American Psycho(analysis)

125282-124069“Man up, dudes.”

This was how American Psycho author Bret Easton Ellis summarized, via Twitter, his recent op-ed for Whether reflecting a conscious decision or something less self-aware, the tweet helpfully and revealingly distills the gay writer’s piece down to its basic intent: to split the LGBT communities in two, pitting, for example, “manly dudes” against “femmy queens,” “real” guys against stereotypes, and “us” against “them.” It’s not entirely clear why Ellis must bifurcate thoughts, people and factions throughout his article, but exploring his consistent tendency to do so may give us insight into more than just the prolific author himself and can further serve as an illustration of how the most vulnerable members of our communities become the primary recipients of social aggression, even from within our own communities.

Ellis begins his op-ed by making points on which we can all agree: that it would be nice if coming out didn’t have to be a “brave” and “daring” act in 2013; that equality would feel more real if all newly out public figures weren’t made into talismans; and that the LGBT community is often spoken about in a homogenized way that carries oppressive expectations, like any other generalizing norm. Nevertheless, as much as anyone may agree with these valid points, the author can’t seem to make them without angrily contradicting himself. At first he acknowledges that the aforementioned limitations pervading queer lives are a result of what he calls “tyrannical homophobia,” particularly within the straight-male-centered (“dude”) sports world. But then he abruptly turns on a dime and blames queer people, specifically those he calls the “gay magical elf,” the “simpering Ka-ween” and the “stereotypical” (i.e., effeminate) gay man, for bringing these painful limitations upon themselves. (In noteworthy contrast to the “elf gays,” he aligns himself with another category of his own creation, the “chill gay dude.”)

How can this split in Ellis’ thinking be understood? Why must he attack some of the most vulnerable members of his own community for themselves being targets of attack? Founding psychoanalyst Melanie Klein’s theories may help to explain this. Klein theorized that in states of anxiety, we split “self” and “other.” We create a “them vs. us,” pushing away our vulnerability and need. In such moments, we fail to hold both “good” and “bad” feelings; we continue to split and project (maybe even tweet) rigid notions of “good” vs. “bad” as adults. Perhaps Ellis’ contradictions reflect a lack of Kleinian integration regarding his identity as a gay man, a dilemma of “good Bret” vs. “bad Bret.” Perhaps identification with the “elf gays” would make him feel like a victim (“bad Bret”), whereas identifying with a straight “dude” makes him feel powerful (“good Bret”). His article seems to support such a theory, as he writes that “straight dudes” often tweet homophobic slurs at him, and that he simply, “shrug[s] it off,” suggesting that the queer targets of his own slurs should do the same and “man up,” as he tweeted.

(A split between “man/good” and “woman[ly]/bad” is not terribly surprising for a guy whose film writing career is bookended by American Psycho, about a man who horrifically decimates women with power tools, and the as-yet-unreleased The Canyons, whose extended pre-release clip involves Lindsay Lohan being assaulted by an angry man as she searches for her cell phone.)

This read might be of little concern if Ellis weren’t a renowned author with a Twitter following in the hundreds of thousands. But he is, and his words, projections, tweets and articles potentially influence those who struggle with concepts of identity, gender and/or sexuality — and who may even use his words to justify acts of hate against effeminate men, transgender people and/or women. Consider the “them against us” mentality being touted by the Gaybros, an online group that, like Ellis, accuses “stereotypical” gay men of alienating them because of their identification with straight “dudes.”

If Ellis wanted simply to critique our society’s harmful tendency to categorize people, few would argue with him. But argument seems to be what he intends. He does not appear content to privately enjoy his self-identification as a “real” gay “dude.” Instead, he insists on asserting his “dudeness” by publicly splitting himself from the “elf gays.” For Ellis there seems to be no realness, no masculinity, no power (and perhaps no self) without a despised, feminine, vulnerable foil. When he writes that he was “ostracized” by GLAAD (the very organization he chides for creating the “magical gay elf” phenomenon, and for throwing “hissy fit[s]”) in being disinvited from their awards ceremony this year, I can’t help but imagine another scenario: Ellis as a high school student, getting picked for a sports team, but then suddenly accusing the effeminate gay boy sitting on the bench (still unpicked) for rejecting him. One wonders why Ellis would even want to attend the GLAAD awards if his status as a “chill gay dude” is working so well for him.

The author also claims further victimization by the “gay elite,” whom he says “punish” him for not living a “normal” gay life. This rhetorical move is what I call the bully defense, in which those associated with minority groups are accused of being “sanctimonious,” “on high” and “elite” by those who attack them, sometimes with brute force. (Refer to the garden of American politics to witness the flourishing of this defense.) Sadly, by using this framework, Ellis only reinforces the problem he seeks to undo. He is certainly not alone in wanting to explode stereotypes and expand notions of queer identity, but as queer theorist Heather Love says, “[r]esisting the call of gay normalization means refusing to write off the most vulnerable,” and by splitting queer people into “elves” and “dudes,” Ellis does just that. He can’t deny that the types of characters GLAAD has drawn attention to, those he writes off as “bitch clowns” and “queeny best friends,” not only exist in real life but are among the most vulnerable people on Earth. Acceptance of our community’s most targeted members in mass media only means more possibilities for all of us, not less.

There may be hope yet. For example, Ellis has publicly “apologized” to director Kathryn Bigelow for his misogynistic outbursts about her last year. (He credits his mother for helping him with this apology, which could mean his primary caregiver is helping him to integrate “good Bret” and “bad Bret,” à la Kleinian theory.) Perhaps, in similar fashion, he will eventually be ready to discuss queer identities with less rage, and with the capacity to consider a variety of selves, not just “elf” vs. “dude.”

In the meantime, we might all reflect upon our own damaging tendencies to split our communities. Media representations of our lives may be limited, but we can create and encourage many more, including those that depict us as vulnerable. Owning our most vulnerable selves, as opposed to destroying them, allows us to move. Splitting, on the other hand, only keeps us stuck.