This is a serious question I have been asking myself for a while now. Of course, I am a feminist and I do like Fight Club, so there’s an easy answer to the question. But have I been so brainwashed by the male gaze that I can’t see fiction through the critical lens it deserves? I was watching season 1 of Fargo on a trans-Atlantic flight a couple weeks ago, and I found myself thoroughly entertained. I also found myself feeling guilty for enjoying something so male, white, and heteronormative. (Allison Tolman is great, but she doesn’t make up for it.)
Obviously this is the standard for fiction in all its forms, and anything else is given a special interest label—“chick” and “urban” among my favorites—and made into a “genre” (and thus deemed inferior). Such books are pushed into the corners of stores and such movies are advertised on Lifetime, BET and Logo, so hetero white men don’t have to know they exist.
Diversity in film recently has been addressed by The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. There are a lot of reasons why diversity is important, but one of them is simply that having more variety makes for better quality of art overall. I don’t know about you, but I feel like I see the same movies and TV shows and books over and over again. I understand that for publishers and studios trying to fatten their pockets, doing something new is risky, but I’m bored with remakes and reboots and retellings.
My problem is that occasionally something will come along that I really like even if it’s reminiscent of the same old thing.
For instance, I really enjoyed The Revenant, but I have seen a lot of (fair) criticism of it floating around:
- It’s a white, male revenge fantasy.
- It’s “Playground machismo.”
- It’s one man’s quest for an Oscar.
I understand the criticism, I do. But, for me, if The Revenant is about anything, it’s about brutality—the brutality of nature and the brutality of people. It is a movie with a white, male protagonist who does “manly” things like wrestle a bear. (I’m being flippant. The bear attacks him and he’s left for dead.)
But I absolutely did not walk away from that movie feeling great about humanity, masculinity, or white men.
I mention Fight Club in the title of this essay, because I still really like Fight Club. Even after seeing and falling in love with Mr. Robot, which pretty much takes Fight Club and makes it better.
The feminist criticism of Fight Club is valid, and I recognize its misogyny, especially in the movie version. But I also see in Fight Club a criticism that exposes the emptiness of so-called masculinity. Chuck Palahniuk’s critique of how the ills of capitalism turn men into paper-pushing pawns living meaningless lives that make them hate themselves is also valid. Project Mayhem didn’t actually have anything to do with the seemingly hyper-masculine solution of beating the shit out of each other.
Men are capable of problematizing themselves and creating good fiction.
But I just don’t know if I’m saying this to justify my own tastes.
I know that my understanding of what “good” is has been manipulated by the fact that the majority of fiction I have experienced over my lifetime has been created in a paternalistic, misogynist framework that has defined masculinity and femininity in specific ways, always already through the male gaze.
But I still like things that are created for a generic heteronormative, white male audience base. I truly enjoy some movies that don’t pass the Bechdel Test.
My current favorite movie is Captain America: The Winter Soldier. It pretty much only passes the Bechdel Test because Maria Hill says “Who’s this guy?” in Black Widow’s presence. Even though it’s a superhero movie and Captain America is an impossible creation of fiction, I can somehow still relate to Steve Rogers’ pain. That’s what is so cool about fiction. I can see myself reflected in Sartre’s Roquentin or Calvino’s “reader” and feel like maybe I’m less crazy than I feel most of the time, because other people have felt like this, too.
Sherlock Holmes is probably my favorite fictional character of all time, because I can relate to him as a too-intelligent person with an addictive personality who feels alienated by the world around him. And Elementary’s decision to cast Lucy Liu as Joan Watson is one of the many reasons why it is my favorite incarnation of Sherlock Holmes.
But I would also love to see original characters who don’t all look the same, who have had life experiences I’ve never seen portrayed before, so I can improve my understanding of the world and so maybe I can find myself in unexpected places. I want the big capitalistic machine that controls mass market fiction to validate other perspectives.
But maybe I also want more things like Mr. Robot and Elementary and Sense8 so I can feel less guilty for also liking the canon. It’s still a question for me.
But one thing I do know, oh straight, white men of the world, is that even you can relate to stories about women, people of different races, from different backgrounds. You know how I know? Because the rest of us, we’ve been doing it our whole lives.
And somehow I turned out to be a feminist in spite of it.
 I also found myself rooting for Billy Bob Thorton’s character, which probably says something a lot more disturbing about my psychology.