American Psycho and Social Criticism. Illusion or Reality?

Term Paper, 2013

11 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. The American Society in the 1980s

3. American Nightmare

4. Meaning of Bateman’s Murders

5. Conclusion

Works Cited.

1. Introduction

The filming of Bret Easton Ellis’ bestseller novel American Psycho caused a major scandal after its publication in 2000 (Lee Brien). It covers the story of the serial killer Patrick Bateman, who enjoys a good reputation everywhere in Manhattan. Bateman is a young, athletic, handsome, successful, and stereotypical 1980s yuppie, who you are able to see in magazines, journals, advertising for Calvin Klein or Hugo Boss, and on Wall Street. On the other hand, he murders, rapes, tortures, mutilates, and cannibalizes his victims, but his cruel acts remain undetected. At first sight, Patrick’s behavior seems very irritating because he neither provides the audience with any reasons for his murders, nor with any psychological insight into his character to justify his actions. Taking a closer look, his behavior and violence are an expression of the materialistic, superficial nature of the American society to which Bateman wants to belong “and into which his sickness and inhumanity do actually ‘fit’” (Horsley 222).

Although a lot of Bateman’s brutal actions are shown, at the end of the movie the audience comes to question if all these murders really happened because some inconsistencies in his story become apparent e.g. Bateman outlines the murder of a man, who at this point was not even in town. Therefore, the question is raised as to whether the murders are real or just a product of Bateman’s imagination, and if they are real, is the society so over the top that not even the crime matters and he is able to escape unpunished?

In this paper, this question and especially what the murders are about to express either way will be analyzed in view of social criticism. Therefore, first of all, American society in the 1980s will be outlined to help the reader better understand the contemporary historical background to which the movie refers. Subsequently, the amoral materialism in American consumer society pictured in American Psycho will be described to clarify the social circumstances Bateman lives in. Accordingly, Bateman’s cruel actions will be analyzed and its truth content will be discussed to later on conclude that this kind of society is not able to fulfill his life and by the help of violence Bateman wants to escape the conformity of America’s superficial society.

2. The American Society in the 1980s

To understand what American Psycho is about, it is important to briefly consider the social circumstances in the 1980s in America, which are clearly reflected throughout the whole movie. In this decade, American society changed extensively compared to the 1960s (Kleinfeldt and Freeman). The 1960s were years of protest and reform; young Americans demonstrated against the Vietnam War, African Americans for civil rights, and women for equal treatment. By the end of the 1970s, the US ended its military involvement in Vietnam and the civil rights movement as well as the women’s movement reached many of their goals. But, on the other hand, the US suffered an economic recession; interest rates and inflation were high. Americans grew tired of social struggle and losing money, instead, they wanted to help themselves and spend more time on their own personal interests (Kleinfeldt and Freeman).

Therefore, in the 1980s, the American society concentrated on its own leisure activities and its own happiness again (Malkmes 123). There was such technological progress and a prosperous economy that restored hope to the Americans to live better unburdened lives. A lot of people felt “there were almost no limits on the good life they could lead” (Kleinfeldt and Freeman). Many Americans in the 1980s were concerned with money, they wanted the good life that they believed money could buy (Kleinfeldt and Freeman). This generation was described as “the ‘me’ generation” (Kleinfeldt and Freeman). Some groups of people were named “yuppies”, which meant “young, urban professional”, their ambition only was to make and spend money. Money words, such as yuppie, upscale, privatization, and takeover became the key language in this decade (Malkmes 123). One could state that earning money moved to the centre of almost all people’s lives (Kleinfeldt and Freeman).

On the political level, the following happened at the same time: Ronald Reagan became President of the United States in 1981 and stayed President for eight years, thus, these years are also called Reagan years (Baelo- Allué 123). He reduced tax rates in order to restore faith in both the market and entrepreneurship, and “a new age of growth” (Baelo-Allué 123) should have followed. Many citizens believed in him, because he seemed to restore the possibilities of the American Dream. But, in fact, the American Dream only came true for people who were already wealthy. As it turned out, Reagan’s politics increased the gap between social classes and therefore, American society was more sharply divided between the wealthy and the poor (Baelo-Allué 124).

Exactly this kind of society is pictured in American Psycho . Patrick Bateman and his colleagues represent the materialistic yuppies, whose only concerns are status and money. At the same time, they despise the poor; beggars, prostitutes, and immigrants, and thereby picture the poor side of America’s capitalism in the 1980s. In the following, the social circumstances Bateman lives in, on the basis of scenes out of the movie, will be outlined.

3. American Nightmare

From the outset of American Psycho the amoral materialism and superficiality of the American consumer culture sticks out. In this society, it is not about who you are, it is about who you seem to be. For this reason, Patrick Bateman states right in the beginning: “There is an idea of a Patrick Bateman, some kind of abstraction, but there is no real me, only an entity, something illusory” ( American Psycho ). His real personality does not matter in this circumstances, everything is about one’s look, not about one’s inner values. A friend of Bateman confirms this view by saying: “If [women] have a good personality and are not good looking, then who fucking cares?” ( American Psycho ). We can therefore see that a good character is worth nothing compared to one’s appearance.

As a consequence of this, everything in Bateman’s external appearance embodies this impersonal, superficial, frozen, materialistic society. Thus, Patrick is obsessed with his perfect skin and his dozens of skin-care products. Every morning he invests a lot of time in training his body and caring for his smooth skin. One could say he prepares himself to be consumed in this consumer society. Additionally, his talk is dominated by brand names, name dropping, and other signifiers of status (Derry 172). Bateman defines himself by his consumption-articles and status symbols and feels attacked in his self-worth if someone else for example has a more stylish calling card. He cannot stand the feeling that someone else is better than him, he wants to be the greatest. Feelings, words or good behavior do not count, the yuppie lives in a congealed society, in which only money, status, and image matter.


Excerpt out of 11 pages


American Psycho and Social Criticism. Illusion or Reality?
Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz
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ISBN (Book)
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American Psycho, Illusion, Reality, murders real, society, 1980s, bret easton ellis, materialism, media, film, movie, brutal, violence, america
Quote paper
Lena Groß (Author), 2013, American Psycho and Social Criticism. Illusion or Reality?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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