The 1980s: America Psychotic

Three yuppie males in a typical lunch conversation shout in unison “There are no girls with good personalities!” as they give each other high fives, remarking about how useless a personality is in their world. This is a cynical example of late 1980s America, as represented satirically by the Mary Harron directed film adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’s extremely controversial novel, American Psycho. The voice of the young uppers is convincingly conveyed through the narration of Patrick Batemen, a 27 year old business man with an unyielding taste for blood and mayhem. He dissects not only the culture of the 80s through narrative elements, but also many other women in scenes that display a shallow and morally bankrupt culture. Regardless of this controversy and the outright extreme approach of its satire, the film has secured a strong cult following and regularly plays on cable movie channels uncensored. For people not from the X Generation, the film offers a crass insight on the attitude and culture of the decade.

The ideological approach follows through with the examination of the use of words and images, known as semiotics, to influence the beliefs of others. Discourses, as explained by John Fiske, are sets of meanings that develop socially in order to circulate a coherent sense of meanings about an ideology. The text can educate a society through mass media and serve the society through the use of a dominant ideology. In this case, the dominant ideology of the time within the film is the bourgeoisie, who are skewered mercilessly through scenes of misanthropic malice and shallow living. The text contains many images in sync not only with Bateman’s cold narration, but with many well known musical hits from the era. In this way, three major scenes of humorous violence introduce an example of the Eighties mindset to the viewer, and in a way offers a satirical discourse on an entire generation and class of people known as the yuppies of 1980s America.

All three examples of the discourse within American Psycho are based around Patrick Bateman’s amusing modus operandi— that being his need to discuss his favorite pop music with the people he is most likely on the verge of murdering. The first example is Patrick’s dinner meeting with a coworker named Paul Allen. After getting Allen drunk, Patrick explains his viewpoint on conformity through his personal analysis of the Huey Louis song, “It’s Hip to Be a Square.” He states how the band had not come into their own until they had reached a state of commercial success, and that there is a pleasure to conformity and trendsetting. During the scene, Patrick provides his own discourse to Allan, donning a transparent raincoat so as not to hide his fancy suit, and preparing to bash Allan in the face with an axe. The whole scene is purposefully ironic, as Allen himself has actually mistaken Patrick for another person, one Marcus Halberstram, who Patrick admits through narration “does the same exact thing I do and he also has a penchant for Valentino suits and Oliver Peoples glasses.” The song offers a discourse on the conformist culture of the era, as Patrick says the lyrics are also a personal statement of the band, realizing that their only success truly came with a “catchy” commercial attitude. The implication of this scene therefore is that commercial success through conformity can be corruptive and sometimes even deadly in the most extreme sense. Had Paul Allen actually paid attention to the people around him and noticed Bateman was not Halberstram, he may not have fallen victim to the meaning of the text: That the yuppies of the 1980s were interchangeably shallow individuals with no real regard for their fellow man.

Later in the film, Patrick lures more victims to his apartment, all the while going under the alias of Paul Allen. This time he has invited in a pair of prostitutes whose every move he controls by verbal command alone. Although he is an attractive and wealthy individual with multiple girlfriends and lovers, he resorts to this incredibly misogynistic method of purchased pleasure. Wearing a tuxedo in his own apartment like royalty, he demands the women ask him questions about how rich he is, simply so that he can answer them with much self-fulfilling bravado. Already incredibly masturbatory in his methods, he goes on to spend a great deal of time analyzing some of his favorite music by 80s pop-sensation Phil Collins. The mis-en-scene and character interactions in conjunction with the music build on the previously established theme of commercial success and professionalism over artistic merit. Speaking of the more satisfying commercial works of Collins, he sets up the two call girls in specific positions he has seen in pornography, as if they were living dolls. He films the experience with a video camera while playing “Sussudio” over the CD player, and even though he is with two attractive and “talented” women, he looks only at himself in the mirror, narcissistically drinking in his own image. There is no artistic acceptance within the scene. Bateman worships only that of his own conformist “perfection”, showing that Patrick is devoid of any real personality himself. Whereas the previous example focused on a violent reaction towards conformity, this deals with the way in which pleasure was taken during the late 80s by the yuppie class— through shallow and obvious ways acceptable to the public and thus worth taking pride in commercially. In this case: misogynistic sexuality.

The third sequence of his musical pre-murder meditations consists of Patrick’s personal dissertation on the Whitney Houston song, “The Greatest Love of All.” Having brought one of the prostitutes from the previous scene back to Paul Allen’s apartment and calling up an old college girlfriend, Patrick slips some aphrodisiacs into their drinks while explaining that he would like to see the two “get it on.” The music begins playing as the scene cuts to a shot of the two women making out on his couch, clearly overpowered by the drug Patrick has slipped them. He goes on to explain his love of the album based on its number of hit singles. He ignores the two women who, while sexually charged in his presence, have no bearing on his true personal interest. Patrick explains how it is most important to emphasize with oneself, rather than others— a key philosophy to his selfish nature which serves him very well. The scene ends with the three in bed, as Patrick’s blood lust takes over, and he begins to explore his psychotic nature. Terrorizing one of the girls in a comical, over the top scene akin to a horror movie, he chases her down the hallway with a loudly-revving chainsaw. No one comes to her rescue and he kills her as he stands screaming and covered in blood much to his own delight. It’s so over the top, and at this point the audience can expect for Patrick to get away with it just like all of his other illegal activities. The true power of the yuppie discourse has come full circle with this series of murders: he has the ultimate freedom because of his social status, and he will not be prosecuted in anyway due to the lack of concern for fellow man (and the obsession with personal perfection) that exists within that microcosm of the 80s culture. The meaning of this scene in conjunction with the two previous ones is that the conformist, pleasure seeking and selfish man will find easy prey amongst anyone below him, and will get away with it as well.

The preferred reading of this text as crafted by its producers is simple: the 1980s, as referenced by the designer suits, corporate atmosphere, music, and Young Upper culture, was a time of shameless and overpowering control under the bourgeoisie. The idea that these young and image obsessed people could get away with anything through conformity and wealth was so vile to the author and director that the only way to convey it was through many acts of sexually deviant and pornographically violent natures. Patrick Bateman is a very polemic character: he is at once both incredibly attractive and successful and ruthlessly homicidal. The oppositional reading of this text, based on the charming and at times incredibly introspective (if not entirely shallow) would be that Patrick Bateman is actually a really attractive individual in terms of personality. To idolize Patrick Bateman is clearly going against the message of the creators. The more misanthropic viewers out there would be most likely to see this discourse as a tribute towards self preservation and actually going against conformity, albeit through the misguided methods of mass murder. The majority of people in the negotiated position will most likely come from groups younger than the 1980s. They will not see a past of either ultimate evil or justification, but rather determine how the events transpired based on personal experiences. Patrick will always be seen as homicidal maniac for sure, but some people may agree with his perspectives nonetheless, if not to his extreme degree.

This text subverts the dominant discourse of any bourgeoisie class by stating that they are soulless inheritors who have no reason to be trusted. It sounds somewhat extreme, but given the hateful nature of recurring racism and homophobia of the 1980s it’s fair to determine that the rich were trying to retake the country with self-preserving ideals that would undermine and harm the lower class, while saving their own skin.

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The 1980s: America Psychotic by Dylan Hintz is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.