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How bret easton ellis explores a change in conventional masculinity in american psycho

American Psycho is a novel by Bret Easton Ellis which takes place in a hyperbolic version of the late 1980’s New York, where consumerism has taken control of people’s lives. Historically, and as partly depicted in the book, Ronald Reagan is in his second term as president and has already catalysed immense economic growth and the expansion of capitalism. The “protagonist” or the narrator, Patric Bateman, is a super materialistic yet successful Wall Street broker. His obsession with material goods and his status often drives him mad with jealousy and even causes him to commit psychotic acts. It is very easy to interpret this book as a satirical commentary on the impact of consumerism and capitalism. However, whether intended or not, the novel also explores how consumerism and capitalism caused a profound change in gender roles (specifically masculinity) within western society. Ellis’ characters seem to be in constant competition in terms of which one makes the most money or which one has a reservation for the most sought after restaurant, et cetera. So, how could these behaviour be displaying a change in the essential definition of masculinity? Modern data shows eerie overlap with how the male psyche is depicted in the book due to increasing foothold of consumerism in society.Masculinity has been a topic of heated debate and an attractive subject for both the general population and academicians alike. Robert Jesse Stoller, a professor of psychiatry at UCLA, makes the point that the sense of one’s maleness must be distinguished from manliness as the latter is a much more complex concept to grasp for any individual. For Stoller, a child may only know what it means to be “manly” after the parents communicate how they expect the child to express masculinity. In his book, Sex and Gender: The Development of Masculinity and Femininity, Stoller expresses that the sense of an individual is biologically a male develops much earlier – at around age 3 to 5 – than when that individual is likely to learn what it means to be “manly”. Consequently, a distinction must be made between maleness and masculinity. Masculinity is not an instinctive behaviour but rather a learned one. As a result, masculinity is neither historically or culturally universal. As Amy B. Aronson mentions in her book Men and Masculinities: A-J “[masculinity] is not stored in the Y chromosome, nor is it somehow a function of testosterone. Rather, the meaning of manhood may vary from culture to culture and within any one culture over time.” (Aronson xxiii). For instance, in Greek mythology, Heracles is almost synonymous with masculinity. As a godly hero with superhuman strength and machismo, it is understandable why he was a paragon of masculinity at a time when status and money meant much less than today. Nowadays, there is a paradigm shift where status and money is regarded with higher reverence than physical capabilities. The case of Donald Trump may be the perfect example for this claim. Even though many world leaders have extensive political or military experience (properties which would be expected of a leader), Donald Trump ran to be the president of the United States with almost none of either. Yet, his campaign was a smashing success. It seemed that his wealth and ‘businessman charisma’ made him a favourable candidate in the eyes of the population.In Ellis’ book, we get to see the world through the eyes of Patrick Bateman, not only in his part-time hobby of murdering in cold blood but also his day to day life. Standing in Patrick Bateman’s shoes allows the reader to experience, letting the reader peek into his ‘masculine to a fault’ way of perceiving the world. On the surface, Patrick Bateman is an admirable man. As the book reveals, he is very good looking, immensely wealthy, has a job any working man would want, and is engaged. However, the features that really define are just those, he has no passion, emotion or interest in anything more. His physical appearance is simply a carbon copy of other people around him, his job as Vice President isn’t unique to him but is actually the same job all his ‘friends’ have and his fiance is simply there for him to not be alone at events. All of these are devoid of meaning. For Patrick Bateman, outward appearance is everything. His relationships are empty in terms of love or understanding, he and his fiance are both openly having an affair and both don’t care. The walls of his house are completely white and monotone. He even keeps an ashtray as decor. While Patrick Bateman’s personality is an exaggeration in more ways than one, his character and lifestyle allow for a very eye-opening observation of how a culture of consumerism has immense impacts on what one would consider masculine. As mentioned before, even though Bret Easton Ellis has never explicitly claimed to explore the effect of consumerism on masculinity; he delves into this theme in order to construct Bateman’s and others’ personalities. Just within the first five pages, the reader is given almost a rant about the immoral values that have seemingly swallowed the city of New York. The ‘rant’ is delivered to us through another character; Timothy, not much different in personality compared to Bateman. Timothy paraphrases the newspaper, saying: “‘In one issue – in one issue – let’s see here… strangled models, babies thrown from tenement rooftops, kids killed in the subway, a Communist rally, Mafia boss wiped out, Nazis’ – he flips through the pages excitedly – ‘baseball players with AIDS, more Mafia shit, gridlock, the homeless, various maniacs, faggots dropping like flies in the streets, surrogate mothers, the cancellation of a soap opera, kids who broke into a zoo and tortured and burned various animals alive, more Nazis… and the joke is, the punchline is, it’s all in this city – nowhere else”, (Ellis 5) essentially stating that the problem of violence, immoral behaviour, and emotionlessness is concentrated in the city of excessive spending and luxury. New York City is and has been (for a very long time) the symbol for wealth, status and consumerism. The phrase “the joke is, the punchline is, it’s all in this city – nowhere else” works to connect these violent and disgusting acts with ideas such as consumerism, for which New York City is a symbol of. It seems that Ellis implies that as the people of his New York indulge in consumerism more and more they lose touch with their moral side, as the materialistic and money-hungry self takes over. Moreover, the reference to “AIDS” and “faggots” seems to be a way for Ellis to show his characters think, and how they will go out of their way to prove they are more masculine than others for the most trivial reasons. Luis Carruthers, a closeted gay character, who is introduced later on in the novel is hated by almost all of the other characters. Patrick Bateman even almost murders Luis because he irritates him so much. Ellis criticizes these consumeristic aspects of American society by making the books ‘protagonist’ Patrick Bateman characterize the city as explained in the newspaper article; emotionless, violent and chaotic. The first thing that the reader notices is how materialistic Bateman is. Ellis introduces this side of Bateman through lengthy scenes of him examining belongings of his and those of the people around him. In the chapter named “Morning”, the audience becomes witness to Bateman’s morning routine. The whole chapter is a mundane morning routine made even more repetitive by the mention of countless brand names. From his “Ralph Lauren silk pyjamas” to “Mousse A Rais, a shaving cream by Pour Hommes” and a “Panasonic bread maker” everything in this scene has a brand attached to it; even down to his mouthwash. Jean Baudrillard, a recognised sociologist, was one of the first to apply the idea of structuralism to commodities. Structuralism essentially means to analyse “elements of human culture” through first understanding how they fit in with the rest of human culture. When applied to commodities, structuralism reveals the relationships between what we consume. According to Baudrillard commodities gained their value through how different they were from others and not through how useful they were. By differentiating themselves from others, commodities could establish a sense of luxury and superior status. Baudrillard’s most relevant argument to the events of this book is his idea of “sign-value”. A virtual value of a commodity that does not come from the practicality or the intricacy of something but rather an illusion of luxury and exclusivity that sets a commodity apart. Baudrillard claimed that in post-modern societies the “sign-value” subsided the actual value of the of the commodity. Ellis including whole pages of Patrick Bateman’s analysis of the objects around him shows that his identity is but an illusion. His character has no actual value and the only way for him to differentiate himself from others is through the commodities he can afford. In one of the final chapters of the book Bateman says “…there is an idea of a Patrick Bateman, some kind of abstraction, but there is no real me, only an entity, something illusory, and though I can hide my cold gaze and you can shake my hand and feel flesh gripping yours and maybe you can even sense our lifestyles are probably comparable: I simply am not there. My personality is sketchy and unformed, my heartlessness goes deep and is persistent. My conscience, my pity, my hopes disappeared a long time ago (probably at Harvard) if they ever did exist.” (Ellis 376). Patrick Bateman recognizes that he has lost his touch with humanity. He, himself believes that he has no human characteristics that set him apart, it is only his wealth and appearance that define him. Patrick’s inability to see anything but the physical extends beyond just himself. Ellis makes Bateman describe what others are wearing and what brand or designer they are by in great detail. To Bateman, what himself of others wear or possess represents their status. Not only that, but constantly being forced to associate these characters with brands or designers creates a feeling of alienation where all characters blend in with each other and the reader is unable to develop a human connection with these characters. It is not just the reader that is confused about the characters in the novel. Throughout American Psycho the characters refer to each other by the wrong names. The values that normally separate the characters of a book are very blurry in American Psycho. This allows Ellis to create the sense that his characters have no individual inner identity, just their material possessions. Patrick Bateman’s obsession with his status within his social circle seems very ironic as it is slowly revealed that Patrick Bateman does everything he does in order to fit in. Like all other characters, he works in Wall Street, doing a job that has almost no value other than the job title, he exercises because other characters do so and he eats out at restaurants where his colleagues do. Even with his exquisite lifestyle, on the surface, there is no feature of Patrick Bateman’s life that sets him apart from the rest. Ellis’ actually makes Patrick Bateman’s life seem very mundane through the use of long and monotone chapters which serve no purpose to further the plot. To some extent, Patrick Bateman is trapped in a world where he cannot act as he wishes because of his overwhelming desire to fit in. The violent episodes that Patrick Bateman experience are his way of releasing his confined personality. These can be interpreted as a way to release the traditional masculine and physical Patrick Bateman. Through, killing and eating escorts, his colleagues and strangers, Patrick Bateman can step out of his dull day to day life to be an individual. Patrick Bateman could be killing and eating an escort in one chapter and then talking about music in the next chapter. This type of behaviour really shows how naturally violence comes to him. Although Patrick Bateman is undoubtedly insane, Ellis’ uses Patrick Bateman’s madness to explore the psyche of a man who is stuck in between traditional masculinity through his violent tendencies and desire to dominate, and the behaviour that would be expected of him whether it be keeping his job or taking care of his skin.The scene where Patrick Bateman attempts to show off with his newly printed business cards is a perfect representation of the society in which he lives in. He pulls out his card to flourish it at the meeting table, but to his surprise, his co-worker, David, decides to one-up his card by showing off his’. The scene proceeds with almost everyone at the table showing off their cards and Bateman becomes visibly upset by the fact that he could not stand out in the crowd. Furthermore, even in a scene about business cards, there’s no emphasis on the names of the characters, the quality of the cards are in the foreground and Patrick Bateman’s card isn’t that much better than anyone else’s. In a sense, he is emasculated. Bateman’s ultra-competitive nature reflects a critical problem in a consumerist society, everyone strives to be richer and live more expensive lives than others. So much so that their individuality loses its value and the objects replace this void. Baudrillard’s idea that people who surround themselves with objects become more like objects is very apparent in the novel. An exaggerated version of this reality is depicted in Ellis’ American Psycho. As mentioned before, Patrick Bateman and everyone around him are in a constant race to buy more and stand out. Yet, in their attempt to do so they can only match one another.Patrick Bateman is the characterisation of an identity crisis. Like many things in the book, this is also very much exaggerated. Since Patrick Bateman cannot express his own identity while with others, he acts out and thinks in a excessively masculine way to compensate for his normally unexciting life.American Psycho, in some ways, illustrates almost perfectly, the condition of today’s society. Just like in today’s society a very large population works in a “nine to five” office job where they complete tasks for a big corporation, wear similar clothes every day and browse social media for an unnecessarily long amount of time. Most people’s weekend hobbies include going to the mall to browse and see what the next thing they want to spend their money on and then going home to consume more media. In short, it’s very easy to say that the time period we live in allows for very little individuality. Traditional masculinity, typically demonstrated through aggressive behaviour, independence and individuality, has been and still is undergoing changes due to new cultural and social values as a result of new ideas. It would be foolish to say that the loss of traditional masculine values would have nothing but positive impacts on society. Granted emotionlessness and violence are not great values to uphold but, assigning such a narrow set of properties to masculinity would be counter-productive to the betterment of society. The slow dissolution of traditional masculinity poses a bigger threat than just the loss of manly pop-culture icons such as Arnold Schwarzenegger, Chuck Norris or Bruce Lee, the main threat of this phenomena is the loss of identity and individuality. As seen in American Psycho, a world dominated by consumerism and material possessions where people cannot tell each other apart is one where masculine values are completely drowned out by consumerist values.

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