The Culture Of Clean: Soap In Film

Fight Club, 1999
Fight Club, 1999
Coneheads, 1993
Damsels In Distress, 2011
Psycho, 1960

After exploring the craft and manufacturing of bar soap in the last installment of “The Culture Of Clean,” we’re moving on to review the best soap cameos in film. Lights, camera…foaming action!

“We were selling rich women their own fat asses back to them.”

Probably the most familiar treatment of bar soap in the movies is 1999’s Fight Club (based on the novel by Chuck Palahniuk), in which Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt…) makes a living and instigates anarchy through an illicit soap business. Spoiler alert: his soap is made from people, rendered from stolen lipo-fat, and sold at a premium to department stores.

“I would never get out of my slar pad or clean myself.”

Illegal “alien” Beldar Conehead’s first (literal) taste of Earth is a cake of soap at a roadside motel run by Michael Richards (a.k.a. Seinfeld’s Kramer). He finishes off the meal by sucking down a full roll of toilet paper. Perhaps these are delicacies in…France?

“This scent and this soap is what gives me hope.”

Whit Stillman’s 2011 film, Damsels in Distress, stars Greta Gerwig in the role of Violet, an offbeat alpha-girl at a small liberal arts college. When depression befalls her, she skips town and checks into a motel, where she discovers a complimentary soap bar with truly redemptive qualities.

“A boy’s best friend is his mother.”

During a far less pleasant motel stay, Janet Leigh’s final act before the real horror of Psycho’s shower scene commences is unwrapping a bar of soap and working herself into a lather. A&E’s remake, Bates Motel, has branded promotional bars of soap and hand towels to outfit your own twisted toilet.

“Remember, it’s just a bad dream, fat boy.”

And on the even darker end of that spectrum is Stanley Kubrick’s Vietnam War film, Full Metal Jacket (1987). The brutal “blanket party” sequence features towel-wrapped soap bludgeons as hazing weapon of choice for a platoon-in-training.

"And for that I will be clean. That's all I ask."

Oscar winner Lupita N'yongo's Patsey confronts her owner, Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), over her right to a pilfered bar. 2013's 12 Years a Slave features a scene so powerfully illustrative of slavery's dehumanization that the soap in question is completely transfigured.

“I have always found it difficult to feel resentment when industry comes rushing toward culture, check in hand.” –Ingmar Bergman

Proof that ruminating on the midcentury Scandinavian soap market leads straight to auteur status and existential masterpieces: early in his career, Bergman directed a series of magical commercials for Bris, a Swedish soap manufactured by Unilever.

—Lauren Maas

Let’s Talk About It! JOIN IN

Dearest ITG Reader,

We're working on something new called Glossier. It's launching soon(!) and we want you to be the first to know updates.

xo, Emily