OCTOBER 14, 2020
PALE NIMBUS, eggshell, bone: the shades of the business cards that a group of investment bankers whips out in an early scene of American Psycho (dir. Mary Harron, 2000). The men bear a strong resemblance to the cards they flick forward like switchblades: white, white, white. So, too, do their personalities lack color, consisting exclusively of the (largely interchangeable) brands they sport: Valentino or Armani suits; the exquisitely vague title of vice president. These white men are not simply symbolized by their business cards — they are business cards. Little wonder, then, that one of the VPs flies into an existential tailspin over losing the stationery-as-identity measuring contest: Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale) soon murders his colleague for having presented a superior card. Much as the only trait that materially distinguishes Bateman’s card from the white stack is a whiff of thanatos (its “bone” hue), Bateman’s nocturnal violence will soon become all that sets him apart from the herd of paper-pale finance bro doppelgängers.
This scene distills the paradox of white manhood with which US media and culture were increasingly preoccupied in the decade leading up to American Psycho’s production. As the members of America’s supposedly default gender, race, and sexuality, heterosexual white men were simultaneously terrified of and obsessed with being average. White men have historically positioned themselves as the presumed subject of Euro-American culture, even at times when this claim has defied statistical reality (e.g., when women have outnumbered the nation’s men, as they currently do, or when the number of indigenous people in North America dwarfed the white population). But alongside the social, political, and material privileges that such everyman status entails, certain “anxieties […] plague an unmarked body,” as film scholar Nicola Rehling puts it — anxieties that one is “ontologically empty,” a member of a “fundamentally unstable category.”
White men’s cognitive dissonance over this catch-22 came to a dangerous boil in the 1990s with the birth of the so-called men’s movement in America. The explosion of pro-male organizations and retreats during this decade — their members predominantly straight and white — was in part a reaction against multiculturalism and the political gains won by women and minorities in previous years. It also reflected a more material plight: rising unemployment rates were steadily eroding the middle-class stability enjoyed by previous generations of white male breadwinners. Men’s rights activists bitterly reframed this modest leveling of the cultural and economic playing fields as injustices, a rhetorical move that sociologist Michael Kimmel has termed “aggrieved entitlement.” And their message reached an unprecedented audience via new media channels sympathetic to the cause, from Fox News, launched in 1996, to conservative talk radio, which rose to prominence after the FCC abolished the Fairness Doctrine in 1987, to best-selling books like Robert Bly’s Iron John (1990). Meanwhile, the 1997 video game Grand Theft Auto allowed the player to enter into an avatar and rehearse violence on women and people of color.
Dozens of Hollywood productions channeled — and monetized — white men’s anxiety around their own forgettability during this period: think Falling Down (1993), Disclosure (1994), Fight Club (1999), and Office Space (1999). Within this subgenre, Psycho makes a particularly resonant match with two films released within the same nine-month period: American Beauty (dir. Sam Mendes, 1999) and American Pie (dir. Paul Weitz, 1999). Titled as they are, these three works implicitly position their straight white male protagonists as consummately American. Interesting, then, that a number of the films’ creators are not themselves straight white men: American Psycho was directed by a woman and its source material penned by gay novelist Bret Easton Ellis, while American Beauty’s screenwriter, Alan Ball, is also gay. This only speaks to the pervasiveness of the myth that white men are the stars of the American narrative; even as the films are at times critical of their leads, they cannot picture a world where Americanness is embodied in any other way. More than any objective reality, then, the American triptych documents the story the nation was telling about itself at the turn of the millennium — and continues to tell itself today.
Handsome, athletic, and rich, American Psycho’s Bateman represents the apotheosis of a certain shallow version of the American Dream. Bateman is paradoxically obsessed both with besting his peers and with assimilating among them. “I just want to fit in,” Bateman tells his fiancée early in the film; later, before hacking up his rival with an axe, he plays the Huey Lewis and the News’ song “Hip to Be Square” while extolling the “pleasures of conformity and the importance of trend.” It is precisely because the film’s protagonist blends in among New York’s conformist elite that he can get away with murder. Bateman capitalizes on his peers’ tendency to confuse him with other men, using his relative anonymity to slaughter victims, fabricate alibis, and procure an extra apartment for storing bodies. In the film’s penultimate scene, Bateman returns to one of his crime scenes to clean up the gory remains of his most recent kill, and finds that someone else has already done the job for him. The condo has been repainted a blinding white overnight and is now being shown, sans bloodstains, to prospective new buyers.
Hardly the first time that atrocities committed by a white man have been knowingly swept under the rug of history. Yet instead of relief at the clean slate he’s been gifted, Bateman expresses dismay. “I want to know what happened here,” he insists, crazy-eyed, to the real estate agent managing the now uncannily spotless apartment. It is in this moment that the film most jarringly juxtaposes white masculinity’s spiritual void against its privileges. Bateman’s egregious acts of violence have conveniently failed to land him in jail, yes, but they have also failed to individuate him. His desperate stabs at selfhood seem more impotent still if we assume, as another common reading of the film posits, that the murders he has committed are entirely imagined, just another male fantasy of sexualized revenge. In most respects, Bateman’s killings — indeed, his entire personality — are generic exercises in repetition: pattern (serial), murder weapon (he slays a woman with a chainsaw shortly after watching Texas Chain Saw Massacre), surname (“Bateman” riffs on both the other Psycho’s Norman Bates and on Batman, two other white men who play out their violent fantasies at night). “There is an idea of Patrick Bateman; some kind of abstraction,” he intones in an opening monologue. “But there is no real me.” Fitting in, as Bateman assuredly does, does not stave off personal despair — particularly if the collective to which one has gained entry is itself existentially empty.
If American Psycho offers up a business card as the emblem of shallow white masculinity, American Beauty opts for a white plastic bag. Both objects, flimsy and mass-produced, invite metaphors of surface and depth, as if to ask whether anything of interest lies beneath the apparent monotony of white skins and lives. But where Psycho (the more stinging satire by a long shot) says no, Beauty is at least nominally committed to a more optimistic vision of the American everyday. If we “look closer” at the banality of whiteness, as Beauty’s tagline commands us to do (the words were superimposed, in posters, over a white person’s belly), if we peer beneath that white skin, we will theoretically discover the special je ne sais quoi that ennobles even the most cookie-cutter Caucasian life. #AllLivesMatter for the Y2K era.
Like Psycho, Beauty initially offers a critique of mainstream American society, as epitomized by the travails of a heterosexual white man. Middle-aged suburbanite Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) is thoroughly cucked — by a cartoonishly shrewish wife (Annette Bening), an ungrateful daughter (Thora Birch), and a dull advertising job. Although the film initially frames Burnham’s daily humiliations as pathetic, we’re eventually meant to see his very mediocrity as the basis for his relatable heroism. In a clever trick that links conventional, suburban masculinity to victimhood, the film most aggressively draws our attention to Burnham’s averageness in the scenes where he undeniably has been wronged. “I’m just an ordinary guy with nothing to lose,” he tells the efficiency expert laying him off from his job; “I wouldn’t remember me, either,” he sighs upon discovering his wife with a lover. In these moments, the film beckons to its audience, inviting any and all “ordinary” Americans to feel Burnham’s putatively universal problems as their own, and to rejoice in the minor mutinies he wages against them: blackmailing his boss, berating his wife, and developing an infatuation with high schooler Angela Hayes (Mena Suvari).
Burnham undergoes an erotic-existential awakening, setting out to bombastically restore himself to the throne of patriarchal power. (If you think a fortysomething dad lusting after a teenager whose surname is a homonym of Lolita’s made for an uncomfortable plot point in 1999, try rewatching the film with a contemporary knowledge of the allegations against Kevin Spacey.) Although Burnham’s midlife crisis consists largely of trite regressions (new hot rod, weightlifting, weed habit), the film clearly endorses the basic spirit of rebellion behind it. Average Americans — read: white, straight middle-class men — like Burnham and like the presumed viewer deserve to live more deliciously.
Much like the windblown white plastic bag that Burnham’s teenage neighbor Ricky calls “the most beautiful thing I’ve ever filmed,” the film hopes to make the seemingly bland Burnham numinous to us by attentively excavating his inner life and past. In this regard, the movie’s iconic promotional image, featuring a rose petal-clad Angela, was somewhat of a red herring. It is not Angela whose beauty the film most prizes, but its male protagonist’s. In this project of imbuing Burnham with hidden meaning, the money shot is clearly meant to be his deathbed monologue, in which he recounts his most precious memories: “At Boy Scout camp, watching falling stars. And yellow leaves from the maple trees that lined our street. […] And the first time I saw my cousin Tony’s brand-new Firebird.” Burnham’s life has been little more than a cheap collection of stereotypically American experiences — yet it’s exactly this sacred commonplaceness that makes Burnham beautiful, Mendes suggests.
Whereas American Beauty laments the supposed denigration of the ordinary white guy and American Psycho skewers his interchangeability, American Pie celebrates him, rejoicing in an unraced US adolescence that never was. Pie regresses the American teen comedy to the mean along nearly every axis: from geographical setting (the Midwest) to plot (your standard virginity-loss pact) to a cast made up not so much of characters as decades-old character types (the horny exchange student; the jock; the fratty mischief-maker; the band dork). Perhaps due to rather than despite this orientation to the dead middle of the road, Pie achieved both instant box office success and lasting popularity as a gross-out classic.
The avatars of Pie’s purportedly universal American adolescence are, of course, five straight white guys. Even for its day, American Pie was exceptionally white: while many teen comedies of the ’90s had featured at least one actor of color in their core casts (albeit often in insultingly tokenized roles), the closest Pie comes is John Cho’s two-line part, credited as “MILF Guy #2.” But despite this and other demographic blind spots, reviewers painted the film as the tale of an everyman. Main character Jim Levenstein (Jason Biggs) was a “recognizably average kid,” Ian Freer wrote, a description echoed by critics like Richard Lawson and David Greven, not to mention Biggs himself. Even Jim’s Jewishness — the only trait that sets him apart from the WASP mainstream — is actively occluded. (Although Pie’s credits list Jim’s last name as Levenstein, Mandy Merck notes that it’s not until the movie’s 2001 sequel that this surname, or any other explicit reference to his ethnicity, is mentioned in the dialogue of the film itself.)
The movie’s investment in homogeneity also manifests in its characters’ feverish dedication to the benchmarks of conventional masculinity. Jim’s, Kevin’s, Oz’s, and Finch’s desperation to pop their respective cherries by prom night signals, at its core, their longing to fit in with one another and with other college-bound guys across America. (“This is our very manhood at stake,” Kevin declares.) But masculine conformity again proves a double-edged sword. In Pie, the white male adolescent body proves both excruciatingly generic, in its invisibility to attractive women, and excruciatingly individuated, via public humiliation, with Finch struggling loudly with diarrhea in a school bathroom and Jim accidentally broadcasting his own bumbling striptease to the internet. The film attempts to resolve the messy contradictions between social intimacy and social approval with an epically oedipal scene in which Jim masturbates into an apple pie baked by his mother. What sex act could make a man feel more special than does unconditional maternal love? (Jim’s mom includes an accidentally apt grammatical error in a note accompanying the pie: “apple — you’re favorite!!!”) What could be more conventionally “American,” in its dullest sense, than apple pie?
But there is an extra layer of darkness to Pie’s central erotic metaphor. The national reference in the film’s title positions the white male as America’s default subject, and its suggestive elision between pastry and female genitalia hints that women’s bodies are the piece of American pie to which every white male is entitled. In this light, Kevin’s preliminary pep talk to the group — “We will succeed; we will get laid” — has an ominous forcefulness to it. Sure enough, consent proves a blurry subject throughout the franchise. Jim allows his friends to watch via hidden webcam as he hooks up with the fully nude Nadia, a European exchange student; the same violation is again played for yucks in American Pie 2 when the friends spy on and broadcast two seemingly lesbian acquaintances. Although the American Pie movies have earned kudos for instigating a supposedly feminist turn in the teen comedy genre compared to films like Animal House (1978) and Porky’s (1981), women’s bodies remain the casualties of games of sexual one-upmanship between privileged men.
Pie is not alone in sacrificing female consent on the altar of its brotagonists’ quests for individuation. The majority of Patrick Bateman’s murder victims are women, and he records himself having gymnastic sex with two prostitutes without their permission; Burnham almost has sex with Angela, a teenager below the age of consent, while Ricky has a thing for filming the protagonist’s daughter, Jane, when she is unaware of the camera or actively objecting to being filmed. The fact that so many of these violations entail forceful video recording betrays a certain urge, among white male characters (and filmmakers) who feel forgotten and disrespected, to regain control over the narrative — to once again be the creator and star of the American story. But the nonconsensual nature of the films within the films demonstrates that the dominant group’s will to power cannot but come at a cost to others, the unwilling women on the little screens.
The American trilogy’s plots are shot through with white men’s compensatory brutality — acts of violence meant to win back lost power. Patrick Bateman’s evident despair that his crimes will not be prosecuted (“I want to know what happened here”) suggests that the murders were at least partially motivated by a desire for recognition, a wish to stand out from the white stack of self-same investment bankers. Likewise, American Pie’s Jim agrees to videotape his encounter with Nadia only after his friends insinuate that doing so will improve his sorry sexual reputation. In American Beauty, Burnham is eventually shot by Ricky’s hyper-macho, sexually repressed father (Chris Cooper), but not before Burham himself nearly commits statutory rape, unleashes verbal explosions against his wife and daughter (the telling climax of which: “I’m sick and tired of being treated like I don’t exist!”), and throws a plate at a wall. Mendes approvingly presents each of these tantrums as instances of well-earned catharsis, indications that our hero is finally seizing what he’s entitled to. “Aggrieved entitlement,” was, after all, the sorry state in which many straight white men believed themselves to languish in the late ’90s. Kimmel wrote in 2013 that America’s white men are “angrier than ever before,” but that diagnosis has only become more salient since Donald Trump rode a tide of MAGA fury all the way to the White House.
While there’s something laughable about a ruling class flying into a rage over the loss of accustomed advantages, the repercussions of this rage have proven devastating to many women, people of color, and queer people. The United States’s mass shooting epidemic, for instance, has been propagated overwhelmingly by white men who fancy themselves victims (often of racial minorities or sexually uninterested women). Nor does the violence born of white men’s aggrieved entitlement solely take the form of criminal acts; it has also always been institutional, officially sanctioned, as American as apple pie. Black Lives Matter and associated movements have repeatedly drawn attention to systemic police brutality against people of color in our country, most recently in response to cops’ murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. While the United States’s police force does not exclusively comprise white men, they are disproportionately represented in its ranks — and researchers have found that cops are also far likelier to use force against Black people when they feel their own masculinity is threatened. Others don’t even see a badge as a prerequisite to violently enforce a white male vision of law and order, as the example of vigilantes like Kyle Rittenhouse demonstrates. White men’s insecurity, in other words, directly and routinely proves fatal for people of color.
“White men are the only people allowed to fully believe in the American dream,” Ijeoma Oluo writes, “and the world […] has to suffer their anger as they refuse to let go of [that] fantasy.” As the chief purveyor of our collective fantasies, Hollywood plays a lead role in keeping those male dreams, and anger, alive far beyond the silver screen. Although American Psycho and its ilk are now two decades old, US cinema continues to regurgitate variations on the American trio’s theme of male Caucasian complaint. The subject still surfaces in our films with such frequency and to such critical acclaim that Vulture snarkily framed the 2020 Academy Awards season as a game of “What is a white man mad about in this Oscar-nominated movie?”
The particular vector of white male ire — a toxic admixture of pride and horror at the prospect of being average — has not changed much since 1999. Last year’s Joker, for instance, justified its eponymous hero’s eventual turn to murder by milking for tragedy his simultaneous inability to blend in (an embarrassing tic causes him to laugh compulsively) and failure to stand out (“It was like no one saw me; even I didn’t know if I really existed,” he remarks before shooting a TV show host). By repeatedly drawing a causal connection between white men’s identity crises and their bursts of retaliatory violence, the dream factory that is Hollywood both reflects and perpetuates this dynamic in the real world. If pale nimbus and eggshell don’t get you noticed, the wish fulfillments of the cinema whisper, maybe bone will.
Chelsea Davis is a writer from San Francisco. She holds a PhD in English literature from Stanford University. Her essays have appeared on Literary Hub, Electric Literature, and Public Domain Review, among other publications.