In Internal Affairs, the ostensible hero Andy Garcia is scorned as being a “selfish yuppie” just before he shoots villainous Richard Gere.
In Bad Influence, James Spader, often the villain in Brat Pack films of the mid-80s, has grown up to be a naïve yuppie easily deceived by drifter Rob Lowe.
With a look halfway between sneer and smile, Megan Turner on her graduation day squarely faces the camera, offering us her face as evidence of her readiness to face the field.
When she comes to arrest him, Turner finds the yuppie devil shrouded in low-key lighting in his office. The three computer screens in the background ominously recall his work on Wall Street.
Our first glimpse of the yuppie innocently shopping is a quick one. The deep focus is unusual in Blue Steel, but this shot is from Turner’s perspective, who is still learning how to narrow her focus on the job.
Clint Eastwood made the .44 Magnum, “the most powerful handgun in the world,” iconic in images like this from Dirty Harry.
The strange, concentric blue landscape of the credits ...
... resolves itself into the topography of the gun.
The camera is placed inside the gun’s chamber, offering a feminine point of view to the bullet’s insertion.
What looks like a spinning film reel ...
... slows down to become Turner’s loaded .38 Special.
Bigelow’s cool palette and high contrast lighting is evident in the title. We also see this visual style in our first image of Turner (above) and Detective Mann (below).
Getting ready for graduation, Turner covers up her feminine side in the drag performance of the opening credits.
Turner’s new wardrobe turns heads; in this case she enjoys attention from two female passersby.
Bright streams of light burst out of the screen Megan shoots at; the smoky air recalls a film projector’s beam of light. A similar effect was used for the poster of Near Dark.
The hand crank Megan turns to position her paper target looks both a reel of film and a film camera’s hand crank.
Film critic Janet Maslin must call forth the devil himself to explain the curious appeal of the yuppie to late-80s filmgoers. The yuppie devil at the end of the 80s, though, is more a crafty Mephistopheles than a fearsome Lucifer. A sly character with a keen sense for bargain and an eye for economy, this devil wears his gold Rolex in fashionable display and makes his pacts in public. No more magical, smoke-filled entrances, the devil at the end of the 80s confidently takes his seat at the head of the yuppie bargaining table. The devil’s public appearance as a yuppie points up the heartless greed of that decade, and so Mephistopheles’ gold watch indicates not only his proper place at the yuppie’s table, but also the culpability of those seated across from him (with their own Rolexes, Mont Blanc pens, and Ferragamos). Maslin’s article focuses on two films, Internal Affairs (dir. Mike Figgis, U.S., 1990) and Bad Influence (dir. Curtis Hanson, U.S., 1990), to demonstrate this new trend in late-80s Hollywood cinema, where the formerly successful yuppie was conflated with the newly fashionable serial killer to create the hybrid character of the psychotic, villainous yuppie devil.
In this essay, I want to reexamine a third film that Maslin mentions briefly, Kathryn Bigelow’s Blue Steel (U.S., 1990). Bigelow’s film is unusual since it simultaneously sustains and critiques the new trope of the yuppie devil. Furthermore, the film generated puzzled responses that allow us to see the ambivalent attitudes late-80s spectators held towards this new kind of yuppie villain. For example, even Maslin, in pointing out how yuppie devil films reveal the dangerous effects of “a decade of relative conscience-free complacency,” nonetheless mirrors this complacency by implicitly accepting the merging of yuppie and psycho tropes:
The self-evident “obviousness” of Blue Steel’s yuppie devil makes the film worth revisiting since its ideological obviousness hides more complex cultural negotiations in the 1980s between economic power and filmic evil. Finally, since Blue Steel features a female heroine who must face the male yuppie devil, the film further questions the obviousness of assumed gender roles in late-80s imaginings of yuppie lifestyles. I will start by offering a reading of Blue Steel which argues that its yuppie devil was hastily dismissed, but is constructed in a significant visual relationship with that film’s heroine. I will then discuss the rapid transformation between 1984-1989 in U.S. popular culture representations of the yuppie from a success story to a symbol of evil.
As Maslin suggested, yuppie devil films like Blue Steel rely on a shared understanding of what the yuppie would signify to a late-80s audience. In that decade, the yuppie was a new figure in the popular imagination who reiterated an U.S. myth of economic success. The term was coined in 1983 and first popularized in 1984, which publications like Newsweek labeled “The Year of the Yuppie.” The word “yuppie,” which comes from mixing the acronym for “young urban professional” with “hippie” or “preppy,” was initially used as a demographic label to describe Baby Boomers
Soon, though, “yuppie” became a pejorative description of a lifestyle, and yuppies were identified with a culture of wealth, conspicuous consumption, and conservative politics. Driving a BMW, working on Wall Street, exercising constantly, living in an expensively renovated loft in a gentrified neighborhood, or purchasing imported tarragon vinaigrette from an upscale gourmet store made one a yuppie. A backlash against the expensive, self-absorbed frivolity of the yuppie’s designer lifestyle quickly set in. By the end of the 1980s, the valueless yuppie lifestyle was a ready signifier for the selfish evil born of capitalism, and villains in films like Blue Steel could rely on this signification to scare audiences.
Blue Steel stars Jamie Lee Curtis as Megan Turner, a newly graduated recruit of New York City’s Police Academy who leads an otherwise quiet and lonely life. One night Turner is witness to a holdup in a supermarket. After a tense standoff with the thug (Tom Sizemore), she blasts him through the storefront window with six bullets from her service revolver. The thug’s .44 Magnum falls in front of yuppie commodities trader Eugene Hunt (Ron Silver), who secretly takes it and flees the scene. With the gun missing and no witness able to corroborate her story, Turner is suspended for shooting an unarmed man. Soon, though, her name is found carved on bullets recovered from a series of murdered bodies. Little does she suspect that the man she has begun to date, Eugene Hunt, is responsible for these random killings. As Hunt and Turner become romantically involved, Turner begins working with tough-guy homicide detective Nick Mann (Clancy Brown) in order to solve the case with her name on it. But, even once Megan discovers what Eugene has done, she is constrained from stopping him by her department’s disbelief, the yuppie’s crack lawyer, and fear for her family's safety. After Eugene murders her best friend Tracy (Elizabeth Peña) and rapes Turner, Turner is forced to violate the law in order to exact revenge on the now-psychotic Hunt.
The problem of reading Blue Steel lies in its ending, which is especially cruel towards Megan Turner’s character. She is disowned by her department; she witnesses her best friend’s murder and her lover’s attempted murder; she is raped, shot, held under guard; and worst of all she herself is finally driven to commit murder to stop Hunt. To accept the ending's violent pleasures, it seems we would need to see Blue Steel as a masochistic, misogynistic film. Or, to rescue the film from such a negative reading, we would need to dismiss the ending as succumbing to thriller genre conventions. Yet both of these readings rely on a vision of the yuppie Hunt as already damaged from the outset. If this were the case, then Turner’s heroic task would from the beginning also be impossible. So while dismissing Hunt as a merely psychotic yuppie devil may seem to rescue the film for feminist audiences (just look at what male evil a female cop faces these days), such dismissals actually make it harder to accept the narrative burden placed on Turner’s character. As a rookie policewoman, it becomes her sole responsibility to rise above the evil that men do, for which the merely psycho male has no moral culpability. When she fails to do so, the heroine becomes as evil as the villain. Focusing solely on Turner forces audiences to ask whether she acted justly in the end in committing murder, but this is an unfair question; Blue Steel punishes and puts a shell-shocked Turner in her place, but the narrative delineates that place as one created by her relationship with Hunt. It is imperative, then, to reexamine Blue Steel’s yuppie devil, for ironically only in saving him can we rescue Megan Turner.
Lost in the supermarket
The first place where viewers might see Hunt as more than a merely psycho yuppie devil occurs in the beginning when he steals the thug’s dropped gun. Hunt is introduced to the viewer as just one of a number of shoppers, and we are uncertain about the role this well-dressed, unknown man will play. We see his cufflinks, his manicured beard, his expensive suit, and his bright eyes. Thus, his concealing of the gun is surprising, at first suggesting either some ungraspable present need (maybe he’s in money trouble or he has some illness or other plot contrivance) or an example of yuppie opportunism (an illegal, untraceable gun would have a certain economic value, after all). Neither of these readings quite makes sense, and in fact the film’s narrative never offers an explicit reason for Hunt’s theft. Instead, the thug’s .44 Magnum in Blue Steel exists as an object of desire outside of the film’s narrative logic, working symbolically in Hunt’s and the film’s imaginative landscape. The .44 Magnum is of course the iconic gun for cinematic masculine violence. Clint Eastwood’s character fetishized it in Dirty Harry (dir. Don Siegel, U.S., 1971) after Lee Marvin introduced it in Point Blank (dir. John Boorman, U.S., 1967), and such extra-textual resonances can be felt in Blue Steel.
The foregrounding of this gun visually as a symbolic object and its fetishized presence in the characters’ imagination are established in Blue Steel’s opening credits, which show tracking shots across a strange blue landscape that becomes extreme close-ups of Turner’s service revolver, a .38 Smith & Wesson. The microscopic focus, geometric framing, and cool palette and soundtrack all serve to eroticize the gun, but in Blue Steel the otherwise phallic gun is contoured feminine. Christina Lane points out,
This slowly moving landscape of blue steel next cuts to a close-up of a stomach being buttoned inside a blue shirt. As the camera moves upward to reveal a lacy bra and then Jamie Lee Curtis’s face, we realize that the blue steel of the title refers punningly to both the gun and to the steely female officer who wields it. The title credits emphasize the performative aspects of Megan’s tough-cop persona, which she only lets down as she is drawn sexually towards Hunt and Mann. For instance, two scenes bracket the film. In them, we see Megan perform a kind of drag, first when she dons her dress blues in the opening credits and last when she steals an oversized uniform to escape for her final confrontation with Eugene. Jamie Lee Curtis’s short, butch haircut and tough demeanor also become part of this police drag and are vital to her performance as a female police officer in a dangerous, traditionally male occupation.
Yet there is another layer to the opening credits. Interestingly Bigelow projects the cinematic apparatus onto the gun-feminine dialectic, using images of the film camera to adjudicate between the blue feminine and the phallic steel. As the Smith & Wesson’s chamber turns, it remarkably resembles a spinning film reel, enlivening the familiar pun between camera shot and gunshot. This is the first of Blue Steel’s many references to the cinematic apparatus. Notably, the connection between the cinematic apparatus and Turner’s gun is repeated at the film’s midway point, where she shoots at a blindingly white paper target that looks like a film screen, a screen which she moves with a camera-like hand crank. These images link the possession of a gun to the possession of cinematic power. In setting up this visually metaphoric layering, Bigelow provides a second layer to Hunt’s theft.
Once the opening shots identify the contours of the gun with cinematic knowledge, it is this struggle that viewers are asked to follow, rather than the normal pas de deux between hunter and hunted. By placing the cinematic apparatus in between the ironically linked blue feminine and phallic steel, Bigelow suggests an ambivalence about the use of guns in Blue Steel. They become less easily associated with either masculine violence or female masochism. Rather, the film’s narrative struggle over possession of the thug’s gun represents a larger thematic struggle over the cinematic representation of violence by and towards women.
These cinematic references also highlight the role that vision will play in organizing Megan and Eugene’s relationship. Blue Steel is triply focused on complicating the audience’s vision of the phallic gun, on exploring Eugene’s witness of authorized female violence, and on training Megan’s police vision. These are all collapsed in Eugene’s unexplained theft. His reaction to Turner’s shooting was an instantly visual, visceral one. That scene cut noticeably between Megan, the cashier, the thug, and two bystanders: Eugene and an old lady. Unlike the old lady and the cashier, Eugene’s eyes were not down-turned; rather, he was actively watching the exchange between Turner and the thug. The editing pattern relied on Eugene’s eye movements to bridge these shots. Eugene later tells Megan how much he enjoyed watching that scene and how significant it became for him:
As his stolen, fetishized gun becomes increasingly symbolic, Blue Steel suggests that Hunt takes the gun as a ritualistic token or memorial prop that stands in for a greater “understanding” between him and Megan. Interestingly, Eugene describes his witness of authorized female violence in terms of feminist film theory’s discussion of the male gaze. Eugene is not excited to see a frail woman shoot a powerful man; he is excited to see a woman see a man see himself be shot. Likewise, viewers have a complex time seeing Eugene see Megan see the thug. Thus, the simplest reading is to dismiss Eugene as a yuppie devil, delegitimating Blue Steel’s complex structuring of vision.