We Are All Patrick Bateman (American Psycho turns 20)

American Psycho turns 20 this April

“I live in the American Gardens Building on West 81st Street on the 11th floor. My name is Patrick Bateman. I’m 27 years old. I believe in taking care of myself, and a balanced diet, and a rigorous exercise routine. In the morning, if my face is a little puffy, I’ll put on an ice pack while doing my stomach crunches. I can do a thousand now. After I remove the ice pack I use a deep pore cleanser lotion. In the shower, I use a water-activated gel cleanser, then a honey almond body scrub, and on the face an exfoliating gel scrub. Then I apply an herb-mint facial masque which I leave on for 10 minutes while I prepare the rest of my routine. I always use an aftershave lotion with little or no alcohol, because alcohol dries your face out and makes you look older. Then moisturizer, then an anti-aging eye balm followed by a final moisturizing protective lotion. 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.”

The monologue that kicks off American Psycho — turning 20 years old this month — is an introduction that immediately clues the audience to Patrick Bateman’s myopia. Detailing Bateman’s (Christian Bale) morning routine to an inane amount is supposed to put the man at a distance, make viewers realize that the surface is all there is to him. Today, Bateman would likely be an Instagram or Youtube personality for his perceived level of dedication. He’d be the first user to review every 4 Michelin star restaurant, post every luxurious angle of his penthouse, and share Instagrams of record collection featuring Phil Collins as well as Huey Lewis and the News.

A raging id that thrives on compliments, attention, and the superficiality of living in utmost comfort and excess, Patrick Bateman is a model of narcissism for 2020. Bateman says all the right things when he’s out dining with his coterie of tastemakers. A group of friends admires him as he speaks to ending apartheid, stopping the global arms race, and providing shelter for the homeless. Only the audience knows that he routinely tortures women and dismembers people. He finishes irony off for good when Bateman finishes his speech by stating, “most importantly, we have to promote general social concern, and less materialism in young people.”

Christian Bale leaned hard into the despicable villainy of Bateman, resulting in a performance that became iconic. Take the scene where the executive vice presidents (what exactly did any of them do for a living?) sit around a conference room and fetishize their business cards. Bateman dons his bone-colored card with Silian Grail lettering hoping to draw envy, but then the other executives whip out nearly identical cards in succession, slobbering over each card like a lost Rembrandt. The attack on Bateman’s ego by snubbing his card is just as devastating as one on his body. Rather than take the blow in stride, Bateman responds with violence, killing Allen for his triumph. Bateman’s victims are women, but when there are none around, men will do.

Bret Easton Ellis wrote American Psycho as a release valve from the rampant consumerism of the 80s that left him empty inside. Buying brand-driven items and living the yuppie lifestyle was supposed to embolden the author, but he admitted in interviews that it “just made me feel worse and worse and worse about myself.” The Reagan years were a high time for late capitalism, where transactions always proved a zero-sum game. Bret Easton Ellis funneled that mentality into a chronicle of a man with absolutely zero humanity. It’s unlikely that Ellis could foresee the lasting impact that American Psycho would have, but his satire predicted the narcissism-driven future that we now live in.

Any satire hopes that the people who watch/consume it will either strive to correct that behavior in themselves or remove it from society collectively. In a perverse turn-around, American Psycho’s warning seems to have gone unheeded. People are more like Patrick Bateman than ever. Social media is positively stuffed with personalities that preach bootstrap self-reliance and personal improvement, and it gets worse once you look into what politicians put on Twitter. As this post is written, a pandemic is running rampant throughout most of the world, and there are calls for sacrificing the at-risk to the Dow Jones index. Given that Bateman berated a homeless man (Reg E. Cathey) to “get a job” before stabbing him to death, it’s not a stretch of the imagination to see what he’d currently tweet about COVID-19. How many different tweets have already exclaimed that people may have to die to protect the Dow Jones?

Reality has surpassed satire.

Narcissists pursue power, which often draws them to roles of leadership in business or politics. This explains why so many de facto leaders on the national stage today resemble Bateman. Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, Vladimir Putin are all men who gained power by blaming the proverbial “other” and leading by a cult of personality. Similarly, they also exhibit tendencies of unethical behavior and a severe lack of empathy. Pop culture hasn’t been spared this trend lately either. Viewers love programs like The Tiger King and The Bachelor because they offer us the chance to mock the people onscreen and crow over their poor choices in an underhanded effort to reinforce our own self-esteem.

It seems with all the additional venues of social media, we are not learning to better understand life in another man’s shoes but choosing to find more opportunities to share our vanity. Twitter, in theory anyway, should be a place where users come together to engage in shared interests. In actuality, it’s a winnowing ground where every differing opinion becomes a chance to ostracize someone out of the group. As Jeffrey Kluger explains in The Narcissist Next Door, “Human beings are social creatures, but being social implies bands, and bands imply favoring your own above all others. To feel good about ourselves… we tell ourselves that we favor our own kind because we’re smarter, prettier, better, more virtuous, more caring — a superior breed of people in a world filled with lesser ones.”

We can all be guilty at times of being selfish, ambitious, or braggadocious, but those impulses have to be tempered. As gloriously unhinged as Christian Bale’s performance was, it was never an invitation to be more like him. Here’s hoping that American Psycho’s fortieth anniversary sees a world that looks less like Patrick Bateman.

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