Fight clubPosted: February 27, 2014
In 1999 there was a minor outcry as the film Fight Club portrayed men meeting in secret to beat each other bloody in a parking lot, cellar, or other cinematically lit underground vault. Amidst the furore of the media decrying the film as a video nasty and news outlets panicking about people in the ‘real world’ emulating what they saw I sat with a look of amazement on my face. I had no word for it but I had just seen a depiction of the kyriarchal backlash experienced by many men every day and I had recognised my twenty-four year old life in it’s deliberately exaggerated pose.
In 1998 I spent time in a mental health ward attached to an NHS hospital in North London. I was suffering severe anxiety and depression, alternating with moments of hypomania. For months beforehand I had been working a ‘regular’ job as a laboratory scientist – a job that carried a huge workload and attendant stress. I broke, after years of self harm I could control myself no longer and I was admitted for my own safety – admitted voluntarily, although I have little doubt that had I been refused I would have been admitted regardless. Whilst held in that ward I was sent for anger management, not because my anger was out of control but because I internalised it, I understood that society would not tolerate it and so I bound it tight within myself and proceeded through life with no external anger at all. Such is not healthy, the energy of that anger emerges in other ways and the doctors, in their wisdom, felt I needed to learn ways to release it.
About twelve of us sat in a rough circle. All male (although the ward was fully mixed) and mostly young. White skin dominated but perhaps a third of our number had different skin tones. The nurse (female) who was guiding things opened with a question – ‘How many here have been involved in a fist fight?’. Everyone looked shifty, guilty, and everyone raised their hands. I sat there with my legs drumming on the floor, restless legs syndrome meeting anxiety in a frantic rhythm. I bit at my nails and peeled the quick of my thumb down to the nail bed, starting a trickle of blood that I would lick at for some time. Then the pressure of my thoughts became too much and I opened my mouth – “I’ve only been in two fistfights… I loved them.” The nurse looked mildly surprised at my words but, recovering, she wanted to know “How did you feel afterwards, how did it effect your relationships”. I told the truth, it’s a wonder how honest the confines of a closed ward can be, “My relationships were stronger, the two fights were with men and afterwards we were friends again. Fighting felt like such a relief.”
Breaking the rules of the group another man and then another chimed in. “Oh thank god, I felt like that as well”, “Life was so much simpler afterwards, like I could relax”. The nurse looked, frankly, alarmed. I remember her glancing toward the door as if to check her escape route should we all started pounding each other then and there. There was a large male orderly at that door, he didn’t look bothered, maybe he got what we were talking about. We didn’t pound on each other, we talked instead – like some misbegotten travellers who had finally come upon others of their kind – who could finally speak where the rules of the outside world had formerly silenced them.
Maybe we were lucky. There was no-one in that group who spoke of beating their wife or their children – acts we would have found abhorrent. Fundamentally we were everyday people that had been caught up in a tidal wave of repressed emotion and genetic abnormality. In that group we discovered a common difficulty and frustration in understanding how we were supposed to live a good life. Every media outlet seemed to scream to us that we should be muscled, we should always be certain, we should have huge personalities and take control – we should not shy from responsibility and other men should follow us because they understood us to be alpha from the masterful action hero pheromones that exuded from our every pores. We were born to be hunters, born to be killers, we loved the gentle life but if the situation demanded it we would kill without hesitation. If our families were threatened we would kill, if what was ours was taken we would hunt down the perpetrator and kill, if we were jostled or insulted we would fight and kill. This is we understood that it was to be a man. This is what was demanded by women and the TV and the call of the wild that a million film showings assured us was in our souls.
Most of us were un-trained, under-muscled and either dangerously thin or overweight. Most of us had, with varying degrees of success, learned to live with the fact that we weren’t actually men, not the men that we all knew men were meant to be. We were accountants, scientists, the unemployed – one of us worked in the job centre. We knew we weren’t men but each of us remembered, to different extents, the moments when we had measured up. The moments when, for whatever reason, we had rammed a bunched fist into the nose of another human being. Fists thrust, knees driven, blood and pain. A lot of fights had been lost but that was inconsequential. In the moment when bone met bone we were the men that the magazines told us we should be, broken teeth, blood , hospital visits… Anything was worth it to have met that ideal for one second and to walk away with the memory.
I didn’t know the word kyriarchy back then. The patients in that group talked about how even if they did well in life, good jobs, good cars, a marriage to one we loved, they would never feel fulfilled. On some perfunctory level society said those things mattered, and we pushed for them, but on a deeper level every war comic from our childhood, every book about knights, or fairytale about dragons, every cinematic blockbuster and every tale of heroism on the TV told us men fought and risked their lives. If you failed to do that you could run the biggest corporation in the world, you could have all the money and power but you wouldn’t have succeeded, you wouldn’t be a real man.
I know the word kyriarchy now, and I know that it is often invoked in its facet of patriarchy to highlight the unconscionable situation whereby we live in a society that is innately weighted toward the success of males. Women earn 20% less, on average, for the same work. Only 15% of Fortune 500 Company directors are female. The atrocious list goes on. But what is perhaps the most hideously ironic fact is that most men do not particularly care about being on the board or about the amount they are paid (provided there is enough for the basics). Those I’ve discussed things with will, at best, use these huge boardroom advantages as proxy victories to replace the real victories that society tells them they should be experiencing. The fight in the boardroom enables them to live with their failure to meet the media ideal and they will fight so hard for that boardroom seat because the proxy is the only way they have to even begin to approach that media ideal.
Over innumerable years we have forged a society constructed upon the primitive concept of dominance by white straight able-bodied males and the fracturing of all other groups into innumerable levels of power beneath them. At it’s essence this is what kyriarchy is, a set of historical societal rules defining the roles of members of society according to gender, race, sexual orientation and many other variables. It is self-propagating in that the majority of people will pass the rules on to their children and enforce them through peer pressure with their friends. Many will never recognise that the rules exist, and those that do will find them to be so ingrained in their psyche that they are near impossible to dislodge. Kyriarchy is a set of rules that controls almost every one of us equally – putting some higher and some lower, paying some more and some less, enslaving others and making masters of some – assigning roles on the basis of genetic heritage and physical/mental health but hiding the fact deep within the raw fundamental substance of our society that we so rarely see.
To me, in my unique position within the web of this society, kyriarchy means that the deck is mostly stacked in my favour. I receive automatic positive discrimination in the fields of business, education, finance, safety and many other areas. It also means that, like for so many others, regardless of the undeniable advantages I have, my happiness is heavily contingent upon emulating an oxymoronic depiction of my masculinity that encourages me to be aggressive, violent and overly domineering whilst simultaneously meeting the societal demands of being moral, caring and nurturing. In my personal case the dissonance caused by trying to attain and collate these goals can be crippling and helps to feed mental health issues that I have struggled with my whole life. Others find an outlet in actual violence in the military or simulated violence such as paintball, sport or risk taking activities whilst others still ‘risk their lives’ in computer games or through consumption of violent films – activities that allay the anxiety but can function to strengthen the underlying level of kyriarchal control.
The movie Fight Club laid that all bare for me, in a moment. I don’t claim the message was meant to be there, that the director was aiming to educate in that way but it caught me at the right instant and in the right location to open my eyes.