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Girlblogging: American Psycho

This post is part of a series, Girlblogging. Read the introduction here. Also, in New York, American Psycho screens tonight at the Paris Theater with director Mary Harron present in a tribute to producer Ed Pressman.

The orchestral sting slices through the opening credits; perfect drops of blood rain down like vinyl balloons or the forms in a photorealistic painting: taut and shiny, artificially self-contained. When they splatter, the punch line lands. It was a joke all along—not blood, not really, just a false appearance—an emulsion drizzled across bone china; the screen expands to reveal a chef’s knife descending upon a partridge breast; as from a great height, raspberries fall. 

There is also chicken—grill-marked, perched on a harlequin julienne, ringed with brown and yellow dots—and a square of salmon flanked by rhomboid carrots. These are the first in a parade of dishes that at once optimize and subvert appearances. Something wet, soft, and presumably edible is cut and folded into a yellow rose; pastry cream piped into a phyllo shell, blossoming and barely material; meringue shaped to resemble a wounded swan bleeding strawberry coulis.

Though he never eats on screen, Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale) spends most of his life in restaurants, where he takes business meetings, dates, potential murder victims, cocktails with the boys. Like everything else in 1980s New York, run by Wall Street bankers and buyers of similar rapacity, food is an accessory (Oliver Peoples glasses, hair gel, Rolex Datejust, reservation at Dorsia). A meal is only worth as much as its social and aesthetic capital—the way it appears on the plate, in reviews—which, like contagious magic for yuppies, transfers onto its consumer. You are where you eat, where you live, what you wear. Here lies the tyranny of polished surfaces. Grill marks, which indicate a premature truncation of the Maillard reaction, make a piece of meat taste worse. 

When American Psycho came out in 2000, Kenneth Turan wrote: “The difficult truth is that the more viewers can model themselves after protagonist Bateman, the more they can distance themselves from the human reality of the slick violence that fills the screen and take it all as some kind of a cool joke, the more they are likely to enjoy this stillborn, pointless piece of work.” The film has since taken on a second life online: beyond its expected contemporary audience—financiers with delusions of grandeur and dubious understandings of irony—masculinist subcultures have canonized Bateman as the iconic sigma male, a “lone wolf” who deliberately bucks social hierarchy (never mind the fact that his life unilaterally revolves around wanting to fit in).

But girlbloggers love him too. If you’re looking for an introduction to the world of self-styled dollettes, nymphets, female manipulators, Lana Del Rey fans, the #american psycho tag on Tumblr offers up a veritable visual syllabus—less to do with the film than with Bateman as a figure; less to do with Bateman than with his abstract, isolated image. In concept, on film or on the page, he’s so me fr—beautiful, miserable, deranged. 

In 2012, Tumblr cracked down on its content restrictions in an attempt to stamp out what Del Rey herself called pro-ana nation: a community of blogs that encouraged eating disorders, largely by making them look aspirational. The girlbloggers went elsewhere, at least in theory (I found a body-tracking blog with the handle @alwaysthinner—and, on a different blog, a post quoting the same line tagged #i want to be a skeleton—in my first five search results). Thinspo, a cutesy abbreviated portmanteau of “thin” and “inspiration,” has taken on a variety of forms across a variety of platforms—pictures of tiny waists and frail limbs, yes, but also hero-worship of ED-coded characters, obsessive body checking, intricate multi-step exercise and beauty routines, affirmations. You can always be thinner, look better. 

Divorced from the film’s lurid violence, Bateman might cut an aspirational figure. His suit is immaculate, as is his tie, as are the walls, his hair, the refrigerator. His skin is perfect because he follows a carefully curated regimen. His body is perfect because he forces it to be. He struggles to manage his violent impulses, but he is the very image of control.

He is profoundly unhappy. This much is obvious, but irrelevant: the tragedy of the film, or at least the primary driver of its plot, lies in the banality of his eponymous psychopathy, ill-concealed and invisible all the same. Frozen between motions, Christian Bale wears his face—handsome, forgettable, pinched like soft dough, shaped into a perpetual grimace—like a waxen death mask. 

He’s mid-conversation with his guileless secretary Jean (Chloë Sevigny), but he’s not even talking to her, he’s talking to himself—turning down her invitation to share a pint of strawberry sorbet he keeps in his fridge to pointedly not eat—as his fixation on appearances alienates him from the conversation, from the rhythms of daily life, from human connection at large. Any anorexic can tell you how this feels. I can always be thinner, look better. 

Starving is never really about starving. Like capital, for which it is often directly interchangeable, food can be wielded as a status symbol, an implement of discipline, a weapon. 

The limitations of this image—Bateman, caught in the act: not of murder, but of the inexorable performance of his own polished surface—reveal the film’s essential truth. American Psycho isn’t about individual psychopathy so much as it is about the mass psychosis of modernity—the violence inflicted upon us by the commodification of our own desires, and by consumer culture, which torments even its own gatekeepers. 

The figures of the Young-Girl and the “man in power”—caught in an endless cycle of consuming and being consumed, deliberately not consuming, stripped of the freedom to enjoy any of it—“in every way resemble each other when they don’t simply coincide.” Like the girlblogger who identifies with him, Bateman is marginalized—not by his society, which protects and enables him, but by capital itself, which makes him its accessory. 

The most terrible punishment is getting away with it. When Bateman finally confesses to his killing spree, his lawyer (mistaking him for one of his colleagues) takes it as a joke; the Patrick Bateman he works for is “a boring, spineless lightweight” who wouldn’t have the guts—the viscera, the darkness, the interiority—to ever do such a thing. Here lies the tyranny of polished surfaces. From the prison of appearances, there is no exit; in it, there is no deeper knowledge; the blood turns back into an emulsion poured over a dish no one’s going to eat. 

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