American (M)animals, Fight Club and how toxic masculinity has morphed

On September 9th, famed ornithologist Hubert Strorman left Portsmouth’s No6 Cinema in a right huff and started ranting in the street. The rant was so vitriolic, loud and sexist that The Portsmouth View actually reported on it. The film was American Animals, a true story of a group of college kids who attempt to steal several rare books, including “The Birds of America”. Several weeks later, Strorman took to Twitter to issue a non-apology and further criticize Barry Layton’s heist film for not having enough sex appeal and, most importantly, not actually being about birds.

Strorman’s reaction may not be that of any majority, but it does illustrate how successfully American Animals deconstructs the modern male psyche. Its quartet of white male leads are looking for something to make them “special”, to break out of their comfortable lives by pulling off a heist. They are the bored entitled males of the 21st century, ruled by the pressure to be great, to become “something more”, to achieve. At one point, budding artist Spenser (Barry Keoghan) laments that, while Van Gogh and other artists had some great pain, he has no such obstacle to fuel his work. But when everything in society is built around you, what else can you be but mediocre.

American Animals has been compared by Stuart Kilmartin to Fight Club, but (as Kilmartin himself notes) David Fincher’s film is far less damning of its protagonists, criticizing their hyper-masculine violence, yes, but offsetting that with a clear enemy in consumer capitalism. In American Animals, the lonely thieves are never valorised. We pity them, we see aspects of ourselves within them, but never aspire to be them.

However critical Fight Club is, it fetishizes certain “masculine” values: strength, brotherhood, stoicism. We have all met someone who aspires towards Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt). They corner you in bars, rattling off complaints about the modern age and the system and the growing femininity of men, Chunk Palahniuk’s original book under their arm. You wonder to yourself, “Isn’t the first rule of Fight Club not to talk about Fight Club?”. One can only speculate as to whether Mr. Strorman takes Fight Club as a parody or a rallying cry of hyper-masculinity, but the latter seems more probable.

Not only does American Animals escape this valorisation, but it also changes its view of what toxic masculinity is. Its characters aren’t ripped (save maybe the ever-exercising Chas (Blake Jenner)), they aren’t freakish exaggerations of men. Instead, their masculine failings come from a constant desire to be above others, their belief that they have inherited the Earth and that they are owed greatness. Durden tells us “you are not a beautiful and unique snowflake”, but the robbers in American Animals are the toxic males of Generation Snowflake.

They also have no direction. When Warren (Evan Peters) rails against the monotony of the modern “system”, Layton frames him more like a Fight Club fan straight outta sixth form than Tyler Durden himself. We are not compelled by his rhetoric. He is a ridiculous (and relatable) nobody, who believes the world revolves around him. He is like an angry Y-list celebrity ornithologist, rambling incoherently about how it just isn’t fair anymore.

Times have changed since Fight Club. In recent years, while the “musclely”, “real man” ideologies of Fincher’s film persist, another archetypal aspect of masculinity: the entitled mansplainer (a man explains something to a woman presuming that they don’t know what it is). While American Animals does not have any examples of mansplaining in it, Layton presents us with entitled and self-serving people who presume that they are smarter than those around them. In this sense, they embody a new kind of masculinity, a more subtle one than Fight Club.

This perhaps simplifies both films. After all, both movies have more to them than simply comments on masculinity (indeed, one could arguably miss it in the Layton film). But what is interesting, to me at any rate, is how we have changed our stereotypes, created new enemies, one’s a little closer to reality than the cartoonish Tyler Durden. They are the kind of people we meet every day, not bad sorts necessarily but, hot damn, you can hear Strorman hollering from here, can’t you?

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Shelby Cooke

May 2021
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