At the tail-end of last year, the website Gear Junkie put its finger on a growing fashion trend among dudes: lumbersexuality. The site pitted the recent wooly woodsman look against the trim and prim metrosexual style of the mid-oughts. Assessing the trend in The Atlantic, Willa Brown points out:
This particular brand of bearded flannel-wearer is a modern take on the deeply-rooted historical image of Paul Bunyan, the ax-wielding but amiable giant, whose stomping grounds were the North Woods of the upper Midwest. Paul and his brethren emerged as icons in American pop culture a little over a century ago. What links the mythic lumberjack to his modern-day incarnations is a pervasive sense—in his time and ours—that masculinity is 'in crisis.'Brown locates the lumberjack myth to the turn of the previous century, to a period "of rapid urbanization and stark economic inequality." Nineteenth century men were coming to the city for work and becoming cramped in office jobs that offered little room to rise. As a result, they began to suffer "from neurasthenia, a new disease that skyrocketed to almost epidemic status in the 1880s and 1890s. Neurasthenia was the overtaxing of the nervous system, a sort of male hysteria." As a cure, men were encouraged to revivify their masculinity and were offered the mold of lumber camp workers to aspire to.
In truth, the real lumberjacks
who worked the North Woods of Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin at the turn of the century lived a reality that held little appeal to the middle-class writers who invented their mythical image. What had once been an industry of small, family-owned lumber camps had begun to scale up to industrial levels, and the men who worked in these camps found themselves in the same position as many Gilded Age laborers: stuck at the bottom of a capitalist economy with little chance of advancement.The recent rise in "lumbersexuality" is easily located in a contemporary malaise, where men have mostly lost their monopoly on historically male roles. The threat of gender equality – or even the threat of disassembling gendered distinctions all together – economically as well as culturally would seem to drive men towards these masculine signifiers.
It's probably no mistake that Fight Club begins in a support group for men with testicular cancer. Meatloaf's "Bob" has specifically lost his testicles and grown breasts from the treatment. His is a literal emasculation to pair with the figurative emasculation experienced by Edward Norton's unnamed narrator. This won't be the first instance or threat of castration in the movie. The narrator – heretofore known as Jack – would seem to be experiencing "neurasthenia" – but instead of going to fantasy lumberjack camp, he finds supposed reconnection to his lost manliness in slamming another disenfranchised-feeling white guy's face into the floor – as real men are apparently wont to do.
Tyler Durden, the chum Jack makes when their identical bags are accidentally swapped at the airport, makes an argument for the reclamation of masculinity, for both living off and fighting against the grid. Consumerism and conformity are effete in this vision, a form of castration. What men have lost society has lost, Tyler seems to argue. Brought to its logical conclusion, machismo becomes a form of prelapsarian anarchy.
There's a fork in Fight Club. After "meeting" Tyler on the flight, Jack returns home to find his condo blown to smithereens. The first person he phones is Marla, a strange woman he met while medicating his malaise with support groups. Jack hangs up on Marla immediately and contacts Tyler instead. Both Tyler and Marla are outwardly nuts, but Jack is enscorcelled by Tyler, ostensibly seeking a homosocial BFF – or, really, a father-figure. Jack is, after all – in Tyler's words – part of a masculine generation abandoned by their fathers, raised by women. When Jack complains about being 30 and unmarried, Tyler wonders "if another woman is really the answer we need." There are times where the concept Fight Club (the club, not necessarily the movie) feels no more refined than Al Bundy's NO MA'AM club. Marla is permitted to be around so long as she's serving a sexual purpose, but disappears from the movie as soon as she turns out to have feelings – feelings being those soft, unreliable things common to women, those things that Tyler specifically wants to rid Jack of.
But are Tyler's opinions Fight Club's opinions? The movie's legacy certainly has much to do with – apart from "the twist" – Tyler's cool, anti-consumerism manifestos and his bloody remedy for neurasthenia. For a generation of dudes struggling with their own masculinity crisis, it must have felt like Tyler was speaking directly to them. But most people seem to forget that Tyler turns out to be the movie's villain. For all the shirtless bros memorably banging away at each other, the movie ends with Jack and Marla holding hands, gazing into each others eyes.
It would seem that the masculine crisis is no less solved now as it was when Fight Club was released. As with the recent romance with the old romance of beards and flannel, Fight Club – after it's through with all the bare chests and angsty speechifying – actually gets around to making a shy point. Indeed, there's something essentially sad and incessant about a modern dude's struggle for relevance, mostly because – as Brown points out in her article – those dudes are decreasingly sole proprietors of what had once made them – or at least made them feel – necessary. Dressing up like a lumberjack is just as ineffective as joining an underground fight club. It's addressing the problem with archetypal regression instead of worthwhile progression.