as a medium that helps students understand complicated concepts of power, discrimination, and institutionalism. If transformation occurs through literacy and critical thinking, we must provide opportunities for both in our classroom: “Acknowledging the educational role of such films requires that educators and others find ways to make the political more pedagogical” (Giroux, 2001, p. 79). We must challenge the messages conveyed by and through films and use them as an effective medium to make abstract concepts concrete.
Giroux, H.A. (2001). Private satisfactions and public disorders: Fight club, patriarchy, and the politics of masculine violence. In Public spaces, private lives: Beyond the culture of cynicism (pp. 55-80). Lanham, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers.
hooks, b. (2006, Dec 10). cultural criticism and transformation. Parts 1-4 retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I0whHz7PLGY
Moses, M. (2004). Fighting words: An interview with Fight Club director David Fincher. DrDrew.com. Retrieved from http://web.archive.org/web/20071211235459/http://www.drdrew.com/article.asp?id=198
Palahiuk, C. (1996). Fight Club. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
Palahniuk: Marketing ‘Fight Club’ is ‘the ultimate absurd joke.’ (1999, October 29). CNN.com. Retrieved from http://www.cnn.com/books/news/9910/29/fight.club.author/