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American psycho and the death of satire

“American Psycho” as a film and book have come into a sort of cultural vogue lately, with images of the titular “psycho” Patrick Bateman cropping up in countless memes, edits and even the Student Union Movie Organization’s movie selection polls this term. But why has this cult hit from the 90’s suddenly popped back into the mainstream? 

American Psycho is a book of endless nauseating descriptions of luxury brands, the banality of the lives of the rich, hedonism and violent murder. There are pages upon pages dedicated to what each character is wearing, whether they speak a word of dialogue or are just seen in passing. There are entire chapters dedicated to pretentious musings on obscure albums following scenes of genuinely disturbing acts of torture, violence and sexual acts, mostly upon women. It is a book that I consider quite well-written, despite what I’ve described up to this point, but not one that I would ever really recommend anyone else put themselves through. 

The book follows Patrick Bateman, a yuppie who works on Wall Street, who seems to never work and instead spends his days at endless meals, social events, workouts and shopping. He only stops for the occasional violent murder or sexual encounter, sometimes at the same time. There is a recurring joke where all of the characters keep mistaking each other for other people. Bateman is mistaken for several people over the course of the novel, and, at one point, even notes that he looks exactly like one of his colleagues aside from his “slightly better haircut.” This is taken to its darkest extreme when Bateman murders one of his colleagues in his apartment, yet later learns that he is somehow still alive and living in London, multiple people having seen and met him since the supposed murder. 

Bateman is not really a person. As he himself says in the movie’s opening monologue, while he may look like a person, there is no humanity present within him. He is “simply not there” in an emotional sense. He is aware of social issues and can pay lip service to caring about them, but that’s all that it is. Lip service. He holds nothing but contempt for minorities of any sort, anybody who does not occupy his social class and conform to the Kafkaesque standards of presentability they engage in. Any deviance in race, sexuality or class is cause for bitter hatred in the form of slurs, cruel treatment or murder. 

The reason I find this book so fascinating is the full-tilt commitment to the kind of satire it is, a complete deconstruction of Wall Street and the images of wealth and power that were — and still are — popularized: the strong white male businessman who spends his days in opulence and luxury, surrounded by basically identical versions of himself in his friend group and for whom sex comes as naturally as breathing. Instead of Bateman being in any way admirable, however, he is portrayed as weak and miserable. He has meltdowns over his hair being made fun of and the thought that someone’s business card might be perceived as better than his. He constantly worries and agonizes over how other people perceive him and seems to take no pleasure in the absurd and bizarre rituals he engages in so that he looks socially presentable to his “friends” insofar as he can fit in through them. In a sentence, Bateman is a loser of epic proportions, only able to feel brief glimpses of emotion through drugs and death. 

In stark contrast with the idea of a “dominant” male (is it “sigma male” now?), Bateman caricaturizes the ideals of toxic masculinity. So why has he become a symbol for the very ideas he was created to parody to such a ruthless degree? While it is important to recognize that some of it is ironic, and the humor in using such a character to do so should be obvious, there appears to be something deeper beyond the layers of meta-irony. 

The issues that the book and movie satirize never really went away. As a culture, we still consume and lionize emotionless and violent toxically masculine characters. We haven’t even really stopped valorizing the same class of yuppies that “American Psycho” criticizes, given the popularity of movies like “The Wolf of Wall Street” or our modern-day version of that archetype (tech bros) in media such as “The Social Network.” If anything, the worship of the wealthy and vapid luxury has only increased since when it was written. In a case of life being stranger than art, Donald Trump is actually mentioned by name in the book multiple times as an idol who Bateman admires and models himself after — the very same Trump who used his celebrity fame to boost himself to the presidency in 2016. We haven’t even gotten past making serial killers seem cool and mysterious, evidenced in shows like “Dahmer” and “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile” (the one where heartthrob Zac Efron plays Ted Bundy). Why wouldn’t Patrick Bateman fit right alongside the types of people we already idolize for their wanton cruelty and superficial charm?

It becomes easy to gloss over the glaring flaws and weaknesses inherent in Bateman’s character and to focus exclusively on what makes him “cool.” The luxury items no longer symbolize his empty life and disconnection from humanity but the power and prestige the book and movie do everything to deconstruct. The violence that was once a disturbing manifestation of privilege, masculinity and hatred is now just flashy and action-packed. His sexual encounters are not signs of his inability to see women as anything but objects to act upon but expressions of a dominating and exemplary masculinity that the text does not support. We’ve worn down the story’s satirical elements in order to twist it back around to the absurd message it was explicitly made to ridicule.

This all begs the question: Is satire dead? In an era where our lived reality is every bit as absurd as the most biting satirical works, can we satirize what can already be considered satire? Even the most explicit and extreme forms of satire are just taken at face value and used to perpetuate the opposite of the work’s intended purpose. Does satire simply do more harm than good at this point? I argue that it is still important to do so. Satire, as an art form, is at its most effective when it communicates absurdities and assumptions about the world that we often do not notice. Those assumptions and absurdities, while they may have become much more obvious as of late, have not gone away. It is therefore still crucial to have pieces of media like “American Psycho” around, peeling back the underlying narratives we have come to accept as unchangeable aspects of our lives. Would I recommend you read the book after all this? Absolutely not, maybe watch the movie instead. But it is still important that it, and other works like it, continue to push the envelope of satire and make fun at all the aspects of society we take as unquestioned truth.

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About the Contributor
Rahim Hamid
Rahim Hamid, Viewpoint Editor
I write, I debate, I bike, I lie, I true, I draw and program and dance and all the rest. Say hi and don’t be a stranger! Rahim is a sophomore and previously wrote for the Viewpoint Section.

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  • C

    CarlosApr 16, 2023 at 5:16 am

    Is satire dead? Reading this article almost makes me think it never was alive, at least for the writer

    • B

      Ben in SeattleJun 12, 2024 at 7:56 pm

      It’s just a corollary of Poe’s Law: When a belief system is extreme, it is impossible to distinguish between satire and authentic support.