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LANDMARKS OF LADY-HATE Presents! American Psycho, or, Despite All My Rage I Am Still Just A Rat In A Vagina

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.

35 Comments

  1. Kelly wrote:

    TOP NOTCH, and thank you.

    Tuesday, August 9, 2011 at 7:48 pm | Permalink
  2. polythremian wrote:

    I know it’s considered clever and edgy and New!Feminist to pretend that the things people read don’t influence their behaviors, but actually, studies have found that bros who use a lot of porn tend to think worse of women, and tend to engage in sexual violence. And beyond that: there’s nothing like hearing a nice, sweet, 20 year old girl say, “I watched the movie version of American Psycho, and it was funny when he killed that hooker, because hookers are disposable.” She wasn’t born thinking that, people. She got it from all the shit she watches and reads and sees that tells her that. And if she was a dude, thinking that way? She’d be that closer to thinking, “Hookers are disposable. I can hurt any hooker I want, with impunity.”

    This shit doesn’t happen in a void.

    And by the way, BDSM, even when the women are the tops, is like a big long rah-rah-patriarchy rape-apologist party, no matter how smart or feminist or nice the participants are. That shit is straight outta rape culture and rape culture is what it admires and aspires to. “She gave me consent” is just another version of “The bitch was asking for it.”

    Tuesday, August 9, 2011 at 8:49 pm | Permalink
  3. Sady wrote:

    @polythremian: Aaaaaaand, it was worthwhile discussion fodder until we got to the “I get to decree whether people’s consensual sex times are in fact consensual, and mayhaps save all the poor womenz who are having their orgasms incorrectly” portions of the comment. None of that here, please.

    Tuesday, August 9, 2011 at 8:55 pm | Permalink
  4. Great piece (aside from the quotes, which are not your fault)! Ellis is the epitome of an unselfconscious troll… which is funny, given that he’s painfully self-conscious in other regards. Specifically, every time I read his novels, before I swore them/him off altogether, I felt like he was in the background shouting, “I’M EDGY! I’M DARING! RESPECT ME!” (I get a more nuanced but categorically similar feeling from some of the work of Chuck Palahniuk and Todd Solondz.)

    While I never read “American Psycho,” it sounds awfully similar to the ones I DID read. More killing, perhaps, but the whole I’m An Amoral Rich Drug Abuser With No Story Because Life Is Pointless schtick gets tiresome quickly.

    The “Rules of Attraction” film was made at my college, so in addition to finding him loathsome, I have heard WAY too much about him in my lifetime. Now that he has stupidly ignorant soundbites on Twitter, people might be less inclined to defend him. It becomes harder to posit someone as a total gentleman when he’s not hiding behind his fictional characters.

    Tuesday, August 9, 2011 at 9:10 pm | Permalink
  5. Kybard wrote:

    man, there is nothing more apt than describing Christian Bale’s performance in the movie as “delightful.”

    also this is an awesomely incisive critique while also being the funniest thing I’ve read so far this week and now I have to use “ZZZZZZZZZZ” somewhere in my next lit paper. bravo as usual.

    Tuesday, August 9, 2011 at 9:18 pm | Permalink
  6. Muffin wrote:

    This was great! Thanks for reading this so we don’t have to. Mary Harron is one of the great underrated directors of the modern age (and Ellis one of the great overrated douchebags).

    Tuesday, August 9, 2011 at 9:33 pm | Permalink
  7. Emmitt wrote:

    Haven’t read the book (and when it comes to movie adaptations of Ellis books, I prefer Rules of Attraction) but perhaps the reason for the renewed interest in it may be because the Reagan ’80s (and all the pejoratives of that) are coming back or are back. We’ve already had Oliver Stone direct a sequel to Wall Street. Personally I’m hoping for a newfound appreciation for They Live.

    Tuesday, August 9, 2011 at 10:14 pm | Permalink
  8. Joel Reinstein wrote:

    hilarious.

    gotta agree on BDSM: it doesn’t have to be part of the rape culture.

    I’m with Polythremian on the influence of media. Direct cause-and-effect relationship, with one item of media as the cause, and one violent incident as the effect? Of course not. But I’m sure most people here know more than I do about the influence of culture on people, so this is really about “American Psycho” specifically.

    I haven’t seen or read American Psycho, but I want to offer the idea that the context in which it’s viewed/read can change things. People watch movies together, play drinking games, or use them as background at a party. Could there be a context in which American Psycho glorifies sexual violence?

    Tuesday, August 9, 2011 at 11:29 pm | Permalink
  9. Mazarine wrote:

    THIS.

    The title of this made me laugh out loud! I love it!

    I really wish I hadn’t read the first passage but it was instructive. I hadn’t bothered to watch the movie but now you make me give that decision a second thought.

    Thank you for writing this hilarious post!

    Mazarine

    Wednesday, August 10, 2011 at 12:15 am | Permalink
  10. Sady wrote:

    @Joel: I’m absolutely certain that there could be. Certainly, in my experience, the movie seems to have been sort of unironically appropriated by some very douchey bros, who don’t quite get that the joke is on Bateman. And it seems as if that’s true of the book to some degree as well. It’s much like the whole deal where people who watched “Fight Club” started Fight Clubs or idolized Tyler Durden, in spite of the fact that the book and movie (half-assedly) try to make the point that Tyler Durden is a bad guy. There was a whole, long, complicated comment here, once upon a time, but primarily it comes down to this: In a culture that defines masculinity around being better-than, nailing hot chicks, and being tough enough to enjoy some awesome violence, I think douchebros will appropriate and justify themselves with narratives that feature awesome violence and hot chicks being nailed. No matter what those narratives are actually saying about the guys in question. And I don’t think we should evaluate those narratives based on whether or not those dudes are into them.

    Wednesday, August 10, 2011 at 12:35 am | Permalink
  11. Matarij wrote:

    I read this book a long time ago and thought it was just rubbish. Uninteresting and repetitive and nothing more than vanity publishing by a misogynistic writer. Another writer in the same vein is Michel Houellebecq – his books also display extreme misogyny; however, this guy displays it not in gory violence against women, but through the coldest distance towards women and sex that I have ever read. Much more disturbing that Ellis; not least because my lover at the time thought the books were great. Ho hum.

    Wednesday, August 10, 2011 at 2:58 am | Permalink
  12. April W. wrote:

    Wow. That is just horrifying. Something tells me that if the tables were turned and a WOMAN wrote about how she takes sheer delight in raping, castrating, mutilating, disemboweling, and killing MEN, then keeping body parts as souvenirs (think: Thelma and Louise-meets-Loreena Bobbitt-meets Aileen Wuornos-meets I Spit On Your Grave in HD), there would be protests and cries of MANHATING! and THOSE CRAZY FEMINAZIS! and BLAME IT ON WOMEN’S STUDIES 101! Just speculating, of course. But your essay is, as always, a pleasure to read, despite the revolting subject matter. Of course, being a feminist often means calling out people for being just that: revolting. Keep up the good work!

    Wednesday, August 10, 2011 at 4:45 am | Permalink
  13. Meg Thornton wrote:

    I keep remembering back to when the book was first released here in Australia, amid all the scandal about the rapes and the torture and the maimings and all the rest. There was enough scandal about it to make our censors basically insist that okay, if the publishers were going to sell it here, they had to sell it in a plastic wrapper with “not recommended for people under the age of 18″ on it, which at the time was treatment reserved for “above the shelf” pornographic magazines. First use of trigger warnings on blurb I’d ever run across, to be honest.

    Then one of the newspapers reviewed it, and basically pointed out that quite frankly, if you were buying it for the porn and the torture and the maimings and the rest of it, well, sure, it was probably worth your twenty bucks. But if you were wanting something to actually read, leave it in the wrapper on the shelf and buy the top-shelf porn mag instead, because the written content was about equivalent (if that) and the porn mag is cheaper. I believe the word “boring” was used in there, along with “uninspiring” and “dull”. The general opinon of the reviewer seemed to be that Ellis had thrown in the torture and such as a gimmick because without it, the book wouldn’t have got past the slush pile.

    I’ve never had reason to doubt this particular review, so the one time I saw “American Psycho” on the shelves (sans wrapper – by this time the reprint rights had gone to Gollancz, I think, and the Aussie censors had other things to worry about) I took a look at the blurb on the back purely out of “wow, is that still in print? gee!” interest, and decided it wasn’t something I was interested in.

    I find myself wondering whether “American Psycho” ever earned out its initial advance. Somehow, I doubt it.

    Wednesday, August 10, 2011 at 5:10 am | Permalink
  14. Scheherezade wrote:

    I was a lit student until two months ago, and had to study American Psycho a little (syntactic analysis class, OH SO FUN). And for what it’s worth, I’ve never met a serious literary critic who rates it at all as literature. And it isn’t really satire, either, or at least not good satire, which requires a growing gap in perspective between reader and behaviour in the novel (as in Austen or Swift), in order to wrong-foot the reader. The even continuous distance from the reader in American Psycho does not develop and as such serves only to create a single imaginative leap. We learn nothing as a result, either about ourselves or about our interactions with our society (which of course is the point of satire).

    Thank you for the post – it was so fascinating to see your take :)

    Wednesday, August 10, 2011 at 5:52 am | Permalink
  15. Karen wrote:

    I thought the killing were all in his head … which, in a way, makes Bateman no worse than Ellis (since they were also meticulously imagined by him).

    Wednesday, August 10, 2011 at 8:52 am | Permalink
  16. kiturak wrote:

    @Matarij, I’m SO with you on Houellebecq. Dear Tiger Beatdown, pleeeease write something about Les Particules Elementaires?

    Wednesday, August 10, 2011 at 5:11 pm | Permalink
  17. Cellia wrote:

    APRIL W. made exactly the point I was thinking of–a book with explicit/detailed descriptions of mutilating male genitals would truly be shocking and I don’t think it would ever get published. Sadly, violence against women is common enough in our culture, that it’s “shocking,” but not really, and the book basically plays into the existing way things are, just ramps it up a notch.

    I once heard an editor who had had to proof the book for consistency/logic talk about it. Her reaction was very like yours “ok it’s violent and creepy… but it’s also boring and just poorly done.” She also stated that many of the ways he kills people are just not realistic (people would lose consciousness way earlier than described etc etc). Given how the book revels in details, ignoring that kind of realism makes it much more obviously torture porn.

    Wednesday, August 10, 2011 at 6:46 pm | Permalink
  18. Blue Sky wrote:

    Not a bad article overall, but some faulty logic at play:

    “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.”

    You’ve made the mistake of conflating the author and the character. Yes, it is possible that Ellis can be a misogynist and write a misogynist satire. I can smoke cigarettes and tell people that they are bad: being a hypocrite doesn’t affect the logic of my argument. Look up “ad hominem” or “tu quoque” logical fallacy.

    Wednesday, August 10, 2011 at 7:39 pm | Permalink
  19. Sady wrote:

    @Blue Sky: I don’t think that’s the particular point I was making. It’s fairly clear that Ellis isn’t Bateman. What I’m saying is that I don’t trust that he stands at a far enough remove from Bateman’s misogyny to satirize it well. Satire requires some critical and emotional distance from the subject; in this case, I don’t trust that Ellis has enough distance to pull it off. And yes, like everyone on the Internet, I am familiar with the “ad hominem” fallacy. And even “tu quoque!”

    Which, by the way, you’re misusing here. The “tu quoque” fallacy is, on its most basic level, a fallacy: It’s true that someone can say “sexism is bad,” and also pay his female employees less than his male employees, without automatically rendering the statement “sexism is bad” false. But we’re concerned here, not with Ellis’s arguments, but with his art. Not his factual accuracy, but his effectiveness in conveying the message. If you say “sexism is bad” and hold sexist beliefs, that does not make the statement “sexism is bad” false. But if you say “sexism is bad” in a sexist manner — “of course ladies are equal to men, sweet cheeks! Now go and fix me another drink, and stop worrying your little head about these complicated political issues” — then the effectiveness of your statement is compromised. Does that make sense?

    Wednesday, August 10, 2011 at 8:07 pm | Permalink
  20. Blue Sky wrote:

    @SADY: Thanks for responding. I think I’m understanding your arguments. It seems you’re mostly questioning the effectiveness of his satire. For example, you say that “we’re concerned here, not with Ellis’s arguments, but with his art. Not his factual accuracy, but his effectiveness in conveying the message.”

    But you are concerned with the facts—you spend an entire paragraph listing his twitter updates (the paragraph that begins: “Bret East Ellis is in fact sexist,” and ends, “it can’t be a satire of misogyny”), and then make a factual claim: that 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.”

    How you’ve established that Ellis is “in fact sexist,” and a “serious misogynist” is pure conjecture. Furthermore, beyond his current ramblings on twitter and about Sheen, what evidence do you have that a 20-year younger Ellis thought in such a way? In fact, it’s quite easy to find quotes, such as in a 1991 NYT article with Roger Cohen, where Ellis says “Bateman is a misogynist. In fact, he’s beyond that, he is just barbarous. . . . I am not on the side of that creep.”

    That sounds like “critical and emotional distance from the subject” to me. Later in the interview, Ellis describes the book as “satirical.” The point is, if Ellis intended to write a satire, it’s a satire—whether it’s effective or not is another matter (one which you argue well).

    Thursday, August 11, 2011 at 1:35 am | Permalink
  21. Sarahred wrote:

    Love it. I found the book incredibly boring and didn’t get what the fuss was about. I wasn’t a huge fan of the movie either but am tempted to rewatch it after reading this. You’re awesome sady

    Thursday, August 11, 2011 at 4:10 am | Permalink
  22. kiturak wrote:

    Can I play?
    @Blue Sky, 3rd paragraph: You’re not taking into account “Ellis does not sympathize with Bateman” or “Ellis does not hold some sexist beliefs” (but does possibly hold others, i.e. could be sexist) /= “Ellis is not sexist” (does not hold any sexist beliefs), as in

    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.

    But I guess if you don’t see the quotes as sexist, you’re not really into this game, anyway.

    Thursday, August 11, 2011 at 5:18 am | Permalink
  23. Scheherezade wrote:

    No, the intention of the author doesn’t matter, except insofar as they display unconscious attitudes as Sady indicates (at least from a critical analysis perspective, which is where we get all those helpful but loose definitions of ‘satire’ from). The example that we always use is Swift’s ‘A Modest Proposal’, in which he suggests, for anyone not familiar with it, that to solve the famine crisis in Ireland, the Irish should sell their children as food to the wealthy. Swift published it as a pamphlet under a pseudonym, so that no one would know that it was by a well-known satirist. Now, ‘A Modest Proposal’ is constructed sufficiently well that its satirical elements are clear. But what if it hadn’t been? What if some civil servant, whose own prejudices informed his reading of it, had seen it, thought ‘what a great idea’, and implemented it? In this case, the satirical element of the work entirely shuts down, because there is no longer any distance between the literary content and the reality it now portrays. So the effectiveness of satire has a direct impact on its status as satire, regardless of the author’s intention.

    Now, as far as Ellis is concerned, it’s true, as you say, that he views Bateman as a misogynist. But, as you also quote, he views him as a misogynist because he is barbarous and cuts up women, not for the reasons that Sady provides and that I will not repeat. Ellis’ own misogyny is demonstrated in the ‘types’ of women – even those who are portrayed as good – and most strikingly to me, in the way that sex workers are shown to interact with clients. Compare to Austen, who wrote subtle but intense satires about the English social system and the dangers, social and economic, of snobbery, but who at the same time displays her own prejudices and social conservatism through her reinforcement of the status quo at the end of each of her works (well, not Persuasion, but you take the point). This is a similar thing, and it has nothing to do with the writer’s intention, it has to do with the content of the work. Ellis’ work demonstrates a casual misogyny completely different in type to the kind with which he imbues Bateman, which is why he doesn’t recognise it as misogyny.

    For the record, there is ‘critical and emotional distance from the subject’ in American Psycho. It’s just that it doesn’t grow, or wrong-foot the reader, or teach us anything we don’t already know (the function of satire is to question). It’s just one even distance. You find the same thing in horror or thriller lit – the distance is designed to shock, with its emotional flatness, not to be satire.

    Thursday, August 11, 2011 at 5:57 am | Permalink
  24. Jess wrote:

    @Polythremian,
    Is that cause or correlation between douchebaggery toward women and porn viewing? Are they more likely to consume media that they think confirms beliefs they already have? Can you provide a citation for these studies please? Why haven’t my feminist friends, both male and female, who view porn frequently become misogynists? Also, when I saw American Psycho the movie for the first time at 15, I understood the satire completely because I have an education, background, and intellect that allowed me, even at that young age, to critique it within a feminist and historical framework.

    Thursday, August 11, 2011 at 2:29 pm | Permalink
  25. Sady wrote:

    @Jess: Maaaaaaybe cool it on the classism there, lady? It’s true that some people who have early access to critical theory, or feminism, or whatever might be quicker to apply it to their entertainment. However, (a) that’s not true for everyone who has that “education, background” and (oy) “intellect,” as there are a lot of passive media consumers from every background, and a lot of people who find a way into critical theory without having privileged access to it, and (b) I don’t think you could argue that the satire in “American Psycho,” the movie, was by any means subtle. You don’t require a lot of hard thinking to “get” the scene in which a rich yuppie stabs a homeless guy to death while telling him to “get a job.” So publicly congratulating yourself on how well you got it doesn’t lead you to come across as well as you’d think.

    Thursday, August 11, 2011 at 2:38 pm | Permalink
  26. Jess wrote:

    I apologize for coming off that way! By background, I mostly mean the learning environment provided by my parents and some teachers. I especially don’t want to come off as espousing classism since I grew up in a “lower class” household. The point I tried so horribly to make, is that the way a young person or any person views a media text is dependent on their ability to think critically about media texts in general. It’s not as simple as, a 20 year old girl came away from the movie thinking it’s ok to kill prostitutes, so that movie is awful because the movie gives that impression to someone who probably already had that impression. I didn’t realize I was coming off like that but see it now and will think about that in the future when I discuss issues like this one.

    Thursday, August 11, 2011 at 5:34 pm | Permalink
  27. skeptifem wrote:

    What the fuck do you mean the satire of 80′s dudebro machismo is “buried”? It is right there on the surface. The horrifying parts of the book are there to point out how not-funny the results of extreme privilege and cruelty are to people who suffer them.

    I know that you cannot count on the audience to understand the author’s point, but it is annoying to have anyone pretend that there was any sort of positive portrayal of bateman or his ilk. These characters are interchangeable with bateman and they all hate each other, they are all boring and stupid and make up dumb excuses and only care about vapid bullshit. He drones on about shitty pop albums for chapters. Every character introduced has the designer and style of all their clothing described before they say or do anything. Am I really supposed to think he is right about anything? The author went out of his way to push the conclusion that the main character is the worst person ever, and that our society breeds the attitude of guys like that.

    Friday, August 12, 2011 at 5:08 am | Permalink
  28. Sara wrote:

    One of the interesting effects of this book on me when I read it back in the early 2000s was that I was completely incapable of having anything to do with men for at least a week. I hated them all. In fact, I mentioned this to a guy friend of mine while it was still happening a bit, and he basically said that he read the book, so he totally understood!

    I think that the misogyny is so out there, so deeply entrenched that it’s hard to look past that to any other point in the book.

    Saturday, August 13, 2011 at 10:17 am | Permalink
  29. Sanoe wrote:

    Sady:
    “What I’m saying is that I don’t trust that he stands at a far enough remove from Bateman’s misogyny to satirize it well.”

    If you’re removed from what you’re satirizing, it’s less good satire and more caricature and stereotyping. As a feminist, I think I’m much more qualified to satirize feminism than someone who doesn’t identify as such or is even anti-feminist. I don’t think anyone has ever said that Philip Roth’s Jewishness made Portney’s Complaint a weaker novel.

    Good satire requires intimate knowledge of the subject. That’s not the sort of knowledge you’ll have if you’re writing about ‘those people’ as opposed to ‘me and mine.’

    …which is not to say that American Psycho is a good satire. It’s not really a good anything.

    Tuesday, August 16, 2011 at 2:56 pm | Permalink
  30. Lolita wrote:

    @Sanoe:

    I see your point, but the difference is, you identify as a feminist. If Ellis does not identify as a misogynist, thus does not connect his personal beliefs/viewpoints as misogynistic (if we assume they are) then he cannot satirize those viewpoints, at least purposefully.

    Tuesday, August 16, 2011 at 4:54 pm | Permalink
  31. Veronika wrote:

    You are so fucking smart, Sady.

    This is the perceptive and nuanced evisceration of Brett Easton Ellis that I’ve been waiting to read MY WHOLE LIFE*

    *Since I discovered the feud between my beloved David Foster Wallace and Mr. Ellis, henceforth referred to The Man Whose Head Will Never Recede From His Rectum, and looked into his work for 2.5 seconds before turning my attention towards people with talent.

    Wednesday, August 17, 2011 at 2:14 am | Permalink
  32. Lynne wrote:

    Thanks for this. I’ve avoided reading American Psycho ever since Paul Bernardo abducted, raped and killed two school girls near where I live. He had been reading this book, so the book got lots of publicity.

    Wednesday, August 17, 2011 at 5:29 pm | Permalink
  33. Lynne wrote:

    Oh, and from what you say, Bernardo probably enjoyed this book.

    Wednesday, August 17, 2011 at 5:33 pm | Permalink
  34. desu evol yaw wrote:

    i’m surprised no one has made the connection between ‘american psycho’ and the works of the marquis de sade. i think with his work, ellis is elucidating a universal human potential to be seduced into madness by power. absolute power corrupts absolutely. the impulse to be the lowest form of shit resides in everyone, ellis and tigerbeatdown feminists alike. ellis has no problem displaying his own seedy underbelly, and i think that poses a problem for people who live in sterile intellectual worlds and can’t separate abstraction from reality. just because you think or write about salacious action doesn’t mean you are performing it. at worst he’s exploring his fantasies. we all have perverse minds. so what?

    Sunday, August 21, 2011 at 12:40 pm | Permalink
  35. ASG wrote:

    Thank you oh thank you for this post. It feels like the I WILL SAY THE VIOLENCE AND MISOGYNY THAT I AM DESCRIBING IN LOVING PORNOGRAPHIC DETAIL IS “BAD” SO I CAN KEEP REVELING IN IT FOREVER defense is becoming trendy again, and I think that revisiting Ellis is very timely in this era of Sucker Punch and the like.

    I read the comments on this post excitedly to see if anyone mentioned David Foster Wallace and I see that Veronika has. But I think it’s worth actually quoting DFW on Ellis, because what he has to say is so wise:

    If what’s always distinguished bad writing—flat characters, a narrative world that’s cliched and not recognizably human, etc.—is also a description of today’s world, then bad writing becomes an ingenious mimesis of a bad world. If readers simply believe the world is stupid and shallow and mean, then Ellis can write a mean shallow stupid novel that becomes a mordant deadpan commentary on the badness of everything. Look man, we’d probably most of us agree that these are dark times, and stupid ones, but do we need fiction that does nothing but dramatize how dark and stupid everything is? In dark times, the definition of good art would seem to be art that locates and applies CPR to those elements of what’s human and magical that still live and glow despite the times’ darkness. Really good fiction could have as dark a worldview as it wished, but it’d find a way both to depict this world and to illuminate the possibilities for being alive and human in it. You can defend “Psycho” as being a sort of performative digest of late-eighties social problems, but it’s no more than that.

    The whole thing is here.

    Thursday, September 1, 2011 at 4:55 pm | Permalink