Fight Club and Media Consumption

*I’m going to put this entire discussion here about why it is so important to critically question the media we consume. 

I have a niece who just turned eleven. She and I watch TV together pretty often, and sometimes we watch movies others would consider questionable for an eleven year old. But my attitude is like this, I will treat her the same way my Mother treated me at her age. She let me watch whatever I wanted, as long as I understood it, and we discussed it. If I was confused about anything, I could ask her, and she would tell me as much of the truth as she thought I could handle, at whatever age.

I never let my niece watch anything without asking questions about what she’s viewing, what’s happening on the screen, how she feels and thinks about what she’s viewing. These are never deep questions, because what I want her to do is just get into the habit of asking questions. What did we just watch? What did she like about it? Why does she like certain things? Why didn’t she like about the story, the characters, the images? Why didn’t she like those things?

I also don’t believe in giving her answers, or telling her what to think about a show or movie, either. I want to listen to her answers, understand her responses, as she learns to articulate her thoughts,  let her know I’m interested in what she thinks, and let her know that what she thinks is important to me. Sometimes we disagree and that’s good too, because that teaches her to stand by what she thinks, and articulate her arguments for, or against, something.

I do understand that every parent doesn’t have the time or effort to do this with their children. I know her Mother doesn’t, but she is fortunate to have someone like me, and my Mother, in her life, who are teaching her to think critically, and have informed opinions, about the world around her.

I don’t want her to grow up as one of those people who unquestioningly accepts whatever they’re told by the TV.

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Hold up – you mean there are people who watch Fight Club anddon’t realise that Tyler Durden is meant to be full of shit?

I mean, his doctrine of radical individualism is a sham that ultimately reduces his followers to faceless conformity. This isn’t deep metatextual wankery – it’s the literal text of the film.

How do you see the film and not get that?

My ex didn’t get this. He loves Tyler durden. I’ve never seen fight club so I DIDN’T KNOW.

Yeah, in the film he’s a total con-man. His grand speeches sound good if you don’t think about them too deeply, but they’re not meant to be insightful – they’re meant to be a snake-oil salesman’s patter, calculated to bamboozle dumb, angry young men into doing his bidding.

Trouble is, they’re sufficiently well-written that apparently they work on the dumb, angry young men in the audience, too.

I’ve actually written about this academically! There’s a really specific genre I call bro cinema that includes fight club, all of kubricks work, some Scorsese, and Tarantino (all of which I love TBH.) These directors don’t explicitly condemn toxic masculinity and instead trust the audience to have COMMON SENSE and realize that Alex from A Clockwork Orange or Tyler Durden or Travis Bickle are horrific misogynists. But without the film telling the audience how to feel about these characters, men misinterpret the objectivity as glorification. Fight Club is about how shitty masculinity is, but it’s been warped by men grasping for justification for their misogyny

The real issue here, I think, is the passive consumption of media, and moreover, creators and critical viewers underestimating just how passive the average audience member is in their consumption of media.

In the book Nurture Shock, which is a child psychology book that identifies common parenting mistakes, the author spends a chapter on children’s television. The author specifically talks about how media designed to teach morals often backfires – children who watch morality lessons express *more* behavior problems and become *more* cruel.

Now the author says it’s because of how these programs are structured. First they depict bad behavior, and then they explain why the behavior is bad, showing consequences, and tying up the program with a moral.

Small children aren’t smart enough to understand the moral. Small children learn by emulating behavior they see. They see a bad behavior and they learn the bad behavior. Just exposing children to bad behavior is enough to make them internalize that the behavior is something lots of people do, and therefore something acceptable for people to do to do.

If you try to explain to them after the fact that the behavior is harmful and to be avoided, that message is too complicated and goes right over their heads. You can’t tell little kids “do as I say, not as I do.”

Now the author of this book says “small children aren’t old enough to understand the moral.”

But honestly? Adults have the exact same problem.

Tyler Durden loses in the end. That’s the moral of the movie. Unfortunately that moral is too complicated for the vast majority of the audience. The typical adult audience member does not think critically enough about film media to process this moral.

A critical viewer thinks – the point is that Tyler is wrong! The point is that Tyler is doomed by his own hubris! HOW CAN AUDIENCES HAVE MISSED THE ENTIRE POINT IF THE MOVIE?!?!?

Easily, considering the movie only really devotes 5% of its screen time to explicitly denouncing Tyler’s behavior, and that explicit denouncement only arrives at the very end of the film.

The other 95% of the screen time is spent watching Tyler Durden jerk off.

Look – you can’t film two hours of bareback sex followed by a five minute tutorial on how to correctly use a condom and a 30 second montage of miserable teen parents changing diapers, then call your film a safe sex PSA.

You did not make a safe sex PSA.

You made a porno.

You can try to argue that the bareback sex is an ironic subversive metaphor, and that the “real point” of your film is proper condom usage and an anti-teen pregnancy message, but the fact is, the majority of your audience is going to change the channel the moment the cumshot finishes.

Audiences, outside of our special little corner of fandom discourse, are by and large just straight up lazy. They can’t be bothered to think that hard about the media they consume.

via @sarcastrophesam  #THIS IS WHAT I WAS TRYING SO DESPERATELY TO PIN DOWN IN MY ESSAY ON EX MACHINA #AND HOW THE DIRECTOR HAS THE RESPONSIBILITY TO CLEARLY SPELL OUT TO THE AUDIENCE#THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN SUPPORTING A CERTAIN BEHAVIOR BY DEPICTING IT#AND CRITICIZING IT BY DEPICTING IT #BECAUSE USUALLY THE AUDIENCE DOES NOT PICK UP ON SUBTLE CRITICISM OR MORALES AT ALL

This is why I loved Fury Road so much, and also what I felt was so profoundly revolutionary about the movie. Fury Road is a movie about women escaping violent misogynists. Yet editor Margaret Sixel had the SHEER BRILLIANCE and AUDACITY to cut all the footage of misogynist violence out of the movie.

Mad Max: Fury Road proved that it is possible to denounce misogynist violence without depicting it.

Mad Max: Fury Road showed that refusal to depict misogynist violence is in and of itself a denouncement of misogynist violence.

We don’t need to show what victims went through to make victims sympathetic. In fact, voyeuristically depicting acts of cruelty only further objectifies victims. George Miller and Margaret Sixel understand this.

Similarly, George Miller made a point of using telling his videographers to use camera angels that focused on the action of the scene, instead of voyeristically zooming in the female castmember’s breasts/asses/legs  – because he understood that when the camera ogles the female characters in an objectifying manner, the audience, who views the movie through the camera’s lens, is forced to ogle and objectify. George understood that sexist camera work creates a sexist perspective, and a sexist perspective tells a sexist narrative.

The thing is that the narrator is always sympathetic. Intimacy and familiarity breed sympathy. The audience is primed  to feel sympathy for the narrator simply because they are speaking more than any other individual character.

No matter how unreliable, or morally dubious you make the narrator, they are still the hero or the story. Every villain is the hero of their own story. And when the villain is the narrator, the audience is hearing the version of the story in which the villain is the hero, and the audience is moved by that perspective.

We can give Fight Club the benefit of the doubt and look at Fight Club as an intellectual experiment to see whether or not it’s possible to tell a story from the villain’s perspective and still denounce the villain’s actions.

But the fact is, the experiment didn’t work. It was a statistical failure. The vast majority of the audience did not recognize the film as a criticism of toxic masculinity, but rather, a romanticization of it.

Perhaps the author’s goal was for Tyler Durden’s death to be interpreted as a cautionary tale, but the author failed in that goal. He failed. Because by the time Tyler Durden dies in the movie, he has already been painted a hero in the eyes of the majority of the audience, and heroes don’t become cautionary tales when they die; they become martyrs.

A further layer of this issue: Fight Club was made in a different era (as well as with a different sensibility) from, say, Mad Max: Fury Road. ‘The real issue here … is the passive consumption of media’ – yes, exactly. But also, Fincher made Fight Club at a cultural moment when postmodern moral ‘blankness’ and ironisation ruled – a moment which also ‘happened’ to coincide with the rise of (‘old enough to know better, but we don’t care’) lad culture and the (lad-related) knowingly uncritical celebration of ‘bro cinema’.

Rather than spelling out an ‘unfashionably’ direct critique, or moral lessons, to their male audience, the cool moral detachment of films like Fight Club requires a critical, thinking, supposedly sophisticated, viewer – the viewer who knows ‘The point is that Tyler is wrong!’ – while playing a double game. The cool mode enables bro cinema to have its cake and eat it, commercially speaking: it can simultaneously profit from (A) the ‘majority of the [male] audience’ who don’t want to have their misogyny challenged and even celebrate misogyny, while gaining acclaim for (B) its subtle, yet meant-to-be-understood-as-critical, depictions of toxic masculinity…

The esteem for bro cinema then gets boosted higher and higher by male critics who pay lip-service to (A), while in many cases enjoying the films because (B).

Question: can someone discuss the role that race plays in all this? Most of the movies being discussed here are really, really white.

For a lot of white men, the idea of why something is wrong is an intellectual exercise – when you’re not actually the one constantly victimized, it becomes a matter of ideas and not survival.  For them, depicting horrific things is cool and edgy because it’s not “real” for them, which is why the morals hang so weakly in the media.

Also, to the comment about 95% celebration vs. 5% “morals”, it’s really about what you show in terms of character reaction and consequences immediately that tells the audience whether this is good, or bad.

When a character does something and other characters are repulsed and react immediately (or the same character realizes they’ve messed up and you can see them regret it right away), no one sees this as something to enjoy or celebrate.  When it goes without comment or is treated as good, you can’t later get to the moral and say “Actually it’s wrong” and expect it to sink in.

This is even true of villains – they may see nothing wrong with what they’re doing, but the characters whose emotions you center and frame are the ones that paint events as right or wrong.

Tying these two points together – if you never center or frame the feelings of certain groups of people (marginalized people), then the harm exists as an idea but not as a narrative reality.  It’s not “don’t do x because it hurts y people” it’s “Don’t do x because this other white guy said so”… which fundamentally teaches “do what the white guy says” not “respect people’s boundaries”

I say this a lot – the way media teaches violence is less about the specific violent behavior but rather the expected social hierarchy – when you some people’s boundaries, feelings, and existence do not matter, even if the narrative doesn’t show violence, you still end up with audiences who act violently towards those people because they’ve been taught those people aren’t people, and often should be punished for trying to put themselves on equal footing as “people”.

 

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