[Theme: Production & Consumption of Culture]
[Approach: Cultural & Social Analysis]
Feminine Consumption and Masculine Production: Gender Differences in Fight Club and Aurora Dawn
Both the film Fight Club (1999) and Herman Wouk’s novel Aurora Dawn (1947) depict capitalism, particularly advertising, as an emasculating, immoral, repressive institution. Male protagonists, consumers and advertisers alike, suffer from the system, and can only escape through extravagant, life-altering acts that ultimately succeed in reasserting their masculinity. Women, then, are largely left behind. Consumption is an action meant for women, advertising panders to feminine needs, and attractive women are branded as products of consumption. Their involvement in the processes of capitalism seems unavoidable and thus goes largely unquestioned. In these fictional pieces, advertising and consumption are portrayed as inherently feminine processes. Real men must fight to overcome the urge to advertise or consume and ultimately reach masculinity by becoming producers. Women, however, are helplessly trapped in the system and cannot escape without the aid of strong men.
In Fight Club, men literally fight endlessly to escape the feminizing chains of capitalism. Consumption in and of itself is seen as a wholly feminine process, and male consumers are clearly emasculated and often an embarrassment to their gender. The protagonist, Jack, is first seen as a slave to consumerism, ordering household items over the phone while reading from a catalogue, on the toilet, without pants. “We used to read pornography,” Jack states, “now it was the Horchow Collection.” In comparing consumption to pornography, Jack’s manhood is immediately questioned; by replacing sex with shopping, Jack seems feminine and desperate. He is undoubtedly controlled by his consumption, and judges himself based on his possessions. The only way he can escape his entrapment is by literally destroying the system that he thinks is destroying him. But Jack, a helpless consumer, cannot do this on his own, and has to conjure up an alpha male alter-ego to initiate the process. Enter Tyler Durden, who personifies all that Jack wants to be. Tyler is masculine, muscular, attractive, and, as he proclaims, “smart, capable, and most importantly, free in all the ways that [Jack is] not.” Disgusted with the feminine consumption ethic that he believes is destroying men, Tyler puts together a national anarchistic movement, Project Mayhem, an army to bring down the oppressive capitalistic power structure. Tyler’s first major action is to blow up Jack’s precious condo – full of the objects of consumption Jack uses to define himself. The explosion forces Jack to immediately redefine himself outside of the world of consumption and develop a more authentically “masculine” identity.
This development is the beginning of Jack’s transformation and ultimate rejection of capitalist society, evolving from emasculated consumer to masculine producer and, ultimately, warrior. Jack quickly dedicates himself to Tyler’s cause in his search for masculinity. Project Mayhem, though ultimately meant to destroy the capitalist structure, ironically operates within and benefits from the system. Tyler uses the army to produce soap cheaply and sell it to department stores at a high cost. After losing his cherished possessions, Jack stops mindlessly consuming and begins producing, which is an important step towards his quest for masculinity. Though still very much dependent on Tyler, Jack becomes more and more masculine by participating in the production of a commodity and ultimately the destruction of the capitalist system from which he benefits.
Women, however, are never even considered in Project Mayhem; it seems their enslavement to consumption is irreversible. While Jack and Tyler continuously criticize the false concepts of manhood that they see in advertising, particularly a Gucci underwear ad depicting perfectly chiseled bodies, no mention is made of unrealistic images of women. “Extreme distortions” in the physical representation of women are recurring throughout all advertising, but Jack and Tyler choose instead to focus only on the image of men and their downfall. In fact, Marla Singer, the one woman in the film, is portrayed as dangerously unstable even though her actions are exactly like Jack’s. Like Jack, Marla attempts to find meaning beyond consumption by attending support groups for various deadly diseases, abusing prescription drugs, and even sleeping around. But Tyler describes her as “a wild, twisted bitch,” and Jack retorts that she “needs a case worker.” While Jack sees his own behavior as acceptable and perhaps even noble, a woman acting the same way seems inherently wrong to him. Jack and Tyler keep Project Mayhem a secret from Marla, and generally ignore her when not sleeping with her. When not ignored, women are actually blamed for the downfall of men. Tyler laments, “we’re a generation raised by women. I’m wondering if another woman is the answer we really need.” Tyler starts Project Mayhem to change the oppressive capitalist system in which men are trapped. By blaming women for the sorry state of men, Tyler is thus reasserting that this capitalist system is inherently feminine. His army must overthrow the system to become real men; women cannot be involved with the transformation.
Much like the ignored women in Fight Club, the women in Aurora Dawn are imprisoned in capitalism, and seem unable to escape an institution defined by femininity. All female characters are enamored with either money or manufactured beauty, and depend on the men in their lives to attain these goals. Advertising simultaneously panders to women and objectifies them. Indeed, Aurora Dawn takes feminine capitalist imprisonment one step further as women become branded objects of consumption in themselves. The beautiful models Laura Beaton and Edith Grovill take on their own unique brand names – Honey Beaton and Flame Anders, respectively – to commodify their very existence. Laura explains to millionaire Stephen English that “‘Honey’ was the Pandar Agency’s invention, not mine,” and he responds with, “when you’re your own stock in trade, it’s a good idea to have a brand name.” Both Beaton and English clearly see that “Honey” is a branded object, a “stock in trade.” Brand names bring with them a brand image, defined as “the opinion or concept of the product that is held by the public, especially as filtered through the mass media.” By being branded, the conceptions of these women are subject to public opinion. These names invoke a certain connotative meaning, the signified to the signifier of the name. “Honey” implies sweet and pleasant; “Flame” sounds dangerous, edgy, and fun. Only people that are particularly close to the models call them by their real names; outsiders know them only by their manufactured personalities and the corresponding brand images. By being branded, these beautiful women lose their own identity and become a product to be consumed.
The men in Aurora Dawn are also searching simply for money, including the protagonist Andrew Reale, but the position of women is strikingly different in that no women try to escape the system or even seem particularly unhappy with their position. Reale, on the other hand, ultimately sacrifices his position as an advertiser when he sees the dishonor in his behavior. His ruthless dedication to his occupation results in him losing the love of his life, Laura “Honey” Beaton, moving onto another girl that ultimately jilts him, and blackmailing an innocent preacher to ensure his own success. Reale’s career prevents him from making his own decisions and ultimately emasculates him by making him a slave to his immoral and unlikable superiors. After finally allowing himself to consider his situation, Reale philosophizes, wondering, “‘what are we but a crowd of well-kept slaves in golden chains, wearing out our lives in a devil-dance of lying, throat-cutting, sensuality, luxury, cheating, conniving, and fooling the public?” The narrator adds that Reale “loathed himself and his life.” Reale finally realizes how unhappy he is, frees himself from the restrictions of his career, wins Beaton back, and becomes a real man by rejecting advertising for a more masculine career in production.
The consequences of advertising in Aurora Dawn are clearly all-encompassing, and Reale can only attempt to escape by moving far from New York City, living on a ranch, and making a living by raising cattle. Even this drastic action is not completely transformative, as the narrator regrets that “Andrew Reale has reformed less than one might hope… He confronts Laura, once every half year or so, with a scheme for raising a new kind of crop, or a new breed of beasts, which will make them millionaires in a few years.” Although Reale is the only character that asserts his masculinity by rejecting the emasculating force of advertising, even he cannot fully escape its temptations.
In both narratives, women can only escape the shackles of capitalism with the help of strong men. But females still cannot reach man’s ultimate goal, production. Both Jack and Reale, men that go from emasculated consumer or advertiser to masculine producer, purposefully free their chosen women in their quest for manhood. Women, though, are still left to be dependent on the men, who are finally somewhat independent. Jack’s situation at the end of the film is unclear, but Reale is clearly still working within the confines of the capitalist system. However, Reale is finally an honest producer as opposed to a devious advertiser manufacturing desire. Marla and Beaton are freed alongside their respective men, but the extent of their freedom is unclear. Though Marla is the one that helped Jack understand that Tyler was not a separate entity but his own alter-ego, she is still simply an observer of the final work of Project Mayhem. Beaton, too, seems to simply be observing Reale’s manly work of cattle-raising, while she is raising children of her own. But most importantly, the women seem relatively free from their previous enslavement. Marla is no longer portrayed as unstable, as Jack is no longer disgusted with her. Beaton gives up her beauty and perfect figure, acquiring a “charming roundness, quite different from the modish angularity into which she had disciplined herself during her photographic career.” The physical change reflects Beaton’s transformation. She is no longer a slave to beauty or a product to be consumed, but rather a loving wife that no longer longs for money or beauty.
Both Fight Club and Aurora Dawn portray consumption and advertising as processes meant for and defined by women. Men that give into these systems are weak and dependent, and thus, emasculated. Real men must escape these systems dramatically – by destroying them or actively removing themselves from them. Women, because they are so irreversibly trapped in the system, are unable to do this without the help of a strong man. In these extravagant tales of masculine heroism, women remain dependent – first on consumption, then on men that have escaped the system. Whether or not the latter situation is truly an improvement for women remains unclear.
 Fight Club, DVD, directed by David Fincher (1999; Los Angeles, CA: 20th Century Fox, 2000).
 Fight Club.
 Roland Marchand, Advertising the American Dream: Making Way for Modernity, 1920-1940 (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1985), 182.
 Fight Club.
 Fight Club.
 Herman Wouk, Aurora Dawn (New York: Little Brown & Co, rpt. 1992), 45.
 Marcel Danesi, Brands (New York: Routledge, 2006), 15.
 Wouk, 264.
 Wouk, 283.
 Wouk, 282.
Danesi, Marcel. Brands. New York: Routledge, 2006.
Fight Club. DVD. Directed by David Fincher. 1999; Los Angeles, CA: 20th Century Fox, 2000.
Marchand, Roland. Advertising the American Dream: Making Way for Modernity, 1920-1940. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1985.
Wouk, Herman. Aurora Dawn. New York: Little Brown & Co, rpt. 1992.