The 13th Floor

Why the Politics of AMERICAN PSYCHO Are Shockingly Relevant Today

Since I choose to actively eschew the word “controversial,” I elect to describe famed 52-year-old novelist Bret Easton Ellis as “confrontational.” Ellis is a direct author who aims to shake readers from their societal complacency by peeling back all the wet, fleshy layers of good decorum to reveal the blackened, hedonistic, selfish heart of a self-obsessed, wealth-obsessed, post-post-War society.

When Ellis looks to his right, he sees hypocrisy and repression coming from the Greatest Generation; when he looks to his left, he sees a withered generation of Millennials who fear negativity, and cling to childish notions of how the world actually works. In short, Ellis is perhaps the Platonic ideal of a Gen-X cynic.

Ellis’ most famous novel is probably 1991’s AMERICAN PSYCHO — a shockingly violent, highly unconventional work which was famously adapted into a well-received 2000 film by Mary Harron, featuring a career-defining lead from Christian Bale. The story was later adapted again into a musical in 2013. Both the book and the film are about a character named Patrick Bateman, who works as an investment banker on Wall Street in the 1980s — right when yuppie culture was enjoying its highest crest.

Bateman is a cruel, cold, fathomlessly vain man who snipes at colleagues, tears down friends behind their backs, cheats on his girlfriend with prostitutes, and ingests large amounts of cocaine (natch). He is obsessed with his own looks and physique, and only puts any sort of cognitive energy into the “deeper meaning” of Huey Lewis songs. Oh yes… he also murders people because he hates them.

The book is often called one of the best novels of the 1990s, and the film is certainly considered one of the best horror films of the 2000s.

Given the current American political landscape, the time may have arrived to reconsider how relevant and hard-hitting the politics of AMERICAN PSYCHO may once again be — because Patrick Bateman would be perfectly happy to see someone like the current president in the White House. It should be noted that the president himself is name-checked throughout AMERICAN PSYCHO, as the ideal to which many yuppies aspire. This is the time when a character like Bateman — and a work like AMERICAN PSYCHO — is more timely than ever.

Ellis himself is only taking glee in the chaos being perpetrated by the current administration: In a speech given to The Royal Institute of Great Britain (as noted in an interview with The Art Newspaper), he said he was glad that the current president “has destroyed the GOP and leveled the Washington establishment. I don’t know why he’s not getting more props for that.” Ellis is clearly a fan of political entropy.

This cynicism, however, is a guiding force for calm, as he told The Irish Examiner: “Get over it.”

In that interview he went on to say that the election result was the result of a backlash against celebrity culture: “People love celebrities, I love celebrities, I’m obsessed with celebrities, I’ve written books about celebrities, so I love that celebrity culture exists,” Ellis explains. “But when celebrities become these kind of strident, political advisers, wagging their finger, really people don’t buy it.” This statement alludes, he clarifies, to Meryl Streep’s speech at the Golden Globes.

But more than anything, Ellis clearly sees the current president as the remaining echo of the very thing he was criticizing in AMERICAN PSYCHO: The Oval Office is now the home to, essentially, the world’s über-yuppie — the one entrepreneur that stood as a symbol of both the highest and the lowest product of that culture.

Before we get to the axe-murders and brain-eating, however, let’s look back at a very brief history of recent American politics. (Worry not — we’ll get to the killing soon enough.)

If you were alive in the 1980s, then you likely remember the presidency of Ronald Reagan. Reagan was, if I may reduce history a little bit, a “business-first” president. He was the first in that office to actively campaign in favor of big businesses becoming even bigger — operating on the notion that a robust upper-upper class would mean a more robust American economy. If we give a lot of breaks to the upper-upper class, he argued, they would spend more on goods and services. The people they would hire would also spend… and so on down the line, until the money reaches the poor. He employed the description “trickle-down economics,” also referred to as Reaganomics.

This culture of wealth gave rise to a new class of people: The young urban professionals — or “yuppie” for short — were rich white people (predominantly male) who gave over every thought in their minds to the acquisition of wealth, and who judged the strength of their character on how effectively they were able to screw the opposition and earn a few more bucks.

Reagan, and all his notions of laissez-faire capitalism, was the object of a lot of widespread satire and criticism from films and other media. If you’ve seen John Carpenter’s THEY LIVE (and if you haven’t, shame on you), then you’ve seen a sci-fi rebuttal of the ’80s-era worship of media and wealth. A lot of punk rock from that period was an angry, direct channeling of hatred toward all the economic ideals which yuppie assholes and the Reagan administration espoused. The most direct cinematic condemnation of yuppie culture was probably Oliver Stone’s WALL STREET.

Ellis claims that he was not trying to take down yuppie culture when he sat down to write AMERICAN PSYCHO — he claims that Patrick Bateman was born from his own darker impulses — but that’s the way it turned out. In the book, Bateman is stalked by anthropomorphic product mascots, driven mad by the over-commercialized landscape. It’s only by engaging in increasingly elaborate acts of torture and violence can he find any sort of comfort. He does this because, as he eventually states, he has no capacity for caring; he looks at the people around him and sees nothing but annoying talking meat he can either destroy, eat, or copulate with. In Ellis’ mind, the leap from selfish, materialistic, hedonist yuppie to a morals-free cannibalistic killer is not that far.

Indeed, when we look at certain wealthy people — the Gordon Geckos and Jordan Belforts of the world, and their AMERICAN PSYCHO acolytes — it doesn’t take much imagination to buy that a yuppie might also be a vicious murderer. These are people who use extreme wealth as a passport to a new moral plane, where no standards of decency need be observed. In the minds of characters like these, extreme wealth is what allows them to get away with… well, just about anything they want, no matter how wrong or illegal.

Eventually, the yuppie class died out, and by the time AMERICAN PSYCHO was released in 2000, only certain supra-wealthy Reaganites were left standing. The film was seen as a condemnation of yuppie culture, but also the toxic masculinity that went hand-in-glove with seekers of extreme wealth. The 1990s pretty much ousted the yuppie, and even when a Republican took office in the 2000s — the son of Reagan’s vice-president, mind you — the yuppie worldview was pushed to the back… at least temporarily.

Reagan’s legacy has hung over the rhetoric of the GOP ever since the 1980s, however, and Ellis’ dark mirror version of that class is beginning to seem more and more immediate. Now, we look to the White House, and we see the very thing Ellis was condemning: The world’s idolized yuppie king (as pointed out in AMERICAN PSYCHO, he is the master of wheeling and dealing, of double-talk, non-intellect, and business impulse) has now taken the head seat at the table… and those of us who remember Reagan and who have read AMERICAN PSYCHO are hearing a lot of sentiments being repeated. The man in charge would not be possible without Reagan’s philosophy — and Ellis’ dark, bloody, brain-eating criticism is now, once again, hanging in the background.

AMERICAN PSYCHO is, of course, a work of dark satire, and was critical of a general cultural shift, rather than of one person in particular (although the president’s name does appear in book), but a culture we once thought dead is now rearing its head again in the current political landscape.

No cultural shift is going to pass by without its brilliant satires to keep us alert and self-aware — so perhaps a re-watch of AMERICAN PSYCHO might do us some good.