American Psycho Teaches a Lesson in Media Literacy

Despite being based on a relatively obscure novel and being released in the far-off year of 2000, Mary Harron’s film American Psycho starring Christian Bale has captured the hearts and minds of many, no matter if they range from casual movie fan to cinephile film snob.

That’s no surprise given its immeasurable quality. The direction is inspired, the story is gripping, and the cinematography is memorable. But amongst all the compliments I can give American Psycho, Christian Bale’s performance as Patrick Bateman stands out as leaving the biggest impression on viewers.

There is an unfortunate byproduct of Bale’s captivating performance, however. Bale is so entertaining as Bateman that it has led to American Psycho being criminally misunderstood. Bateman’s character is rooted in a ridiculous and frankly pathetic characterization of 80’s yuppie culture and shrewd businessmen that, while being an entertaining performance, isn’t supposed to elicit a positive response. I’m open to any interpretation you have of American Psycho, and I don’t want to gatekeep, but you simply aren’t supposed to be enamored by the character of Patrick Bateman, and you certainly aren’t supposed to sympathize with him.

I’d imagine you’d have to be pretty pathetic yourself to feel “seen” by the character of Patrick Bateman, fortunately the reason why people misinterpret the character and film as a whole isn’t so sinister, but is frustrating nonetheless. Meme culture is the name of the game here. For every time audiences are dazzled by Bale’s performance, the amount of viral reaction GIFs referencing American Psycho or comedic re-edits from the film increase tenfold.

American Psycho, while being a quality film, has had a recent boom in popularity due to the spreading of various memes that reference specific moments from the film, most notably the iconic “Hip to be Square” scene. This has led to a phenomenon where Patrick Bateman has turned into an embodiment of internet cynicism. Even if you hopefully don’t sympathize with Bateman, there is something kind of cathartic about being able to respond to a take you don’t agree with or characterize a toxic community as someone as outlandish as Patrick Bateman. If this stopped here, I wouldn’t be so frustrated. If anything, I kind of nod my head at the idea of relating something about your day to Patrick Bateman or scenes from American Psycho in a purposely ridiculous and absurdist way. The people posting these memes aren’t living the life that Patrick Bateman is, so interpreting the mundanity of social media can act as some sort of escapism, even if you don’t want to end up like him.

But things got out of hand really fast. These memes are probably what introduced many people to American Psycho, myself included, and it leads to your impression of Bateman being distorted and biased. What you can infer from a sixteen-second video of Patrick Bateman is vastly different from a feature length presentation that acts as a character study for him. The Patrick Bateman in American Psycho went from a pathetic billionaire who couldn’t achieve happiness beyond a surface level to a man who was completely insane, and just owning it. Viewers went from not wanting anything to do with Bateman to distilling his bossman persona from the atrocities he commits. American Psycho went from a satirical cautionary tale to a power fantasy about a “cool guy who does cool things,” and that’s the last thing you’d want it to become. Overnight, Patrick Bateman was becoming a personality trait for the internet.

There’s a scale you fall on when it comes to interpreting American Psycho upon your first viewing. On the right side, you have the correct reaction. “This Patrick Bateman guy is horrible! I’m glad I’m nothing like him.” On the polar opposite side, you have an uncommon reaction but one the filmmakers definitely didn’t intend. “This Patrick Bateman guy is such a cool guy! The things he does are bad, but other than that, I want to be like him.” This response is uncommon, but I’m sure some people will excuse Bateman’s actions as being fictional, but having an attitude that is completely respectable. And in the middle of this scale, the simple-minded interpretation. “I’m glad I’m not like that Patrick Bateman guy, but he’s just so fun to watch!” Yes, Christian Bale’s portrayal of the character is entertaining, and the story of American Psycho itself amplifies that, but you shouldn’t treat Patrick Bateman’s atrocities as “good when in the context of escapism.”

Patrick Bateman is a loser. Nobody should want to be like him, and his actions aren’t “fun to watch,” it’s Christian Bale’s performance. Nobody believes this more than Christian Bale himself. Christian Bale hates Patrick Bateman. He didn’t hate working on American Psycho, and he didn’t even hate playing the character, but he rightfully hated the type of person Bateman is.

At the end of the day, it’s a film that isn’t trying to convince you that Patrick Bateman is a “cool guy,” so no real harm is being done, but audience reactions to Bateman are misleading. He’s not “that guy you love to hate”, neither is he a contrarian bossman we can see pieces of ourselves in. He’s a menace, and unfortunately, the protagonist of a film called “American Psycho” is being brutally misinterpreted by these so-called fans.