Outskirts online journal

Justine Ettler

Further information

About the author

Justine Ettler has a PhD in American Literature. She is the author of two novels, The River Ophelia, and Marilyn’s Almost Terminal New York Adventure. Her creative writing is widely anthologised and has been translated into German. Justine is also a journalist with The Sydney Morning Herald, and lectures in English, and Creative Writing.

 

Publication details

Volume 31, November 2014

 

‘Sex Sells, Dude’1: A Re-examination of the Mass Media Feminist Critique of American Psycho

The story of the reception of Bret Easton Ellis’s scandalous 1991 novel, American Psycho, is one of extreme responses, whether critical or defensive. Writing at the time of the novel’s publication, feminist Naomi Wolf critiques American Psycho because of the pornographic way it depicts misogynistic violence towards women, and the powerful lesson in conditioning this delivers to the reader (Wolf 33). While Ellis’s publishers and editors insisted Ellis excise four particularly horrific scenes from the manuscript prior to publication, Ellis refused. Most journalistic reviews concur in broad terms with Wolf’s critique, although many fail to identify precisely that it is the sexualised misogynist content that makes the novel so problematic for its primarily mainstream readers. Despite this initial critical trend in newspaper reviews, early scholars like Elizabeth Young defend the novel on aesthetic grounds, claiming it is postmodern and misunderstood (Young 86). Next, Mary Harron’s film adaptation American Psycho in 2000 removes three of the four problematic scenes from the screenplay and reframes the fourth so that the parody is more clearly signalled for the viewer (Harron and Turner 188). Finally, in spite of the implications for the novel of Harron’s adaptation, recent scholars continue to minimise the effect of the four scenes.

The analysis below will challenge most scholarship about the novel, will argue that pornography and violent anti-women sentiment are inseparable in the text, and will claim that the four particularly horrific scenes aesthetically dominate the novel to such a degree that many view it as a “ruined” “project” (Harron and Turner 188). In so doing, this essay represents a counter-point to two recent scholarly books, Bret Easton Ellis: American Psycho, Glamorama, Lunar Park (2011), edited by Naomi Mandel, and Sonia Baelo-Allué’s Bret Easton Ellis’s Controversial Fiction: Writing Between High and Low Culture (2011), both of which fail to critique the novel’s women-hating contents and, for the most part, ignore the abhorrent scenes.

This essay will begin by re-examining Wolf’s argument and comparing it to other reviews. Next the recency effect will be employed in order to demonstrate how the novel’s pornographic elements become fused with its horrific elements. Overall, the present study aims to arrest the current trend whereby scholars gloss over the extremity of the sexualised hatred of women depicted in Ellis’s novel.

American Psycho is an impossibly ambiguous story narrated by an impossibly unreliable protagonist, Patrick Bateman, a serial killer who works on Wall Street. By day, so Bateman claims, he avoids work, preferring to flirt with and insult his secretary, and by night he by turns provokes and avoids his fiancé Evelyn, at the same time as juggling an affair with his colleague, Luis’s fiancé, Courtney. But when his alleged attempts at heterosexuality fail and infuriate him, Bateman takes revenge on Manhattan’s sex-workers and single women, acting out pornographic scenarios with them before restraining, torturing, raping and killing them, and finally masturbating with their body parts. When Bateman isn’t thus engaged he is partying with his Wall Street peers, pursuing his elusive friend Price and avoiding the homosexual advances of Luis. While the novel is unquestionably postmodern, contrary to the belief of most scholars, no amount of textual deconstruction can contain the problematic scenes which utterly dominate the novel and spoil its otherwise humorous satiric and parodic aspects. Four excessive scenes include, but are not limited to: the Christie and Sabrina scene, see pages 173-6; the Christie and Elizabeth scene, see pages 288-291; the Torri and Tiffany scene, (which was excerpted in Time and Spy), see pages 303-6; and the scene with the rat and the anonymous “girl,” see pages 326-329. It is the combination of the extreme ambiguity with the extreme misogyny that is at the centre of the debate about the novel.

This paper is not the first to object to the novel’s extreme contents, and, given the recent trend in scholarship, a brief account of the initial critique will be included here. Complaints began at Ellis’s first publisher Simon & Schuster where staff refused to edit and market the novel (Love 46). When their complaints were ignored, the staff leaked excerpts from the most gruesome scenes to the media. Reviews by Sheppard in Time (1990) and Stiles in Spy (1990) emphatically protested the novel’s hateful content. After the Sheppard review, the novel was subsequently rejected by Simon & Schuster only to be bought by Vintage twenty-four hours later and then published in 1991, despite the fact that Ellis again refused to cut four problematic scenes. After publication, the novel was critiqued without exception, despite its author’s claims that the particular scenes were aesthetically necessary (Cohen C18), and feminists from the National Organisation for Women (NOW) organised a boycott of the novel with some sending the author anonymous death threats. The closest to a defence, American author Norman Mailer’s article in Vanity Fair (1991), then reframed the debate by claiming the problem with American Psycho lay with its moral/aesthetic ambiguity, not its gruesome content, and argued that its author lacked novelistic skill. Once the furore died down, Ellis and his novel lapsed into obscurity until the interest of Johnny Depp, David Cronenberg and Leonard DiCaprio and the promise of a film adaptation redeemed the novel. Scholarly interest began at this point—Young’s chapter was published in 1992, Caputi’s essay in 1993 and Eberley’s thesis in 1994—and then increased in volume at the time of the film’s release, though most scholars tended to ignore the problematic anti-woman sentiment and to concentrate their analyses on expanding Young’s aesthetic defence—Julian Murphet’s book-length study of 2002 is a case in point. When Ellis published Lunar Park in 2005 and belatedly confessed to his homosexuality and tendency to lie in interviews, scholarship again increased as it entered a new phase, with important essays published by Sahli, and Serpell, and which culminated in two books being published in 2011. Unlike Sahli and Serpell’s essays, however, the two books employ Ellis’s revelations to minimise the impact of the horrific scenes—in Serpell’s words, to make them problematically “disappear” (Serpell 51).

In sum, significant and persuasive critics like Young and Murphet, ignored the opinions of Ellis’s editors, publishers and early reviewers like Wolf, and based their analyses on Ellis’s intentions as expressed in interviews. But when Ellis confessed to lying he not only inspired a new wave of scholarly interest but paradoxically cedes ground to his earlier critics. Without Ellis’s intentions as a basis to decipher his ambiguous novel, the opinions of initial reviewers become more relevant than ever before.

Wolf’s Review

Contrasting American Psycho with Helen Zahavi’s Dirty Weekend (1991) and Andrea Dworkin’s Mercy (1990), Wolf’s review focuses on issues pertaining to sexuality and gender. Comparing an excerpt from Mercy, “The big man has his teeth between my legs … he’s biting, not a little, deep bites, he’s using his teeth and biting into the lips of my labia and I’m thinking this is not happening and it is not possible …” with an excerpt from American Psycho; “I’m biting hard, gnawing at Tiffany’s cunt, and she starts tensing up. ‘Relax,’ I say soothingly. She starts squealing, trying to pull away, and finally she screams as my teeth rip into her flesh” (Wolf 33), Wolf complains that literary spokespeople cannot seem to differentiate the texts, in intention or effect. (Presumably, Wolf is referring to commentators like Mailer and Udovitch who fail to complain about the novel’s misogyny.)

Wolf goes on to assert that the controversial reception of American Psycho is “fake” but that beneath the pseudo-scandal important “real-life” issues to do with “power” are at stake:

The critical negotiations surrounding these two books … have almost nothing to do with their respective literary merits. This debate is actually a struggle over the proper gender of literary authority. The issue raised by these books’ critical reception is this: who gets to tell the story of sexual violence against women, the hunter or the prey? Who gets, textually, to bash women, with what pleasure, and to what end? (33)

For Wolf, real-life power is determined in such cases by: the gender of the author of sexually violent texts; the gender of the victim and perpetrator; and the narrator’s gender. (33)

Elaborating upon Wolf’s argument, we see that the authors of Mercy and American Psycho are female and male respectively. In Mercy, a female author writes about male sexualised violence perpetrated by males upon a female narrator-victim in a way that is morally and politically critical of the violent, misogynistic male behaviour. In American Psycho, a male author writes pornographically about misogynistic sexual violence perpetrated by a male protagonist upon female victims in a way that is morally ambiguous, and at times, even celebratory of its violence and hatred of women. Mercy suggests sexualised, hate-filled violence towards women is unacceptable; American Psycho does not and may even condone it. Thus, the two novels depict sexual violence from different points of view and with different outcomes. Mercy is written from the female victim’s point of view (although by the end of the novel the victim will become a vengeful murderess), and American Psycho is written from the male perpetrator’s point of view (and nothing changes in the end).

Further, there is a difference between the way pornography and misogynistic violence inter-act in the two novels. In Mercy the sexual violence is not pornographic: the victim’s confused and angry thoughts are narrated while she is being sexually violated, creating a distancing effect from the sexual content and preventing voyeuristic pleasure in the mainstream reader. The female victim protagonist narrates the sexual assault as so horrible it is “impossible”, and that sexual gratification from violence is unthinkable. Further, the reader identifies with the female victim and is encouraged to reject the male perpetrator’s behaviour.

In American Psycho, however, pornography and violence are deeply inter-twined. The novel repeatedly fuses pornography and horror together; three of such cases are preceded by scenes wherein Bateman cannot assert himself directly in his romantic relationships with assertive women, such as Evelyn and Courtney. This pattern of sequencing suggests that the two types of scenes—assertive women and misogynistic violence—are inter-connected. The absence of conventional plot means the reader must take recourse to other means in order to make sense of the novel such as metonymy and repetition, as well as other rhetorical tropes. Thus, scenes depicting Bateman’s passivity with assertive women are repeatedly followed by scenes depicting sexualised violence perpetrated by men upon women. As will be demonstrated in the analysis below, Wolf’s point about the way pornography and horror fuse and condition the reader is supported by evidence in the text. Misogynistic violence becomes fused in the reader’s mind with both pornography and Bateman’s passivity around assertive women: desire and the violent hatred of women become as one.

Returning to Wolf’s article, Wolf next argues that the conditioning of the reader that results from the pornographic way Ellis depicts misogynistic sexual violence is unacceptable:

Ellis consistently and skilfully pairs scenes that are often (to this reader) very arousing, with scenes of carnage that follow as a consequence of that eroticism. The transition is so swift that the violence enters the reader while she is in a state of heightened erotic receptiveness; there has been a powerful moment of conditioning. (33)

Thus, Wolf explains exactly why American Psycho is offensive and Thomas Harris’s Silence of the Lambs (1989) is not: in American Psycho scenes that are “very arousing” are paired with “scenes of carnage”; and the carnage comes as “a consequence” of the arousing scenes. The “transition” between arousal and carnage is so swift that the reader is still “in a state of heightened erotic receptiveness” when the violence “enters” them so that the reader equates arousal with the violent hatred of women. Wolf ultimately objects to American Psycho because it legitimates misogynistic violent behaviour by eroticising it for the reader. Wolf’s reader can be defined as someone who is aroused by heterosexual pornography, and unable to resist the conditioning function of sexualised, women-hating violence. By contrast, the “implied reader”, if we can believe Ellis’s claims, would cynically “laugh” at the sexually misogynistic scenes (Iser xii-xiii; Ellis 2000 247).

Moving beyond Wolf’s critique, it is argued here that many mainstream readers are not desensitised to the representation of sexualised violent atrocities, and that Ellis’s editor and publisher were correct to insist that four particular scenes be removed prior to publication, an editorial demand Ellis refused to heed (Love 51; Cohen C18; Ellis 2012 182-4). While this essay divides the reader into the mainstream and scholarly reader, for reasons of space it is not possible to explore this point further except to say that such extreme material does not work for a mainstream reader given the novel’s excessive aesthetic ambiguity. Perhaps Mailer was right to claim Ellis failed to manage his material?

Supporters of Wolf

Because current scholars tend to dismiss the initial criticism of the novel in the mass media, this essay will re-examine their work. In addition to Wolf’s review and the pre-publication outrage in Time and Spy, other reviewers noted the problematic combination of pornography and sexual violence in the novel at a more general level including Quindlen, McDowell, Rosenblatt, Yardley and Moore. McDowell critiques American Psycho as “obscene” and of questionable “taste” (1:13). Quindlen notes the hatefulness of the “graphic and impersonal” sex in American Psycho, and finds Bateman’s misogynistic attitudes and sexually violent behaviour towards women hateful and nauseating. The American author Lorrie Moore’s review claims the novel sexualises the violent hatred of women. Rosenblatt’s review both critiques the novel and discourages people from buying the book, and Miner sees American Psycho as “pornography” containing “explicit sexual violence” (A27). Yardley echoes Miner, describing the novel as “pornography,” “trash,” and claims it is written with “relish” (B01). Kennedy identifies the combination of sex, anti-woman sentiment and violence as Ellis’s “formula” for success, and Teachout agrees the sexualisation of violence in the novel is “obscene” and asserts “the bestial acts” are described in “lascivious” prose (Kennedy 426; Teachout 45). While many other commentators fail to specifically complain about the sexualisation of violence in the novel, they do, at a more general level, complain about the extremity of the violence towards women. These commentators include: Sheppard, McDowell, Rosenblatt, Cohen and Iannone. Robert Love’s account, published in Rolling Stone (1991), overlooks the difference between sexually violent misogyny and pornographic sexually violent misogyny and incorrectly equates the Time extract, which displays the violent hatred of women, with the Spy extract, which depicts the same material as pornography (43, 46).

Complaints about the pornographic nature of the sexual violence, however, do resurface after the media debate has died down. For example, Anita Harris and Dianna Baker’s article argues that the violence in Zahavi’s Dirty Weekend, is not pornographic, unlike American Psycho (597-8). Will Self’s interview in the BBC documentary about Ellis and his work, This is Not An Exit (2002), hereafter referred to as Exit, proves to be insightful:

When it comes to the misogynism, I would argue that American Psycho is a misogynist book in some very important ways, and … I suspect that it may have something to do with the author’s own reality … If you want to write a book in which you really really capture a certain disgust and revulsion from women, there’s a certain advantage to feeling it yourself. (Exit)

In 2010 Ellis confesses the autobiographical nature of American Psycho, and admits his homosexuality and dishonesty in interviews in 2005 (Wyatt, 2.1; MacDonald, 1). Ellis’s admission of dishonesty requires immediate comment, as it implies Ellis lied when he denied his own misogynist feelings and intentions. (Cohen, 1991; Love, 1991, 49) Reassessing Ellis’s defence in this light supports the criticism of the novel in the mass media, and undermines many scholarly defences of the novel which were based upon Ellis’s alleged intentions. For this reason, scholarship on the novel invites further scrutiny.

Of all scholars to continue the journalistic complaint about the novel’s fusion of the pornographic and the misogynistic, only Caputi overtly continues Wolf’s critique. The first scholar to highlight the importance of gender and sex in American Psycho’s violent scenes, Caputi argues that when men are killed, the scenes are “relatively short” and “asexual”, when women are killed, the “sequences are extensive”, and “frequently follow upon several pages of basic sadomasochistic sexual description clearly aimed at arousing the reader” (103). Once the reader is “sexually primed” and in scenes of “unmatched violence,” the women are killed and tortured in “highly sexualized ways” (Caputi 104). The violence perpetrated upon female victims is different in quality and quantity to the violence perpetrated upon males.

While Eberly’s 1994 doctoral work does not directly cite Wolf, the structure of her analysis implies a continuation of Wolf’s project. Eberly compares American Psycho to Dworkin’s Mercy with a similar outcome to Wolf and restates Wolf’s questions: who gets to tell the story of violent misogyny, “the hated or the hater”? and, “how should we read literature, as social critique or as social reproduction” (Eberly 158)? Like Wolf, Eberly is concerned with the role of gender and sexuality in relation to the representation of sexual violence towards women. Further, Eberly argues that while the critique of the novel’s misogyny featured prominently in the American Psycho scandal, this did not ensure it figured in later scholarly analysis. Eberly claims one of the most influential factors ensuring that the issue of the representation of the violent hatred of women disappeared from scholarly analysis was Mailer’s review which changed the focus of the debate from the sexual/political sphere to the aesthetic (154).

Regrettably, Caputi and Eberly’s work have had little impact on subsequent scholarship. Only a few scholars—Helyer, Sahli, and Serpell—continue the critique of the novel which began in the mass media, not only by refuting the “equal opportunity killer” defence, a defence that argues that not all the victims are women, as Helyer does, but by uniting, as in Serpell, Wolf’s critique with Eberly’s point about Mailer and the aesthetic shift (Helyer 739).

The Recency Effect

There is considerable support for Wolf’s critique in the text itself. In particular, the way the pornographic scenes blur into and overlap with the misogynistic violent scenes. The following analysis of the problematic scenes will employ Shlomith Rimmon-Kenan’s concept of recency to demonstrate the fusion of pornographic and horror conventions, and to argue that the significance of these scenes lies in the way they rewrite what immediately preceded them for the reader.

Primacy and recency are ways texts encode the reader’s response. The primacy effect refers to the way the text controls the reader’s response by inserting certain scenes before others: “information and attitudes presented at an early stage of the text tend to encourage the reader to interpret everything in their light. The reader is prone to preserve such meanings and attitudes for as long as possible” (Rimmon-Kenan 120). For example, the reader’s first impressions of Bateman indicate he is a racist (Bateman’s silence during Price’s tirade about black homeless people on pages 4-5 indicates complicity), a womaniser (Bateman’s only comment during Price’s litany of diseases he believes a man can catch from unprotected sex with a women is “‘I don’t think dyslexia is a virus’”, which similarly indicates complicity), and a man obsessed with superficialities (note Bateman’s excessive attention to the details of Price’s attire) (Ellis 1991 5). Thus, when the reader later discovers that he is also a serial killer, these first impressions linger on “long after”.

Rimmon-Kenan’s primacy effect is countered and modified by the recency effect, which induces “the reader to modify or replace original conjectures”, and “encourages the reader to assimilate all previous information to the item presented last” (120). For example, when Bateman attacks Sabrina and Christie on pages 173-6, the reader rewrites their earlier assessment of Bateman’s character in terms of the new information that indicates he is a misogynist serial killer; everything about him now is reinterpreted in terms of his attack on Sabrina and Christie. Of the two, the recency effect is most pertinent here given its ability to conceptualise the way the pornography and violence towards women become fused in the novel.

In addition to its operation between scenes, the recency effect can operate within scenes, at the micro level, where it similarly rewrites the preceding events. Thus, the recency effect is evident within chapters and events, from one scene to another, or at a microscopic level within the one scene. For example, during the scene where Bateman takes two female sex-workers named Torri and Tiffany home, the scene begins in a pornographic mode (on the top of 303), and then suddenly and abruptly switches within a sentence into hideous sexualised violence (on the bottom quarter of 303) which combines pornography with horror. The extract is included here at length—but not in its entirety for reasons of space—to correct the scholarly neglect of these horrific passages so that the reader can experience their full impact. Unlike most scholarship, this essay will not overlook or minimise the sexualised, misogynistic horror of this material and no other study concentrates solely on the four scenes:

Sex happens—a hard-core montage. After I shave Torri’s pussy she lies on her back on Paul's futon and spreads her legs while I finger her and suck it off, sometimes licking her asshole. Then Tiffany sucks my cock—her tongue is hot and wet and she keeps flicking it over the head, irritating me—while I call her a nasty whore, a bitch. Fucking one of them with a condom while the other sucks my balls, lapping at them, I stare at the Angelis silk-screen print hanging over the bed and I'm thinking about pools of blood...

Again I make the two of them eat each other out but it starts failing to turn me on—all I can think about is blood and what their blood will look like and though Torri knows what to do, how to eat pussy, it doesn't subdue me and I push her away from Tiffany's cunt and start licking and biting at the pink, soft, wet cuntness while Torri spreads her ass and sits on Tiffany's face while fingering her own clit. Tiffany hungrily tongues her pussy, wet and glistening, and Torri reaches down and squeezes Tiffany's big, firm tits. I'm biting hard, gnawing at Tiffany's cunt, and she starts tensing up. 'Relax,' I say soothingly. She starts squealing, trying to pull away, and finally she screams as my teeth rip into her flesh. Torri thinks Tiffany is coming and grinds her own cunt harder onto Tiffany's mouth, smothering her screams, but when I look up at Torri, blood covering my face, meat and pubic hair hanging from my mouth, blood pumping from Tiffany's torn cunt onto the comforter, I can feel her sudden rush of horror. I use Mace to blind both of them momentarily and then I knock them unconscious with the butt of the nail gun …

I start by skinning Torri a little, making incisions with a steak knife and ripping bits of flesh from her legs and stomach while she screams in vain, begging for mercy in a high thin voice, and I'm hoping that she realises her punishment will end up being relatively light compared to what I've planned for the other one. I keep spraying Torri with Mace and then I try to cut off her fingers with nail scissors and finally I pour acid onto her belly and genitals, but none of this comes close to killing her, so I resort to stabbing her in the throat and eventually the blade of the knife breaks off in what’s left of her neck, stuck on bone, and I stop. While Tiffany watches, finally I saw the entire head off—torrents of blood splash against the walls, even the ceiling—and holding the head up, like a prize, I take my cock, purple with stiffness, and lowering Torri’s head to my lap I push it into her bloodied mouth and start fucking it, until I come, exploding into it. (303-4)

The scene is deeply shocking and, to this reader, difficult to read without skimming. One can only speculate that this tendency to minimise the horror, to skip over it, may partly explain why some scholars tend to overlook the novel’s misogyny in their analyses. For example, Mandel does not use the word once in her introduction to the three essays in her collection about American Psycho, although she does acknowledge the “extreme violence” and the novel’s “ultraviolent” world (16, 17). But to discuss the novel without referring to such passages is to deny the novel’s most outstanding characteristic: its misogynistic force.

Resisting the urge to skim, the precise transformation from pornography to horror takes place in the sentence, “She starts squealing, trying to pull away, and finally she screams as my teeth rip into her flesh”, (although this is slightly foreshadowed with “but it starts failing to turn me on—all I can think about is blood and what their blood will look like”). Significantly, the recency effect ensures the horrific sexualised violence assimilates and rewrites the pornography: at the end of this passage, pornographic sex is reread as, and fused with, violent sexualised misogyny. The reader reassesses the pornography in relation to the sexualised violence towards women, and the feelings of disgust and horror become assimilated into arousal. According to the recency effect, the horror becomes inseparable from the arousal.

It is worth also recounting Bateman’s torture of Tiffany in this scene. Bateman burns and pops her eyeballs with a Bic lighter, nailguns a dildo into her rectum, drills her mouth wider with a power drill, reaches down her throat and pulls out her veins and innards, then rips her stomach open with his bare hands (305). This “snuff” effect (wherein pornography is assimilated into and fused with misogynistic violence) recurs a number of times in American Psycho. While the above scene is not the first in the novel, it is the clearest example of the fusion of pornography and horror and therefore the most relevant.

The first act of sexualised violence towards a female character actually occurs on page 167 in the Christie and Sabrina scene and is an example of the recency effect on both macro and micro levels. On the macro level, Bateman’s attack follows a failed date with his lover Courtney, who, he complains, is “ditzed out”, too high on prescription drugs to be capable of conversation (166). Even more frustrated with Courtney after she asserts herself by insisting he wear a condom during sex, Bateman leaves her, after raging at her, and hires two female sex-workers for a threesome. The recency effect is evident between one scene and the next, in the way the violent pornographic misogyny with Christie and Sabrina becomes assimilated with his frustrating date with Courtney. On the macro level, according to the recency effect, dating frustration becomes fused with pornographic violence towards women. On the micro level within the scene, the violent misogyny redefines the pornographic heterosexual sex: a pornographic threesome with Christie and Sabrina suddenly transforms into excessive violence. Pornography and misogynistic horror become fused in the reader’s mind.

Thus, at the beginning of the Christie/Sabrina scene the writing is reminiscent of Playboy (Harron and Turner 189). It is clearly pornographic, and is similar to the example, included above, on pages 303-4. Bateman has anal sex with Christie, forces Sabrina to have oral sex with him, before having vaginal sex with Christie. Predictably, the scene culminates in Bateman, Sabrina’s and Christie’s orgasms (Ellis 1991 175-6). The pornographic outcome, however, suddenly erupts into violence. Unlike the Torri and Tiffany scene, this first instance of the assimilation of the erotic into violence towards the female characters is not depicted as it happens. Instead, there is a sudden temporal ellipsis, an impossible leap forward in time from the first person present tense into the future/past:

An hour later I will impatiently lead them to the door, both of them dressed and sobbing, bleeding but well paid. Tomorrow Sabrina will have a limp. Christie will probably have a terrible eye and deep scratches across her buttocks caused by the coat hanger. (176)

Here Ellis employs what Rimmon-Kenan terms delay: “Linearity can also be exploited to arouse suspense or deliberately mislead the reader by delaying various bits of information... this too may cause him to construct meanings which will have to be revised at a later stage” (121). By skipping over the violence Bateman does to Sabrina and Christie, Ellis increases suspense and subsequently emphasises the importance of the scene. By not showing the reader directly what happens between Sabrina and Christie, the reader is forced to hypothesise what happened. Then, during later scenes, the reader actually sees what Bateman does to Torri and Tiffany and is able to re-construct what probably happened to Sabrina and Christie. Thus the first misogynistically violent scene uses recency as well as delay, and involves the reader in hypothesising and revision.

Ellis uses delay again during other sexually violent scenes. There is an ellipsis in the Elizabeth and Christie scene (290), and in the Torri/Tiffany scene, from the moment of the pornographic threesome on page 303, to the moment when Torri wakes up on page 304. There is also an ellipsis in the scene with the anonymous girl, between Batman’s initial Macing and consumption of cocaine, and the point at which the girl is naked and tied to the floor (327). These strategies keep variation within the repetition of the sexualised violence and ensure that the horror always comes as a shock. Again, Ellis’s attention to detail in variation emphasises the importance of the women-hating snuff scenes in the novel.

The next sexually violent scene is with Bethany, Bateman’s ex-girlfriend from Harvard. This scene is extremely violent and misogynistic and it is the first time we see Bateman’s sexual violence towards women in any detail (212-4, 230-47). In Bethany’s case, the segue into violence is not preceded by pornography, but is preceded by Bateman’s absolute fury when Bethany asserts herself as an intelligent, unavailable, independent woman. Bethany represents what Bateman cannot have, a normal, loving relationship with a woman who is his social equal (231).

Over lunch, Bateman mistakenly assumes that Bethany is flirting with him: “She has made a promise by asking me to lunch and I panic, once the squid is served, certain that I will never recover unless it’s fulfilled” (237). When Bateman discovers Bethany is not flirting with him, he lashes out verbally and accuses Robert, her socialite boyfriend, of being “a fag”, who tried to give me “a blow job once” (240). Bethany almost leaves and Bateman apologises, but along with his hatred of women and issues with homosexuality, his excessive violence has been triggered. It is clear that Bateman cannot be intimate with women without feeling violent rage and hatred (241).

Bateman manages to persuade Bethany to come back to his apartment, against her better judgement, where she one-ups him by informing him he has hung his David Onica painting upside down. Because experience had rendered Bethany immune to his seductions, Bateman must take her by force and, in just five lines, Bethany is knocked out cold. What follows is the now predictable sequence of events: violence, nailguns, Mace and verbal abuse. Bateman screams, “‘You bitch’”, and “‘You fucking cunt’”, and makes repeated accusations about Robert homosexuality (245). Then on page 246 Bateman cuts out Bethany’s tongue with scissors, and orally rapes her until he orgasms: “Then I fuck her in the mouth, and after I’ve ejaculated and pulled out, I Mace her some more”. The recency effect demonstrates Bateman’s hatred for an assertive, attractive, unavailable woman is fused with extreme misogynistic sexual violence and issues to do with homosexuality.

Another example is when Bateman’s last desperate attempt at his pretend relationship with Evelyn, a disastrous trip to the Hamptons, erupts upon his return to Manhattan into a murderous pornographic threesome with acquaintance Elizabeth and prostitute Christy. Again, the pornographic sex suddenly shifts into violence (though the precise outset of the violence does not actually appear in the text). Thus, from the second paragraph on page 289, to the final paragraph, there is no transition between the pornography and violence in which both women are tortured then die.

Finally, further confrontation and manipulation from Evelyn—Evelyn confronts Bateman with his lies about their plans for the evening, and then screams/rages at him and threatens to ruin Bateman’s plans to seduce Jeanette, his real date for the evening, when he pathetically fails to deny her accusations—precedes another pornographic scene that suddenly segues into sexually misogynistic violence with an anonymous “girl” (326). This time the transition from pornography to horror is very swift. One minute Bateman is kissing and slapping the girl by turns, the next he is biting her and then leaping “out at her, jackal-like, literally foaming at the mouth” (327).

Mere pages after this comes Bateman’s final date with Evelyn, during which he gives her a deodorising men’s urinal soap disguised as a Godiva chocolate before ending the relationship, and which is immediately followed by another scene depicting extreme, sexualised violent hatred towards a female character (330-347). This time the reader does not see the pornography, but is confronted by the aftermath as Bateman “Tries to Cook and Eat Girl” while crying, “‘I just want to be loved’” (344-5).

From these examples it is clear that Ellis repeatedly positions the pornographic contingent with and prior to the horrific and misogynistically violent, and that both are repeatedly positioned to follow scenes depicting Bateman’s passivity and rage around assertive women. According to the recency effect, the sexual violence rewrites: the pornographic sex, Bateman’s frustration with assertive/feminist women, Bateman’s discomfort with homosexuality and his inability to have relationships with women. As noted above, the recency effect induces readers to “assimilate” all previous information to the “item presented last”, conditioning readers to associate the erotic with the representation of extreme violence towards women, and assertive women and relationships with women with sexualised misogynistic violence. The rhetorical strategies discussed here, primacy, recency and delay, are very important structuring devices in the virtually plotless novel.

What makes these scenes even more disturbing is that, given that the novel resists closure, the scenes are not morally or aesthetically contextualised. Instead, their moral context remains deeply ambiguous. Further, given their extremity, such passages overpower the rest of the novel, wherein satiric postmodernism subtly critiques Wall Street culture and plays with the conventions of numerous genres including serial killer fiction, romance and the thriller. The pornographic misogynistic scenes do not fit with the novel’s ambiguity, playfulness and dark satire. It would be sufficient and preferable to this reader if such horrors were hinted at rather than depicted: this reader certainly gets the idea. This essay concurs with Ellis’s editor, publisher, and with early reviews of the novel: the scenes should have been cut prior to publication.

Further, and given Ellis’s refusal to remove the scenes, the proximity of the parodies of music criticism adjacent to some of the most violent and sexualised scenes suggests that the humour of the record reviews is assimilated with the gruesome misogynistic violence, when read as examples of the recency effect. Thus, the Bethany scene, directly followed by a failed date with Courtney wherein Bateman realises he has lost Courtney to McDermott, is followed by the Whitney Houston review on page 252. The Huey Lewis review on page 352 follows the scene wherein Bateman becomes a mass murderer, which itself follows the scene wherein he attempts to cook and eat a girl. It seems that in American Psycho, gruesome scenes of sexualised violence towards women are inseparable from clever, postmodernist humour and parody. However the abhorrent scenes cannot be fully contained by or become fused with the playful humour or parody; they are too extreme in their graphic misogyny.

Many scholars, including Young, defend the novel as a postmodern parody (Young 99). It is possible to read the four problematic scenes as parodies of pornography that turn into parodies of the horror genre, which themselves turn into parodies of record reviews. Linda Hutcheon’s definition of postmodern parody states that for a postmodern parody to work it must be clearly signalled to the reader (86), so if this is applied to American Psycho its parodies fail due to the lack of authorial signalling (Young 100; Ettler 206).

Without examining the non-sexually violent scenes in detail, it is worth noting that the sexually violent scenes are more gruesome, excessive and hateful than any of the violent scenes involving men. While the killing of women often involves pornographic threesomes, Macing, and nailguns; and the action which precedes the killings follows a clear pattern. When Bateman kills men the violence does not involve torture weapons, is not sexual and follows no pattern. The inclusion of the extreme misogynistic scenes is rendered more problematic by the excessive ambiguity at the novel’s conclusion which leaves the pornographic and horror elements problematically fused and ambiguously double-sided. In the final analysis, these scenes are simply too extreme and dominate the ambiguous, ambivalent novel: their extremity cannot be reconciled with playful ambiguity. For them to work, they require more authorial signalling.

Conclusion

Of all feminist critics, Wolf’s critique of American Psycho most clearly isolates the central problem with the novel which concerns the way it fuses pornographic and erotic scenarios with extreme misogynistic violence. While many journalists reviewing the novel noted the excessive violence towards women and some note the misogyny, few precisely identify the sexualisation of the violent hatred of women as being at the centre of the novel’s flaws. Indeed, for most scholars it is as if the problematic scenes do not exist. Thus, the important political issue of the representation of sexualised misogynistic violence, the “debate” Wolf refers to, is completely absent from recent scholarship which argues the scenes are part of the novel’s postmodernity and claims that they are either fantasies, because Bateman is an unreliable narrator, or that they are textual appropriations. Such a dismissal is not only shocking but is a mistake and fails to take account of the rhetorical strategies of the text which serve to emphasise and refuse to resolve the fusion of pornography with misogynistic violence, not to mention the fact that the reader has to read the scenes, even as fantasies. At best, with the problematic scenes left in and the sensationalistic marketing strategy intact (the omission of any information that would help guide the reader from blurb and back covers of both the US and UK first editions, for example, a description of the novel as a parody), the novel could have served as an opportunity to publicly discuss the daily reality of many women’s lives as victims of sexual violence and anti-women sentiment. 

 

Endnote

1. Ellis, Bret Easton, Glamorama, London: Picador, 1991, 81. 

 


References

American Psycho, by Bret Easton Ellis, directed by Mary Harron, Lions Gate/Universal, 2000, DVD.

Baelo-Allué, Sonia, 2011, Bret Easton Ellis’s Controversial Fiction: Writing Between High and Low Culture, Continuum, London and New York.

Caputi, Jane, 1993, “American Psychos: The Serial Killer in Contemporary Fiction.” Journal of American Culture : 101-112

Cohen, Roger, March 6, 1991, “Bret Easton Ellis Answers Critics of ‘American Psycho,’” New York Times, PC13, C18.

Dworkin, Andrea, 1990, Mercy, Arrow, London.

Eberly, Rosa, 1994, “Novel Controversies: Public Discussions of Censorship and Social Change,” Ph.D. diss. The Pennsylvania State University, 153-4.

Ellis, Bret Easton, 1991, American Psycho, London: Picador.

Ellis, Bret Easton, 1991, American Psycho, New York: Vintage.

Ellis, Bret Easton, 1999, Glamorama, Picador, London.

Ellis, Bret Easton, 2005, Lunar Park, Picador, London.

Ellis, Bret Easton, 2000, “P.C. POSTMORTEM. (Social Attitudes and Political Correctness),” Harpers Bazaar, February 01: 246-249

Ellis, Bret Easton, 2012, “The Art of Fiction,” Interview in Paris Review, 216 : 169-196.

Ettler, Justine, 2013, “The Best Ellis for Business: A Re-Examination of the Mass Media Feminist Critique of American Psycho,” PhD diss., The University of Sydney: 208.

Harris, Anita, and Dianna Baker, 1995, “If I had a Hammer: Violence as a Feminist Strategy in Helen Zahavi’s Dirty Weekend,” Women’s Studies International Forum, 18, no. 5/6: 597-8.

Harris, Thomas, 1989, Silence of the Lambs, Heinemann Mandarin, London.

Harron, Mary, and Guinevere Turner, 2001, “Adapting & Directing.” Interview by Anne Nocenti, Scenario 5, no, 4.

Helyer, Ruth, 2000, “Parodied to Death: The Postmodern Gothic of American Psycho.” Modern Fiction Studies, 46 no.3, 725-746.

Hutcheon, Linda, 1985, A Theory of Parody, Methuen, London.

Iannone, Carol, July 1991, “PC and the Ellis Affair,” Commentary, 92, no. 1, 52-4

Iser, Wolfgang, The Implied Reader: Patterns of Communication in Prose Fiction from Bunyan to Beckett, (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974), xii-xiii.

Kennedy, Pagan, April 1 1991, “Generation Gaffe,” Nation, 426.

Love, Robert, Apr 4, 1991, “Psycho Analysis,” Rolling Stone, 45-51. 

MacDonald, Marianne, June 28 1998, “Interview—Bret Easton Ellis—All Cut Up,” Observer, 4.

McDowell, Edwin, Nov 17 1990, “Vintage Buys Violent Book Dropped by Simon & Schuster,” New York Times, 1.13.

Mailer, Norman, Mar 1991, “Children of the Pied Piper: Mailer on “American Psycho.”’ Vanity Fair, 154-9, 220-1

Mandel, Naomi, 2011, “Part 1: American Psycho: Introduction.” In Bret Easton Ellis: American Psycho, Glamorama, Lunar Park, edited by Naomi Mandel, Continuum, London and New York.

Miner, Brad, Dec 31 1990, “S & S, Not S & M,” National Review, 43.

Moore, Lorrie, Dec 5, 1990, “Trashing Women, Trashing Books,” New York Times, A27.

Murphet, Julian, 2002, Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho: A Reader’s Guide, Continuum, London and New York.

Quindlen, Anna, Nov 18 1990, “Public & Private; Publish or Perish,” New York Times, A17; 

Rimmon-Kenan, Shlomith, 1983, Narrative Fiction: Contemporary Poetics, Methuen, London.

Rosenblatt, Roger, December 16 1990, “Snuff this Book! Will Bret Easton Ellis Get Away With Murder?!” New York Times Book Review, 3

Sahli, Sabrina, 2010, “‘I Simply Am Not There’” Sadism and (the Lack of?) Identity in Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho.” In Critical Issues: Examining Aspects of Sexualities and the Self, edited by Gemma Clarke, Fiona McQueen, Michaela Pnacekova, and Sabrina Sahli.

Self, Will, in This Is Not an Exit: The Fictional World of Bret Easton Ellis. Directed by Gerald Fox, USA: Maximum Marquee Productions, 2000. DVD.

Serpell, C Namwali, 2010, “Repetition and the Ethics of Suspended Reading in American Psycho.” Critique 51, no. 1: 47-73.

Sheppard, R Z, Oct 29, 1990,  “A Revolting Development: A Forthcoming Novel by Bret Easton Ellis Has Repelled Many of the Publisher’s Employees and Promises to Nauseate Readers as Well,” Time, 100.

Stiles, Todd, Dec 1990, “How Bret Ellis Turned Michael Korda into Larry Flint,” Spy, 43.

Teachout, Terry, June 24, 1991, “Applied Deconstruction,” National Review, 45-6.

This Is Not an Exit: The Fictional World of Bret Easton Ellis. Directed by Gerald Fox, USA: Maximum Marquee Productions, 2000. DVD.

Udovitch, Mim, Mar 19, 1991, ““Intentional Phalluses,” Village Voice, 65.

Wolf, Naomi, April 12 1991, “The Animals Speak,” New Statesman and Society, 33-4.

Wyatt, Edward, Aug 7 2005, “Bret Easton Ellis: The Man in the Mirror.” New York Times, 2.1, 2.25.

Yardley, Jonathan, 1991, “American Psycho: Essence of Trash.” Washington Post, Feb 27, BO1.

Young, Elizabeth, 1992, “The Beast in the Jungle, the Figure in the Carpet: Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho,” in Shopping In Space, edited by Elizabeth Young, and Grahame Caveney, Serpent's Tail, London, 85-122.

Zahavi, Helen, 1992, Dirty Weekend, London, Flamingo. 


Back to top