If we are to believe the plight of beloved, award-winning films like Sam Mendes's American Beauty and David Fincher's cult classic Fight Club, the late 1990s were a tough time to be a white, middle-classed, able-bodied American male. Totally understandable eye roll aside, the crisis of male identity in pre-9/11 America prompted a second look at a generation of men who lacked the participation and camaraderie of some heroic war or great artistic movement like their parents before them (the Greatest Generation). These adult men lived in the (temporarily) prosperous and peaceful 1990s, where all around them the landscape of modern masculinity was changing, the workspace was evolving and the new, ornamental age was fraught with uncharted gender relations.
Janet Maslin, a film critic for The New York Times, lovingly described the detestable American Beauty protagonist, Lester Burnham, as "played with heavenly finesse by Kevin Spacey in his wittiest and most agile screen performance yet, as a buttoned-down 42-year-old who desperately needs to stop and smell the roses." As if that was the point of this film, and not a glaring need to reassess our cultural priorities.
Exactly one month after her review of American Beauty, Maslin also reviewed Fight Club as a film that "might be mistaken for a dangerous endorsement of totalitarian tactics and super-violent nihilism in an all-out assault on society." For many men, these films worked as a frightening blend of social critique and escapism. While both Fight Club and American Beauty remain important and iconic, going back over them decades later, after America suffered its first domestic attack, participated in several foreign conflicts and wars, survived a massive financial meltdown and gained a helluva lot of perspective, these films only elicit an eerie sense of rereading a spoiled preteen's messy diary. Detailing indescribable frustration, aggression and pseudo-poetic musings (who could forget that mother-effing plastic bag?), both films perfectly encapsulate the supposed struggles of white men in the 1990s. But what was really happening in these films (and this era), and why did so many people lose their s*** over the masculine anxieties present in both pieces?
"You want to see the most beautiful thing I've ever filmed?" No Ricky, not if it's another goddamn plastic bag. Tumblr
WHITE MASCULINITY IN THE 1990S: NOT ALL IS AS IT SEEMS
If the 1980s were the height of hyper-masculine action films, many of which glorified the blue-collar "man's man" (thinkTerminator, Die Hard and Lethal Weapon), the 1990s, in contrast, saw a masculine struggle against white-collar consumerism and ornamental culture. A time of major prosperity in America, the 1990s had an economic boom, steady job growth, low levels of poverty and a federal budget surplus [whoa, wait, America had too much money? What the hell happened?!]. Beyond America, the world was changing too. The Soviet empire collapsed, South Africa ended apartheid, civil wars in the former Yugoslavia ended, China reformed and America's largest war was Desert Storm, which lasted a mere 100 hours. Simultaneously, Third Wave Feminism began working to emphasize the inclusion of all races, gender identities, spectrums of queerness and classes in the conversation on equality.
Lester bumbling during the morning commute. Cinema Shock
All good things... right?
Well, maybe not for those who felt these advances contributed to a loss of societal status. According to an article written in 1994 by Richard A. Shweder, "In a post-modern world lacking clear-cut borders and distinctions, it has become hard to know what it means to be a man and even harder to feel good about being one." For the first time in centuries, the able-bodied white male was finally under the microscope, and there was plenty to see.
From this intense scrutiny came a wave of self-aware American films (Magnolia, Office Space, etc.) that centered on the lost man, suddenly awaking among his expensive possessions and meaningless relationships. The promise of a white picket fence was made good upon, but the subsequent feelings of inadequacy and unimportance were not supposed to be part of the package.
After the events of the early twentieth century, it's difficult to look back on this sentiment and feel true empathy, rather than seeing the pure irony that these bored men would soon be thrust into a world of terrorism, war, financial instability and globalization. Just like Project Mayhem would've wanted.
"Self-improvement is masturbation. Now self-destruction..." VK
THE MALE PLACE IN CONSUMER CULTURE
In the late 1990s, men were struggling to discover how they fit into a world where masculinity was no longer a structured box, but rather an evolving construct clawing its way into the new millennium. Feminist scholar and author Susan Faludi wrote Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man in 1999 which explored masculinity during the era and focused on the phenomenon of emasculation by consumerism. She wrote particularly of consumerist culture and its role in producing white collar cubicle jobs, as Fight Club'sTyler Durden put it, "To buy shit we don't need." Faludi insisted that men felt imprisoned by modern cubicles, just as American Beauty's Lester Burnham works a job which he finds detestable after his midlife crisis: "Oh well, all right, let's all sell our souls and work for Satan because it's more convenient that way."
Both American Beauty and Fight Club navigate the strong grip of consumer culture on the daily lives of men who have a violent reaction to the supposed constraints (Fight Club would've had a terrible time getting made post 9/11 due to its act of terrorism during the film's conclusion). For both men and women, this ornamental culture gave way to massive consumerism and the unsatisfying existence of a life full of things. We see the detrimental effects of this relationship with things rather than people in Lester and Carolyn's marriage. Lester despises his wife's consumerism and its role in their marriage, calling Carolyn a "bloodless, money-grubbing freak," and furiously yelling when she won't have sex with him on their "$4,000 sofa." This obsession with the physical and material permeates both films, informing and putting pressure on their interpersonal relationships.
Lester working out. The Reel Bits
AGGRESSION, 'FIGHT CLUB' AND THE MALE BODY
In a pre-9/11 world, this ornamental culture and the inclusion of women in the workplace confused the male psyche and channeled attention and energy into the appearance and strength of the physical body. As explored by Jackson Katz, "Young men for the past several decades have been challenged by women in areas that our father and grandfathers never were"”in education, the workplace, business, the professions. But one area where men as a group continue to assume they have a significant advantage over women as a group is in the area of physical size and strength. As a result, physical size and strength for many men have become increasingly important to proving manhood."
Further, Faludi explained that in a new world where sex appeal and appearance take precedence, these men were suddenly bombarded with mixed messages about the male body and about the changing role of masculinity. In American Beauty, Lester Burnham turns to the physical body in search of reaffirming his masculinity and confidence. He equates the two with his ultimate happiness and escape from a life of servitude to his wife ("Your mother seems to prefer that I go through life like a f***ing prisoner while she keeps my dick in a mason jar under the sink.") and to the materialism that, in his mind, plagues the suburbs.
In his quest to seduce his teenage daughter's friend Angela, Lester reiterates, "I want to look good naked!" He starts working out to impress the young woman, lifting weights and smoking pot in the garage of his house, finding joy and empowerment through his changing physicality. In the case of Lester, the physical male body is used as a mating call to young Angela; Lester's masculine crisis is wrapped up in his inability to relate to women, and his inherent and disappointing misunderstanding of that relatability.
Durden stands in the Gucci-esque pose we see in a subway advertisement earlier in the film. Collider
Fight Club, on the other hand, uses the physical body not as a means to seduce women, but as a way to connect with other men. In their boredom and lost sense of purpose, Durden and the narrator create a fight club wherein men gather to box each other and to physically vent their frustrations. The rules are simple: no shirts, no shoes, quit fighting if someone says "stop" and do not talk about Fight Club.
As the narrator explained, "A guy who came to Fight Club for the first time, his ass was a wad of cookie dough. After a few weeks, he was carved out of wood." There exists this reclamation of the male body and glorification of the strenuous jobs and manual labor of their fathers who were dock workers and miners. These men, by contrast, work in offices as white collar laborers, pushing papers and using computers, and Fight Club aims to replace that so-called masculine physicality. It works to reconnect to the tribe mentality of humans as the American psyche was pushing into the end of the twentieth century, so far removed from our mothers and fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers.
Lester's adolescent, angsty neighbor, Ricky. Cinema Shock
WE'RE JUST ANOTHER LOST GENERATION
This concept of a fight club as a means of connecting with other men in the inherently masculine tradition of aggression, rather than the theoretically female concept of conversation, highlights the fragmented society of America in the 1990s. In American Beauty, Lester has no male friends and no secondary male characters he talks with or confides in, besides his teenage neighbor Ricky, who he all but worships for his youthful blase attitude towards established order ("I think you just became my personal hero."). The only other conversations Lester has with men are inherently hostile, including Lester's confrontation and blackmailing of his boss and his sarcastic greeting with Carolyn's rival realtor.
Similarly, the narrator in Fight Club has no real male companions, either, besides his intense friendship with Durden, who is, in fact, his own alternate personality. This longing for male friendship and camaraderie is a huge propelling factor behind the success of Durden's Fight Club. A place for men to gather, box, drink and share something provides an initially safe space for these frustrated males to commiserate. Lacking the bonds of profession or war (little did they know, the Iraq War was just around the corner), these men struggle to connect and find meaning in their day to day lives and relationships. They spend more time with their things and possessions than with fellow humans. The characters try to find meaningful connections in a world full of disjointed office buildings and IKEA catalogs.
Fight Club's Tyler Durden and the narrator share a beer. Emphasis on "a." Earn This
With no idea how turbulent the following years would be, the men of the late '90s existed in a bubble about to burst. Immediately preceding 9/11, the literal housing bubble and the Iraq War, back in 1999, all these men had to worry about was a sense of purposelessness and feelings of spiritual and physical displacement. Highlighting this cultural naivete, this iconic scene from Fight Club has Tyler Durden venting the frustration of a generation of confused men in crisis: There was "an entire generation pumping gas, waiting tables. Slaves with white collars. Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don't need. We're the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no great war, no great depression. Our great war's a spiritual war, our great depression is our lives."
In a life free of conflict, even Lester feels like he was meant for something greater than his family and his work; he feels that he deserves something more. "I have lost something. I'm not sure what it is but I know I didn't always feel this... sedated. But you know what? It's never too late to get it back." Lester, differing from the narrator and Durden who do not have families of their own yet, captures the regret of the 1990s and the mid-life crisis mentality of lost potential.
Fight Club's narrator at his white-collar desk job. Script Magazine
'WE ARE GOD'S UNWANTED CHILDREN'
As years passed and America went through the tragic events of 9/11, conflicts and war in the Middle East, a global financial meltdown and slow crawl back, films like American Beauty can come off sort of inconsequential and vapid. Still fascinating, these movies are essentially about men struggling to define themselves in the world that doesn't exist anymore: The world of pre-9/11 materialism and prosperity where men had the time to be in crisis.
Further, these films served as an escapism for frustrated males. Tyler Durden literally exists as a man who the narrator wishes he could be. A man who deftly navigates this new world, and finds meaning and strength in a traditionally masculine identity. "All the ways you wish you could be, that's me. I look like you wanna look, I f*** like you wanna f***, I am smart, capable, and most importantly, I am free in all the ways that you are not."
Think about that statement: "I am free in all the ways that you are not." Even Lester Burnham said, "I feel like I've been in a coma for the past twenty years. And I'm just now waking up." These men were the freest men who have ever lived in the history of human civilization. And they felt trapped.
Both Fight Club and American Beauty offer an immensely interesting cultural and societal peek into the male identity crisis of the late 1990s, and both are entertaining and even beautiful at times. However, they exist in an almost precious snapshot of the way we were. If the late 1990s were America's adolescence, perhaps the turbulence of the past two decades have matured our nation into a somewhat responsible, young adult looking into 401k plans and expanding his or her horizons. With cries from viewers begging for more cultural and gender diversity in storytelling, it seems films like American Beauty and Fight Club will continue to be made, but will exist purely to appease a hyper-specific audience, rather than speaking for an entire generation of American men and women, and sweeping 5 Academy Awards in the meantime. Who knew, old white dudes on the Academy care about white dude movies?