Different Lenses: Fight Club, The Social Network & Masculinity

Different Lenses is a column where different views on the same cinematic subject are analyzed, dissected and discussed. This column...

David Braga

Contributor

Different Lenses is a column where different views on the same cinematic subject are analyzed, dissected and discussed. This column will examine how two different filmmakers approach the same subject, how two films from the same filmmaker change or alter that filmmaker’s view on a subject, or how larger, overarching film movements comment on and interact with each other.

By examining the differences between these films, filmmakers and movements, we can understand what these different views mean, and what they say about their filmmakers’ view of the subject matter and the world around them. This first edition will look at two films by David Fincher, Fight Club and The Social Network, to see how they reflect Fincher’s understanding of how masculinity and the power that comes with it are changing in American society.

Note: Spoilers for both films follow.

Sometimes, looking at the two different works on the same subject by one filmmaker can be as revealing as looking at the work of two different filmmakers on the same subject. David Fincher’s films, especially early in his career, have always been constructed with a sort of toughness to them. They’re gritty, but not in the cheap way that mars so many bad action movies.

His roughness is real, created by cohesion between the characters, story, and Fincher’s style of direction. So it makes sense that Fincher would be the filmmaker to make two of the most definitive statements on American masculinity (and the power that comes with it) in recent years, first with 1999’s Fight Club, and next with 2010’s The Social Network.

In terms of their structure and form, Fight Club and The Social Network are drastically different from one another. Fight Club is based more around action, with flashy direction, while The Social Network draws its suspense and drama from dialogue and direction that never gets in the way of the story (but is stylish when it has to be).

But at their core, both films are about men – The Narrator (Ed Norton) in Fight Club, Mark Zuckerberg (Jessie Eisenberg) in Social Network – who are longing for greater status in life, and then find it through an outlet that lets them assert their power, along with a model of ideal masculinity for them to follow.

Of course for The Narrator, his outlet is Fight Club, where frustrated men can let off their steam and embrace their own masculinity by beating the living daylights out of one another, respectfully. His model, his personal ideal of the ultimate American male, comes in the form of Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), a well dressed, tough social rebel who seemingly can do whatever he wants whenever he wants, including ensnaring the Narrator’s female fixation, Marla Singer.

The success of Fight Club gives The Narrator the sort of power, authority and control over himself and his life that he’s been waiting for throughout the film. Since he’s eventually revealed to be one with Tyler Durden, we see that he has in fact become the sort of Alpha Male he’s been admiring the entire film.

For Zuckerberg, his outlet is Facebook, where he’s essentially lord over all of the proceedings. Its popularity gives him a taste of the recognition, status and power he’s been longing for since the beginning of the film. He is a campus star, women want him, and most of all, he has outdone the Finals Clubs that have thus far ignored him.

The model he follows for what he wants to become is Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), a rebellious, well dressed computer innovator who seemingly can do whatever he wants, knows gorgeous women, and has all the connections. Parker is, for Zuckerberg, a Tyler Durden for the digital age.

If Tyler Durden and Sean Parker both represent, for the characters in their respective films, a sort of ultimate, free male, then in understanding the differences between the two characters, we can better understand the attitudes that Fincher takes towards masculinity in each film, and how it relates to the time period in which the films exist.

Some traits between the characters are similar: they’re both good looking and well dressed, they both have a sexual prowess that the characters that look up to them do not, and above all, each possesses a rebelliousness that makes them seemingly uncontrollable. They are, at least in the eyes of The Narrator and Zuckerberg, their own masters, completely in control of themselves. That above all gives them the Alpha Male status that the others see in them.

The Social Network

But the image of masculine power in the 90s is far different than it is in the age of social networking, and the differences between Durden and Parker reveal how that change has taken place. Durden’s power is primarily physical, all fast cars and primal strength, while Parker’s comes from his mind.

In fact, Parker is shockingly un-phyiscal and frightened of confrontations; when Eduardo takes a step towards him at the film’s climax, he backs away instantly, hands covering his face in fear. The most physically dominating characters in The Social Network are the Winklevoss twins, who are constantly outsmarted and outmaneuvered by Zuckerberg, and by the end of the film, come across as somewhat comical in their reluctance to acknowledge the new order.

More than anything else, this shows how the balance of power and perception of masculinity has changed in the years between Fight Club and The Social Network. Fight Club operates in the mindset of the 90s, and while The Social Network is set during the early part of the new century (it begins in 2003), the mindset it reflects is our current one. The traditional definitions of masculinity and masculine power are changing, some of them outright crumbling.

Men are defined now, more than ever, by their mind, intellect, and ingenuity, not their raw power and physicality. Zuckerberg and Parker are, by the order of the old age, computer nerds. In the current age, they are the powerful ones, they’re in control. In Fight Club, Ed Norton and Brad Pitt talk about wanting to fight Ghandi. What would they have thought about Sean Parker and Mark Zuckerberg? Steve Jobs? The idea is almost self referential between the two films: more young people now probably want to be Mark Zuckerberg than they do Brad Pitt.

But just because this power and perception is based on intellectual strength rather than physical strength doesn’t mean that the same basic principles aren’t at the core of this new masculinity. Zuckerberg is still driven by a desire to keep the power he has attained and the status he has over others.

He proves as ruthless as Durden in protecting what he’s built, and while the Facebook headquarters in Palo Alto is a far cry from Project Mayhem, both characters show no mercy in controlling their vision of how events will play out, including turning on those closest to them to see that their will is done. Fincher shows that the base of all masculinity, no matter what era, is the desire for power and control, regardless of whether it comes from the fist or the mind.

Fincher’s direction of the two films shows that while he’s interested in the shift in perceptions of masculinity and the power that comes with it, he’s well aware that the same forces are driving men to do harsh things to acquire that status. It’s appropriate that Fincher is the one exploring these themes, given the nature of his filmography as well as his evolution as a director over the years.

Fight Club and The Social Network are two definitive statements on what it means to be a man and have power, each representative of a different era in America. When the next change comes, and surely it will, probably sooner rather than later, I’m sure we’ll find Fincher at the helm of another film on the subject, probing its meaning.