Why Marla Singer Is Iconic

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Not just a side chick: Helena Bonham-Carter

Women rarely get to portray heroes, let alone anti-heroea, so Marla Singer, portrayed by Helena Bonham-Carter in David Fincher’s film adaptation, is a breath of smoky air. The one woman character in Fight Club, she could have easily been reduced to a cipher, an empty male gaze fantasy or.conduit for frustration, something to ‘fuck and run’ from as Liz Phair had it. Can’t be a mere coincidence her name is an anagram of ‘Alarms Reign’.

But instead Chuck Palahniuk’s chain-smoking Goth is badass, a nihilist akin to the powerhouse ladies of film noir. She could be an updated version of the strong women portrayed by Barbara Stanwyck, Ida Lupino or Joan Crawford.

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She may claim to be dead inside, but that’s just bravado. As she hurls herself through AA meetings, across busy streets during red lights and into Tyler Durden’s bed, there’s a ferocity and eloquence, along with a world-weary cynicism, that brings depth to the characterisation.

It’s doubly seductive, as prior to this role Bonham-Carter was known for spirited girls in period drama crinoline : wilful teenagers who eschewed their prescribed behaviour, with either a filthy cackle or furrowed brow. Not for her, the tweeness of Austen. She was her own young woman, often to the bafflement of peers, parents and suitors alike. She was the epitome of that reductive term for independent girls:’feisty’.

Here, she is a modern sexual being, stealing clothes and melting the toxic heart of Tyler Durden. He can’t admit it, because his character is after all a satirical totem of rudderless narcissistic machismo, but she absolutely gets under his skin.

She’s a match for him intellectually as well as physically. Is there a more romantic scene in  recent cinematic history than when the pair bicker over who will attend which support groups? It’s like a substitute for the child custody battle they would most likely participate in, five years down the line.

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Bonham-Carter, with her impeccable American accent, vintage wardrobe and knowing glare, embodies every college girl grown up, now mired in disappointment and unfulfilled dreams. She’s effectively Sylvia Plath without the apple pie upbringing.

The whole ‘crazy sexy chick’ trope in cinema may be well-worn to the point of cliché, but unlike Betty in Betty Blue or Lisa in Girl,Interrupted, she doesn’t get  medicated to the point of no return. She gets away from all the danger because Durden sees her strength of character. She’s savvy enough to not chase him, and she’s as instinctive as she’s articulate. Emotional intelligence in a side chick? Wouldn’t get that from Tarantino.

 

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