Yuppies of the 1980s: The Dawn of the ‘American Psycho’

Sex is mathematics. Individuality no longer an issue. Justice is dead. Fear, recrimination, sympathy, guilt, waste, failure, grief, were things, emotions, that no one really felt anymore. Surface, surface, surface was all that anyone found meaning in… this was civilization as I saw it, colossal and jagged (Ellis 360).

 American Psycho, through its title, begs the question of what makes the aforementioned psycho American. It inquires as to what characteristics of that psychopath make him unique to a single country and society. The film answers this question through the portrayal of its characters, and their full submergence into 1980s New York City yuppie culture. While the vilest scenes are those of violence, these situations are only accessories to an underlying, more significant mockery of the grandiosity and egomania of the decade. Brand names, cocaine-filled clubs, reservations at the hottest restaurants, and the obliviousness of, or apathy towards, an emergence of a seemingly factory-made, compassionless style of humanity take precedence over any issues involving true empathy. It isn’t truly about the violence. It’s about everything leading up to it: everything that causes it. All of the characters in the film, not exclusively Patrick Bateman, are American Psychos, and Mary Harron’s film adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’s novel uses them to explore the extreme superficiality and narcissism of 1980s yuppie culture.

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Clothing is a major symbol of the elite. The characters’ conversations consist of in-depth, lively debate about if argyle socks are too sporty for a business suit, the correct occasions for white blazers, and how to properly wear a cumberbund. Any time someone walks into the room or is approached, their name is followed by a dissertation of their wardrobe and everyone’s opinion about it. Yet, while these descriptions are a point of interest for the characters, highlighting how costly and high-brow their wardrobes are; to the viewer, the immense detail just blends into a conglomeration of meaningless brand names and thread counts. While an elevated sense of style is what the characters feel distinguishes them and defines their taste above others, visually, their neutral colored suits always blend into their offices, cityscapes, and apartments, as they meld into their cult-like culture and seem to seep into the walls of their corporations. Rather than the descriptions setting them apart, it only merges them together.

The superficiality of the 1980s yuppie in American Psycho is further proven through the inability to tell people apart. Everyone is always struggling to identify each other, and they are constantly being mistaken for someone else. This happens constantly. Throughout the film, Patrick consistently mirrors whoever is next to him. In the first office scene, all the men are in the same room before a meeting. Patrick sits between Luis Carruthers and Paul Allen. He and Luis are both wearing yellow ties, and he and Paul are wearing the same Oliver Peoples glasses. Later, when out at dinner, they are all wearing black suits, blue shirts, and red ties. Further, in the film, when Patrick goes to dinner with Paul Allen, they’re both wearing blue shirts with white collars. However, these physical parallels are not exclusive to Patrick Bateman and the other men: it is also shown through the women. During the nightclub sequence, Patrick and his friends are talking to a group of women who are all wearing black mini dresses and have long blonde hair. Furthermore, almost every woman in the film has a double. Sabrina, the high-class escort Patrick hires, and Courtney, the woman he is cheating on Evelyn with, are both rich, strawberry blonde, and objects of Patrick’s sexual desire. Evelyn, his fiancé, and Jean, his secretary, are both well-dressed blondes that seek emotional attention from Patrick, only to be blown off. This pattern of mirroring one another occurs throughout the whole film, as there is a present assertion that any semblance of individuality is representative of lower status. It isn’t a coincidence that the only woman in the film without a clear, identifiable double is Christy: a “low class” sex worker. 

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Restaurants serve as a host for the symbolic importance of exclusivity and status and are excessively important to establishing yourself as a “somebody” in yuppie culture. Being able to secure a reservation and being seated at a good table are viewed as measurements of worth. Patrick is “on the verge of tears” upon entering the restaurant because he is worried about not having a good table. Restaurants are avoided because they opened too long ago, the elites don’t frequent it anymore, and because no one will be jealous of their reservation. It is shameful to dine somewhere that isn’t completely packed, because it means that it isn’t high enough in demand, and no one will see that you hold the status to eat there. Patrick is thoroughly troubled throughout the film because of his inability to get a reservation at Dorsia, the most elite restaurant. The fact that Paul Allen is able to secure one himself, is a point of contention and stress in Patrick’s life. The significance of restaurants is visually translated through their extravagance. Office buildings and apartments are cloaked in neutral hues and flat architecture, making the overall appearance sterile and clinical. In contrast, restaurants are adorned with bright, vibrant colors and dynamic interiors. Their designs physically mirror the emotional grandiosity of the individuals that dine in them: obnoxious color schemes are loud and overpowering, five-foot-tall bouquets of flowers sit in vases beside every table, and waiters present menus the size of small children. Comparatively, as Patrick Bateman and his gang of fellow yuppies dine, in their signature black suits, the restaurants display more personality than the superficial, monotonous characters themselves. 

Inflated egos, self absorption, and overwhelming narcissism are classic trademarks of an 1980s, New York yuppie. Everyone is talking their heads off, but no one is listening to what’s being said, or even aware of the substance of what they’re saying themselves. The sole concern is appearances, and because of this, speech is often in one ear and out the other, and their words have poverty of meaning. In one scene, Bateman goes on a tangent at a dinner gathering, with the intent of showcasing his knowledge of national politics, saying that society needs to provide food and shelter for the homeless, and oppose racial discrimination and promote civil rights, while also promoting equal rights for women. We have to encourage a return to traditional moral values. Most importantly, we have to promote general social concern and less materialism in young people. This speech is moreso a pretentious rattling off of a list of headlines than a genuine call to action. He presents his speech is a monotone voice, devoid of any true emotion or empathy. Patrick is so invested in displaying his knowledge that he is apathetic to the fact that his own use of racial slurs, a consistent abuse of women and the homeless, and excessive materialist lifestyle are all in direct contrast with everything he’s preaching. 

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Self-absorption and focus on superficiality is not only shown through displays of hypocrisy, but also in the dismissal of Patrick Bateman’s many homicidal confessions, remarks, and actions. While Patrick is at dinner with his fiancé Evelyn, he tries to end the relationship, citing “I need to engage in homicidal behavior on a massive scale. It can’t be corrected and I have no other way to fulfill my needs.” Yet Evelyn, preoccupied with admiring the bracelet of a woman who walks past, brushes off what he says and tells him that they can’t break up because they have the same friends. During Patrick’s dinner with Paul Allen, he says “I like to dissect girls. Did you know I’m utterly insane?” to which Paul, ignoring him, responds only by complimenting his tan. However, in the most prominent example, Patrick murders Paul and drags a large duffel with his body inside of it through the lobby of his apartment, and outside, stopping to load it into the trunk of a cab. He runs into Luis Carruthers, who stares intently at the duffel, and disregarding all red flags, simply asks where Patrick purchased his overnight bag. There are numerous examples throughout the film that showcase that no one has any interest in recognizing anything aversive as worthwhile of their attention. Only brand names, physical appearances, and personal relationships are acknowledged. Self-absorption is the law of the land.

When these materialistic and superficial things are disrespected, or if Patrick is unable to match the status of another, it’s seen as a personal attack, and his disdain and jealousy results in misplaced anger, and then violence. Patrick’s greatest adversary, Paul Allen, is his primary object of envy. Paul is handling the prestigious Fisher account, he has a tanning bed in his home, and worst of all, he can get a reservation at Dorsia. This jealousy eventually culminates with Paul’s brutal death. Patrick murders Paul, furiously butchering his body with an axe, and as he does, he’s screaming at the top of his lungs “Try getting a reservation at Dorsia now you fucking stupid bastard! You fucking bastard!” Patrick’s murders are tantrums taken to the extreme. Petty and unimportant competition for the nicest suit and the best reservations is ridiculously important to the pride and confidence of not only him, but the other characters as well. Only for Patrick, it’s a matter of life and death. 

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The culture of the 1980s also contributes to the psychopathy of Patrick Bateman, especially through music and soundtrack. Part of “taste” is knowledge of the arts, and with music being one of the most iconic forms of artistic expression of the decade, it plays a large role. Patrick Bateman repeatedly provides reviews of music as if it’s some kind of graduate thesis. The music he admires contains lyrics that he twists the meaning of, using them as justification to feed into and validate his behavior. One of Patrick’s musical monologues is about the song “Hip to Be Square” by Huey Lewis and the News. He admires the song’s statements about the pleasures of conformity and the importance of trends, while also noting that because the song is so catchy, people often don’t listen to the lyrics. The lyrics, and his feelings about them, reflect Patrick Bateman. All of his actions are executed with the intention of fitting in and being the best of the best. Through Christian Bale’s spectacular and committed performance, Patrick Bateman’s disposition is so upbeat that no one suspects anything of him, or sees his true character, similar to how Patrick describes the song. Later, in his speech about Whitney Houston’s “Greatest Love of All,” he describes the value of the song as a testament to how it’s much more important to empathize with yourself, rather than others: yet another tune added to the list of misunderstood tributes to narcissism and self-importance. 

Patrick Bateman is a product of his yuppie-filled, Wall Street environment. Through his homicidal behavior, ridiculous outrages, and complete lack of empathy, he proves himself to be the peak psychopath of the pack. Yet, everyone around him possesses the same values, and are unbothered by their allowance of heinous things taking place without their attention. Consequently, they are all psychopaths of their own regard. The psychopathology that Patrick Bateman and his associates’ display was an introduction unique to their time, though it still persists today. Through the prevalence of Wall Street success, the culture of the decade, and the egotism that overwhelmed them and their ability to empathize, the 1980s Wall Street yuppie was the genesis of a new, modern breed of psycho: the American Psycho. 

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