Ladies! We of the feminist persuasion have a long and noble history from which to draw. Specifically, a long and noble history of being offended by stuff! I worry, ladies, that in this our Internet age, we are losing touch with that history. And thus, I introduce to you a new series, LANDMARKS OF LADY HATE, dedicated to revisiting outrages of days past, and asking one all-important question: Can we still get upset about this?
So, on our little tour, Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho seems like a decent place to start. Even before it was published, it was getting the ladies upset: Women at Simon & Schuster, the novel’s original publisher, reportedly “got wind” of the novel’s “content” (and a very rapey wind it was) and protested its publication. The manuscript leaked to the press, which subsequently issued dispatches along the lines of, “yeah, there is a LOT of vividly imagined vagina torture in this thing;” Simon & Schuster, despite having paid Ellis $300,000 for the book, dropped it on grounds of “taste.” And yet! The story of was not over! For the book was then picked up by Random House, thus giving Bret Easton Ellis two substantial paychecks, as well as a reason to whine about “censorship” for the entire rest of his life. And the Los Angeles chapter of NOW organized a Random House boycott, calling American Psycho “a how-to novel on the torture and dismemberment of women.”
But now, the book has been around for twenty years. And here, reader, is where you might want to consider every single trigger warning that you know of to be in effect — racism, check! Homophobia, check! Mental-illness-means-you-kill-people, check! — and maybe apply some warnings they haven’t invented yet, and just generally jump ship if you are not ready to handle some graphically imagined descriptions of vagina torture. Because I read American Psycho twice last week, more or less just to see what the fuss was about. And my conclusions are: Eh. It’s not that great?
Before we get to the question of the book’s sexism — and yes, there is some; it just doesn’t look like what you’d expect — it’s worth noting that we appear to be having a bit of an Ellisance at the moment. The day after I read Psycho, Scouting NY tracked down all of the clubs and restaurants mentioned in it; while I was writing this very blog post, apparently, Thought Catalog published a piece on “How To Live Your Life Like It’s A Bret Easton Ellis Novel,” and the editors of The Gloss debated the merits of American Psycho itself. For whatever reason, people are finding this thing relevant again. Maybe it’s just that outrage has an expiration date. Maybe the novel has been around long enough to go from a hot topic to a “cultural touchstone.” Maybe we’re all particularly eager to hear about how finance dudes are evil motherfuckers. I would accept any of these answers. I just hope it doesn’t give anyone the mistaken impression that they ought to read American Psycho. Because the most important thing to know about American Psycho is that it is a really, really unpleasant read.
I am not referring, here, to the violent scenes. It’s true that those scenes are unusually nasty; there’s a high chance that at least one of them will make you lose your lunch. I personally had to skip right past a part of the first violent scene, which is not so much a murder as a lovingly described mutilation. It starts like this:
The bum’s not listening. He’s crying so hard he’s incapable of a coherent answer. I put the bill slowly back into the pocket of my Luciano Soprani jacket and with the other hand stop petting the dog and reach into the other pocket. The bum stops sobbing abruptly and sits up, looking for the fiver or, I presume, his bottle of Thunderbird. I reach out and touch his face gently once more with compassion and whisper, “Do you know what a fucking loser you are?” He starts nodding helplessly and I pull out a long, thin knife with a serrated edge and, being very careful not to kill him, push maybe half an inch of the blade into his right eye, flicking the handle up, instantly popping the retina.
The bum is too surprised to say anything. He only opens his mouth in shock and moves a grubby, mittened hand slowly up to his face. I yank his pants down and in the passing headlights of a taxi can make out his flabby black thighs, rashed because of his constantly urinating in the pantsuit. The stench of shit rises quickly into my face and breathing through my mouth, down on my haunches, I start stabbing him in the stomach, lightly, above the dense matted patch of pubic hair. This sobers him up somewhat and instinctively he tries to cover himself with his hands and the dog starts yipping, really furiously, but it doesn’t attack, and I keep stabbing at the bum now between his fingers, stabbing the backs of his hands. His eye, burst open, hangs out of its socket and runs down his face and
HUM DE DUM DUM DOOO JUST FLIPPING THROUGH A FEW PAGES HERE OH GOD NOT THE DOG.
So, yes. These scenes are graphic. But, the thing is, once you’ve read one overly detailed description of a popped-open eyeball and/or mutilated puppy, you’ve read them all. And there are no less than three dog mutilations in this book. The same thing goes for sliced-off nipples, slashed-up/burnt/exploded breasts, carved-open mouths, decapitated heads, Patrick Bateman masturbating into said carved-open mouths and decapitated heads, bashed-in faces, eaten brains, eaten intestines, eaten poop inside eaten intestines, vaginas burnt off/carved open/doused with acid/eaten by rats/eaten by Patrick Bateman, vaginas “sliced out” and kept in Patrick Bateman’s gym locker by Patrick Bateman with “a blue ribbon from Hermès tied around my favorite,” vaginas sliced off and tied into decorative snakeskin-style bands around little cowboy hats worn by rats that Patrick Bateman has taught to sing lonesome country ballads and oh, okay, that one doesn’t happen, I’M JUST SO FUCKING BORED.
There’s no escalation in these scenes; no dramatic tension, no chance that they will end differently or advance the plot in any way. There is only the “I bet you wouldn’t like this to happen to your vagina” card, played over and over, until it loses all value. By the time I reached the much-deplored Scene With The Rat — readers, if a gentleman takes you home and wants to put Brie on your vagina, do not take him up on it! No matter how delicious you know Brie and/or your vagina to be, this cannot end well! — I noticed that I was skimming, not out of disgust, but out of eagerness to get the scene over with. My eyes had just glazed over. Yeah, yeah, yeah: She screams, she bleeds, she dies, it’s all very horrible, it was horrible the first fifty-seven times you described it, can we move on please? Was my internal monologue, during the Scene With The Rat. It’s rare that anyone plays the raping-and-beating-up-women thing hard enough or often enough to desensitize me. But Bret Easton Ellis, God bless his heart, managed to pull it off.
The whole book is like this: Thuddingly, numbingly repetitive, confined to making the same basic points approximately 1,000 times apiece. Patrick Bateman is very rich. Patrick Bateman owns lots of products. Patrick Bateman knows the names of all the products he owns, because consumerism is bad. Patrick Bateman goes to fancy restaurants where he eats ridiculous food. Patrick Bateman goes to fancy clubs where he does lots of cocaine. Patrick Bateman cares a lot about the fancy restaurants and clubs he goes to, because being status-conscious is bad. Patrick Bateman only knows other rich men; he hates them, because they are boring and shallow. Patrick Bateman is engaged to Evelyn, a rich lady; he hates her, because she is boring and shallow. Patrick Bateman cheats on Evelyn with lots of ladies; in a surprising twist, they are boring and shallow. Also, he hates them. Patrick Bateman hates women, generally. Patrick Bateman hates black people. Patrick Bateman hates gay people. Patrick Bateman hates the homeless. Patrick Bateman hates Asians. Patrick Bateman’s friends hate these people too, because bigotry is bad. Also, Patrick Bateman kills people. Patrick Bateman can get away with killing people. Patrick Bateman is only mildly more loathsome than his friends, because, as previously stated, the lifestyles of the rich and privileged are very bad. That is why we needed several hundred pages of excruciatingly detailed first-person description of them, because of how bad they are. You did not know they were bad before. Now you do. In summary, the ’80s were a spiritual wasteland. The End.
In most cases, you can excuse the banality and repetition as “necessary,” a technique that conveys how hollow and meaningless Patrick Bateman’s life has become. The sheer, unapologetic badness of the prose — to get the full effect, imagine what would happen if someone ate a copy of Rolling Stone, a copy of Hustler, and a copy of GQ, then puked them up all over a Saw IV DVD — is supposed to show us something about Bateman’s character. It’s boring because Patrick is boring! It’s flat because Patrick’s emotions are flat! It’s all ersatz and imitative because Patrick is ersatz and imitative! He is constructed by language, you guys! Yayyyyy, English Degrees 4 Lyfe!
But the killings should not be this boring. They’re meant to shock us awake. They’re meant to show us that Patrick Bateman’s world is not just boring and hateful, but actively evil. And, if they’re described by Bateman, they should be the one point where his voice comes alive. That’s the point, isn’t it? He can’t feel anything, so he kills to feel again? (Maybe now is the time to tell you that American Psycho, despite its remarkably sensitive title, does not demonstrate the greatest of nuance when it comes to mental health issues.) But, no; he itemizes his victims’ anatomy with the same damn pointless, exhaustive specificity he uses to tell us about his shopping list and his kitchen appliances:
Her breasts have been chopped off and they look blue and deflated, the nipples a disconcerting shade of brown. Surrounded by dried black blood, they lie, rather delicately, on a china plate I bought at the Pottery Barn on top of the Wurlitzer jukebox in the corner, though I don’t remember doing this. I have also shaved all the skin and most of the muscle off her face so that it resembles a skull with a long, flowing mane of blond hair falling from it, which is connected to a full, cold corpse; its eyes are open, the actual eyeballs hanging out of their sockets by their stalks… A few of her intestines are smeared across one wall and others are mashed up into balls that lie strewn across the glasstop coffee table like long blue snakes, mutant worms. The patches of skin left on her body are blue-gray, the color of tinfoil. Her vagina has discharged a brownish syrupy fluid that smells like
ZZZZZZZZ. Sooner or later, you just stop caring. You could argue that you’re supposed to stop caring, because Bateman doesn’t care, either, but (a) Bateman does care, and it’s clear that these descriptions are at least attempting to shock us, and (b) the other reading gives us an entire novel that doesn’t want us to care about any damn thing inside of it. And I can not-care about American Psycho very easily without reading it, thank you very much. I’ve not-cared about American Psycho for years.
It seems inevitable that an early-90s protest of American Psycho would focus, pretty much exclusively, on all of the rape and murder. It seems almost as inevitable that this tack would be faintly disappointing to contemporary readers. It’s undeniably true that the real violence in the book is reserved pretty much exclusively for women, and that it is highly sexualized. Bateman alludes casually to at least half a dozen rapes, chews a girl’s labia off during oral sex, forces fellatio on his ex-girlfriend after he’s ripped her tongue out, and introduced the world to the shocking evil of which Brie is capable, when used in confluence with a rat and a vagina, just for starters. (There is also the fact that Bateman tapes his murders, and jerks off to violent porn, which must have acted as some ’80s-feminist Bat Signal: See? Porn inevitably causes men to keep sliced-out vaginas in their gym lockers! Finally, the men confess!) By contrast, Bateman’s violence towards men seems almost half-hearted; even though he preys mostly on poor men of color, and is not above throwing a few n-bombs in there to emphasize the repugnance of the acts, he usually just shoots them or stabs them, with no additional torture involved. You are not going to find me arguing that first-person, graphic descriptions of committing sexual violence against women are by any means a good thing to put in your entertainment; we protest bands that write enthusiastically about raping and abusing women, we protest movies that eroticize and sensationalize rape, we protest books like American Psycho, and that is as it should be. There are are many legitimate points to be made by protesting: That women are already assaulted, raped, and killed by sexual partners or acquaintances at alarmingly high levels, that these things don’t usually involve breast-dismemberment and that we shouldn’t need breast-dismemberment to take them seriously, that violence against women is not all the work of “psychos” and in fact people with mental health issues are more likely to be victims of violent crime than perpetrators of it, and that pumping heavily sensationalized and eroticized depictions of violence against women into the atmosphere not only gives violent men the impression that their violence is “normal,” a constant of human behavior, something you do when you’re “angry” and “can’t control yourself,” it gives women that impression too, and thus makes them less able to identify a violent or coercive encounter as abuse or rape.
But, in the case of American Psycho, these points seem to have gotten lost inside of a particularly confusing strand of ’80s/early ’90s feminism, which conflated rape, porn, abuse, BDSM, murder, and violent media into one general Bad Thing, which posited a direct cause-and-effect relationship between fictional violent acts and actual violent acts, and which therefore gave everyone the embarrassing impression that we (or at least some of us) actually thought Patrick Bateman was real. Or that he was Bret Easton Ellis. And, aside from being goofy, this was just the easiest possible line for Ellis to defend himself against. If he could establish that he did not actually kill women, rape their corpses, and eat them, and that he in fact found these acts to be sort of wrong, then he could say that he was not sexist, and that his book wasn’t either. The standard line about American Psycho is that it is a satire, and a deeply moral satire at that; it is taking aim at the greed and superficiality and spiritual-wastelandiness of the ’80s, and the ways that money and power and privilege work to shield those who enjoy them, and the lack of human connection and feeling induced thereby. If Patrick Bateman does something, you probably shouldn’t do it, is the point. And so, standing at a conveniently ironic distance, we can ignore the fact that a man actually sat down and carefully, vividly imagined several dozen methods of causing catastrophic damage to a vagina.
But here’s the thing: Whether or not he’s actually eaten anyone’s corpse, Bret Easton Ellis is in fact sexist. We have plenty of statements from him to the effect that he believes women are inferior to men, and even that violence toward women is pretty okay. He thinks that Charlie Sheen is “a role model for a certain kind of male fantasy,” and “a bad boy, which is part of his appeal,” presumably meaning that he beats women up and threatens to kill them. In the same essay, he blames Sheen’s “horrible wives,” and praises Eminem for “recording fearlessly the fake murder of his ex-wife at his own enraged hands, a defying act.” He Tweeted that “the unfolding case of Dominique Strauss-Kahn just reinforces my theory that men are no picnic but women are fucking CRAZY,” and his thoughts on the Weiner scandal were largely that “some VAG just tweeted me ‘But sexting to a minor? Ick.’… WTF? Sexting minors IS hot.” He thinks that women can’t really direct movies (more on this staggering little irony later) because they’re “trapped” by their “emotionalism,” and that film is “a medium that really is built for the male gaze and for a male sensibility.” So, some feminists may have overreacted to American Psycho. But just because you’re overreacting, that doesn’t mean you’re wrong. American Psycho may be a satire. But it can’t be a satire of misogyny, because the author takes his own misogyny perfectly seriously, and has embedded it into the structure of the book itself.
The fact is, you can see Ellis’s sexism most clearly in the scenes where Patrick Bateman isn’t killing anyone. You can see it in the fact that, early in the book, Bateman attempts to have safe sex with his mistress Courtney: Oh aren’t condoms just awful, and oh don’t they make your orgasms so much weaker, and what a bitch this girl is for insisting on them, and oh, now she’s crying and you’ve slapped her, but you can go ahead and fuck her anyway and that isn’t really rape, not like the ones with all the blood and gore in them, it’s just a case of the girl’s “emotionalism” rendering her unsexy. You can see it in the fact that Bateman routinely hires women to have sex with, and these women routinely have screaming, unfaked orgasms. You can see it, over and over again, in the character of Bateman’s fiance, Evelyn. Oh, Evelyn, such a bitch, with her shopping and her wedding fixation and the way she’ll never have sex with Patrick when he wants her to and her voice which gets to “a particular pitch that cannot be ignored,” which always happens when her eyes “glaze over” talking about weddings, like a stupid girl or something. Toward the end of the book, Bateman feeds her a urinal cake dipped in Godiva chocolate. And this is meant to say something about Bateman, sure. But I’m pretty sure that it’s also meant to say something about Evelyn. That she’s stupid, shallow, really just so very worthy of constant emotional abuse. Wouldn’t you kill someone, if you had to be stuck with a stupid bitch like Evelyn? Wouldn’t you, really? Especially if you were a “bad boy?”
And then, of course, the final insult. The fact that the book actually toys with the possibility that Bateman will be Saved By The Love Of A Good Woman. Saved (of course) by a woman with fewer resources and less social capital than he has, saved (of course) by a woman who has to be subservient and accommodating at all times due to her job, saved (oh, hold on to your lunch) by his fucking secretary:
For the first time I see Jean as uninhibited; she seems stronger, less controllable, wanting to take me into a new and unfamiliar land – the dreaded uncertainty of a totally different world. I sense she wants to rearrange my life in a significant way – her eyes tell me this and though I see truth in them, I also know that one day, sometime very soon, she too will be locked in the rhythm of my insanity. All I have to do is keep silent about this and not bring it up – yet she weakens me, it’s almost as if she’s making the decision about who I am, and in my own stubborn, willful way I can admit to feeling a pang, something tightening inside, and before I can stop it I find myself almost dazzled and moved that I might have the capacity to accept, though not return, her love. I wonder if even now, right here in Nowheres, she can see the darkening clouds behind my eyes lifting. And though the coldness I have always felt leaves me, the numbness doesn’t and probably never will. This relationship will probably lead to nothing… this didn’t change anything. I imagine her smelling clean, like tea…
See? She’s clean. She’s loving. She’ll take care of him, and not just because he’s paying her to. Because the problem with the prostitutes that he kills is that they’re sluts, and the problem with women like Evelyn and Courtney is that they have as much money as he does and could in some way approximate his own power, which makes them stuck-up bitches. What you really need is a woman who’s not a slut, but is still fundamentally beneath you. A caretaker. Someone who can’t compete, and doesn’t want to. Because bitches make men do bad things, and good mommy-ladies make men kind, and that’s why it’s always your fault when he hits you or calls you names, girls, you just weren’t good enough to make him better. Every boy needs you to be his mommy, so that the “darkening clouds” can “lift” or what-the-fuck ever and he won’t have to hurt women any more. Jesus. At this point, the fact that Bateman keeps killing folks after his dazzling I’ll Just Fuck The Secretary epiphany is sheer relief.
The sad thing about all this is, there’s a really excellent satire of male narcissism and entitlement — and, yes, the ’80s, and Wall Street, and the ruling class in general — buried somewhere inside of the chunky, room-temperature word-barf of American Psycho. We know this because, at some point, two women excavated and restored that satire, and made it into a fucking fantastic movie. Those women were director Mary Harron (of “I Shot Andy Warhol,” which you also have to see, if at all possible) and screenwriter Guinevere Turner, and their adaptation was in fact the movie that led our friend Bret to muse upon the incompetence of female filmmakers.
That movie, for what it’s worth, is almost completely responsible for restoring the much-damaged reputation of Psycho itself. And when you watch it directly after reading the book, it’s clear why that happened: They chopped the novel apart and surgically extracted everything that was embarrassing or bad. Harron and Turner removed most of the gore and vagina torture. Harron specifically decreed that the sex workers Bateman hired would not be orgasmic. The screenplay toned down the obnoxiousness of Evelyn, and gave the other women visible personalities. Jean is allowed to stay out of a relationship with Bateman, to discover what he is, and to be appropriately revolted by it. Practically every scene in the movie is presented in a different order than it was in the book, to give the illusion of forward momentum; 75% of the book’s dialogue and content has been removed. And, unbelievably, there are decent jokes in there. Almost every laugh you get from the movie was either invented by Harron and Turner (or Christian Bale, who has never been more delightful in a movie) or created by substantially altering the book itself. The fact that Bateman inflicts his terrible bateman.tumblr.com record reviews on people before fucking and/or killing them? Harron and Turner did that. They moved the order of the record reviews, which in the book always come directly after a gory chapter. The fact that Christian Bale won’t stop checking himself out during sex? Harron and Turner. Bateman yelling “not the face” when a woman attempts to fight him off? Ellisly enough, that was originally a joke (“joke”) about a vain woman, who was fine with her boyfriend beating her up as long as her face wasn’t affected; it became a joke about Bateman’s vanity because of Harron and Turner. Everything, everything, every decent laugh in the movie, anything that looks like satire, anything you liked: Harron and Turner did that. You know. Because film is really a medium that is best suited for men.
So, yes. You can read American Psycho as a satire of spiritual emptiness, and privilege, and all that jazz. But that would require you to actually read it, which is just not something I recommend putting yourself through. Even if you can get something resembling a point out of Ellis — something about misogyny, or privilege, or how shoving a whole ton of coke up your face can make you sort of mean (WHO KNEW) — that still requires you to do the vast majority of the heavy lifting. We can still get upset about American Psycho; on some level, maybe we even should. But ultimately, the book is just too bad to even tap into the outrage centers effectively. Once you’ve taken it apart, all you’re left with is a big, sloppy, gory mess.