For most who have encountered the character of Patrick Bateman – either in the original 1991 novel American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis, or in its adaptation starring Christian Bale – it is difficult to associate him as a symbol of rebellion. Greedy, misogynistic and utterly vapid, the character seems to be a rock-solid personification of the times, which in the context of the story is the “me decade” of the 1980s.
Yet, when one looks at the film adaptation it becomes clear that this reading isn’t entirely accurate. On one hand, Bale’s Patrick Bateman channels the zeitgeist of elite, 1980s American culture. This is expressed in his open contempt towards women and members of lower socio-economic classes, not to mention in his vapid fixation on consumer culture and status symbols. However, Bateman simultaneously pushes against the limits of his culture and time period. Applying Erving Goffman’s 1956 treatise The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life to American Psycho confirms this rebellious status, helping to illustrate how the character refuses to fully conform to his social role, and even temporarily modifies his self-perspective. This paper will chart the character’s rebellious path, first by discussing Bateman the performer, before turning to the source and meaning of his transcendence.
I. The Mask of Sanity: Bateman and Dramaturgy
There is an idea of a Patrick Bateman; some kind of abstraction. But there is no real me: only an entity, something illusory. And though I can hide my cold gaze, and you can shake my hand and feel flesh gripping yours and maybe you can even sense our lifestyles are probably comparable… I simply am not there. (American Psycho)
This monologue serves as a perfect introduction to Patrick Bateman, the titular psycho from Mary Harron’s adaptation. However, this line does not speak to the full nature of the character. To begin to understand him one also has to look at a scene between Bateman and his fiancée Evelyn, who asks him why he doesn’t quit a job that he clearly hates and doesn’t financially need. In response, he removes his headphones, turns to her, and in his comma-marked speech replies: “Because I want to, fit, in” (American Psycho).
These statements encapsulate his complex character. Bateman partially embodies Goffman’s idea of the “cynical performer,” meaning that he doesn’t fully believe in his social role. However, he still attempts to adopt what he calls a “mask of sanity,” modifying his behavior to fit into some very specific parameters.
Goffman’s thesis, presented in his book The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life resonates powerfully with these ideas. Essentially, the writer and sociologist’s book analyzes human interaction and social organization by comparing it to a theatrical performance, where people become actors giving performances to one another. This theoretical lens is what he dubbed as dramaturgy, and one can understand its basic components when examining the character of Patrick Bateman with greater depth.
The world that Patrick Bateman belongs to is defined by a highly specific culture. It requires him to give a very specific type of “performance” to be accepted, a term Goffman utilizes to refer to everything an actor does when in front of an audience. In giving a performance one has to match the right appearance (which refers to a performer’s social status or temporary status), to the right manner (which are indicators for how communication will take place). These elements must then be paired congruently with the performer’s setting, which allows for a social front to emerge.
A social front is one of Goffman’s salient points; it is the very mechanism that an actor utilizes when he “projects a definition of the situation when he appears before others,” (9). Bateman’s social front is one of immense homogeneity, where nearly every member of his Wall Street brethren maintains an identical appearance. Almost all members also project a similar manner, which circumscribes their behavior to the mold of a hyper-masculine and viciously competitive capitalist. This conformity among members of Bateman’s social front is not overly surprising. Social fronts not only allow for a shared definition of reality to emerge, but also allow for performers to formulate a moral claim for how they expect to be treated. “Society is organized on the principle that any individual who possesses certain social characteristics has a moral right to expect that others will treat him in an appropriate way” (Goffman 13).
One of Goffman’s central preoccupations throughout The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life is to explore the inherent fragility of social performers’ masks. While he makes a point to mention that highly stressful environments are more threatening to one’s mask, he also states that we “tend to blind ourselves to the fact that everyday secular performance in our Anglo-American society must often pass a strict test of aptness, fitness, propriety, and decorum” (55). Threats to one’s mask can range from the insignificant (such as tripping or breaking wind) to something more monumental, like being caught in a blatant lie.
However, while threats to one’s masks exist everywhere, a performer will often become accustomed to their performance and role, allowing it to often be carried out seamlessly. Quoting George Santayana, Goffman states that this is the ideal function of the mask; it can transfigure someone, fix someone. “But whether the visage we assume be a joyful or sad one, in adopting and emphasizing it we define our sovereign temper […] so long as we continue under the spell of this self-knowledge, we do not merely live but act; we compose and play our chosen character […] since our deliberate character is more truly ourself than is the flux of our involuntary dreams” (Santayana as quoted by Goffman 56-57).
While society expects the performer to provide “coherence among setting, appearance, and manner” (25), it is arguably more important that the performer learn to give an “idealized performance,” where a performer’s behavior will embody the values society has attributed to their collective identity, their front. This is how a performance is “‘socialized,’ molded, and modified to fit into the […] society in which it is presented” (35).
This is perhaps the most constricting element of dramaturgy, especially due to the highly generalized nature of social fronts. Goffman parses this concept briefly and almost flippantly in his text, speculating that it may be little more than a product of human society’s natural evolution. As human society transitioned from small groups defined by kinship to a sprawling, heavily-industrialized society the idea of social fronts was transformed. Gradually, the room for individuality dissipated. However, the belief of not grouping together people of dissimilar status was maintained. The “full range of diversity [in society became] cut at a few crucial points, and all those within a given bracket are allowed or obliged to maintain the same social front” (27).
This type of organization – where multiple performances become captured under amorphous umbrella of a social front – is explicitly captured in Harron’s American Psycho. As mentioned, the men existing in Bateman’s social group are nearly carbon copies of one another. However, there are subtle difference in the performances they offer up to the group.
Two early dinner scenes establish Bateman’s specific performance type of the “boy next door.” One of these scenes is the film’s opening, where Bateman chastises his friend Craig McDermott for making a racial slur about Jewish people. This performance is part of Bateman’s “routine” for his friends, insofar as it is a performance given repeatedly, which connects him to a larger social circle. A comparable performance is given a few scenes after the film’s opening, where Bateman waxes about what the important ideals are for society to focus on, which are wildly incongruent with the debauched, vacuous lives of his social group. His friends laugh this off as another example of Bateman being Bateman, the “boy next door.”
Well, we have to end apartheid, for one, […] stop terrorism and world hunger. We have 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. (American Psycho)
Despite this mild personality quirk, Bateman is almost completely submerged by his epochal circumstances, and is left with very little real identity. He is, as he mentioned, “not there.” He has conformed not only to his culture, but to his social front. Harron’s film suggests this with powerful visual imagery, such as Bateman’s face being continually obscured behind glass and in reflections, but also in maintaining the “faceless society” motif that was so dominant in Ellis’s text.
In this particular world mistaken identity is common. There are certain scene where Bateman comments through voice-over about the physical and social similarities he sees between himself and his colleagues. There’s even a moment where the Wall Street men compare identical business cards, which list all of their positions as “Vice President.” While perhaps heavy-handed, these scenes are deeply intuitive regarding dramaturgical principles. The functioning of society necessitates the creation of fronts, which due to their highly abstracted character seek to limit any significant signs of individuality.
This aspect of the front, especially when paired with the expectation for individuals to embody an “idealized performance,” suggests that society’s ardent desire is to curtail the individual into a regimented pattern of behavior. Once accomplished, this continues to perpetuate a collective myth, that the face we show to the world is who we truly are.
Of course, this is a fallacy, because as Goffman states repeatedly throughout The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life, there is no real self. We are simply who we need to be. “First individuals often foster the impression that the routine they are presently performing is their only routine or at least their most essential one. […] the audience, in their turn, often assume that the character projected before them is all there is to the individual who acts out the projection for them” (48).
The reality is much more complicated. Performers engage in audience segmentation constantly so they can organize the various masks that they will exhibit. The individual will ensure that “those before he plays one of his parts will not be the same individuals before whom he plays a different part in another setting [which is] a device for protecting fostered impressions” (49). While audiences often become aware of cracks and fissures in one’s mask, society desires to protect the myth of the static self. This is due to sheer pragmatism. Modern life is complicated, and audiences find “a great saving in time and emotional energy [in treating] a performer at occupational face value, as if the performer were all and only what his uniform claimed him to be” (49).
However, Patrick Bateman is a character who has chosen to be ensconced in this collective social mythology, despite some awareness that his personality is little more than a manifestation of his culture. This fixation on personifying his culture’s ideals is suggested in acute and often darkly humorous ways. For instance, one of the character’s defining attributes, which was unfortunately dialed down in the film adaption, is his relentless discussions of consumer products and status symbols. One scene that captures this is when Bateman is observed going about his morning routine, discussing through voice over the dizzying array of creams and lotions that he uses. Later, there is also a scene where he goes out to eat, where he describes himself as being “on the verge of tears” when he thinks he might not get a good table.
This emotional and psychological capitulation to the values of his social circle illustrates how deeply entrenched the rules of dramaturgy can be in human society. It also makes Bateman congruent with George Santayana’s musings on the transformative power of the performance. Bateman’s relationship to his role and his performance also evokes Sartre’s famous example of the waiter from his text Being and Nothingness.
Let us consider this waiter in the café. His movement is quick and forward, a little too precise, a little too rapid. […] He is playing, he is amusing himself. But what is he playing? We need not watch long before we can explain it: he is playing at being a waiter in a café. (Sartre 59)
Similar to the waiter, Bateman cannot stop playing his role, or, perhaps the more accurate description is that he doesn’t want to. This notion also extends and defines Bateman’s murders. Now, these killings have often inspired debate, with many people believing the murders to be real and others arguing that they exist solely in the character’s mind. However, this debate is irrelevant for this paper’s intentions. Instead, this analysis considers Bateman’s violent tendencies as simply a grandiose example of how his profoundly sick culture has shaped him. Whether real or imagined, in this paper’s context the murders only function is to vividly illustrate the character’s flawed self-perception, and his reaction to events which destabilize it.
Bateman’s self-perception has boiled his essence as a human being down to its very core. He envisions himself to be a static self, with no hope and probably no awareness that he (or anyone) is capable of changing who they are, and more importantly who society expects them to be. This is another facet of the character that resonates with Sartre’s analysis of the waiter from Being and Nothingness. Sartre claims that the waiter is aspiring to be a “being-in-itself” waiter, meaning that the waiter desires to imagine himself as thing, without the ability to make conscious decisions about his life. This is, to Sartre, something he labels as “bad faith,” a concept described by Joseph S. Catalano (in his writings on Sartre), as “a pre-reflective resolution aimed at relieving us of the responsibility of reexamining our life” (75). In the case of Bateman, his “bad faith,” his self-delusion, is something reinforced by his culture and his lifestyle, which hardly allows for significant introspection.
In moving throughout his social circle, Bateman experiences nothing that could potentially jar him out of this pre-reflective state. As mentioned, most of his co-workers and social acquaintances are little more than extensions of himself, and, like Bateman, are preoccupied only with the superficial. Additionally, he is somewhat shielded by his culture’s preferential treatment of his social class. This is evident in the character’s interaction with Detective Donald Kimball (played by Willem Dafoe), who comes to question Bateman after one of the character’s murders.
According to Goffman, society organizes fronts hierarchically. For those possessing elevated social status, this means that there will be an increased expectation for credible performances. Greater backlashes will be directed towards those who cannot fully live-up to the venerated position they occupy.
However, if one can cobble a passable performance together then the benefits can be enormous. This is expressed in the exchange between the two men. It is clear in the scene that Kimball would like to scrutinize Bateman more extensively; yet the gumshoe is stymied by the nature of their interaction. The yuppie’s performance is credible enough, and when paired with the interaction taking place in Bateman’s office, unable to be overcome. Despite Bateman’s obvious lack of professional responsibilities, and pitiful attempts to feign not only a phone call but a business lunch with “Cliff Huxtable” (the main character from The Cosby Show), the detective is forced through circumstance to take him at his word. Bateman’s attempt to fuse the core elements of his performance are successful enough, and are reinforced through his culture’s stance on his social front.
The act that Bateman utilizes in his interactions with Kimball evokes the dramaturgical principle of “impression management,” which explores how, regardless of the objective, it will always “be in [the performer’s] interests to control the conduct of others” (Goffman 3). While Bateman employs this technique to manage the impressions other people have of him, he also seeks to manage the impressions he has of himself. This becomes compromised when Bateman begins putting himself into different social situations through his murderous exploits. His view of himself as a static thing becomes tested through these scenes. Bateman realizes that while there is much under his power to influence, he can’t entirely control the minds of human beings. Even more specifically, he can’t control how those minds make him feel. Through the act of taking himself repeatedly outside of his immediate social circle, Bateman become not necessarily a character actively pursuing transgressive behavior. However, one could infer that he at least possesses a curiosity that there may be something else out there aside from his insulted view of himself.
II. This Is Not An Exit: Bateman in Rebellion
What becomes readily apparent in watching American Psycho is that Bateman, being a product of a debauched, merciless and Capitalistic society, extends his obsession with products, with objects, onto the way he perceives human beings. This is the technique the character uses to remain secure in his view of himself, because objects are incapable of forming perspectives that contradict with his own or scrutinize his performance. This perspective also continues his simplistic perspective of his identity, because it allows him to not parse what he is, only what he isn’t.
This objectifying proclivity however gradually becomes more difficult to maintain when he leaves his immediate social circle. Bateman’s objectifying worldview is corroborated in Ellis’s text. The writer gives us insight into his character’s state of mind during a particularly horrid dismemberment scene, where Bateman states that “though it does sporadically penetrate how unacceptable some of what I’m doing actually is, I just remind myself that this thing, this girl, this meat, is nothing, is shit,” (345).
Bateman’s murder of Paul Allen – who the character views as a threat to his personal and professional status – is not a act that he finds particularly challenging to his worldview. It is however a scene that corroborates the interpretation of Bateman’s killing as not being antithetical to his culture. Essentially, Batman being a killer does not make him a rebel, it makes him a conformist.
Again evoking Sartre’s waiter, who is trying too hard to be a waiter, Bateman’s behavior during the Paul Allen murder is an extraordinarily heightened performance. After having dinner together, Paul Allen accompanies Bateman back to his apartment. Bateman begins to perform on the “stage” he has created, delivering an extemporaneous monologue about the career of Huey Lewis and the News, dancing to their song “Hip to be Square,” and literally moonwalking in and out of the bathroom, where the props of his performance have already been laid out: an axe and a raincoat. Bateman’s performance in this scene is outrageously over the top. He’s a showman, a song and dance man. However, there is a brief, ephemeral moment where the character seems to snap briefly out of his pre-reflective state. It occurs when Bateman is in the bathroom. He is putting on his raincoat, but before he exits he catches a look at his reflection, which prompts him to drop his mask and stare harshly into the mirror.
This one moment acts as prelude for what is to come in the film. It suggests that Bateman is perhaps capable of moving from being a mindless thing, a simple conduit for his culture, to being a human being, who is aware of his actions and thus his choices. However, it also suggests that the character is governed primarily by fear, which wreaks awful consequences on the world around him.
This fear emerges horrifically through Bateman’s murder of Al, an African American homeless man. This is another instance of the character attempting to embody his culture’s deranged zeitgeist. John Evins Conley’s dissertation, Capital Cynicism: Literature and Production in the post-Fordist Era, analyzes the part of Ellis’s novel that the movie scene is based off, and his analysis corroborates this idea. “Perhaps nowhere in recent American fiction are we presented with such a ludicrously violent lateralization of the ‘war on poverty,’” (169).
Conley ties Bateman’s attitude and behavior in this scene to the Work Experience Program, which was a policy enacted by former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani (who was infamous for his war on the homeless). By several accounts, this program was nearly draconian in nature. The impoverished were put to work in the blistering heat removing diseased waste from various areas of the city, often without proper safety equipment. Conley continues by connecting Bateman’s behavior into the complex fluctuations of the era’s urban politics. He writes: “In this brutal attack Ellis at once condenses, figures and dramatizes the complexities of gentrification and ‘revanchist’ city policy into some sort of murderous allegory” (169).
However, what Bateman doesn’t count on is Al’s capacity as a human being to affect Bateman’s sense of self. The character initially attempts to engage with Al as if he is nothing more than an object, one that Bateman can measure himself against. “Get a goddamn job, Al. You’ve got a negative attitude. That’s what’s stopping you. You’ve got to get your act together. I’ll help you” (American Psycho). This is another instance of Bateman speaking for his hegemonic culture, articulating a long-gestating mentality that homelessness speaks to an intrinsic failing.
With this in mind, Bateman enraged reaction to Al’s statement that he “lost his job” makes perfect sense. While certainly cryptic, Al’s statement insinuates that his unfortunate state may not be entirely his fault. This removes Bateman’s ability to quickly objectify him as some “thing” who is solely responsible for his demise. Bateman’s perception here, and his attempts to objectify Al, resemble a scenario in Being and Nothingness, where Sartre describes himself walking in a park and seeing a man sitting on a bench.
If I were to think of him as being only a puppet, I should apply to him the categories which I ordinarily use to group temporal-spatial ‘things.’ That is I should apprehend him as ‘beside’ the benches […] as exercising a certain pressure on the ground, etc. His relation with other objects would be of the purely additive type; this means I could have him disappear without the relation of the other objects around him being perceptibly changed. In short, no new relation would appear through him between those things in my universe: grouped and synthesized from my point of view… (254)
The passage then describes how Sartre’s worldview shifts when he begins to perceive the man for what he is: a human being. “Perceiving him as a man, on the other hand, is not to apprehend an additive relation between the chair and him; it is to register an organization without distance of the things in my universe around that privileged object. To be sure, the lawn remains two feet and twenty inches away from him, but it is also a lawn bound to him” (254). Basically, Sartre’s perception of his world becomes filtered through the eyes of the man on the bench, and a new perspective has been introduced to his world, one that is not Sartre’s, and is one that he cannot tap into or control. A similar situation occurs between Bateman and Al. The homeless man, who doesn’t seem to notice the biting condescension dripping from Bateman’s speech, unfortunately decides to appeal to him further. He reaches out, grabbing Bateman by the arm while muttering repeatedly how “kind” of a man he is.
What has occurred here is two-fold. Bateman, in seeking to objectify Al, has ironically become an object himself. Simultaneously, Al has become something more. As Sartre says, these moments are what can be classified under the conceptual schema of “the look,” and in the “phenomena of the look, the Other is on principle that which cannot be an object” (268).
However, for Bateman this is unacceptable. Out of fear and anger he rejects these changes, and chooses to turn Al forcibly back into an object. This begins with verbal degradation. “Do you know how bad you smell? You reek of shit! Do you know that?” Bateman asks with laugh. Standing up, he then says: “I’m sorry. I don’t have anything in common with you” (American Psycho). Al becomes nothing but a body with a smell for Bateman in this moment (which is similar to how the character also objectifies women as “hardbodies”). Then he literally robs Al of his consciousness, transforming him into an inanimate object once more, a Sartrean being-in-itself.
Up to this point Bateman has hardly revealed himself to be a beacon of rebellion. In fact, he has largely disavowed the potential for any sort of transcendence, instead choosing to wallow in a slavish devotion to his culture and time. He has protected the view that he has of himself, where he is nothing but an expression of his culture and other humans are nothing but objects for him to possess or destroy as he sees fit. Yet, the character is unique due to how, despite the terror that potentially arises through interacting with others outside his circle, he continually involves himself in these scenarios.
One such interaction involves Bateman asking his secretary Jean out to dinner. When the two meet later on at his apartment, the conversation eventually draws Bateman into a transformative experience, where he not only experiences Jean’s objectifying gaze and difference in worldview, but accepts it as valid. Prior to this however, the conversation between the pair had been deceptively superficial. “So listen, what do you really want to do with your life?” Bateman asks, after offering her some sorbet. “I’m at a point in my life where there seems to be so many possibilities” she replies, without any real hesitation or anxiety. The significance of this statement cannot be overemphasized. It implies that Jean is capable of accepting her life (and her sense of self) as a continually evolving process.
“Jean. Do you feel fulfilled, I mean, in your life?” Bateman then asks. “I guess I do. For a long time I was too focused on my work, but now I’ve really begun to think about changing myself. You know, developing, and growing” she replies. “Growing. I’m glad you said that” Bateman says in response, pulling out a nail gun and walking behind her. However, before he can pull the trigger there is a phone call, which gets audibly recorded on his machine. It turns out to be Evelyn, whose message contradicts Bateman’s earlier statements about being unattached.
This moment introduces a seismic shift in Bateman’s behavior. Evelyn’s voice, contrasted with Jean’s presence, brings him nearly to an emotional breakdown. He walks around Jean and into her line of sight, sitting down on a chair adjacent to her like a chastised school boy. Bateman has again experienced an objectifying gaze. Even more substantial however, is that Bateman, perhaps for the first time in his life, has come across someone who willfully accepts that they are unfinished, and that their self is not static.
The relationship between Bateman and Jean is greatly expanded in Ellis’s original novel. However, this same dynamic occurs over the course of a romantic interlude. In this scene in the novel Bateman becomes disturbed but also attracted to Jean’s strength as a person, and her willingness to remake the world to remake herself. Yet, at one point in their date Bateman attempts to push back against this, and discredit Jean’s view of him by telling her that appearances can be deceiving. However, Jean offers a vehement rebuttal, exclaiming that she used to think similar things, but she doesn’t anymore. This staggers Bateman, as it again suggests ideas that he has never before contended with. “‘What do you mean? I ask, interested. ‘You used to?’” (378).
Similar to Sartre’s description of himself being perceived in the park, another view of the world and another view of Bateman has been made explicitly clear. However, unlike his interaction with Al, Bateman seems to accept how vulnerable this makes him. He seems to be helpless when placed in front of someone whose essence cannot be pinned down, and thus refrains from eliminating this point of view through violence. “I sense she wants to rearrange my life in a significant way – her eyes tell me this and […] it’s almost as if she’s the one making the decision about who I am,” (378) Bateman says in Ellis’s text. He then continues on to an even more interesting observation, which suggests that the character may not only be accepting of this change in the world, but may even consider the terrifying notion of changing himself. “It’s really weird and I’m experiencing a spontaneous kind of internal sensation, I feel as though I’m moving towards as well as away from something, and anything is possible” (380).
In Harron’s adaptation a similar internal shift emerges. Although more brief, it is no less eloquent. In both cases the “bad faith” that has defined Bateman’s deluded self-perception seems to temporarily dissipate, and the character at last grapples with the fact that he is a person responsible for his own life. “I think I might hurt you. You don’t want to get hurt do you?” (American Psycho) Bateman asks, acknowledging that Jean has wants and desires of her own.
Even more substantial is how Bateman puts this revelation into practice within his social circle. He attempts to act upon the notion that his self is not set, and that he does have choices. He brings this to fruition be breaking up with Evelyn right at the moment that she asks him to commit more firmly to their collective performance as a couple. This is the moment of Bateman’s transcendence, where he at last breaks through the dramaturgical rules governing his existence. “What about the past, our past?” Evelyn asks him during the breakup scene. “We never really shared one” is his response, acknowledging that the relationship the pair shares is one predicated on social convenience and decorum, not real substance. “You’re inhuman!” Evelyn exclaims, horrified with how far Bateman has stepped outside of social expectation. “No. I’m, I’m in touch with humanity” Bateman then says, with great hesitation and uncertainty, before quickly fleeing the scene.
Bateman’s hesitation in the scene is telling. It serves as an indicator for how his transcendence will not be permanent. In the sequence that follows Bateman’s breakup with Evelyn, the character reverts back into what he believes himself to be. The character begins killing indiscriminately, almost involuntarily. This scene is similar to the rest of his killing, in that it has its own distinct motivation. It depicts a man desperately trying to escape his anguish of being free to make his own choices. Bale’s acting in this scene confirms this; there is none of the methodical planning which was evident in something like his Paul Allen murder. He is desperately going through the motions, and appears terrified and miserable, as if he is fleeing from something.
What he is fleeing is the possibility that he doesn’t know himself, and that his belief in being “nothing” is actually erroneous. The final scene of the film features Bateman looking for affirmation that he is little more than the product of his culture, admitting to his lawyer that he is a killer. “I’m sorry, but that simply isn’t possible. And I don’t find this funny anymore” (American Psycho) his lawyer says, when Bateman confronts him with the admission in a swanky bar.
What’s important to note here is that the lawyer doesn’t find it laughable that someone from society could be capable of murder, just the possibility of that person being Patrick Bateman. As Goffman states, audiences often want performers to be solely constituted by their most superficial of layers. And, even when confronted with a performance moment of questionable veracity, audiences are less concerned with whether or not a fostered impression is true, and more concerned if the “performer is authorized to give the performance in question” (59). His lawyer’s reaction seems to be evidence of this. It is a reaction not only of incredulity, but of palpable anger. He appears insulted and disturbed that Bateman would even suggest that there is something more to him than the façade of the “boy next door.”
“Is evil something you are? Or is it something you do?” (Ellis 377). This line, which Bateman’s parses while interacting with Jean, cuts to the heart of not only the character, but of the dramaturgical nature of existence. According to The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life, society’s functioning is contingent on people prescribing to a social front, and matching one’s appearance and manner to fit with each individual setting. Through this process, intersecting parties are able to define the nature of reality, and more importantly are able to formulate a moral claim for how they expect to be treated.
However, what is also clear is that while this process is necessary for social mechanics, it cannot speak to the totality of the human being. In short, as Sartre says in Being and Nothingness: “I am never any one of my attitudes, any one of my actions” (60). However, Bateman – who exists in a world of surfaces – finds this idea initially abhorrent. Although he possesses some awareness of the falsity of his “boy next door” routine, the character remains steadfastly committed to being a conduit for his culture to move through. He desires, so to speak, to be a “being-in-itself,” an unconscious, static thing.
American Psycho then, is about a man terrified of the unknown and of responsibility. He is so committed to the bad faith of his being that he seeks to objectify everyone he encounters, before they can objectify him and threaten his perspective on himself. And yet, despite living a life governed by this fear, Bateman continually seeks out individuals existing outside of his social circle, where the potentiality for self-reflection is elevated.
But while Bateman begins a journey towards rebellion and transcendence, he is incapable of making it all the way there. He still desires to have a world of easy classification, where the essence of human beings is set, and reinforced through superficial social roles, professional vocations and physical appearances. When the character finally seeks out recognition for his murderous actions (who he believes himself to be), he finds that this is a conversation that society doesn’t want to have, or maybe is even incapable of having.
This is what the character must contend with at the end of the film, as he sits glumly in a bar underneath a sign that says “This Is Not An Exit.” “But inside doesn’t matter,” he thinks to himself (through voice-over) as he looks at several different exchanges occurring between pairs of masked colleagues. “This confession has meant nothing” he then remarks, which encapsulates the character’s fate. He is, in a nutshell, trapped at the film’s conclusion, without an exit from the way “life presents itself in a bar or in a club in New York, maybe anywhere, at the end of the century” (Ellis 399). This stark, hellish reality transforms the story from satire of the 1980s to a tragedy about unrealized potential. Its central character is left in limbo, stonewalled by a culture that only values surfaces, and unwilling to step permanently beyond his epochal constraints.
American Psycho. Dir. Mary Harron. Perf. Christian Bale, Willem Dafoe, Jared Leto. Columbia Tristar, 2000. DVD.
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