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There Is A Huge Difference Between "Fight Club" And "Mr. Robot"

Finally a suspense thriller that's not preoccupied with male genitalia! (No spoilers for the Mr. Robot finale; some for the 16-year-old movie.)

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Many parallels have been drawn between the USA series Mr. Robot and the movie Fight Club — by critics and the show's creator himself — but few have noted that the former loves women while the latter hates them. It's repeated several times in the film that the first rule of Fight Club is that you do not talk about Fight Club, but the first rule of Fight Club is probably more like "No bitches" — such an obvious rule that it doesn't even need to be stated.

Mr. Robot, on the contrary, is replete with female characters. It is true that the series, which had its first season finale on Sept. 2, has a number of similarities to Fight Club: a male main character who has a Hollywood version of dissociative identity disorder and a heroic image of himself; a scheme to erase debt; that Pixies song. But the show is fundamentally smarter than the 1999 David Fincher film: Elliot (Rami Malek) is a man, yes, but his problem is not rooted in being feminized. Elliot doesn't complain about knowing what a duvet is; he doesn't bemoan being part of "a generation of men raised by women" like Tyler (Brad Pitt) does; it is impossible to imagine Elliot saying that a brutal fistfight allows him to know himself.

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We know this is the worst thing that could happen to you in Fight Club because the characters bring it up regularly: The protagonist's (Edward Norton) journey begins when a doctor tells him that insomnia is not real pain. "See the guys with testicular cancer," the doctor says. "That's pain." When the main character — we'll call him Jack — goes to a support group for testicular cancer patients, he relates, crying along with these scrotally flawed men. Later, after Jack's apartment explodes, his alternate personality, Tyler, tells him that the situation could be worse:

"A woman could cut off your penis while you're sleeping and toss it out the window of a moving car," he says. Castration's a preoccupation.

I do not want to make light of having your genitals cut off — that is clearly terrible — but if in the order of your world "castration" is figured as the absolute worst thing that could happen to you, what you have is a stupid fucking world. It is a navel-gazing world, if your navel were right on the tip of your penis.

Both Fight Club and Mr. Robot deal with the problem of alienation and link it to split personalities, but in Fight Club the characters are alienated from their manhood, and in Mr. Robot Elliot is alienated from other people he desperately wants to be closer to. Elliot is lonely. He is disgusted with a society that rewards people at corporations for seeing themselves as separate from the rest of humanity. He wants community.

This is a different problem from the one in Fight Club, which, in that time-honored American tradition, hates society and views community as oppressive to the individual. Self-loathing Marla (Helena Bonham Carter), the one female character in Fight Club, is not so much a character as she is a dick receptacle for our hero. Fight Club takes a crisis of masculinity and solves it through violence and ejaculation.

Mr. Robot takes a crisis of masculinity and picks it apart. There are no hollow yet load-bearing Marlas in the show. There is Darlene (Carly Chaikin), who is a trusted colleague and protector; there are Angela (Portia Doubleday) and Krista (Gloria Reuben) and Shayla (Frankie Shaw), who resist Elliot's ill-conceived "rescue" attempts and see his hero complex as a delusion; there is Whiterose (B.D. Wong), who intimidates Elliot through her sheer competence. The women in Mr. Robot are not penis crutches like Marla; they are grounded characters who, by and large, see Elliot for the well-intentioned wreck that he is.

It's something that one might not have expected from a show with a male protagonist — the protagonist sees himself as a hero, but we see him in much the same light that his female supporting characters see him in: He is brilliant but delusional. His vision of himself as being somehow better than society is likely to be his downfall. The first rule of Fight Club is "No bitches," but the first rule of Mr. Robot is "Masculinity is a destructive lie." And the second rule of Mr. Robot is "Men should listen to women."

So stop talking about Fight Club.