Matilde is a third year student in Politics
It’s hard to imagine how a book about a financier psychopath committing disgusting crimes against women could ever reconciled with one of the, if not the, most provocative piece of feminist writing published in the 20th century. Still, I find the themes that draw American Psycho by Brett Easton Ellis and the SCUM Manifesto (Society for Cutting Up Men) by Valerie Solanas together to be incredibly thought provoking. My focus in this piece will be the mirrored perception of masculinity which runs through the two, as I aim to answer the question: are these pieces really what they seem?
First, a brief overview of the texts. American Psycho is highly controversial; the casual way in which violence (much of which is gendered) is spoken about in this book makes for a jarring read bound to make anyone uncomfortable. Patrick Bateman (the main character) takes us along on his stream of consciousness: a downward spiral of sociopathic rantings and murderous and violent thought as his ‘mask of sanity’ slips away. Opposingly, Valerie Solanas, a radical feminist aligned with the political lesbianism movement, and the SCUM Manifesto, deny the genuineness of all inter-gender relationships and call for the killing of all non-submissive men, culminating in the creation of a purely female society.
American Psycho was published in the 1990s, the age of ambitious neoliberal economics. Whilst the book was written by Ellis as a satire of yuppie culture, capitalism and general male tendencies for the absurd, I feel there is a truth to it, and many people agree. Here, I’ll delve into two ways the truths inside American Psycho have impacted or reflected modern masculinities. The first stems from the insecurities which men face as a result of patriarchal standards. In this, Patrick is seen as a mirror, reflecting back to men their experience of masculinity, mainly through having to obscure one’s true self in order to fit in. For Patrick, this means the postmodern yuppie finance sphere, yet for the reader, the same idea can be applied to simply existing in a patriarchal society fraught with gendered norms. Having to dress a certain way, do certain things, date certain people, it all leads to the same thing– men find themselves trapped in a bubble, unable to get out, due to a set of expectations placed upon them by the patriarchy itself. In this, they put up a wall, a mask. There is a persona, put forward to the public, for us to see and interact with, and there is the true self, hidden behind the mask. A true self with ‘inappropriate’ desires and characteristics, kept away from the public eye by the fear of feeling like an outsider.
Indeed, some men may feel attracted to the narrative of American Psycho as it puts their burden to paper. They recognise themselves as being caged in and feel, like Bateman, unable to get out. In response to this, their concealed, true self may act in a similar, if less drastic, way to Patrick’s. Where Patrick engages in heinous violent acts against everyone around him, especially women, men in actuality may instead turn to degrading pornography, antisocial behavior, and to releasing their anger into their relationships. This may come in the form of outright abuse, or more discreetly, through the subtle underpinnings of misogynistic language and intent, and is only a sliver of the negative impacts of toxic masculinity from which women suffer.
The second is more dramatic, revolving around the Andrew Tate/gaslighter/male manipulator idea that, unfortunately, Patrick Bateman is not a mirror, but rather sits on a pedestal. He is fit and good looking, well dressed, has a high paying job, etcetera. He has a beautiful fiancée, yet engages in multiple affairs with his coworkers’ fiancées and a multitude of sex workers. Patrick has it all! And wouldn’t they just love to have the same? To some, Bateman is a beacon of aspiration: someone who doesn’t take no for an answer, a ‘true man’ who ‘grabs life by the balls’ and does what he wants, stopping at nothing to have his every last pleasure fulfilled.
Recent online discourse around Andrew Tate, Joe Rogan, etc., has outed plenty of people as listeners and fans of these highly misogynistic men and their opinions. It raises the question: do we actually know the men around us; do we know their beliefs around serious issues which have real life impacts on our rights? Can we, as women and queer individuals, ever know what’s lurking beneath the surface? What is true, and what is purely a mask? There really isn’t a concrete answer to this, but I think the further questions it poses are interesting: the sources of this doubt, the implications of the dreaded idea that perhaps no man is exempt from misogyny, and thence the idea that we, as women and queer people, may be alone in the fight for own rights is definitely interesting, if pessimistic.
How does all this relate to the SCUM Manifesto? My point is that Solanas, in the midst of her allegedly ‘satirical’ crazy-woman angry-lesbian rantings, made a variety of incredibly valid points which remain highly relevant to feminism and masculinity in the 21st century. Solanas speaks on what characterises masculinity in her eyes, perfectly encapsulating the feeling of isolation and egocentrism, as well as the general lack of empathy, which define the men in American Psycho.
I think this is highly predictive of the development of masculinity. I’ve noted previously how many men feel drawn to American Psycho due to its reflection of their own feelings of isolation and inability to be themselves. Still, Solanas takes it a step further. She sees this as unchangeable, the natural state of man: a shell of a being, he is incapable of expressing love and friendship. This is highly reflective of Patrick’s experience, in which he feels no real emotions, only putting on a mask to fit in.
Whilst both of the ideas expressed in these pieces are extreme, a valuable lesson can be taken away about how patriarchy and its strictures act upon masculinity in a highly toxic way. Patrick Bateman’s feeling of isolation and lack of human emotion is the worst case scenario, and maintaining ideas incorporated in society which propagate this breed of masculinity is not only damaging to the men at hand, but also to the women around them who suffer the consequences of this oppressive system. This feeling of isolation and concealment of human emotion translates into Solanas’ perception of men’s relationships with each other. Afraid of anything that may set him apart from other men, she notes, these differences cause him to suspect he is not a man at all, but rather a f*g. In this he will try to assimilate, and will see differentness in his male peers as a threat and indication that they are f*gs, and that he must avoid them at all costs.
I think this is perfectly fair of her, in relation to American Psycho as well as modern society. This is perfectly exemplified by the bathroom scene: Patrick, after attempting to murder one of his coworkers, finds himself being hit on by this same man. He quickly removes himself from the situation, even washing his glove-donned hands. This cold blooded murderer, a psychopath who feels no guilt in his mutilation of women, feels this act of homosexuality is so disgusting, so far from what it means to be a man, that it incites shame and tears in him. While this is a greatly exaggerated example of men’s fear of being perceived as gay, its insidious implications are something we see daily.
The way men dress, speak and act can be considered with this in mind. Keeping away from things that are considered gay is something we see on a daily basis, as masculinity often stops men from acting the way they would, in a vacuum. Assimilation is perceived as paramount to success. Stemming from heteronormative patriarchy acting on men in negative ways, I maintain that there is harm in upkeeping these ideas in society. Not only are they rooted in homophobia, and damaging to the LGBT+ community, but they shape all men through a toxic masculinity which only has negative impacts.
Solanas’ views on the negative impact of this breed of toxic masculinity on women speaks, most interestingly, on male sexuality, which she perceives as solely passive. In her view, a man seeks sex with women as a tool to show he is ‘the man’. Not only is having sex with women another way to show he fits in, show he is successful and masculine, it is an outlet for violence. Sex with women acts as not only a reassertion of his cookie-cutter masculinity, but also as an outlet for his hate for the world, for the better sex (women), and for himself and other men.
I think this is perfectly mirrored by Bateman’s approach to sex. Having a fiancée while cheating on her with his coworkers’ fiancées in order to assert dominance is only the tip of the iceberg. His directing of his insanity towards the sex workers by mutilating and killing them substantiates this perfectly crafted reflection of Solanas’ ideas. The pleasure he derives from sex is not sexual per se, or based on the attraction he feel towards women, but rather is about power over the perception of his own masculinity, as well as power over women.
I have often asked myself this question after interacting with some men I have encountered in my life: Do you even like women? This occurs as a result of hearing men speak the most vile things about women, about the way they look, dress, act, speak, breathe, etc. This brings me to the conclusion that Solanas has a point. The amount of times I alone have heard men talk insane shit about women they have slept with, while still bragging to their friends that they did it, brings me to believe that perhaps the real satisfaction within male sexuality is not sexual per say, but about prestige, and what it means to the outside world as characterized by other men. Again, I don’t mean to say this about all men, but it remains an interesting question to pose. And on the matter of violence, I fear a whole different article may be necessary.
Men’s thirst for power over women is rampant, and the idea that heterosexual sex may be coated in a layer of violence is often touched only by queer theory and in this case political lesbian theory. This is definitely linked to Solanas’ suggestion that the only way forward, and the only way for women to be happy in love, is through lesbianism and the killing of all non submissive men. I find it easy to like both these pieces of writing. American Psycho and most work by Brett Easton Ellis is written in this ‘stream of consciousness overly descriptive’ way that I find really convincing, and whilst the topics discussed are heavy I think there’s fun to be had there. SCUM was captivating to read not just for the first time but every time after; it is in itself a continuous thought exercise that continues to bring up more and more questions.
Still, I like to think I approach both these pieces with a critical lens, and don’t take what they both preach at face value; I invite you to do the same. These books’ conceptions of masculinity feel extra poignant today with debate surrounding extreme forms of masculinity dominating pop culture, and thus the discussions we have amongst ourselves as women and queer individuals. Engaging with such radical yet different texts, feminist or not, empowers us to continue to question our biases and further develop our thoughts. Development never happened without asking uncomfortable questions.