Is American Psycho A Misogynist Text?
The essential premise of American Psycho is probably not a sexual one, and to focus on Bateman’s sexuality is to risk missing the point. The caricatured inhumanity of the central character focuses on markers of maleness, a “pre-metrosexual” 1980’s masculinity defined by materialism. While it is true that perverse or extreme sexuality are very evident in the character of Bateman, they are used more as striking symptoms of his psychosis than as general identifiers of his male character. He is a psycho who happens to be male, rather than a man who has become psychotic about his maleness. If anything, the implication would seem to be that he is psychotic about his American-ness and the masculine, sexual, manner in which his psychosis manifests is a product of his socio-cultural location. Perhaps we are supposed to notice that Bateman is American before he is psychotic, that he is American before he is male, and that American-ness, maleness, and psychosis are inextricably and hierarchically- if usually hermetically- linked.
Bateman himself may well be a misogynist, but whether the text can reasonably be read as some kind of misogynist propaganda depends on many more factors: how sympathetic he is; what the “realist” agenda of the story is; how the female characters are portrayed; what the express intentions of the author are, etc. Looking cursorily at the realism, for example, it is quickly obvious that Bateman is not supported by the style of the book. The writing is surely “darkly comic”- a feature made even more apparent in the film.
Nevertheless the film is not exempt from accusations of misogyny. The core of the discussion about American Psycho and many other texts related to it lies the question of whether it is truly possible to have a male protagonist and not to expect the audience to identify with him, ultimately in some way condoning his actions. The same debate surrounded the openly woman-hating In the Company of Men, which was nevertheless defended by the director as being a demonstration of “how awful men can be”. In Laura Mulvey’s view, the reader will identify with the male protagonist, as the apparatus of cinema is synchronous with societical ideologies to the extent that it indoctrinates us into the dominant paradigm.
The swaggering and posturing of the indentikit guys like Bateman and his peers can be convincingly interpreted as a kind of hollow self-inflation that actually only highlights weakness, sameness, and never autocratic power. If the men display elements of misogyny, they appear to be acts of distinction- ways in which they move the spotlight off themselves and onto a lesser “other” in order to validate that they are still men. Bateman is not significant in his individuality, so the point cannot be that he, or indeed Ellis, hates women: Bateman is a representative, a syntagm- part of a symphonic group of people so fatally embroiled in the monotony of their worlds they must ultimately, desperately, seek an “other” by which to define themselves. Unlikely Hitchcock’s “Psycho”, Bateman’s violence does not appear to be a way of compensating for his emasculation- he is sexually primal and irresistibly alpha. Yet all the sex in the world will not compensate for the real emasculation that the book in concerned with. Bateman is finds himself trapped in an inescapable and torturous pattern of grovelling and bootlicking in order to hold onto his job and material possessions. As David Reilly writes,
” “American Psycho” lets us envy the lifestyle while pretending to criticize it. Neither the book nor, apparently, the movie, actually satirizes these guys’ greed. The target is their swaggering masculinity (making the old, old Andrea Dworkinish point that just being male is an act of misogyny). We’re left with a loophole: Lives built around money and expensive consumer goods are only bad if you’re not a woman or a sensitive male who would never hurt a fly or open his.”
In fact there may be another level to this. Misogyny is not necessarily apparent only in exhibitions of homogenous maleness; many of the most emphatic displays found in homosexual culture represent barely concealed disdain for womankind. American Psycho is a homosexual story to the extent that it is about the price of fabulousness, the irresistible capitalist encroachment on individual style. Since the lifestyle and trappings of flamboyance require money, capitalism will always ask subcultures to forfeit their marginalized chic, if they wish to survive in society. In this way, underground culture has been rapidly appropriated by dominant society, and capitalism has transformed former subcultures into the reining style. Ellis’s novel is an extravagant cautionary tale about the fragility of human desire and its propensity to buckle and warp quite readily under pressure. Even the content of their bizarre conversation is alien to the men, they have become strangers to everything that is supposed to identify them as unique: their clothes, their homes, their business cards, words, are all governed by a complicated rule system that has come to represent nothing more than income. As Turner says,
“Fabulousness exists merely as a free-floating marker of cultural capital, obscuring its subversive origins and capitalizing on a raced and classed cultural history without acknowledging the fierce politics behind it.”
Sexism and misogyny is still present among gay men, who enjoy certain privileges as men in a patriarchal culture. Turner suggests that characters like Carrie in Sex and the City provide gay men with a portal into the heterosexual norm. They enable a degree of acceptance by giving them some “use” beyond their usual isolation. The sense of “shame” attached to homosexuality is alleviated through the homosexuals’ efforts towards assimilation into heteronormative society and as such, flamboyance and caricatured femininity may be a system of neutralization. It seems that Bateman and his colleagues are subject to this “homosexual” compromise in society in two ways: their desire to be individualized only makes them more normal; and it leads them to a cold impersonation of femininity. By traveling so far up the scale of feminine affectation, homosexuals appear distanced from the bodily acts of sex and to the extent that everything is about appearances, are accepted into the sanitized, sexless subjectivity in mainstream culture.