Anna Kozak writes about how capitalism shapes gender performance and sexuality in Chuck Palahniuk’s “Frontiers” (from Stranger than Fiction: True Stories).
Chuck Palahniuk is a transgressive fiction writer notorious for his 1996 novel, Fight Club. While this novel may be viewed as a macho manual for the disillusioned male youth subculture, its author has long been experimenting with heteronormativity and performativity in his literature. Journalists have been prying into Palahniuk’s personal life since his rise to literary fame, while he constantly fights for privacy; however, in 2003, Palahniuk “outed” himself after an incident with Entertainment Weekly writer Karen Valby (Chalmers). During their interview, Palahniuk revealed his partner’s gender and then became convinced that Valby would divulge it to the public. Since Palahniuk had established his fan-base through his arguably hypermasculine novel, Fight Club, he believed that revealing his sexuality would damage his rapport with his fans. To control his sexuality’s exposure, “Palahniuk posted an angry voice diary entry on The Cult [his own] website,” disclosing that his partner is a man. The following day, Valby had not mentioned his partner when she released her article, but by that point, Palahniuk’s fans had already discovered his sexuality. Despite Palahniuk’s concerns, the majority of his fans have remained loyal over the years (Titled Forum Project).
The following year, Palahniuk published Stranger than Fiction: True Stories, his first work of non-fiction. The book may not have been a direct response to the Valby incident, but it revealed more about Palahniuk’s life than any of his previous works of literature. Stranger than Fiction contains three sections: “People Together,” which examines collectivity and conformity, “Portraits,” which are biographical snippets of other celebrities’ lives, and “Personal,” which is an autobiographical segment on the author’s experiences that influenced his creation of Fight Club. Throughout the novel, Palahniuk outlines his experiments with products that enhance the body, such as steroids and lip enhancers. My discussion focuses on the story “Frontiers,” from “People Together,” which highlights a moment in Palahniuk’s life when he uses steroids to embody hypermasculine norms. The title evokes, among other things, the notion of national boundaries, which are imagined divisions that perpetuate hegemonic power dynamics, similar to gender binaries. Examining the relationship between capitalism, gender, and sexuality, “Frontiers” critiques how consumer culture reinforces gender binaries by invoking the fear of ostracism and shame and promising to refine one’s gender performance.
Following Judith Butler’s theory of performativity, I argue that Palahniuk critiques how body-enhancing products, such as steroids, artificially reinforce and thus fail to sustain the notion of authentic masculinity. “Frontiers,” therefore, creates a critical commentary on how the commodification of gender reinforces gender binaries and compulsory heterosexuality in a capitalist system.
“Frontiers” is a story about a time in Palahniuk’s youth in which he consumed steroids. It begins with Palahniuk’s father stating the common phrase, “If everybody jumped off a cliff… would you?” (92). Through this opening phrase, Palahniuk creates a parallel between steroid use and the collective act of jumping off a cliff. He thus establishes his attempt at bodybuilding as a foolish and dangerous surrender to the peer pressure to physically appear hypermasculine. When Palahniuk begins to take steroids to fit in with his friends, who tease him for his thinner frame, he at first feels refreshed and confident. However, once the body parts that he prizes most—his “nuts”—begin to shrink, Palahniuk ceases his steroid use (98). He notes that the amount of effort that is required to maintain a hypermasculine physique, along with the knowledge that “the whole project would still collapse some day,” makes steroid use no longer worthwhile (98). Palahniuk’s emphasis on gender’s maintenance recalls Judith Butler’s notion of performativity, which argues that “gender is drag”—a constant re-enactment that (re)produces the illusion or imitation of an authentic “inner sex or essence or psychic gender core” when it is actually a constructed, unstable performance (“Imitation and Gender Insubordination” 384). Palahniuk’s acknowledgement that his hypermasculine project will “collapse” inevitably one day signals his realization that his drug-enhanced masculinity is illusionary and performative.
The “People Together” section generally discusses group activities, like the Rock Creek Lodge Testicle Festival in Montana or the Lind Combine Demolition Derby in Washington State, while the “Personal” segment is more focused on Palahniuk as an individual. Thus, if “Frontiers” outlines a point in Palahniuk’s life when he takes steroids and attempts bodybuilding, then why is it in the “People Together” rather than the “Personal” section? Separating the self’s identity from the influence of others encourages an impossible dualism that is unrealistic precisely because one’s surroundings contribute to identity formation. Placing “Frontiers” in “People Together” therefore promotes the connection between steroid use and collective conformity to gender binaries, especially since hypermasculine bodybuilding displays require an audience to function properly. In addition, this placement portrays Palahniuk’s identity’s multiplicity and fragmentation. Social pressures to enhance his masculinity through products like steroids compel Palahniuk to follow an inauthentic hypermasculine ideal, rather than allowing him to generate the complex and fluid identity that he desires.
“Frontiers” features a younger Palahniuk and his “best friends, Ed and Bill” (92-93). Palahniuk describes how his friends smuggle steroids across the Mexican-American border. Consuming these artificial hormones, Ed and Bill bring the young and skinny Palahniuk to the gym “for contrast” for, as Palahniuk points out, bodybuilders “need a real audience” (94). The significance of the “audience” reveals that bodybuilding is a performance in which the role is the muscular, hypermasculine male. Some even argue that bodybuilding can be considered a narcissistic or even homoerotic activity, which highlights how performance exposes, rather than conceals, the construction of masculinity. Therefore, from the story’s onset, Palahniuk critically examines how steroids and bodybuilding enable his friends to perform and artificially enhance their masculinity.
Furthermore, in “Frontiers,” Palahniuk describes an all-male bodybuilding retreat where one man creates an analogy about his masculinity, describing it as a hollow cactus skeleton. This retreat demonstrates how, in a capitalist society, some men pay to attend events where they can collectively look, feel, and express their desired masculinity. On this retreat, one man finds a cactus skeleton and experiences a revelation, declaring, “This cactus skeleton [is] me. This [is] my manhood, abrasive and hard on the outside, but brittle and hollow [on the inside]” (94). By describing his masculinity as ostentatious yet empty, this man exposes his gender’s superficiality and its performative quality. Judith Butler’s theory of performativity helps explain why the craving for rock-hard muscles leaves this man emotionally unsatisfied. She notes that “…gender is not to culture as sex is to nature; gender is also the discursive/cultural means by which ‘sexed nature’ or a ‘natural sex’ is produced and established as a ‘prediscursive’ prior to culture—a politically neutral surface on which culture acts” (Butler, “Subjects of Sex/Gender/Desire” 11). Butler debunks the notion that gender roles follow an individual’s natural sex because not only is gender a cultural construct, sex is as well. Thus, if both gender and sex are constructs, then the subsequent roles and behaviours that follow them are also constructed in the sense that they are embodied roles, ideals, and imitations of what is imagined to be a natural or “essential” sex and gender. Since the man believes that artificial hormones can transform him into an authentic hypermasculine man, he fails to fully comprehend his masculinity’s superficiality. Additionally, in Butler’s discussion of gender, she argues that it is similar to a drag performance. According to Butler, “If gender is drag, and if it is an imitation that regularly produces the ideal it attempts to approximate, then it is a performance that produces the illusion of an inner sex or essence or psychic gender core” (emphasis in original, “Gender is Burning” 384). Butler dismantles gender essentialism, which is the notion that one is born with an innate or a “natural” gender. The man who describes his masculinity as a cactus skeleton similarly notices the absence of his natural gender, which causes him to feel internally empty. He therefore unravels the question of whether products that artificially enhance gender, such as steroids, are able to strengthen one’s notion of authentic masculinity.
While this unnamed character is not a prominent figure in Palahniuk’s life, he provides valuable insight into the kinds of questions about gender performativity and steroid consumption that Palahniuk later asks himself. This man uses steroids to enhance the appearance of what he believes to be his natural masculinity, when it in reality does not exist. Moreover, his behaviour demonstrates how consumer culture perpetuates normative notions of masculinity and profits from persuading people to achieve these norms through their participation in consumerism. In addition, this man’s identity becomes fragmented as he allows externally-imposed expectations of his gender to dictate his consumption choices. However, he realizes that his hypermasculine appearance does not erase the fragility of what he perceives to be an imperfect performance that leaves him hollow and unsatisfied. It is not enough for this man to just appear masculine when, even after his steroid use, he feels internally unfulfilled. During his own disillusionment with steroids, Palahniuk admits, “for 30 days I felt complete. But just until the tiny white pills ran out. Temporarily permanent. Complete and independent of everything. Everything except the Anadrol” (98). Similarly to the unnamed man who finds the cactus skeleton, Palahniuk realizes that steroids provide him with a fleeting, artificially enhanced hypermasculine identity, which does not cause him to feel more authentically masculine. Both of these men’s inability to perfect their performances of masculinity through artificial hormones leaves them ultimately insecure and dissatisfied with their masculinity. Palahniuk’s encounter with this man enables him to realize his dissatisfaction, illustrating why “Frontiers” is in the “People Together” section rather than the “Personal” one. This man’s story profoundly influences Palahniuk’s conception of his own identity, which demonstrates gender’s multi-layered construction and fragmentation.
When Palahniuk begins to take steroids, he parodically uses essentialist terms to describe how they alter his body. He suggests, “The way women look so good when they’re pregnant, glowing and soft and so much more female — Anadrol makes you look and feel that much more male… You are nothing but the real estate between your legs” (95). Palahniuk connects Anadrol’s effects on the body to the illusion of masculinity. While artificial hormones are not inherently problematic, the issue is the commodification of imagined hypermasculinity, which benefits capitalist industries. Palahniuk acknowledges this commodification of masculinity when he refers to his penis as “real estate,” which, following Butler’s notion of the “heterosexual economy,” profits from commodifying the body and selling products that promise to help people perfect their imperfect gender performance (“Gender is Burning” 126). According to Butler, our gendered economic system “must constantly police its own boundaries against the invasion of queerness” (126). In this system, shame is connected to homosexuality as it deviates from heteronormativity, and capitalism exploits this link by instructing participants to assimilate into the heteronormative system. Palahniuk challenges this heterosexual economy when he sees his steroid-induced illusion of masculinity begin to wane and comments on the performance’s fragility. As his penis begins to shrink, Palahniuk says, “Here you are, looking great, bright and alert, pumped and ripped, you’re looking more like a man than you ever have, but you’re less of a man where it counts. You’re becoming the simulacrum of masculinity” (97). The term “simulacrum” signifies imitation or simulation, as Palahniuk realizes that reaching the ideal of hypermasculinity is unattainable. His story exposes how capitalism provides products to aid in gender performance, yet ultimately draws attention to gender’s artificiality. Gender-enhancing commodities, like steroids, therefore actually cause gender to appear illusionary. Palahniuk’s overall experience with steroids perpetuates his belief in gender as a “caricature” (210).
Although Palahniuk initially attempts to accentuate his masculinity through steroid use, he quickly realizes that the perfect performance of hypermasculinity is an unattainable illusion. Through “Frontiers,” he examines the bodybuilder’s pursuit of hypermasculinity through body modification. By examining his own experiments with the drugs, Palahniuk’s autobiographical work exposes the commodification of gender as products, such as steroids, promise consumers gender enhancement as a cure for social ostracism. Palahniuk’s previous works of fiction, such as Fight Club, were critically centred on hypermasculine ideals and consumerism. Through the autobiographical form in Stranger than Fiction: True Stories, Palahniuk furthers his critique towards consumer culture and its perpetuation of performative hypermasculinity. By recognizing the constructedness of gender performance, Palahniuk shatters the illusion that artificial products can imitate gender’s non-existent essence or authenticity.
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* Photo Credit: Stranger than Fiction Book cover, Chuck Palahniuk website
Anna Kozak is an MA candidate for Ryerson University’s Literatures of Modernity Master’s Program. She has published creative and academic writing in various journals and blogs, such as The Paper Street Journal, Tracer Publishing, Writers and Filmmakers, and Literature-Study-Online. Her writing is concerned with themes of identity, intersectionality, and social justice.
Post Editor: Maria Faini