The Abject and American Psycho

Barbara Creed makes use of Kristeva’s concept of the abject in her 1986 essay “Horror and the Monstrous Feminine: An Imaginary Abjection.” This complex theory of the abject relates to human boundaries in which a viewer may identify elements of horror as “not me” (Chaudhuri 93). The character of Patrick Bateman in Mary Harron’s 2000 film American Psycho can be viewed in relation to the concept of the abject, both in the way that he experiences the world, and in the way that the eye of the viewer is encouraged to relate to the horrors presented. Bateman is easily identified by the audience as “not me,” a twisted embodiment of 1980s yuppie culture who is neither complex nor sympathetic. At the same time, Bateman relates to his world as abject, desperate to “fit in,” yet pathetically unable to distinguish himself from the many businessmen like him. While Harron portrays Bateman as a killer of men and women alike, women’s bodies in particular are on sexual display, subjected to a degree of degradation and torture that is unique to them. Creed focuses on the conception of the maternal as abject, in which the feminine in patriarchal culture is defined as the other, along with added concepts derived from religious taboos including menstruation and other bodily fluids, death and decay (Chaudhuri 93). She argues that in horror, there is a perverse pleasure and catharsis for the viewer in experiencing and rejecting from the self the abject (Thornham 253). Feminist film theory suggests that audiences more easily relate to feminine rather than masculine bodies as abject, the use of graphic violent imagery involving those bodies creating the cathartic relief of “not me.” The violence on display in Harron’s film adaptation of American Psycho uses primarily female bodies to illustrate the monstrous aspects of Bateman’s character.

From early scenes of American Psycho, the audience is treated to repeated assurances that Bateman is “not me.” His humanity is undermined continually through the use of mirrors and other reflective surfaces which draw attention to his deep-seated vanity and lack of substance. The character represents the shallow culture which is the true subject of the film. While Bateman has achieved physical perfection and mastery of the material world, he is profoundly threatened that others might possess more of what he craves. The use of masking creates a barrier between Bateman’s outer persona and his inner monstrosity. As his inner dialogue details his outrageously expensive and ridiculous skin care regimen, Bateman tells the audience, “I am simply. Not. There.” In several scenes, the focal point is his image reflected on mirrored surfaces, reminding the viewer that he is flat, without humanity, completely detached. Often the face of Bateman is distorted or representing his dual role of murderer/businessman. His face can be seen reflected in a taxi window with a dark shadow surrounding an illuminated profile, or shifting from one profile shot to another, splattered with blood, or clean. He literally peels a facial mask away to reveal his empty underpinnings and makes reference to the “mask of sanity” which he feels is slipping away as he cultivates the perfect suntan.

Bateman seeks validation that he is the ultimate embodiment of success, which is related to his material rewards, including the fantasy that he is able to possess women, and literally discard those he deems worthless. He relates to his world as abject, telling one victim that he simply doesn’t relate to him before brutally killing him. Shots of Bateman are frequently followed by or connected to those of towering buildings in which he does business. The uniformity of the buildings and their endless rows of windows reflect Bateman’s inability to distinguish himself from Marcus Halberstram or any number of designer-clad businessmen at Pierce and Pierce. Women are reinforced continually as other, in a business world in which women are absent from the upper levels of corporate culture. Awkward placement of the women characters within the frame highlight his inability to relate to them as fellow human beings. At times Bateman’s rage is directed toward the economically disadvantaged, who he may view as more easily disposed of. He feels entitled to the use of women in exchange for money, which he has in abundance, and uses to garner attention and to manipulate others. He pursues a relationship with Courtney who is “almost perfect looking,” as a way to compete with his colleague who plans to marry her. His own fiancé is hopelessly shallow but has the correct physical characteristics to earn Bateman his desired status. The most brutal scenes in the film involve his interaction with two prostitutes, one of which is so heartbreakingly desperate for money that she knowingly risks her safety to interact with him a second time.

Creed suggests that audiences relate to the abject in ways which are consistent with patriarchal gender norms. American Psycho displays classic elements of the abject throughout in its depiction of female bodies. Feminist film theorist Linda Williams argues that “women figured on the screen have functioned traditionally as the primary embodiments of pleasure, fear and pain” (Thornham 270). Harron uses female bodies to illuminate the monstrous aspect of Bateman. Some of the most powerful moments of horror include focused shots of female faces that wither in fear, fascination or disgust with the character of Bateman. In one important scene, Jean, Bateman’s secretary is shot from below, her face changing from fearful curiosity as she pours over his date book to profound shock, horror and misery. The images she discovers relate closely to Creed’s ideas about abjection in horror. Highly feminine bodies are on display, breasts and vulvas are very stylized, revealing gaping vaginal wounds, disembodied legs in fishnet stockings and high-heeled shoes. Blood, weaponry and objects used to penetrate female bodies are mingled with images of toilets and corpses. This kind of imagery is what Creed identifies as “abjection at work,” allowing audiences to derive cathartic satisfaction through viewing images of utter horror, while comforted by the separation from it (Thornham 253).  Creed makes important note that feminine bodies should not be viewed as naturally abject, but that this is a function of a culture of gender-bias in which women have come to embody the other. Audiences expect and are rewarded with continual images of the degradation and torture of feminine bodies.

American Psycho contains mostly implied gore, and Bateman’s murderous fantasies are directed both at peers, including Paul, and those he views as disposable, such as Christie. The moments in which the audience has the most visible access to Bateman’s monstrosity are illustrated through the violence he enacts upon his female victims. His hatred of women is apparent in his fantasises involving mutilation and torture, which are repeatedly intermingled with sexual acts. The character “has it all,” including the ability to use and dispose of others, a commentary on yuppie culture. The director’s choices validate Creed’s assertion that women are closely associated with abjection, and that an unnatural association exists between feminine bodies and human monstrosity and terror. Harron allows the audience to be frightened by, but also to view Bateman as pathetic and laughable. Much controversy surrounded the publication of the Easton Ellis novel as well as the film, one question of interest to the viewer, is why Bateman seems to revel so completely in the sexualized torture of feminine bodies, and why it seems that such imagery is more palatable to audiences.

Works Cited

American Psycho. Dir. Mary Harron. Perf. Christian Bale. 2000. DVD.

Chaudhuri, Shohini. Feminist Film Theorists: Laura Mulvey, Kaja Silverman, Teresa De Lauretis, Barbara Creed. London: Routledge, 2006. Print.

Thornham, Sue. Feminist Film Theory: a Reader. New York: New York Univ., 2006. Print.