Keeping Up Appearances:
American Gigolo, American Psycho & The American Male

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Two men.

Two American Males.

Both are the very picture of perfection: fantastically handsome, impeccably tailored members of the elite class who could want for nothing.

Both are also doomed to fall. Hidden beneath the image of an American masculine ideal, lies everything these men had to sacrifice in order to maintain the presentation, and a secret self in conflict that just won’t fit in such a pretty picture.

In Mary Harron’s horrifically comic American Psycho (2000) based on the 1991 novel by Bret Easton Ellis, Patrick Bateman kills himself for the status and trappings of the perfect, white, corporate 1980s life; while Julian (Julie) Kay in Paul Schrader’s American Gig0lo (1980) kills himself for sexual status, the illusion of personal freedom, and a lifestyle of leisure.

Neither character physically commits suicide, but both have essentially smothered to death any part of themselves that could express their deepest desires – creating a schism within. They are split into two selves: the ideal self (the American Male), and the actual self of true desire and emotional fulfillment. This isn’t because they are afraid to express real emotion or appear vulnerable because doing so would be a sign of weakness incongruent with some stereotypically macho male code. It is because the pursuit and constraints of the life of this American Male ideal allows them room for nothing else. So the emotional self must go. They can have no love, nor true compassion. There’s just no room left.

Both men have achieved the life they wanted, but the desires that this life won’t allow cannot be stifled without consequences. Constant denial and the obsessive, meticulous maintenance of each character’s rigid persona creates a crippling anxiety from which there is no escape.

"American Gigolo"

In American Gigolo, Julie Kay is an extremely stylish, high-priced male prostitute to the wives of the wealthy and powerful. He effortlessly floats through an elite world of privilege and status, attaining his own value by proxy. Julie searches for praise and approval as some kind of sexual hero to the women he entertains. He rationalizes his deeds as charitable, even elevating his sexual services with the older rich women who are his clients to the level of humanitarianism. As he says, “Who else would take the time to do it right?” However, all the while he is pursuing and maintaining a purely selfish need to be envied and desired, and to jump up several ranks on the social ladder. But this need has overpowered everything else. The disconnect within him is severe. He finds himself in an identity built on his sexuality, but has lost the ability to find sexual pleasure for himself. The emotional connection of sex has been severed by necessity, and physical pleasure has become so routine that he cannot cum at all. When he finally attempts a deeper relationship, he fakes orgasm to hide his inability to connect. In order for him to have this relationship, his perfectly constructed American Male life must be dismantled. He doesn’t do this willingly – in fact, it takes being framed, ending up in prison, and a great sacrifice from his lover to destroy the artifice he has created and allow his suffocated self to take a breath.  Julie either lacks the courage or the ability to dismantle his fabricated persona himself. In the end, she has to do it for him. He says to her once his hidden self is exposed and he is stripped of all else, “I’ve waited so long for you.” He is given a second chance to create a new life where he can live out in the open.

"American Psycho"

Patrick Bateman, however, is much farther gone. His portrayal by Christian Bale  in American Psycho has to be one of the most horrifying and overt examples of the American Male embodied in contemporary film. Bateman is a sculpted, perfected vision of cinematic evil whose life is devoted entirely to appearances and external signifiers of his worth and status as an American Male in the exclusive world of white 80’s corporate culture.  His inner world is so unexpressed that he has lost the faculty of feeling altogether and resorts to monstrous acts of cruelty and violence which offer him sensation, but ultimately fail to restore any capacity for empathy or remorse. He has become a true psychopath. In his desperate need to maintain and fulfill all the expectations that his American Male persona requires, he inadvertently creates a monster growing within. The more he struggles to maintain the image of male perfection, the more his monster refuses to be silent. Eventually, he gives it a voice–brutally and ecstatically committing one murder after another, right in the middle of his pristine designer condo. At last, the true nature of the violence he has done to his own identity is expressed, and his individual, emotional self has been suppressed so far beneath the surface that he feels no remorse for his hideous crimes. In fact, he relishes the experience of true self expression and unhinged euphoric freedom. But it doesn’t begin to solve him or satisfy him. He remains inhuman. His disconnect is permanent.

Two nudes - "American Psycho"(left) and "American Gigolo"(right)

Like the films these men appear in, they are each an immaculate and stylized work of art. Everything stems from a calculated vision with every detail considered and highly controlled. Their bodies are cared for, exercised and sculpted into their most pleasing, Greco-Roman shapes–smooth and ideal. They are self-created works of art. Extreme care and dedication is given to every aspect of their appearance and demeanor–even the most insignificant detail. The embossing of a business card, the delicate manicuring of fingernails, or the proper combination of Armani shirts and ties is as important to sustaining their personas as eating is to living. Though their processes and concerns may not seem typically masculine, their end is. The role that they support and enable is the purest of the American Male fantasy: success and desirability. Peak social and sexual status and conquest are of the utmost importance as they live out the dream of the American alpha male. They, of course, didn’t invent this dream, but both inhabit it.

Julie and Bateman Work Out

“America” is in the title of both of these films. It is deliberate and not insignificant that the filmmakers included it. This is not the story of a gigolo, but of an American gigolo–not of any particular psycho, but of the American psycho. Rather than just embodying a singular character, the films allow their subjects to be voices of an archetype or an ideology–of the American Male. Both films address a Male identity crisis that is specifically American, and whose basic DNA can be traced all the way back to the very invention of the American Male himself.

Some say that what creates a place will always define it. This is probably true about America. Notions of personal freedoms for (white) men drove the first colonists across an endless ocean, on a mission to forge a new civilization created in their own image. This new world was founded with a spirit of conquering self-reliance by these explorers, adventurers, fortune-seekers, and crusaders. Nothing would stand in their way. Nothing would stop them. Any and all sacrifices would be made to achieve the end–the great new culture of getting and becoming.

Of course, many were left abandoned or dead at the wake of this mission’s great power, and many were left out of this vision for a new world–the native cultures, women, and any other non-white-skinned people–but the American Male had been invented, and he was determined to succeed and spread. Once the idea of him had been planted, it was nurtured and cultivated by each successive generation of American Men, until it reached from coast to coast and beyond, and instilled itself deep in the psyches of every resident.

Throughout our history as a culture, the legacy of the American Male has met many challenges, adapting to changing values and ever-shifting moral compasses. Through each mutation, however, the core identity of Him remained absolutely intact. And He is alive and well among us today. He has just been reflected, refracted, changed his clothes, upgraded his politics, and learned some new tricks. He is usually less obviously ugly as he once was, and hides in plain sight–still defining the American masculine ethos–still marching right along.

We haven’t yet lost the conquering, must-conquer, aggressively expansive, upwardly mobile, self-defined, self-made, out-of-my-way, leader of the pack, winner take all, do what it takes, man in charge, in the know, in-the-now, under control, impresser of all, alpha motherfucker. He may most visibly live in corporate culture, the political sphere, or at the far end of the economic devide, but his influence trickles down to all of us. Whether we form our identities and desires as a path toward Him, or a reaction against Him, He still has a say.

That the force of the American Male legacy endures comes as a surprise to no one, and affects everyone. Julie Kay and Patrick Bateman are merely two examples of one of his types, but some of Him lives in us all.

For how long? I’m sure He’s got a good answer for that one.

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