This was originally posted on Bitch Flicks as part of their theme week on Women & Gender in Cult Films & B-Movies. They kindly gave me permission to crosspost it here.
Fight Club was released in 1999. It has some spectacular quotes, a great deal of violence, and an awesome cast. When people write about this movie, they tend to focus on the Narrator (played by Edward Norton) and Tyler Durden (played by Brad Pitt) and the connection between the two.
I’m going to assume that everyone reading this has already seen the movie. For those that haven’t, be warned, there will be spoilers here.
I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve watched Fight Club. Every time I view it, I end up noticing something new. How did I miss that before? This time, Marla Singer (played by Helena Bonham Carter) captured my attention. What would the situations in the movie look like from her viewpoint?
Perhaps the easiest way to describe Marla would be to do it from a chronological viewpoint. There is a scene where Marla and Tyler have just finished having loud and vigorous sex. The two are lying on the bed, with satisfied looks on their faces, when Marla reveals something incredibly shocking about her past.
Marla announces: “My God, I haven’t been fucked like that since grade school.”
Let that sink in for a second. Grade school (or Elementary school) typically has students that are in kindergarten through fifth or sixth grade. That means that Marla could not have been more than eleven years old when she had a very active sexual experience of the type that she was now having with Tyler.
In the movie, nothing more is said about it. She would have been well below the legal age of consent. It is clear she was raped. Most people don’t go from being a complete virgin directly to having the type of sex that Tyler and Marla had in Fight Club. I worry that she was sexually abused when she was even younger than eleven, and that the abuse continued for years.
Marla shares what would be, for most people, an incredibly difficult and traumatic childhood experience, as if it were normal. She doesn’t seem to be trying to shock Tyler. There is no need for her to do so – she already had his full attention at the moment. Instead, it seems like she is trying to give Tyler an incredibly awkward compliment on his skills in bed.
As an adult, Marla spends every night attending self-help groups for diseases that she doesn’t have. She walks in to a room filled with people who are dying from cancer while smoking a cigarette. Marla doesn’t just sit there, she actually participates in whatever therapeutic situation the group chooses to do. It is as though she is daring someone to confront her, to call her a liar, to notice her.
People who are emotionally healthy do not spend every night in the basement of a church in an attempt to cope with a disease that they do not actually have. But, Marla isn’t emotionally healthy. On some level, she realizes that she is damaged and needs help. Unfortunately, she has no idea how to reach out for the help she needs.
She had to have noticed that there was a guy who was also showing up at the same self-help groups that she was. She doesn’t know his name because these groups are anonymous. The two stare across the room at each other, but never speak.
One day, the guy walks up to Marla and begins a conversation with her. Finally, someone reached out to her! Someone wants to talk to her – maybe about why they both feel the need to go to all these self-help groups. The two accidentally end up as each other’s partner at the self-help group for testicular cancer.
Somehow, they actually share a moment together. This, despite the fact that this guy is trying to convince Marla to go away – to stop going to the groups. The testicular cancer group ends with two partners sharing their feelings, hugging each other, and crying.
How long had it been since somebody hugged Marla? She, and the guy whose name she doesn’t even know yet, actually share something meaningful about how they feel, deep down inside. For a few, brief, seconds, they speak from their hearts.
Narrator: When people think you’re dying, they really, really listen to you, instead of just…
Marla Singer: instead of just waiting for their turn to speak.
I believe that brief conversation is what made Marla become interested in him. This, despite the fact that he follows her after the self-help group ends and reiterates that he never wants to see her again. This guy insists that they split up the self-help groups between the two of them so he won’t have to be in the same room with her. That must have really hurt Marla.
The first time I watched Fight Club, that scene amused me. Two people, both of whom are physically healthy, are fighting over diseases that they want to have. “No, I want cancer!” It’s preposterous.
Look a little closer, and there is so much more going on. Marla is angry at him. She fights with him about which self-help groups she gets, and which he gets, the entire conversation. It’s like she is trying to hold on to them because being there gives her something she is not finding in her life.
The two walk into a laundromat, yelling and screaming at each other. Everyone in the place had to have taken notice of them. They probably looked like a couple that was having the type of fight that ends with a breakup.
Marla walks directly over to the dryers, and pulls out more than one load of jeans. She bundles them up in her arms and leaves the laundromat, still yelling. At first glance, it looks like she must have put her laundry in the dryer before the self-help group, and was going back to pick up her clothes. No one else in the laundromat seems to think anything is amiss.
But then, she walks into a shop and sells all of the jeans. This shocks the guy (whose name she still doesn’t know) so he asks if she is selling her clothes. Meanwhile, the woman behind the counter is assessing the value of the jeans. “Yes,” Marla insists, “I am selling my clothes.”
Here’s the thing, though. Does Marla ever wear jeans? Those aren’t her clothes! She brazenly marched into the laundromat and stole them, with complete confidence that she would get away with it. I think this is how Marla makes money. She never once, in the entire movie, talks about having a job.
Yet, she does, somehow, have an apartment. The electricity works, and so does the phone. Perhaps Marla is an incredibly talented “fence”.
By the time Marla is done selling the jeans, she, and the guy whose name she doesn’t know, have sorted out who will be attending which self-help group. He obviously doesn’t want anything to do with her. Marla basically throws herself into traffic. She crosses a busy street, as vehicles honk, without slowing down. This is the first clue we get that Marla is suicidal.
She stops somewhere in the middle of the street, turns around, and asks the guy his name. He stayed on the curb (as most people would do). Viewers do not get to hear his answer, but we later discover her told Marla his name was Tyler Durden.
This is significant. You’ve seen the movie, so you are well aware that the narrator and Tyler Durden are the same person. Or, rather, Tyler is a second personality who is sharing the same body with the Narrator. Marla doesn’t have any way to realize this. To her – he was always Tyler Durden.
Eventually, Marla notices that Tyler stopped going to the self-help groups that he fought so hard for. Instead of just letting him go, Marla decides to reach out to him. She calls him on the phone, out of the blue, and tells him that she has “a stomachful of Xanax”. It is a desperate attempt to get his attention. It also isn’t fake, she really did take too many pills.
She wraps the phone cord around her throat as she talks to Tyler, wondering aloud if he would hear her death rattle from over the phone. At the same time, she insists this is not a real suicide attempt – it’s one of those “cries for help”.
Long story short, Tyler goes to Marla’s apartment and knocks on the door. She pulls him inside, and it is clear she truly has taken way too many Xanax. The two leave the apartment together shortly before an emergency crew storms down the hallway. They pass by Tyler and Marla, as they ask where the apartment they are looking for is located.
Tyler and Marla run away together. All the while, she is screaming to the emergency crew about the woman who lives in the apartment they are trying to enter. I cannot recall her exact words, but it is to the effect that they shouldn’t try to bother saving her. That woman is a lost cause, a waste. Marla is literally shouting about how much she hates herself – shortly after attempting suicide.
This is the state she is in when Tyler takes her back to the run-down house he is squatting in. She sits on the dirty floor, drugged almost beyond comprehension, as she tells him that he will have to keep her up all night. He does, by having loud and vigorous sex with her. Once again, Marla is not in a state where she is able to give consent.
The next morning, Marla wakes up, puts her clothes back on, and goes downstairs. Tyler sits at the kitchen table, and seems shocked that she is still here. He kicks her out. From her viewpoint, he saved her life, had sex with her all night long, and now… wants nothing to do with her.
Marla: “Someone loved this dress, intensely, for one day… then threw it away.”
Marla makes several attempts to connect with Tyler anyway. One time, she arrives at his house wearing a bridesmaids dress that she got at a thrift store for one dollar. She notes that someone loved that dress, intensely, for just one night… and then threw it away. Again, she is talking about herself. Tyler is not able to pick up on it, and rejects her after she starts touching him.
After Marla leaves, Tyler appears and talks to the Narrator about her. Tyler says that the Narrator has some “fucked up friends”, and describes Marla as “limber”. The Narrator’s alternate personality is able to identify that Marla is a train wreck, while, at the same time, implying that she is interesting to have sex with.
Time passes, and Marla stays away from Tyler. One night, she takes the bus and arrives at the house he lives in. To her shock, there are tons of guys in the yard, and in the house. The air smells badly, and Tyler looks upset.
He tells Marla that Tyler is not here. Imagine, having the guy you are (more or less) dating tell you that he isn’t there. He’s standing right in front of you! She must think he is messing with her head, and she storms off to get back on the bus.
Toward the end of the movie, the Narrator finally figures out that he is Tyler Durden. He does some fact checking, travels around, and puts it all together. Now, its his turn to call Marla, from out of the blue. He insists that she say his name – and she does – Tyler Durden. After that, he hangs up the phone.
Marla and Tyler sort of breakup. Marla meets him in a restaurant, where he insists that she must leave town. Of course, the person in front of her is the Narrator, not Tyler. Even so, Marla says that he is just too messed up and she’s “done”. She takes the money he’s been trying to give her, says she won’t pay it back (“consider it asshole tax”) and gets on the bus.
The scene that begins the movie is the same one that ends it. This time, Tyler’s army have kidnapped Marla and are bringing her, kicking and screaming, to Tyler. The two hold hands as they share the perfect view of the buildings around them blowing up and crumbling. That image is Marla’s entire life. She has always been searching for one, small, meaningful connection with someone, who will be there when the world falls apart.
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