Mary Harron, American Psycho, 2000

The white man is sealed in his whiteness.
The black man in his blackness.
— Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks1

In Black Skin, White Masks, Frantz Fanon analyses the psychic and social processes that can lead black subjects to internalize an inferior self image. The title of his landmark study refers to black skin as a signifier of social and cultural worth—or perceived non-worth, as the case may be—and the way in which whiteness can be symbolically attained if a black subject learns its language. To learn the language of whiteness, its appetites and discontents, Fanon implies that black subjects must appropriate a white position, adopt a mask of privileged whiteness, because “it is from within that the Negro will seek admittance to the white sanctuary”.2 It is in the very nuances of Fanon’s own language that we can begin to piece together the shards of porcelain that make up the masks of privileged whiteness. If the subject is “sealed” by the color of their skin, surely whiteness is a kind of mask or envelope that binds its contents. The body’s surface and all its racial markings are, in Fanon’s schema, the limitations of identity, because identity at least in Cartesian terms has been regarded as the stuff, not of the body, but of the mind.

Racial identity, for Fanon, is paradoxical. Race is marked by the visibility of the flesh, but as an internalized entity, it has not yet seen the light of day. If whiteness is an internalised “sanctuary” that can only be accessed “from within”, whiteness becomes an invisible entity because of its perceived cultural privilege. As a “sanctuary”, whiteness takes on a set of spiritual or otherworldly connotations. Whiteness is a place of rest, a place where the light supposedly shines brighter. In this schema, a black subject can only approximate the norms that constitute whiteness. And to approximate whiteness, a subject must first understand that the act of claiming whiteness entails a belief in the following declaration: “I am white: that is to say that I possess beauty and virtue, which have never been black. I am the color of daylight”.3

Whiteness has held a privileged position in Western culture because it connotes beauty, virtue and light. Blackness has often been associated with the ‘dark’ side of life, or as cultural critic Ruth Frankenberg states, “crime is ‘black’”.4 Frankenberg is referring to the way crime has a representational lineage of being associated with the menace of darkness or evil. Specifically, the racial signifier of blackness has often been represented as a suspect identity and is, therefore, more likely to engage in criminal behavior. Of course, whiteness has been linked to criminal behavior, especially in the way whiteness has enforced itself as supreme and dominant at the expense of so-called inferior races. This essay will examine the film American Psycho (2000) and its protagonist Patrick Bateman: a spectacle of whiteness as serial killer criminality contextualized within the exceedingly privileged context of late 1980s American corporate surfaces and greed.

My reading of American Psycho uses a backdrop of social and cultural privilege, drawing upon Carol Clover’s concept of the “average white male” by arguing that one does not necessarily need to be poor or working class to be average. Being part of a privileged class grouping can ensure “average-ness”, and by extension, paranoia, self-loathing and madness. Played by Christian Bale, Bateman is trapped in an ongoing cycle of keeping up with the break-neck speed of consumerism and it is precisely this immersion in surfaces that produces an identity trapped as average. Bateman performs conspicuous consumption to fit in and be assimilated within his circle of privileged peers. Whiteness is thus represented as serial self-sameness and ensures Bateman’s perpetual erasure and invisibility.

In my analysis of American Psycho, I will argue that racial whiteness is a mask—a fantasy position—that illuminates the subject, but simultaneously renders them invisible because “whiteness can be difficult to see”.5 In her reading of Fanon’s work, feminist theorist Diana Fuss argues that “‘white’ defines itself through a powerful and illusory fantasy of escaping the exclusionary practices of psychical identity formation”.6 Fuss is speaking to the process by which whiteness comes to be a privileged signifier in a binary schema. Unless it is called attention to, whiteness is an unmarked and generic signifier for ‘human’. Whiteness may attempt to remain an invisible and generic signifier, but it is only because whiteness is constantly attempting to negotiate and reinforce its own self-worth that it calls attention to itself as a paranoid identity, forever approximating its own set of values.

Whiteness is invisible because it is perceived as the unmarked norm by which otherness is constituted and thus marked. Like a drawing outlined in invisible ink, whiteness only reveals itself when its surface is scrutinized under specific conditions. The contradiction here is that whiteness is invisible because it is unmarked, while it is simultaneously rendered visible by its mask-like qualities. Whiteness calls attention to itself while simultaneously positioning itself as substanceless. Whiteness is, therefore, an unmarked surface that is marked as it begins to gain self-recognition as a raced entity. As my analysis of American Psycho will show, whiteness is a “sealed” mask that reveals as much as it conceals.

Masked, Watermarked

Based on Bret Easton Ellis’ notorious novel of 1991, American Psycho takes delight in the sheer surface of things in order to critique or satirize those very surfaces. American Psycho emphasizes the literal and symbolic masks that conceal and inevitably reveal the identity of the white subject. Bateman is a Wall Street trader whose life is not simply privileged, it is indulgent. Bateman, named after Norman Bates from Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), epitomizes all the ideals that attend straight white masculinity: he is exceedingly handsome, possesses a muscular body, attracts beautiful sexual partners, his career requires very little effort or work but makes him wealthy and powerful. He is in a position to indulge every materialistic desire, which includes a regular cocaine supply, a rigorous beauty regime, a spectacular apartment decorated with chic furnishings, and a wardrobe consisting of designer gear.

Perhaps it is because Bateman has everything, but lacks cultural or social importance, that he sets out to be a serial killer. It seems that Bateman is disenchanted with being perceived as ordinary, invisible and (as one of his colleague remarks) “a dork” that he begins his rampage of, not mergers and acquisitions, but “murders and executions”. The first person Bateman kills is Paul Allen (Jared Leto), a smug executive who is more successful in Bateman’s eyes. For example, Allen is always able to get a table at Dorsia—the most exclusive restaurant in the city—and whenever Bateman has tried he has been unsuccessful. That Allen continually mistakes Bateman for another colleague, Halbestram, only makes matters worse and further illustrates Bateman’s social invisibility. When Allen refers to him as Halbestram, Bateman comments in voiceover:

Allen has mistaken me for this dickhead Marcus Halbestram; it seems logical because Marcus also works at P&P and in fact does the same exact thing I do. He also has a penchant for Valentino suits and Oliver Peoples glasses. Marcus and I even go to the same barber, although I have a slightly better haircut.

Allen’s mistake bothers Bateman, but instead of correcting him, Bateman bludgeons him to death with an axe in a later scene. When Bateman elicits the services of two prostitutes he introduces himself as Paul Allen, delighting in the performance of a man apparently more successful, powerful, sexually potent, and, most importantly, dead.

The temporary blurring of Bateman’s identity with Allen’s demonstrates how Bateman’s identity as interchangeable and somewhat assimilated among his corporate peers to the extent that he is literally and metaphorically indistinguishable. In the film’s opening scene, Bateman obsessively grooms himself with the latest range of skin care products, acknowledging in a voiceover that his identity is not grounded or “real”:

There is an idea of a Patrick Bateman; some kind of abstraction, but there is no real me – only an entity, something illusory. And although 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 comparable, I simply am not there.

Bateman acknowledges he is generic, a product of consumerism in exactly the same way he is a consumer of products: a fact highlighted by the constant reference to brand names and products. The facial products are a metaphor for of Bateman’s “mask of sanity” that is “about to slip”. The use of facial masks is his flimsy attempt to purify or rejuvenate a self that can never be clean; the products are meant to enhance the face allowing it to shine brighter that before. But Bateman continues to be invisible, concealed, nothing. The way he peels away the facial mask visually suggests he is peeling away a layer of skin, taking off a mask, only to reveal zero-degree nothingness, an identity in crisis and subject to transparency. Richard Dyer argues that

light shows through white subjects more than through black, so that they appear indeed illuminated and enlightened, but this is also a problem, since it is capable of rendering the white subject as being without substance altogether.7

Brightly lit to emphasize Bateman’s transparency, the translucent facial mask reinforces his substanceless, revealing an identity defined as “some kind of abstraction… some kind of entity, only illusory”.

Though attractive, Bateman is as generic as the mass-produced consumables he uses, items sold on an empty promise of individuality, authenticity, and exclusivity. The Marxist term “pseudoindividuality” is applicable in that it refers to how mass culture creates a false sense of individuality in consumers through advertising and popular culture, especially in images that directly address the consumer as an individual, when in fact it is speaking to a mass audience. Instead of being noticed, Bateman is one of countless other white executives who live and work in an identical manner. All the white male characters are alike in that they share similar suits, haircuts, accessories, and even names. In one of very few scenes where Bateman is actually on a date with his “supposed fiancé” Evelyn (Reese Witherspoon), he reveals the motivating drive to maintain his lucrative Vice President position is based purely on conformity:

EVELYN: Patrick we should do it
PATRICK: Do what
EVELYN: Get married, have a wedding
PATRICK: No, I can’t take the time off work
EVELYN: Your father practically owns the company; you can do anything you like silly
PATRICK: I don’t want to talk about it
EVELYN: You hate that job anyway; I don’t see why you just don’t quit
PATRICK: Because, I … want … to fit ... in.

The extreme levels to which this careerist conformity manifests, is evident when Bateman and his colleagues compete for the most impressive business card. In reality their business cards are almost identical and only differentiated by very subtle gradations of whiteness, paper stock, typography, and embossing. Each card reveals that they all hold a Vice President position, further evidence that his job may be lucrative but hardly unique. When they are flaunting their business cards in a kind of macho “pissing contest”, Bateman becomes visibly distressed that his card is not nearly as impressive as Paul Allen’s card.  Studying the card, Bateman’s brow becomes beaded with sweat. In voiceover, he says, “Look at that subtle off-white coloring, the tasteful thickness of it. Oh my God, it even has a watermark”. That Bateman is impressed with its watermark is significant, because a watermark by definition is “a figure or design impressed in the fabric in the manufacture of paper and visible when the paper is held to the light”.8 The temporal opacity of a watermark, dependent on light for visual clarity, is an apt metaphor for Bateman’s whiteness. The historically embedded connotations of whiteness and light, according to Dyer, have the effect of “advantaging white people in representation and of discriminating between and within them, but also of suggesting a special affinity between them and the light”.9 Bateman may be “advantaged” in so many ways by his whiteness, or by light, but like a watermark he is rarely “discriminated between and within” his colleagues, affecting a kind of erasure that comes to light as his greatest fear: average-ness. What may seem an “advantage” for an entire culture of white representation can affect “average-ness” when individuality becomes an assimilable procedure enacted through maniacal consumption. It is because Bateman is a carbon copy of his colleagues that he is often mistaken for them, a mistake he never rectifies because he acknowledges his invisibility: “I simply am not there”.

Disembodied Self-Loathing

Bateman is paradigm of whiteness as invisible. The main reason Bateman is never visible to himself or others is that his identity as a privileged white male is camouflaged by the surfaces around him. His apartment in the American Garden Building on West 81st Street in New York City (though really a set in a Canadian warehouse), is almost entirely white and bathed in sunlight: an over-clean container of surfaces analogous to his own translucent identity. Bateman’s privilege and prestige is the very thing that slowly brings him unstuck, forcing a detachment from himself and others. Bateman’s detachment and invisibility is emphasized through his confessional voiceover.

The voiceover makes Bateman visible only to the audience – he is still very much invisible to those around him because his identity as a white male already produces him as such. The narration perpetuates Bateman’s invisibility and interiority because a voiceover is disembodied from its referent: the person to whom it relates. The person is heard but not always seen in a voiceover. As a cultural norm whiteness is similarly disembodied and invisible. Dyer writes, “White people need to see their particularity. In other words, whiteness needs to be made strange”.10 One of the first steps towards making whiteness visible is identifying white as unique, different and not merely a cultural norm.

Bateman does indeed see his particularity—as “illusory”—but never attributes it to his whiteness, let alone his masculinity. Bateman certainly makes strange his identity as he becomes a menacing serial killer, but his whiteness is an assumed norm, in much the same way that his maleness and heterosexuality are assumed to be normative and privileged. At times throughout the film Bateman makes passing comments that call into question the racism or sexism of those around him. In context, his comments are merely hollow sound bytes that are not taken seriously by those to whom he speaks them. Bateman attempts to project an image of social awareness in conversation, but is really just mimicking politically correct views that ultimately aim to counter the culturally central position of white heterosexual masculinity. It is arguable, even with his satirical intentions that anybody really listens to him at all. Perhaps such views are not supposed to be articulated by the straight white male, because in all actuality the assumed privilege of the straight white male is the reason such views have come to pass. Who really wants to listen to the self-aggrandizing claims of a man who, on the surface, appears to have it all? Bateman’s slogan-like political correctness is therefore an empty reminder that the exact opposite is true: he is racist, classist, homophobic, and misogynistic. While he may be a racist, he worships African American pop star Whitney Houston, whose song The Greatest Love of All appears in the film’s diegesis and is accompanied with Bateman’s elaborate commentary on its brilliance. As a star who was especially popular in the late eighties setting of American Psycho, Whitney is a popular culture phantasm and perhaps not racially marked for her African American identity as much as she is by the seductions of fame and celebrity. Whitney is just as illusory and unreal as Bateman.

Bateman’s professed hatred of others is really an implied form of self-loathing. Like an empty brandscape, Bateman is “simply not there”. In many respects self-loathing is a defence mechanism that protects the subject from being the target of others’ hatred or prejudice. Cultural critic Annalee Newitz writes, “white identity is doomed to remain trapped in a cycle of self-torture and self-celebration”.11 Newitz is pointing out the way in which white identity has become a self-conscious identity, and wracked by internal contradictions. Is it is our upsetting history of white power and racism that has produced such guilt and defensive behavior? Whatever the case, Newitz claims that “white racial self-consciousness is based on various forms of divisiveness and self-loathing”.12 Bateman certainly does not practice a literal form of self-torture, but there is a direct relationship between his fractured view of himself, and the way in which he relates to (or kills) others.

Cut Down to Size

Since its inception, the aim of whiteness studies has been to destabilize the unquestioned, unmarked authority of white identity. Paradigmatically, the figure to bear the interrogative scrutiny of whiteness scholars was the straight white male. Certainly this was not the first time the straight white male was under fire because the feminist project had already ensured balls (if not heads) were rolling. One film that initially resonated with critics of whiteness was Falling Down (Joel Schumacher, 1993) because of the way it represented straight white masculinity as an identity in crisis. The protagonist D-Fens (Michael Douglas) is so frustrated and disillusioned that he gradually descends into madness, brought about because of the supposed injustices directed at him. D-Fens is wanted by the police after a series of crimes, however, he cannot reconcile that he is a wanted man: “I’m the bad guy?” D-Fens is incredulous because he passes through black and Hispanic communities in Los Angeles, where crime is commonplace. Furthermore, D-Fens is an average white working-class male, whose identity revolves around his position as a failed father, husband and worker.

Film critic Carol Clover defines D-Fens within the orbit of the “average white male” who is perceived as “infinitely endowed with wealth and privilege but in the real individual case, running on fumes: nerves fraying guilt, and down to an insurance policy”.13 More specifically, the “average white male” is the man who, by virtue of being white, should not be confronted by his normativity; it should be assumed, innate, and unquestioned. Clover writes, “The Average White Male is the guy who theoretically owns the world but in practice, in this account, not only has no turf of his own but has been closed out of the turf of others”.14

Patrick Bateman, for all intents and purposes is not an average white male. If we compare him to D-Fens, it is obvious that class divides them. Bateman is a self-described “yuppie” with all the perks of an executive lifestyle, while D-Fens is a working class citizen, who might have occupied relative comfort had it not been for his series of marital and nervous breakdowns. What they do have in common is a crumbling white identity that has somehow traded automatic privilege and power for defensiveness, self-consciousness, paranoia, self-loathing, and madness. Both Bateman and D-Fens are all of these things to lesser or greater degrees, and it is these characteristics that are linked to the way they perceive their identities as straight white males. While Bateman may not on first glance occupy a position of average-ness based on a marker of class, his greatest fear seems to be the fact that he really is just an average guy with money. Take away the cash and very little exists, because as he himself surmises, he is “illusory” and “not there”, unless like a watermark he is held to the light for closer inspection and scrutiny.

I am focusing on this concept of average white masculinity in relation to American Psycho, because it is a concept that proliferated on screen during the late 1990s and early 2000s when American Psycho was adapted for the screen. Edward Norton’s character Jack in Fight Club (David Fincher, 1999) is comfortable in his Ikea-furnished paradise, but it is this very comfort that induces his pathological insecurities. Kevin Spacey’s seemingly ordinary character Lester Burnham in American Beauty (Sam Mendes, 1999) also occupies a position of relative comfort in his upper-middle-class environment, but it does not exempt him from a mid-life crisis where he transcends his ordinariness through a drastic and somewhat comic lifestyle makeover. The film’s tag-line “Look closer” suggests that one must confront and uncover what lies beneath the surface of ordinary, respectable, average white masculinity. Another film to emerge at this time, The Man Who Wasn’t There (Joel Coen, 2001), is centered on the persistent ordinariness and metaphoric invisibility of barber Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thorton). While the dominant racial whiteness of this vision of late 1940s suburban America is heightened by the black and white cinematography, it is Ed’s acknowledgement that he is ordinary and invisible, that propels the film’s drama. In one scene he says in voiceover: “I was a ghost. I didn’t see anyone. Nobody saw me. I was the barber”. Moreover, the recurring theme of the film is stated in one simple line of dialogue: “the more you look the less you see”, which counters American Beauty’s insistence that one must “look closer” into themselves if they are to change the banality of their everyday realities.

In American Psycho the figure of the average white male is represented through a satire of both corporate male identity and the 1980s—a decade renowned for being characterized by greed. The things this figure might be capable of being or doing are represented through the most extreme worst-case scenario because satire allows such exaggerations to appear plausible, or at least entertaining. On another level American Psycho hints at a deepening level of madness for the average white male, whereby all of Bateman’s crimes are perhaps imagined — a series of over-the-top crimes unconsciously invented to make him feel more important than he really is. Whenever Bateman is about to murder someone, a shot is included of his image is depicted in a reflective surfaces (mirrors or glass predominately), suggesting his crimes are imagined and illusory. Whether or not his crimes are real or imagined is never really stated, but exists in the film as a tension, a mere possibility. Ellis’ novel leans more towards a perception that Bateman imagines his crimes, because as the narrative comes to its rather non-eventful climax, Bateman’s hallucinations have greater resonance, and his internal confusion is represented in more explicit terms.

In Bad Girls and Sick Boys, feminist cultural critic Linda Kauffman draws analogies between a number of disparate cultural productions by writers, artists and filmmakers, all of whom employ the mechanics of fantasy to represent their subject. In one chapter, “Masked Passions”, Kauffman dissects the debates central to the novel American Psycho. Written before the novel was adapted for the screen, Kauffman argues against critics who had condemned the novel as pornographic and identifies it more as a satire more about the processes of fantasy and consumption, than it is about serial killing. Kauffman identifies the key tenets of the novel: “the compulsion to repeat, an addiction to representations, and the analogy between serial killing and serial consumption”.15 If American Psycho is indeed concerned with the analogy between serial killing and serial consumption, then it is obvious that Bateman’s obsession with commodities is, in large part, responsible for his emergent serial killing. He sees them as linked, if not the same thing. They both necessitate the accumulation and fetishization of things or bodies.

Bateman is also addicted to representations, because they enable him to construct an image that oscillates between a successful executive and a seemingly successful (if not unstable) serial killer. But it seems that he is also addicted to the popular, though waning representation of straight white masculinity as privileged and powerful by virtue of birth and/or wealth. Initially Bateman unconsciously falls for the trappings of whiteness, and is lured into a false sense of security. It is only when he exhibits signs of being average, that he must execute those who are inferior and visibly average along class lines (prostitutes, the homeless) or those, like his colleague Allen, who challenges Bateman’s superiority by emphasizing an identity that doesn’t simply “fit in” as much as it is erased under the weight of being average. For Bateman, average-ness is to be feared at all costs, because if you are rich, straight, white, and male, there is nothing more threatening or humiliating than being cut down to size. And if you have access to a chainsaw and a modicum of bloodlust, being cut down to size is an attractive prospect, not for self, but other.

What American Psycho demonstrates is that privileged whiteness is increasingly being represented as an identity that can no longer claim access to privilege simply on the grounds of race. Even when whiteness and privilege go hand in hand, as they do here, it becomes clear that race and class must be separated out and examined for the way they function independent of one another, as much as for the way they overlap. Patrick Bateman’s privilege paradoxically marks him as average, rendering his “sealed” whiteness marked and masked, his visibility threatened by a desire to “fit in” and become subject to complete erasure. The vapid excess of his white male corporate identity cannot save him from being one of the most average serial killers represented on screen. Bateman may appear to have it all, but as he states himself, “I simply am not there”. His privileged whiteness is represented in a manner that is identical to the other white male executives around him – and for this reason, Bateman’s identity is an ongoing disappearing act.

  1. Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks (New York: Grove Press, 1967), 9.
  2. Frantz Fanon, ibid. 51.
  3. Frantz Fanon, ibid. 45.
  4. Ruth Frankenberg, “Local Whiteness, Localizing Whiteness”, Displacing Whiteness: Essays in Social and Cultural Criticism, ed. Ruth Frankenberg (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1997), 7.
  5. Rebecca Aanerud, “Fictions of Whiteness: Speaking the Names of Whiteness in U.S. Literature”, in Whiteness: Essays in Social and Cultural Criticism, ed. Ruth Frankenberg (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1997), 37.
  6. Diana Fuss, Identification Papers (New York and London: Routledge, 1995), 146.
  7. Richard Dyer, White (London and New York: Routledge, 1997), 110.
  8. Macquarie Essential Dictionary (Sydney: Macquarie University NSW, 1999), 913.
  9. Richard Dyer, ibid. 84.
  10. Richard Dyer, ibid. 10.
  11. Annalee Newitz, “White Savagery and Humiliation, or A New Racial Consciousness in the Media”, in White Trash: Race and Class in America, ed. Matt Wray and Annalee Newitz (London and New York: Routledge, 1997), 152.
  12. Annalee Newitz, ibid. 133.
  13. Carol Clover, “Falling Down and the Rise of the Average White Male” [1993], in Women and Film: A Sight and Sound Reader, ed. Pam Cook and Philip Dodd (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1993), 145.
  14. Carol Clover, ibid. 144.
  15. Linda Kauffman, Bad Girls and Sick Boys: Fantasies in Contemporary Art and Culture (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), 255.
  • Rebecca Aanerud, “Fictions of Whiteness: Speaking the Names of Whiteness in U.S. Literature”, in Whiteness: Essays in Social and Cultural Criticism, ed. Ruth Frankenberg (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1997).
  • Carol Clover, “Falling Down and the Rise of the Average White Male” [1993], in Women and Film: A Sight and Sound Reader, ed. Pam Cook and Philip Dodd (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1993).
  • Richard Dyer, White (London and New York: Routledge, 1997).
  • Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks (New York: Grove Press, 1967).
  • Ruth Frankenberg, “Local Whiteness, Localizing Whiteness”, Displacing Whiteness: Essays in Social and Cultural Criticism, ed. Ruth Frankenberg (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1997).
  • Diana Fuss, Identification Papers (New York and London: Routledge, 1995).Linda Kauffman, Bad Girls and Sick Boys: Fantasies in Contemporary Art and Culture (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998).
  • Macquarie Essential Dictionary (Sydney: Macquarie University NSW, 1999).
  • Annalee Newitz, “White Savagery and Humiliation, or A New Racial Consciousness in the Media”, in White Trash: Race and Class in America, ed. Matt Wray and Annalee Newitz (London and New York: Routledge, 1997).

Peer reviewed book chapter for the anthology Pimps, Wimps, Studs, Thugs & Gentlemen: Essays on media images of masculinity, edited by Elwood Watson.

Published by McFarland in 2009.