“It Was a Laugh Riot: Satire, Sarcasm, and Sex Comedy in American Psycho” by Rachel Alexander is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Based on a work at http://www.thewasofshall.com.
Originally published in May 2010 as an end-of-semester term paper because American Psycho is one of my faves.
The film version of Bret Easton Ellis’ 1991 novel American Psycho is a great ice breaker, as a quick, enthusiastic “Did you like it?” becomes code for “Did you get it? Do you get me?”For, around people who don’t ‘get it’, saying the film is funny produces awkward silence, a slight nose-scrunching grimace, and a frustrated shake of the head – especially when trying to explain one’s fascination with a very dry, black comedy and an underdog, pathetic protagonist who moonlights as a deranged psychopath. American Psycho isn’t for everyone – not for most people, not even for some people. Because one has to both recognize and understand the satiric parody that litters director Mary Harron’s adaptation. One has to be able to laugh at unnecessary violence that’s both uncomfortable and potentially imaginary. One has to recognize that the film’s hero is also its anti-hero, that Patrick Bateman is written as an exaggerated mirror-image of a culture through which most of the audience lived, and that that means those same people are Bateman more than they’re not. One has to find humor in failure that comes from two sides: from with whom one interacts and perceives one to be less-than, and from oneself, because underneath a false façade and forced pleasantries, one believes one truly is less-than.
At the risk of making an analysis of American Psycho into a psychoanalytical diatribe, however, it should be noted that the film is also more than what it’s just been described as. It’s a celebration of wealth – of American-made prestige, of excess – as much as it shuns such glorification; it’s also well aware of the humor it slyly produces. What co-writers Harron and Guinevere Turner accomplished, then, isn’t just a comedy for those who ‘get’ the humor. By utilizing the male gaze to exploit Bateman’s physical form, writing character types that fit the mold of the playboy and the would-be playboy, and exploring the concept of masculinity and what it means to be ‘male’ over and above ‘female’, they’ve succeeded in marking American Psycho as a sex comedy. It’s quite clearly a more subdued, and definitely more black, sex comedy, and it gives no apologies for the violence depicted, but it’s a sex comedy nonetheless – ripe with sexual exploits, sexual humor, and one very sick sexual self-identity.
To start, a definition of sex comedy is needed. Frank Krutnik explains that during the 1950s and ‘60s, a steady decline of the MPAA Production Code and “the demands of an age in which both the cultural coordinates and the space within that culture…under[went] substantial transformation” produced a desire for more realistic Hollywood films (59). This desire was then translated onto the films themselves, where a “hermeneutic shift from courtship to seduction” was stressed alongside “a much clearer separation between sex and marriage” (Krutnik 59). Also, the ‘playfulness’ formally upheld in screwball comedies of the 1930s was now “a more acutely hostile sense of antagonism and competition…in which any common ground [between the sexes wa]s reached only through a remarkable degree of subterfuge and manipulation” (Krutnik 59). Men and women were fighting against one another even though they wanted to be with the other, marriage became a trap into which the male fell after being bribed with sexual favors (Krutnik 60), and almost everything was “directed…toward the Fuck…and who set the agenda for – or dictates the terms of” such a union devoid of emotional, financial, or familial assurance usually glamorized through marriage (Krutnik 59).
This idea of the Fuck-with-a-capital-F further manifests itself in the stock character types previously mentioned, wherein specific characters hold specific roles in the reciprocity needed to initiate, agree to, deny, or copulate said Fuck, and in certain modes of humor such as gross-out or Animal Comedy. William Paul explains gross-out as an aesthetically driven style, something that “embrace[s]…explicitness” and is thus “defined by [its] sense of license and the aggressiveness with which [it] seem[s] to abandon all standards of decorum” (9). He then adds to his own discussion by stating that Animal Comedy is “defined by [its] raunchiness and an apparent desire to push beyond acceptable bounds of good taste,” to place an “insistent emphasis on animality…[and on] physicality as a key attribute” (86). Although black humor, sarcasm, and satire are not always indicative of sex comedy, gross-out humor, or Animal Comedy, the specific way in which American Psycho uses all of the former allows it to become all of the latter.
A key component of successful black comedy is whether one laughs inappropriately at the antics portrayed on screen, aware of the social transgression he or she is committing, but caring little because what one is viewing has to be acknowledged with laughter. Paul writes that “‘polite conversation’ is a key phrase because it implicitly acknowledges there are other forms of conversation” (39), highlighting this discrepancy of which black comedy takes advantage. A key word here is also ‘taboo’, in that what’s forbidden by such ‘polite’ discourse of both American Psycho’s film world and its real-world counterpart are exploited for laughs. One example is the memorable scene in which Bateman runs down a hallway wielding a buzzing chainsaw. What makes the gag funny isn’t that a prostitute, nicknamed Christie, is screaming for help she’s never going to receive or that Bateman has been ‘forced’ to follow her out of his apartment in order to kill her. What’s most funny is that Bateman has just performed cunnilingus, is covered in blood down his neck and chest, and is laughing maniacally as he runs naked down a hallway in nothing but unlaced tennis shoes.
The entirety of this ultra-violent scene (which ends when Bateman watches Christie run down stairs as a hawk would its prey and then perfectly times his chainsaw-drop so that she’s pinned to the floor) is thus “turn[ed]…into slapstick” (Abel 145-146). Marco Abel continues, “Harron downplays the explicitness of the novel’s intense violence by turning it into a rather comforting, …familiar, slapstick-like violence that is easily recognizable [because of the wake of ‘90s teen slasher films]. Violence in Harron’s film is, by and large, a matter of laughter, albeit at times uneasy laughter” (142). Although the laughter produced is ‘uneasy’, it’s still produced, which is a prime example of why the film can be considered black comedy as well as a sex comedy. Harron may “assault us with…outrageously violent or sexual, …violently sexual, or sexually violent” images during scenes such as this, but in doing so, she makes light of the aggressiveness displayed (Paul 5). She makes her audience laugh and “demonstrat[es]…how far things have come since” the book was published and Ellis was “savaged” for suggesting that the violence depicted be taken as anything but violence (Eldridge 26). Harron has crossed the imaginary line separating appropriate from inappropriate, but she’s also implored those who view the film to join her.
American Psycho also utilizes a dry sarcasm which distinguishes it as something Jonathan Romney terms “yuppie comedy” (47), a sort of stiff-shouldered ‘yuk yuk yuk’ shared with the chums of which one used to share boarding school dormitories. Part of Bateman’s charm is his utter lack of depth, how he completely exemplifies the 1980s as an entire decade, “an insubstantial period, one given to surface and design rather than substance and content” (American Decades 1980-1989 vii). This “pedestrian, affectless way” in which Ellis “sit[s] supposedly momentous activities…next to supposedly trivial ones” certainly produces laughs in the book, but it’s Christian Bale’s performance as Bateman that truly gives the effect life (Heath). For example, after Bateman and his gaggle of Pierce & Pierce Vice-Presidents have just reduced potential conquests down to two types (‘hardbodies’ and those with personalities), he provides the following anecdote: “Do you know what Ed Gein said about women? …He said, ‘When I see a pretty girl walking down the street I think two things. One part of me wants to take her out and talk to her and be real nice and sweet and treat her right. [And] the other part of [me] think[s] what her head would look like on a stick’” (American Psycho).
Bateman believing Gein “was an interesting guy” in spite of the latter’s status as the inspiration behind Norman Bates, Jame Gumb, and Leatherface isn’t the source of the scene’s humor (American Psycho), it’s his own amusement at what he believes to be a true statement cementing the lack of “contradiction between being a Wall Street hotshot and being a serial killer” (Price 327). His forced, posed laughter not only makes Craig McDermott and David Van Patten uneasy but also the audience watching. Bale purposefully gives Bateman a “buffed exterior, [a] casual smirk, and haughty Ivy League speech patterns” (Porton 45), traits which produce a false bravado and confidence that everyone will think he’s joking via “gallows humor” (Sikov 12), that he really isn’t a delusion maybe-serial killer. Further, the laughter that McDermott and Van Patten give is quoted as uneasy in the screenplay, as “a hesitation of laughter, an insecurity of meaning, [a] nervousness about how to take [the] joke” (Sikov 102). This is the same uneasiness Abel would believe the audience feels in response to such a comparison between women as potential love interests and women as potential murder victims. Although Bateman wholeheartedly believes that “women [are] perpetually available objects for mistreatment” (James), Harron has shown his view objectively and allowed her viewers to behave as uneasily as Van Patten and McDermott, to make them think before they laugh.
The final type of humor to carry out the characteristics of sex comedy is a combination of satire and parody. The film’s setting in 1980s Manhattan is obvious by the culture, clothing, and speech patterns portrayed in “the flaunt-it, goldrush aesthetic…that took its fantasies of glamour [sic] extremely seriously,” even without Bateman admitting his birth year (1962) and age (26) in the film (James). Daniel Cojocaru, however, writes that the story “implicitly deals with the Wall Street crash of 1987” in a negative light (196). Harron portrays her characters as possessing a lack of awareness that wealth is anything other than a status symbol, and it’s this “conservative value [on] the importance of appearing to be wealthy” that comes across as the inherent satire within the film (American Decades 1980-1989 227).
For example, anything Bateman says possesses the same vocal intonation, a quirk that disconnects what he actually says with how he sounds saying it. Early in the film, this effect is amplified into what David Eldridge terms “pure media-speak” (27), wherein Bateman expresses his opinion as if he were pitching both it and himself for believing in such an idea. In one scene, he delivers a mini-speech in which global economic and political problems are reducible to a list that ends with what Bateman believes to be the most critical social problem: a lack of “general social concern and [too much] materialism in young people” (American Psycho). The audience realizes that Bateman’s producing total bullshit in order to inflate his own ego and feel as competent as society dictates a man of his station should feel (a “sending up” of “contemporary society’s soulless materialism” (Calhoun)), but his dinner party remains clueless. In this way, Harron poses Bateman as lacking any sort of total identity, as “completely self-conscious [and] absolutely aware every moment of the impression that he’s giving” (Bale), which gives him “no identity beyond that which he consumes” (Eldridge 27). Bateman thus is whatever idea he tries on at that moment. Bateman’s “desire to fit in is so strong that he imitates the very ideal of the “everyyuppie,” a term Cojocaru likens to individuals living “at the height of the Reagan-era” (197). What Bateman then embodies, and is thus faulted for most, is the appearance of being “physically perfect, financially successful, popular with women, and surrounded by every conceivable luxury…the ultimate cliché of the 1980’s male” (Storey 60). His most intense desire throughout the film is to appear better than his peers, to portray himself as a continually in-demand “asset” that is, consequently, only available through “the erasure of [hi]s identity and the assuming of a hollow outside shell” (Cojocaru 188). Because of this, Bateman tries on multiply identities throughout the film, most of which are “fantasies” so that others see him as a successful playboy or “the lead in his own…porno, …action, or…horror movie” (Bale).
One of these fantasies, the playboy, is described by Krutnik as “a vision of bachelorhood [in] an idealized state of phallic omnipotence or [as] rampantly free fucking” (60). Like most sex comedies, Bateman’s in a committed relationship at the start of the film and resistant to the idea of marriage, as such a commitment “requires that such ‘liberty’ [for limitless sex] be sacrificed” (Krutnik 60). Whether or not he’s actually engaged to his fiancée Evelyn, however, is beside the point, as all she cares about is the extravagant wedding she and Bateman will be able to afford and thus show off to their group of friends. (The kicker is Evelyn’s comment that they’ll “get Annie Leibovitz” as their wedding photography (American Psycho), “firmly and unapologetically” setting the film “among the well off” (James).) Bateman doesn’t care that Evelyn is only his “supposed” fiancée or that she “want[s] a firm commitment” (American Psycho), and, more importantly, he condones the affair she’s probably having with Timothy Bryce, his co-worker and friend. Maybe because “Timothy is the only interesting person [he] know[s]” (American Psycho). Maybe because he’s sleeping with Courtney Rawlinson who “is almost perfect looking [but]…engaged to…the biggest dufus in the business” (American Psycho). Therefore, not only does Bateman care little for the emotional commitment he’s planning to make for the majority of the film – something he describes as “maybe, I don’t know, not really” happening – but he also defines his relationship with Courtney as, “Listen, you’re dating Luis, he’s in Arizona. You’re fucking me, and we haven’t made plans. What could you possibly be up to tonight?” (American Psycho). Bateman’s cavalier attitude is then extended toward his victims, as his charm and sexual appeal are his most valuable assets, but Harron also parodies it: Bateman ultimately doesn’t want to marry because he “can’t take the time off work” (American Psycho).
Even though Bateman takes great pride in his ability to woo and capture the beautiful women he meets on a daily basis, he never really becomes a true playboy character. Krutnik explains, “Would-be playboys…invest all [their] energies in pursuit of the ultimately repeatable fuck, seeking to bed the woman rather than to wed her” (60). Bateman does succeeds in this regard, as he never attempts to ‘steal’ Courtney away from her fiancée or even ‘nail down’ Evelyn as his with whatever jurisdiction he would receive from the social significance of a wedding ring. He ultimately fails at actually becoming a playboy because his sexual exploits do not derive from some deep-seated desire to engage in a Fuck with whomever, whenever, or wherever; Bateman possesses no desire to stay untethered from a romantic entanglement because he’s afraid his wife would, after a time, fail to satisfy him sexually. His exploits are not about sex, per say; rather, they center around a lack of sense of self within him which then manifests into a desire to control those around him through their and his sexuality. Allon White describes this most succinctly when he states, “The model of abjection is a master/slave relation in which power is eroticized by the ‘abjectifying’ of another – reducing the other gradually to the degraded status of an object” (66). In Bateman’s world, the only way to succeed is through this ‘abjectification’, which Laura E. Tanner construes as Bateman’s effort to “reduce human will and subjectivity to matter subject to his manipulation” (100). The reason he does this through sexuality, however, is in deference to the idea that “female sexuality presents a particular threat, [that]…women’s bodies suggest a notion of interiority that he must deny in order to continue existing in a world of pure commodities” (Tanner 100). Thus, although Bateman violently rejects the sexual power of women when he tortures or murders them, he is doing so out of a deluded fantasy that he will be able “to confirm his unique identity…[through] be[ing] acknowledged by society as a serial killer,” as he has thus far “failed to establish a unique identity as a yuppie since ‘everybody’s rich, good looking, and has a great body’” (Cojocaru 192).
Therefore, another reason American Psycho should be considered a sex comedy is because “the only emotional content granted sex…is [generally] its meaning for the male psyche, and most especially its bolstering a sense of masculinity” (Paul 196). A key scene portraying this occurs just prior to Bateman’s anecdote on Gein when he, Van Patten, and McDermott discuss the merits of a woman being attractive versus having a personality. Their conversation is as follows:
McDERMOTT: Why is Laurie Kennedy dating Bryce? He’s a fucking drug addict. No self-control.
VAN PATTEN: But Laurie Kennedy is a total hardbody. What do you think, Bateman?
BATEMAN: She’s got a lousy personality.
McDERMOTT: So what? It’s all looks. Laurie Kennedy is a babe. Don’t even pretend you were interested for any other reason.
VAN PATTEN: If they have a good personality, then something is very wrong.
McDERMOTT: If they have a good personality and they’re not great looking, who fucking cares?
BATEMAN: Well, let’s just say hypothetically, okay? What if they have a good personality? (He smiles, giving up) I know, I know–
ALL IN UNISON: There are no girls with good personalities! (They laugh and high-five each other.)
VAN PATTEN: A good personality consists of a chick with a little hardbody who will satisfy all sexual demands without being too slutty about things and who will essentially keep her dumb fucking mouth shut.
McDERMOTT: Listen, the only girls with good personalities who are smart or maybe funny or halfway intelligent or even talented – though God knows what the fuck that means – are ugly chicks.
VAN PATTEN: Absolutely.
McDERMOTT: And this is because they have to make up for how fucking unattractive they are (Harron and Turner).
By pushing women into such a misogynistic binary, Bateman, his friends, and the men they represent are defining women as less than simply a ‘Madonna’ or a ‘whore’ – they are assuming that no women has any inherent worth without being a “hardbody.” It’s less than just possessing physical attributes that have been deemed socially acceptable, it’s becoming that attribute so that one is so completely defined by a thing that she is that thing. Christopher Sharrett writes, “Bateman…is no longer the challenge to the norm, but the emblem of it. His disgust with people, [his] focus on them solely as objects of his satisfaction, and impulse toward consumption and destruction, are shared by his business card-swapping Wall Street buddies, all of whom resemble Brooks Brothers mannequins and whose conversation reflect their cynicism and self-absorption” (67). The key phrase in this observation is “shared,” in that the view of women and the product-induced self-absorption is the norm within the American Psycho world. Further, although Harron directed the scene as both parody and satire, Bale found that the men the book satirizes weren’t aware of the humor present. In an interview with Jeff Sipe, Bale stated, “I chatted with a few of these guys when I was preparing for the role [and], for a lot of them, it’s their favourite [sic] book. They just don’t seem to get that it’s laughing at them. And some really disturbing things came out of their mouths, referring to women as ‘bitches’ and ‘cunts’ ….When they were talking to me they seemed to assume I was the character. It was, ‘Yeah, man! Bateman!’” What this proves is “that the fictional dismemberment of women is, in the end, men’s business. The best that women can do in the cause of literary catharsis is to serve as brutalized bodies in novels, or as boycotting banshees in real life” (Plagens). Women become things, turn into (and are turned into) commodities for men to play with, own, discard, and ultimately exterminate.
Along with Bateman’s desire to commodify those around him so that he can further his own social status through the act of consumption – a process which “sociologist Zygmunt Bauman terms the propensity to treat the whole of life as one protracted shopping spree…casting the world as a warehouse overflowing with consumer commodities” (Porton) – he also over-compensates his own insecurities for failing to succeed in this world with an obsessive, almost self-destructive attempt at perfection. In traditional sex comedies, there’s usually “the naked woman [or] woman in the shower/bedroom” scene (Paul 68). This “type-scene” is crucial to gross-out films for two reasons: one, it “make[s] the private public property…[and] bring[s] out into the open…precisely those things we have most been inclined to repress” in order to devalue them (Paul 45); and two, it furthers the notion that these films are vehicles for the “male gaze” (term credited to Laura Mulvey) and that whatever sex or sexuality is portrayed is for these same men, to increase their sexual pleasure over and above the females’ who are being exploited. Jody Pennington notes that these type-scenes follow the sexploitation “formula of providing ample long and medium shots of female breasts and bottoms.” American Psycho, however, switches this objectification onto Bateman, and, as Eldridge writes, “the only object in the film that could be described as pornographic is Bateman himself, fetishized in the display of Christian Bale’s buff body” (24).
Harron thus treats Bateman in the exact same fashion that Bateman treats his victims and “pornographically” objectifies him in three distinct scenes. First, in his voiced-over introduction, Harron focuses on Bateman as he performs crunches in just a pair of underwear (he boasts that he “can do a thousand now” (American Psycho)), stretches, and, finally, walks naked toward his shower before rubbing copious amounts of “bath liniments” all over his incredibly toned body (Stuart). While this scene obviously turns a scopophilic eye on Bateman in an attempt to “promote a…type of [acceptable] voyeurism” (Messier 91-92), it also exploits Bateman’s own idea that there’s something inherent to being male that garners material success. The humor, then, comes from “the gap between an aggrandized male self-perception and the comic reality of male incompetence and failure” (Jenkins 238), a place where Bateman is referenced as “the C-3P0 of personal hygiene” (Stuart) and “a fatuous supermodel of male vanity” (Johnson). The second scene in which Bateman’s body is on full display is right after he’s received a facial and manicure and lays naked in a tanning bed. Again, the scene portrays Bateman as a thing at which to look, especially due to the camera’s slow panning up his torso, almost as if Harron is daring her audience to look at anything but Bateman’s toned physique. Bale, however, doesn’t see the scene as an exaggerated or unnecessary. He says,
Physically it was essential. It wasn’t just the vanity of an actor that Bateman have a six-pack…. He talks about it, he’s incredibly narcissistic…[and] the clothes really do make the man. Much as I would arrive on the set, put on the suits, have my hair done, and everything made-up…he does exactly the same thing in his mornings with his routine. He puts on his mask in order to be able to perform for the rest of the day. So I had to work out like crazy for that (Bale).
Everything about Bateman is an act, an attempt at perfection. For Harron to thus objectify Bateman the same way he objectifies himself is a natural progression, as he believes that he “can always be thinner…look better” (American Psycho) and “really [doesn’t] care” who gets in his way (Plagens).
The third scene occurs about half-way through the movie, when the audience sees Bateman seduce Christie (the prostitute) and then have a threesome with another call-girl he nicknames Sabrina. Although the language used is crass (Bateman lets Christie have a bubble bath before saying, “I want you to clean your vagina. No, from behind. Get on your knees. I want to watch” (American Psycho)) and the sexual acts hinted at are tame only because the camera blocks most of what is actually shown, the scene is one of the funniest in the movie. Bateman praises Phil Collins in the middle of making a sex tape (“Phil Collins’ solo efforts seem to be more commercial and therefore more satisfying in a narrower way, especially songs like “In the Air Tonight” and “Against All Odds.” Sabrina, don’t just stare at [Christie’s asshole]. Eat it” (American Psycho)) and then, during the multiple positions Bateman initiates, “Sussudio” plays over a montage of Bateman flexing for the camera. He’s not flexing for the women he’s currently Fucking, nor has Harron instructed Bale to pose and show off his biceps, back, or abdominal muscles because Bateman has the body for such narcissism. Bateman is flexing for himself: he’s the only one going to watch the tape he’s making and the only one who cares about leaving a strong impression on women who care for little more than the money Bateman is paying them. It’s as if Bateman is watching himself have sex and “willing…to camp it up” if that means he’s judged as ‘male’ no matter what activity he’s performing (James).
Likewise, just as the women who hypothetically threaten Bateman’s sexual virility because of the prospect of marriage or the women who threaten Bateman, Van Patten, and McDermott to the point of misogynistic remarks produce a playboy mindset, the men within American Psycho are also threatened by each other and thus perform for each other. In one of the most well-known scenes, Bateman and about six other Pierce & Pierce vice-presidents are examining everyone else’s business cards “with nervous status frenzy as they try to outdo” and one-up each other (Young 106). David Cronenberg, an early choice to direct the film-adaptation, found it “frustrating” that, within the book, there is a kind of “existential terror” that Bateman feels during this scene, “see[ing] someone come into the room with a better [business card], [knowing] why it was a better [card] and how much it cost, and [then realizing] how everybody in the room knew it was…better” (Johnson). Further, this scene becomes one of satire, as Harron “interpret[s]” Bateman’s extreme anxiety over knowing that his card is inferior to his co-workers’ – that he is then inferior – “as a dissection of masculine identity and machismo” (Eldridge 29). What Krutnik believes is at stake in sex comedies of the 1960s is a male’s idea of his own masculinity through the avenue of sexual prowess over the women he’s seducing; and, as these are sex comedies, the lead’s attempt at mastery becomes a literal performance in which to mark him as adequate. In American Psycho, however, this struggle is comically shifted to what a male can produce materially, what he can buy, sell, or extinguish with his money.
In Karen Horney’s theory surrounding masculinity, the idea “is seen not as monolithic and unassailable but rather as always on the verge of toppling under the weight of its own self-doubts…. Masculinity constructs a set of rigid rules and social norms restricting men’s affective and psychic lives [and thus its]…rigidity…is bound to its self-perceived instability. The more wobbly the base, the more men strike out blindly against any threat to their equilibrium” (Jenkins 245). When Bateman then “clenches his fists beneath the table, trying to control his anxiety,” is “barely able to breathe, his voice a croak,” and is “choking with anxiety…[and] speechless” over what he perceives to be a “magnificent card,” the audience laughs at his absurd reaction (Harron and Turner). (An oft-quoted line is, “Look at that subtle off-white coloring, the tasteful thickness of it. Oh my God, it even has a watermark” (American Psycho)). However, this burst of comic relief “provides…what is denied in life – namely, a way out, a challenge not only to artistic standards but to cultural constrictions and social terrors” (Sikov 124). Although laughing at Bateman because he’s visibly anxious over something to which hardly any attention is paid in “real” life, Harron’s audience has also been in that situation, has felt what Bateman is feeling, has been reduced to a mess of nerves and what feels very much like choking anxiety.
In a later scene, Luis (the aforementioned “biggest dufus in the business”) shows Bateman, Van Patten, and McDermott his business card, at which Bateman looks “enviously” before following Luis into the men’s room in a failed attempt to strangle him (Harron and Turner). Three things are notable. First, by creating a world that “is most concerned with presentation” (Calhoun), Harron makes clear that “yuppie-dom, with its arrogant egomania, is one step on the way to serial murder” (Gardner 56); Bateman’s desire to kill Luis over a better business card then becomes a ‘normal’ reaction. Second, due to this subversion of consumer ideals, Luis is his business card just as Bateman embodies his own, and Bateman reacts aggressively towards what he views as a threat to his personal, masculine autonomy. Luis, by eliciting favorable reactions from his peers, has thus enacted mastery over “the over-whelming importance conferred upon material goods…as a measure of success” and shown Bateman to be incompetent (Messier 75). If the ‘clothes make the man’, then Bateman feels the overwhelming urge to force his rival into submission via another socially acceptable, yet entirely masculine, trait: violence. Third, Luis is an extremely effeminate character and it’s assumed that Courtney’s only engaged to him because she’s too drugged to behave any differently. In the middle of Bateman’s strangulation attempt, Luis turns around and mistakes the “advance as a declaration of homosexual desire” (Eldridge 29). The confusion, however comic, forces an examination into Bateman’s own motives. He could be trying to figuratively kill off his own sexual insecurities, insecurities for which he grossly over-compensates through obsessively working out and keeping up with fashion. He could also be resorting to a more masculine form of dominance in an attempt to defend the masculinity that Luis has just taken from him, a much more personal and intimate over-compensation. Regardless of the reason, both correspond to what Krutnik terms the “hero’s efforts…to break [the heroine’s] will, to shatter her self-confidence and independence – her rather threatening self-possession” (71). As mentioned, at stake in any sex comedy is the male’s virility, his identity as a male. In American Psycho, however, this virility is materially, rather than sexually, driven, and Bateman thus defends himself appropriately.
One last point to make is the connection between the consumerist world of which Bateman’s a part and the way in which this tenet is comparable to those found in sex comedies. Assuming that Bateman views himself, and is viewed by others, as a playboy character who lives in a world were money rules, it makes sense that these seduction encounters of which Bateman initiates would have more to do with ‘owning’ the women than having sex with them. For example, Julian Murphet “observes that the women [Bateman sleeps with] are paid and suggests that sex is merely another consumer good, …another product of capitalist society” (Messier 78). Bateman thus seeks out multiple women to sleep with in order to own them as things that one can own, “merely extend[ing] logically the assumptions of capitalism as he translates human bodies into commodities subject to both physical and economic manipulation” (Tanner 97). As stated, sex for Bateman is less a triumph over his conquest and, instead, focuses much more on Bateman’s ability to seduce them in the first place. By believing that “everything is an object – our bodies, our possessions, our sex partners, even ourselves,” Bateman becomes trapped in a cyclical pattern of possession and destruction (Price 329).
Consumption then becomes a form of control: consumption of products, manipulation of one’s body, and the desire to achieve an arbitrary social role of ‘playboy’ mold together to form a “hypermasculine masquerade [which] exaggerates the myths of male potency, strength, hardness, [and] rigidity” (Jenkins 244). Bateman wears clothing which “suggest[s] a reaffirmation of traditional values and gender roles [and]…a return to 1950s masculinity” which then portrays him as “unmistakably masculine” to the co-workers he wants to impress (American Decades 1980-1989 227); he also totally and fully denies Evelyn’s cousin’s boyfriend, “an artist,” any personal value simply because “he has no muscle tone, he has no suspenders, no horn-rimmed glasses, and his hair isn’t slicked back. In short, he is worthless” (Young 96). Likewise, during the business card scene mentioned, Bateman is made to feel inferior as a direct consequence of his inferior card, and one reason he tries to strangle Luis is that Luis possesses a superior card. Luis is better because he owns better things.
This philosophy, this “indifferen[ce] to art, originality, or even pleasure except in so far as [one’s] possessions are the newest, brightest, best, most expensive, and most fashionable,” also translates to Bateman’s view of himself (Young 103). Bateman’s father “practically owns the company” at which he works but he refuses to quit and live comfortably off his trust fund because he “want[s] to fit in” (American Psycho). He obsessively works out and takes care of his skin because that means he looks good and will be able to make better, more successful friends. It also makes him more attractive to women, more inclined to seduce them, bed them, and then dispose of them when they are no longer ‘useful’ to his ultimate goal of complete conformity. While the male lead in a traditional sex comedy is questioned as a male lover, Bateman is continually questioned as male. Bale states, “He has no sense of self except that there is a lack of self, something missing, something innate, within him, that he can’t fall back on” (Bale). Any attempt made to fill that lack is an attempt for Bateman not to find his identity, but to find his identity as it relates to social power. If “power and the will-to-power are felt to be…indissociable from sexuality” (White 65), then it’s no wonder that Bateman finds his most successful forms of power within realms of sexuality, in avenues of “male aggression, violence, and misogyny” (Eldridge 31).
American Psycho is most remembered as a period piece, as a “satire of the 1980s and Wall Street culture” (Kauffman 45). What’s omitted from this summary, however, is the sheer amount of violence still present in the film, the misogynistic and sexist comments from men who seem to have no regard for a woman unless she’s serving him in some way (literally, figuratively, metaphorically), and the often negative and satirical look at a culture that thrives on consumption, wealth, and conformism. “The less of a human being [Bateman] projects, the easier he can fit in” and the more he can succeed (Stuart). Though director Mary Harron and her co-writer Guinevere Turner did not set out to make a sex comedy, they ended up with one anyway. There’s a presence of stock characters such as the playboy and would-be playboy, an overabundance of gross-out humor, and, most importantly, Bateman’s having a crisis of faith. His masculinity is constantly questioned in the film, and his very ability to be perceived as a male in charge of his own autonomy (however ‘autonomous’ that really is remains debatable) is poked, prodded, and made fun of, by both Harron and the men with whom Bateman interacts. Once he “confesses” to the crimes he’s “committed” in the film (“It’s clear that Harron believes Bateman to be a fantasist, that he may not, in fact, have killed anyone except in his own mind – and since Batman is a notoriously unreliable narrator there’s plenty of evidence to back her up” (James)), he isn’t even able to take control of that confession. His lawyer, just like everyone else, believes that Bateman “killing Allen and those escort girls…[is] fabulous” because he’s a joke, “a dork, such a boring, spineless lightweight” that he can’t even pull off an imitation of himself (American Psycho).
Though the film might purport this crass consumerist ideology, Harron believes that Bateman’s belief structure hasn’t disappeared with the end of the ‘80s. “It’s odd how much has returned,” she says, how “the culture of spending…has come back” even though her audience in the twentieth-century might try to deny that fact (Kauffman 45). Sikov agrees: “Comedy… takes a subject…and makes fun of it, uses it as a target, aims at it…[but] the target exists within the individual audience member as he or she sits in a theater and watches the screen” (29). Bateman might be a character in a film – a very absurd character, an incomplete character, an inferior character who will never succeed – but he still “exists” in a world that was based on something Harron and her audience experienced. It can be argued, then, that “even if hairstyles go out of fashion overnight, social attitudes don’t, and that American Psycho [is] nonetheless a story about today” (Romney 46). Perhaps audiences of the twenty-first century don’t enjoy the film simply because it hits too close to home: the playboy ethic too recognizable, the gross-out humor too comically portrayed, the crisis of faith too real for someone who has nothing in common with Patrick Bateman. The sex comedy, it seems, didn’t peak in the ‘60s or die off in the ‘80s; it’s still alive and well, even in something as off base as American Psycho.
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