Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

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Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

PHILM AND FILOSOPHY | The Fundamental Misunderstandings of ‘Literally Me’ Cinema

In a time of rising male suicide rates, a decreasing male college population, and the growing popularity of misogynistic figures like Andrew Tate, many young men find refuge and inspiration in the masculine protagonists of films like “American Psycho” and “Fight Club.” 

However, these films do not celebrate the characters’ gendered response to their social anguish and resentment, instead usually intending to show their dark and destructive sides. So the self-identification of young men with characters like Patrick Bateman of “American Psycho” and Tyler Durden of “Fight Club” as “literally me” not only contrasts with the actual messages of the films, but also provides harmful ways to deal with declining mental health and social disorientation. 

Specifically, “literally me” cinema refers to a subset of films that depict male characters acting out of resentment and alienation in negative, hyper-masculine ways — that is, often with aggression, misogyny and violence. These films are referred to as such because the male leads literally represent how members of the audience — in this case, largely young men — perceive themselves.

This idolization of “literally me” characters is intrinsically connected to various social trends for American men over the last few decades. However, in this edition of “Philm and Filosophy,” I will mainly focus on the disconnect between the creative intention of, and audience response to, “literally me” films. 

There may not be a more perfect representation of this fundamental divide than “American Psycho.” The film centers on Patrick Bateman, a Wall Street executive completely obsessed with his image and status. By day he follows an extremely regimented skincare and exercise routine, listens only to popular music, and is consumed by the most minute standards of social standing. By night he is a psychopathic serial killer living out extremely violent fantasies and impulses, usually targeted toward women.  

The novel “American Psycho,” written by Bret Easton Ellis, was released in 1991 and was met with extreme controversy, especially from feminist groups who said it celebrated violence against women. Ellis, a gay man, said he intended the book as a critique of male behavior, satirizing not only endless status obsession, but the darker tendencies and thoughts that lie beneath the tailored suits and slicked-back hair as well. 

Mary Harron, the director of the book’s film adaptation, said she believed a woman was the ideal maker of the movie, saying that she could more clearly recognize and depict the absurdity of Bateman’s behavior. 

Actor Christian Bale, who portrays Bateman in the film, said that “he’s so ridiculous,” “you laugh at him” and “he’s a completely unredeeming character.” 

Yet “American Psycho” has become the foremost example of “literally me” cinema because of the movie’s remarkable cultural resurgence in recent years. The character’s feelings of isolation and social alienation, paired with the dominance and power Bateman exhibits, represent the appeal for “literally me” viewers, whose veneration of the main character closely resembles what the aforementioned early feminist groups critiqued. Yet this film, written by a gay man and directed by a woman, and intending to satirize this hyper-masculine behavior, has been received by many young men as a celebration of such tendencies.

Other “literally me” films involve similar misreadings. Jordan Belfort in “The Wolf of Wall Street” is a powerful, rich and ambitious executive, until he loses his wife and child because of his rampant drug and alcohol abuse, as well as his unfailing tendency towards adultery. But many viewers only focus on his rise and ignore his fall.

In “Fight Club,” another satire that comments on destructive hyper-masculinity, the state of social disorder is a product of advanced capitalism, not of any supposed domestication of men, and Tyler Durden’s rebellion is expressly anti-consumerist and not some liberated expression of violent “masculinity.” 

Several other films simply depict violent sociopaths, such as “Nightcrawler” and “Joker,” yet their characters are revered in the same way. For most of the films that fall under this category, either the reasons for the main characters’ actions are misinterpreted as affirming a certain type of male behavior, or actual critiques of the more destructive sides of masculinity are taken as celebrations of it. 

For all these cases though, the various misreadings of “literally me” cinema serve as negative examples for struggling young men to answer their isolation and resentment with aggression or misogyny. The films themselves are not diminished by their misinterpretations, and their various criticisms and messages are correctly recognized and respected by many viewers. But Patrick Bateman and Tyler Durden were certainly not meant to be emulated.

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