The cover of the humorous The Yuppie Handbook looks like a field guide to identifying this new species: squash racquet, Gucci briefcase, Cross pen, Sony Walkman, fresh pasta, running shoes with Ralph Lauren suit.
Two humorous yuppies in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. In this scene Julia Louis-Dreyfus, clutching her bottle of Evian, refuses her husband’s sexual advances.
Michael J. Fox, as Alex P. Keaton, holds up a picture of a young Richard M. Nixon on the show Family Ties. Keaton’s yuppie-in-training was humorous and popular, although the show ended in 1989, just as the yuppie backlash set in.
“Gentrification is Class War / Fight Back” — Clayton Patterson captured documentary images such as these on August 6, 1988 in The Tompkins Square Park Police Riot Tape.
In Mary Harron’s film American Psycho, “Die Yuppie Scum!” is spray-painted on one of Patrick Bateman’s walls. He seems not to grasp the irony in this sloganistic self-loathing.
Michael Douglas as Gordon “Greed is Good” Gekko in Wall Street. A sequel was announced ...
... after Gekko appeared on the June 13, 2005 cover of Fortune , demonstrating how little today’s political climate may differ from the 80s.
An early example of how the yuppie was initially positioned as a generational concept, The Big Chill feeds on 60s nostalgia (and product placement) to build a nostalgia for the present.
Charlie Sheen plays Bud Fox, who idolizes Gordon Gekko in Wall Street.
Tom Hanks as Sherman McCoy, a “Master of the Universe,” at work in The Bonfire of the Vanities.
“Scream Queen” Jamie Lee Curtis in her film debut. Blue Steel’s ending borrows from Halloween’s similarly indestructible villain.
Bret Easton Ellis’s later fiction has continued to play with the space between reality and representation, complicating critics’ attempts to locate his novels within specific cultural frameworks.
In American Psycho Christian Bale puts his good looks to work in his high-gloss, stainless steel kitchen...
... but soon turns homicidal as he chases a prostitute around with his chainsaw. The blood-soaked, ravenous look is similar to Hunt's in Blue Steel.
But not everyone found the joke funny. Barbara Ehrenreich, in her study of middle-class life in the 80s, Fear of Falling, points out how yuppies served as a marker for middle-class anxieties; they were
The yuppies’ apparent insouciance in light of economic and social change, and the media’s humorous cultivation of their frivolity, began to bring about some of the worst “cultural overtones” now ascribed to Yuppies. A “new ‘hostility’ [was] attached to the word,” as the phrase “Die Yuppie Scum” intaglioed its way across cities. Criminals were encouraged to “mug a yuppie,” and the fight against yuppie gentrification had some residents vandalizing yuppie front doors, gourmet stores, and most especially parked BMWs. In cinema, Barry Keith Grant was even able to identify the subgenre “yuppie horror,” which focused on yuppie anxieties. Looking at films like After Hours (dir. Martin Scorsese, U.S., 1985), Desperately Seeking Susan (dir. Susan Seidelman, U.S., 1985), Something Wild (dir. Jonathan Demme, U.S., 1986), and Fatal Attraction, Grant shows how the “yuppie horror” genre
One such anxiety is the yuppie’s fear of losing what s/he has worked so hard to get. On the one hand, we see the yuppie’s high-powered rise to the top in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street (U.S., 1987) and on the other, the equally rapid fall to the bottom in Brian de Palma’s Bonfire of the Vanities (U.S., 1990). I imagine the ideal audience for such visions of “yuppie horror” as being the characters in the yuppie drama The Big Chill (dir. Lawrence Kasdan, U.S., 1983), who struggle to break out of their self-absorbed lives while mourning a friend’s death. Interestingly, what these last three films demonstrate is that the yuppie’s hard-won success made the yuppie lifestyle especially fragile. Ehrenreich explains that since one segment of the middle class “seemed to have a clear strategy for success” and “because that strategy involved such a betrayal of traditional middle-class values . . . the media [may have] turned so quickly against those who followed” the yuppie lifestyle.
While it was argued at that time that a backlash against the yuppie would “lead to more social concern,” Ehrenreich’s argument most certainly still holds true today, as the reviled yuppies of the 80s escaped only in order to return as the hated image of the corporate executives embodied in the recent Enron scandal. The dangers of unregulated economic gain, resulting from laissez-faire Reaganomics and symbolized by yuppies like Wall Street’s Gordon Gekko, may have first been illustrated in 80s cinema, but Gekko’s mantra “greed is good” seems not to have lost any of its allure in today’s corporate climate.
Hendrik Hertzberg suggests of the yuppie,
What we are left with from the “short life, untimely death, and general inaccuracy of the media’s image of the yuppie” is an unanchored cultural object with diverse and contradictory aims. This object in a film like The Big Chill represents a new kind of community to replace failed 60s radicalism, while in The Bonfire of the Vanities the yuppie lifestyle has become a ridiculed and silly cliché. In the yuppie devil films of 1990, however, the yuppie becomes much more sinister and dangerous as plots associate that character with the trope of the newly fashionable serial killer. Suddenly, the yuppie was no longer a humorously maladjusted, but otherwise benign, citizen; he was a homicidal maniac. Impeccably groomed on the outside, inside he was ravenous and wounded, psychotic and dangerous. The yuppie went from being a conventional public figure representing a foolish U.S. lifestyle to a horror trope delivering a severe moral warning about the consequences of money, privilege and social status, and trust in the image of perfection.
Literary critic Mark Seltzer identifies recent U.S. interest in serial killers as part of a larger “wound culture,” and he locates this explicitly in the mid-80s, right at the time the yuppie was also making front-page news. While he begins with turn-of-the-century figures such as Jack the Ripper, Seltzer spends most of his time on what we have only recently come to call “serial killers,” a term coined in the mid-70s by FBI profilers, who in the 80s became as well known as their quarry. After a 1983 Senate hearing on “Serial Murders” and a 1984 HBO special Murder: No Apparent Motive, a large number of nonfiction books were produced on serial killers in the 80s, including historian Philip Jenkins’s Using Murder: The Social Construction of Serial Homicide, which argued that “in the 1980s, serial murder came to symbolize the worst manifestations of human behavior.” Public shootings — Reagan (1981), Pope John Paul II (1981), and John Lennon (1980) — began the decade, and public interest continued with the postal killing sprees that first occurred in 1986. The court cases of Richard Chambers (“The Preppie Killer,” 1986), and the executions of notorious figures like Ted Bundy (1989) also focused public attention on the acts of what Time magazine labeled in 1983, “a new breed of killer.” These cases came to television in 1991 with the introduction and popularity of the cable network Court TV, and they were embodied by cultural villain-heroes such as Freddy Krueger, who made his way from horror cinema to syndicated television and toy store shelves during the “media-borne ‘serial killer panic of 1983 to 1985.’” In retrospect, I am intrigued by the synchronicity of the development of the yuppie and the serial killer in 1983; while these public types developed along different trajectories during the 80s, it seems only fitting that they are reunited in the yuppie devil films of 1990.
The new public anxiety over the issue of unmotivated violence in U.S. society, defined by the spectral threat of a solitary, lurking serial killer, interestingly parallels the yuppie’s later representation as an elusive, “mythological” beast. Both of these character types had come to be represented less as specific individuals with unique characteristics, and more as empty signifiers paradoxically defined by their superficial blandness and inner emptiness. That the yuppie and the serial killer are so similar in their superficiality is part of the reason why these types seem naturally to fit together. Blue Steel plays with this very notion in casting Halloween (dir. John Carpenter, U.S., 1978) actress Jamie Lee Curtis, who has to fend off similarly indestructible villains in both films.
It is a further mark of the similarity of the yuppie and the serial killer tropes that as recently as 2000, when Mary Harron released the film American Psycho (U.S.), based on Bret Easton Ellis’s “controversial” 1991 novel, the yuppie devil was still an object of criticism and anxiety. Harron’s American Psycho was boycotted and attacked in the same manner as Ellis’s novel, even though Harron’s film (like Ellis’s version) was couched pointedly in the fantasy of a period piece. The film may have touched a nerve, however, since it addressed, by means of a simple reading, the evil born of rampant consumerism and a capitalist-centered existence, a theme present during Reagan’s presidency as well as both Bushes’. Peter Bowen, in an interview with Harron, suggests that the film’s “mix of identity crisis and abrupt violence seem oddly more in tune with the tenor of our times” than of the novel’s, and that
What Bowen suggests is that while the yuppie devil emerged briefly in 1989-1991, these representations unsuccessfully resolved whatever it was about the yuppie devil that was so bothersome, and that Harron’s film was less a period piece than a contemporary analysis. Explaining the negative critical response Harron received, could it be, as Pagan Kennedy pointed out earlier about Ellis’s “Frankenstein monster of a book,” that “just as in the horror flicks, the mob, armed with pitchforks and torches, is chasing down the beast . . . rather than its true creator”?
Harron’s film is of course based on the prime literary example of the yuppie devil, Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho. Here I want to comment briefly on Ellis’s novel to illustrate similar dynamics in the earlier Blue Steel. American Psycho’s portrayal of the yuppie psycho has already been critically dismissed and defended at great length. Initial response to the novel was sensationalist, and entirely a product of its first publisher Simon & Schuster’s dropping of the novel three months prior to publication, which led to censure from groups like the National Organization of Women but complaints of censorship from the Authors Guild and the American Civil Liberties Union. The novel’s subject, the inner life of yuppie Patrick Bateman, whose multiple murders are described in explicit detail, overwhelmed the novel’s style in the mind of early reviewers. Unable to get beyond the plot, many failed to take into account the irony of the novel’s flat, distanced tone and first-person narration. As Jane Feuer puts it, “the whole tone of yuppie culture was self-mocking,” and this is especially evident in Ellis’s version of yuppie devil culture.
One reading of the novel connects the book's jarring scenes of murder and cannibalism with its boring period details and minute description of the yuppie, finding a metaphor in Bateman for the kind of conspicuous consumption and selfish hedonism epitomized by the Reagan 80s. Linda S. Kauffman, discussing Harron’s film, refers back to her reading of Ellis’s novel, in which the cannibalism in particular (an element only alluded to in the film), serves as
Kauffman herself extends the metaphor. Discussing the film’s credit sequence, which takes place in a restaurant and focuses on gourmet yuppie cuisine being covered with rich, blood-dark sauces, she declares,
Kauffman’s focus on the visual elements of consumption leads her to compare Ellis’s novel to Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, calling American Psycho
It is this “gilded age of greed,” represented most clearly in both tales by a nouveau riche urban environment, which produces “the convergence of consumerism and psychosis” that is figured by the yuppie devil. The two together seem to be less a product of their individual components and more a conjoined twin of the postmodern age.
This is a common reading of the yuppie psycho, but while acknowledging the value of the metaphoric implications of cannibalism in American Psycho, to simply say that late-80s United States got tired of a culture of wealth would oversimplify the novel’s relation to its period and suggest that the Reagan 80s “caused” yuppie psychosis, without considering the ways in which “the Reagan 80s” is also in turn constructed by these very depictions. In this, I suggest that critical response to Blue Steel, while less hysterical than American Psycho, nonetheless similarly posits too direct a logic of cause and effect between its villain and its heroine, naively suggesting that Eugene Hunt was created by his culture, instead of considering how cultural constructions such as Eugene Hunt in turn affect our reading of what it meant to be a yuppie in the 80s.
There is a similar argument in Ellis’s novel; from the beginning of American Psycho yuppie Timothy Price tells Patrick Bateman,
This ridiculous “theory” exemplifies the yuppie’s anxiety over contagion To have a yuppie seriously imagine that s/he can “catch” dyslexia from someone suggests that the yuppie has an exaggerated worry about the boundaries between the private and the public. The yuppie is unable to separate the two, for it is a boundary under constant threat from the virus of the middle-class, which Ehrenreich labels “the fear of falling.” This theory likewise suggests that the yuppie’s self-absorbed egomania may also predispose it to “catch” the serial killer lifestyle.
Yet “catching” psychosis is another way of reading the impact of the yuppie devil trope, and of expressing an anxiety over the boundaries between reality and representation, such as Blue Steel’s faked and field violence. Ellis critiques the viral model of cultural formation; yuppies are not yuppies simply because they “caught” 80s greed. Critic Ruth Helyer compares Ellis’s novel to the gothic genre, reading Patrick Bateman as a Jekyll and Hyde figure gone wrong. Helyer concludes that Bateman
These fluid boundaries are central to Bateman’s inability to be himself and not “the other”; he is especially
As in Blue Steel, the threat of feminization is the key point linking the yuppie and the psycho. Setting aside a causal relation between yuppiedom and psychosis (which would not do justice to either trope’s popularity in the public imagination), Helyer suggests that the complexity of the yuppie psycho stems from the contrary, uneven negotiation of power and gender. The incommensurability of power and gender, like the yuppie psycho figure, leads directly to parody and boundary troubles, and raises the problem of how yuppie devil films reflect a vision of 80s culture. If the yuppie devil is himself a parodic figure, existing more as an imitation of a self than an expression of an actual identity, then the appearance of the yuppie devil at the end of the 80s suggests a more fundamental issue at the core of cultural subjectivity. The yuppie devil may not be evil solely because he is a capitalist, but rather because being a yuppie entails a more fragmented, imitative postmodern lifestyle that is frightening in its own right. Thus, while many yuppie devil films point a finger at self-made yuppies, I find Blue Steel’s Eugene Hunt instead pointing back at his own culture.
Jane Feuer suggests that the yuppie, like Reagan,
Likewise, Bateman in Ellis’s novel finally realizes,
Eugene Hunt, too, was “simply not there” as he only saw his identity as being one half of Megan Turner’s. American Demographics noted,
The elusive nature of the yuppie may be evidence that the yuppie never truly existed in the first place, and if the yuppie never truly existed, then the yuppie devil is an especially vague and shadowy figure. The truly provocative idea here is that the yuppie devil of Blue Steel and American Psycho may be less a perverse, evil figure of the anxious problems of the 80s, and more a common symptom of a larger failure to negotiate class, gender, and race issues of that decade. The yuppie devil became an instantly recognizable symbol in late-80s cinema not because he was a marked outsider, but because he made audiences recognize their own, pervasive, inner emptiness.