In 2000, director Mary Harron released the black comedy psychological thriller American Psycho, based on Bret Easton Ellis’s 1991 novel of the same name. Both follow the life of Patrick Bateman, a homocidal Wall Street investment banker living in Manhattan in the 1980’s. His superficial perfectionism—complete with socialite fiancee Evelyn, hard-earned physique, and lavish Upper West Side apartment—is combined with a deadly inclination to torture and kill innocent victims, most of whom are women. Harron describes the story as “a brilliant social satire and a devastating portrait of the 1980s” wherein Patrick Bateman—played by Christian Bale—is the embodiment of the decade’s materialism and general excess (“American Psycho”). Though American Psycho has primarily been received as a critique of the consumerist nature of 1980’s America, this “social satire” can be expanded to encompass America’s problematic understanding of and obsession with masculinity. Bateman’s tendencies towards dominance, power, acquisitiveness, and violence offer a removed and objective criticism of this limited definition of American masculinity and the psychological phenomenon of hyper-masculinity.
Masculinity as a western social construct emphasizes wealth, power, social status, stoicism, physical strength, and acquisitiveness—a limited definition that, according to the American Psychological Association can breed “emotionally stunted” men with a tendency towards violence (Clay 52). By this definition, anything associated with women is inherently not masculine, and men can experience a “flight from the feminine” in trying to affirm their manhood to others and to themselves (Clay 52). Thus, men attempt to avoid depth of emotion for fear of seeming weak and can perceive other men and women in a distorted manner that engenders “discrimination and sexualized violence” (Clay 52). Patrick Bateman satisfies all of these qualifications of problematic masculinity: he has money and displays of such wealth; he is physically fit and attractive to women; his career and lifestyle designate him as elite; and, most disturbingly, he describes himself as having “not a single, clear, identifiable emotion, except for greed and disgust” (American Psycho). These characteristics prove to be a deadly combination, in instances both in real life and with Patrick Bateman, who sheds his humanity in pursuit of the masculine, claiming on more than one occasion that “there is no real me” and that “I simply am not there” (American Psycho). Patrick Bateman’s exaggerated characteristics and circumstances make him into a caricature of American masculinity that—through humor and sheer extravagance—satirizes this gendered social construct.
Patrick Bateman is obsessed with the accumulation of wealth as a means to achieve what he and other perceive to be power and social status. He verbally connects his wealth with his violence, frequently citing the malapropism “murders and executions” when asked of his career (“mergers and acquisitions” at Pierce & Pierce investing). Adding to this witty banter is the fact that no one actually hears him say this; it’s usually in loud places, like night clubs, so that even though he is exposing his true interests, people only notice him expressing his wealth and status. His Upper West Side apartment is immaculately clean and well put-together, and upon seeing that his coworker and victim Paul Allen’s apartment is “overlooking the park and obviously more expensive than mine” he has a moment of “sheer panic” (American Psycho). His fear of having the lesser home is comedic, but the humor and exaggeration actually emphasizes the truth of the scenario. The satire is intensified when, at the end of the movie, Patrick Bateman’s psychological state begins to erode entirely and the lines between truth and fantasy are blurred. He admits his murders to his lawyer, who mistakes him for another investor—Davis—and laughs about how “Davis” mocked Bateman by ascribing these atrocious murders to him. Bateman is frequently confused for other partners of Pierce & Pierce, and though comedic, it emphasizes his loss of identity and humanity, playing into “an idea of a Patrick Bateman; some kind of abstraction” but no “real” Bateman (American Psycho). His lawyer goes on to say that he had dinner with Paul Allen twice in London just a week ago, so Bateman couldn’t have killed him. The fact that these murders were a figment of Patrick’s imagination doesn’t take away from their potency, but simply increases the irony and thus the satire of the story with regards to masculinity’s emphasis on violence, accumulation of wealth and status, and a lack of emotional depth.
In accordance with the “flight from the feminine,” Patrick Bateman objectifies women and views them as having the same importance and purpose as his wealth—as a display of power and social status, and thus masculinity. Similarly to his reason for keeping his job, he is engaged to marry the popular and conventionally attractive Evelyn “because I want to fit in” (American Psycho). He refers to her as his “supposed fiancee” and tells her “you’re not terribly important to me” (American Psycho). He has countless affairs with prostitutes and other women during his engagement to Evelyn, and most of these women end up becoming his murder victims. His misogyny ranges from this extreme violence to casual sexist remarks like saying in unison with his colleagues that “there are no girls with good personalities” and that a restaurant they dislike is a “chick restaurant” (American Psycho). He even jokingly quotes serial killer Ed Gein: “When I see a pretty girl walking down the street, I think two things. One part wants me to take her out, talk to her, be real nice and sweet and treat her right […] [and the other part thinks] what her head would look like on a stick” (American Psycho). This extreme sexualized violence and objectification of women stems from his poor understanding of masculinity, which he translates into actual sexual experiences with women. He uses domination and violent treatment of them as a means to combat and control effeminate threats, emphasizing his importance over theirs by going so far as to change two prostitutes names for the evening. “You’ll respond only to Christie,” he tells one escort, and to the other, “I’m going to call you Sabrina” (American Psycho). The act of paying women for sex is demeaning and objectifying in itself, but he takes it farther by removing their identities and then physically abusing them. He orchestrates the entire experience like a pornographic film—he does actually film it—and stares at himself in the mirror while flexing during various sexual positions. Harron directed the scene to be funny to enhance the satire of it, and through this scene viewers further understand Bateman’s distorted perception of women and of himself. For him, this experience is not sexual; it’s a way for him to enhance his perception of his own masculinity through the domination of women. He physically assaults the prostitutes at the end of the night, and in a different encounter with “Christie” and another prostitute, he violently murders them. To Patrick Bateman, women and wealth are the same thing: materials to be gained as a show of masculinity, and a scale with which he can compare himself to the other elites of society.
Bateman’s bigotry is not limited to women; he also is a racist and classist, consistently using the vulnerable as stepping stones towards heightened masculinity. His racism isn’t as emphasized in the movie as in the novel, but he does make several snide remarks regarding Black people, including citing singer Huey Lewis as “too black sounding” for his liking (American Psycho). His classism is more prominent, having killed “some homeless people, maybe five or ten” (American Psycho). Like the women he murdered, he can’t distinguish one homeless person from another because he doesn’t view them or treat them with humanity; only as objects. The only scene where we actually witness one of these murders takes place after Bateman and his colleagues compare business cards, and Bateman’s isn’t the best. To release his anger from this incident of competitive loss that threatened his masculinity, he approaches a homeless man in an alley and berates him: “Why don’t you get a job? […] You reek of shit” (American Psycho). Finally, he says “I don’t have anything in common with you” and stabs him to death, killing his dog afterwards. It’s one of the most disturbing scenes in the movie. Harron had chosen to omit much of the violence described in the book to “capitalize on the humor” and “draw out the tale’s satirical essence” (“American Psycho”). This scene, however, is cold-hearted and distressing, though not particularly graphic. The targeting of an innocent and vulnerable man and an even more helpless dog resonates with viewers because of its brutality, serving as one of the first points in which we can recognize Patrick Bateman as the emotionless, violent, superficial man he is. This man was deprived of his humanity—like the prostitutes—and used as another object for Bateman to capitalize on in an attempt to gain back the masculinity he “lost” during the comparison of business cards previously in the night.
The other group Bateman targets in an attempt to emphasize his masculinity, among women, racial minorities, and the homeless, is the LGBTQ community. Gay men are excluded from traditional American ideas of masculinity and so straight men sometimes perceive homosexuality as a threat to their own masculinity. He admits to having killed “some old f****t with a dog” in Central Park, and frequently uses this derogatory remark throughout the film. Actually one of the funnier scenes in the movie, Bateman puts on gloves and attempts to strangle his coworker, Luis Carruthers, in a restaurant bathroom. Again, this incident occurred after Bateman was once more shown to possess the lesser business card in comparison to Carruthers’ new one. However, Carruthers mistook Bateman’s shaky hands around his neck as a sign of affection and goes on to say “You can’t imagine how long I’ve wanted this” and remarking on Bateman’s “hot body” (American Psycho). Bateman is so disgusted with having been affectionately touched and spoken to by a man that he washes his gloves in the sink and promptly leaves. Psychologists in the American Psychological Association stated that “being called gay is often the worst possible insult among adolescent boys” because it questions a boy’s masculinity (since gay men are perceived as less “male” than straight men), so Patrick Bateman’s irrational fear of gayness further exaggerates his caricature as the stereotypical American male (Clay 52). It’s a disgusting example of homophobia, but the humor, as Harron intended, emphasized the satire and ridiculousness of the moment, since Bateman perceived something so innocent as affection as a serious affront to his manliness.
Interpretations of the character Patrick Bateman claim he was seeking revenge on the society that made him, or cite that he was acting out of a “primal need to be traditionally manly” (McCray). However, these are inaccurate interpretations in that Ellis and Harron both attempt to make it very clear that there is no excuse for his behavior. The humor saturating the story highlights the satire of it, as does Bateman’s absurdly violent and ill-matched reactions to stress-scenarios. Bateman doesn’t want revenge, because he targets women, minorities, the homeless, and gay men; these individuals aren’t the main perpetrators in creating a system of American masculinity. He certainly isn’t resorting to “primal” behavior, because American Psycho is a satire of modern American culture. Revenge can’t be sought on society by him because viewers watch Patrick Bateman on occasion after occasion make laughably violent and hateful choices of his own accord out of fear of not being masculine enough. It’s important to note, however, that we do not dislike Patrick Bateman for this, nor do we pity him or feel anything in particular towards him. The satire of the story allows us to perceive him in an objective manner in which we know that what he’s doing is wrong, but we don’t feel personally offended by it. The story has been extremely controversial however, and the book (which emphasizes violence significantly more than the movie) can’t be sold to minors in countries such as Germany, Australia, and New Zealand. Feminist activist Gloria Steinem also attempted to persuade Christian Bale to not take the role of Patrick Bateman due to the story’s exploitative and violent treatment of women. These interpretations fail to realize the satire of the story, without which it might look a lot like a slasher flick that focuses on violence towards women, gay men, and racial minorities. Patrick Bateman isn’t a victim of society, nor a villain of it: he is society, the exaggerated embodiment of not only American consumerism and materialism, but also the problematic American understanding of what constitutes masculinity. We do not pity Bateman, nor hate him, but we simply watch the circumstances surrounding him unfold and take it for what it is.
American Psycho. Dir. Mary Harron. Perf. Christian Bale. Lions Gate Films, 2000. Netflix. Web.
“American Psycho.” Vintage Screening Room. N.p., n.d. Web. <https://www.randomhouse.com/ vintage/screen/books/psycho.html>.
Clay, Rebecca A. “Redefining Masculinity: Three Psychologists Strive to Build a ‘better’ Man.” American Psychological Association 43.6 (2012): 52. American Psychological Association. Web.
McCray, Sean, “Masculinity and the Postmodern in American Psycho and Fight Club” (2006). Masters Theses & Specialist Projects. Paper 297. <http://digitalcommons.wku.edu/theses/297>.