2008, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 50, spring 2008
Yuppie devil: villainy in
Kathryn Bigelow’s Blue Steel
by Kevin L. Ferguson
“When Mephistopheles shows up wearing a gold Rolex he’s truly a creature for our age.”
— Janet Maslin[open endnotes in new window]
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:
“When [Blue Steel] assumes that [its villain] automatically has the makings of a psychotic killer, it doesn’t imagine itself to be making any kind of leap.”
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
“aged 29 to 35 who live in metropolitan areas, work in professional or managerial occupations, and have an income of at least $30,000 if they live alone.”
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,
“Rather than impart the point of view of the bullets going into the chamber from the outside in, [Bigelow] presents the insertion ‘from within,’ perhaps suggesting a point of view that is gendered female.”
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:
“You shot him without blinking an eye. I knew . . . you’re the only one who is capable of understanding.”
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.
This idea of reflected gazes also gets picked up narratively as Megan must acquire a new kind of vision herself. Megan and Eugene are the only two who saw the thug’s gun. She at the beginning makes a double mistake by not seeing where either the gun or the yuppie witness went. This is a mistake in Megan’s rookie police vision, and in this way, the holdup scene recalls the film’s precredit sequence, where Turner responds to an emergency with a man's holding a gun to a woman’s head (the first of a number of such images in the film). Megan successfully shoots the man and rescues the woman, but she ultimately fails her test when she does not notice the man’s “wife” pull a gun from her purse and “shoot” Turner. At this, when Megan rolls her eyes and curses, viewers realize that what they have seen is actually only a training scenario. Megan’s instructor admonishes her with the supernatural wisdom:
“In the field you’ve got to have eyes in the back of your head.”
It's a warning that Turner next fails to remember in the supermarket when she does not see Hunt take the thug’s gun. After Turner graduates and this scenario plays for real in the supermarket holdup, the film slots Megan back into the student role, explicitly connecting the faked reality of the training sequence with the true reality of “the field” of New York City. Since the holdup precipitates Megan’s mentored relationship with homicide detective Nick Mann, it is striking that from the outset Blue Steel so carefully equates faked, “educational” violence with real, “field” violence. It's the same trick played upon the viewer in the precredit sequence. From the first, Blue Steel asks us to question the easy visual identifications we might make with regards to male visual desire, feminine violence, and yuppie devilry.
After the holdup, Megan is introduced to Detective Nick Mann, whose suggestive name sets off a series of male characters who question the acuity of Megan’s vision. After she identifies the make of the thug’s gun, Mann questions how Turner could have known that from the forty feet distance between her and the thug. Megan unequivocally responds,
“I saw it. It was there. I saw it. I saw the metal glint.”
Mann finds this unsatisfactory and performs another version of the earlier training scenario. Asking her to recreate the standoff, he quickly reaches into his coat, and when she draws her gun, he reveals he was merely holding a comb. For Mann and their boss Chief Hoyt, her response serves as proof of Megan’s “overreaction” in the supermarket, and it destabilizes again the relation between reality and training. Like the earlier test scenario, Megan fails here because her eyes are not yet quick or keen enough. Ironically, she has a quick draw and good aim, but the men identify her as a washout since her eyes do not have the acuity of her gun. As Mann leaves, Megan shows she is beginning to understand this, pointedly saying to him, “I’ll be seeing you.”
“Are you seeing anybody,” Megan’s best friend Tracy asks early in the film. Tracy introduces Megan to potential suitor Howard, who provides one version of a repeated scene where Megan is asked why she chose to become a cop. In each case, Megan gives a jokingly violent answer, and in each case someone is told to “lighten up” their visibly horrified look. In this case, Howard noticeably blanches when he finds out she is a police officer, and she calls attention to this: “You look bad.” Before asking her, “Why would you want to become a cop,” he questions her looks:
“You’re a good looking woman; I mean, beautiful, in fact.”
For Howard, as for others, the incongruity of Megan’s beautiful “look” with the violent seriousness of her job is confusing. She gives Howard one joking answer — “I like to slam people’s heads up against walls,” echoing what she earlier told her partner, who, moments before the holdup, asked the same question. There, she responded,
“I wanted to shoot people.”
But these defensive, joking answers drop away when she is later asked a third time by Mann, to whom she replies with one word, “him.” The most obvious referent for this is Megan’s alcoholic father, whom she has just threatened to arrest for spousal abuse. Yet since Eugene has becomes another possible “him,” we can see Megan as only realizing her fate after the fact, after she has met “him” in her new conflicting role as a beautiful female police officer unafraid to use her gun.
This conflict raised both by Megan’s good looks and her ability to look is exacerbated by further sexual punning. In the scene in Chief Hoyt’s office, Hoyt characterizes Megan’s shooting as masturbatory, criticizing her for how she “emptied an entire load” into the thug. The comb Mann pulls from his pocket adds a further detail in his character’s feminization; his long curly hair stands in contrast to Turner’s short, masculine cut. Doing so, Mann adds another layer to Turner’s mistake, suggesting that not only did she misrecognize the thug’s dangerous potential, but also that she is unable to recognize friendly images of femininity. The relationship between Mann and Turner involves, then, a double training; he will teach her both how to solve a homicide and how to be a heterosexual woman as he improbably beds her near the film’s conclusion.
Mann and Turner’s relationship is also based exclusively around the theme of vision, and mirrors the one of reflected gazes that Hunt develops for Turner. Mann wants to use Megan as bait to lure the unknown killer, telling Chief Hoyt,
“I gotta position her with high visibility.”
After the next killing, with the media looking on, Mann begins training Megan, instructing her to examine the crime scene and to read its forensic evidence. From the position of the body, she decides, “Maybe [the killer] likes them to see it coming,” a reading reinforced when Megan does discover who the killer is, and his fascination with reflected gazes. Megan also must “like to see it” — since she is the only lead the police have, Mann has her looking at the file cards of past criminals. “Keep looking,” he demands, to which she wearily replies,
“Only 600,000 more faces to look at.”
Later, abandoned by her department, Megan begins to pursue Hunt on her own, staking out his apartment and following him. Since the police have no concrete evidence against Hunt, Mann tells her to “just watch,” and interestingly Mann too begins to pursue and follow Megan. Naturally, when Turner discovers that Mann has been following her as she follows Hunt, she is upset, asking,
“Didn’t think I could handle it?”
Mann’s response is identical to one Eugene would give:
“I wanted to watch you handle it.”
For Eugene, looking plays a crucial part in his obsession with Megan. The film refers often to the attention or inattention he devotes to his surroundings. Directly before the first murder, Eugene walks aimlessly through a “Don’t Walk” sign; the driver of the car that almost hits him shouts,
“Hey what are you, fucking blind!”
Eugene next does not see a crack in the sidewalk. When he trips over it, his gun falls out and he shoots an accidental onlooker. Later, walking aimlessly, he is startled as if by a ghost when a prostitute comes on to him. In particular, mirrors make up an important part of his mental world. At home after work at the New York Stock Exchange — as we see him staring at a mirror, pointing the stolen gun at himself and mimicking a “pow!” — his eyes dart between himself and the door, recalling the way his eyes darted between Turner and the thug during the holdup. Later, Eugene sits on his exercise machine, watching a television report about “the .44 Magnum killer’s” fourth victim. Facing the camera, he looks at the television on the lower right of the screen, the reflection of which we can see in a mirror to the left of the screen. Finally, at the film’s climax, Eugene pulls one of Megan’s bullets out of his arm while staring in her bathroom mirror. In these instances, the film does not portray Eugene as unseeing or engrossed by his own image, rather as having only one image in mind—Megan's using her gun during the holdup.
Thus, because of this kind of complexity in Blue Steel’s visual theme, we need to look more closely at Hunt. Unlike in a traditional thriller, the yuppie villain is not attempting to hide from the police or escape detection; in fact Hunt is desperately trying to get Turner truly to see him. As Megan develops eyes in the back of her head, and as Eugene strives to get Megan to see him better, Bigelow links both sides of the spectator’s role — as gazing subject and as subject to the gaze. In Blue Steel, these two ambivalent readings of cinematic vision are linked narratively to the possession of the gun. Since there are two guns in Blue Steel, a legal one, properly owned by the improper female police officer, and an illegal one, passed on from a street thug to a male yuppie, we see again how objects like the gun or the cinema are on their own neutral in meaning. Only in their use or misuse can viewers locate narrative significance. Both Eugene and Megan are novices at gunplay, and both must work to sort out the proper and improper uses of their guns. Hunt, we realize, steals the gun not to repeat the thug’s male violence but rather to take part in the spectacle of feminine, authorized violence he has just witnessed.
It is significant that this first shooting occurs in the economic sphere of the supermarket. The gun represents for Hunt the possible tool for a reconstruction of the supermarket scene where an authorized act of violence replaces and becomes symbolic of public power. As he practices on strangers or in the mirror, he unsuccessfully replicates that initial scene. It becomes increasingly clear that what the yuppie devil wants is not Megan, or the gun, or more power, but rather all of these contained in one cinematic scene: watching Megan unblinkingly shoot the thug.
Bullet with her name on it
The thug’s gun, then, is primarily a tool to help Eugene recreate the original supermarket scene. In this regard, he fetishizes the gun as a privileged object, and he soon puts it to ceremonial use. In one ritualistic gesture, Hunt engraves Megan Turner’s name on the bullets he uses to shoot his random victims. This inscription develops and literally marks the gun’s libidinal economy, but also at the same time seems pathetically shallow. If Hunt has no clear reason for taking the gun or for shooting his random victims, then the laborious name-carving seems to be but a simple cinematic signifier of “psycho” behavior. Yet, as we saw, Blue Steel’s credit sequence worked to connect Megan’s uniformed body with her gun’s blue steel. Eugene complicates this image by assigning Megan’s name to the bullets, thereby associating her with his killing spree. Doing so, he both names his bullets for Megan as well as threateningly addresses them towards her. This is a complex gesture. I read Eugene’s inscribed bullets as yet another literalized reproduction of the supermarket scene. We see again that what Eugene wants is more complex than masculine violence or authorized feminine violence. It involves compulsively replaying the spectacle he witnessed earlier.
Eugene’s idea to inscribe these bullets is contained in a detail from the holdup, when the thug twice says to the cashier,
“What, do you want it engraved?”
With the pronoun “it,” the thug refers both to a joking invitation and to the waiting bullet. It is not far-fetched to later hear the thug’s words in Eugene’s imagination as he carves his bullets. This provides another example of the overlapping of faked violence and real field violence, suggesting to Eugene that engraved bullets would offer a suitably formal invitation to Megan. But Eugene’s romantic inscription of “Megan Turner” on the bullets backfires slightly since the misaddressed bullets arrive at the police department, setting up two competing relationships — Megan and Eugene’s, and Megan and Mann’s. Working on the mystery of the carved bullets, Megan and Mann become much closer. Even though Turner does not “think of myself as the kind of girl who gets her name on a bullet,” Mann reads the engraved bullets as a threat to Megan and wants to protect her. Just as Mann positions Turner with “high visibility” in order to attract Hunt, it seems that Hunt likewise uses Megan’s name to attract Mann. The triangular sexual relationship that develops among Megan, Eugene, and Mann is bridged by their exchange of looks and bullets. At the end of the film the inscribing of names on bullets is matched by the inscription of bullets on skin when Megan and Eugene are shot in the same place on their upper left arm. But, oddly enough, Eugene never takes any of the many opportunities he has to shoot Megan until the closing moments, and there only after she first shoots him. Indeed, we strangely see Eugene soliciting Megan to shoot him, pulling her gun lovingly to his forehead.
Blue Steel offers another mini-narrative to illustrate the engraved bullet’s significance in representing the film's exchange of sexuality. Bursting in on Megan’s meeting with Chief Hoyt just after the holdup, Mann is first seen as he tells Hoyt a sensational “true crime” anecdote. Mann, oblivious to Turner’s presence, describes a man from New Jersey who, receiving oral sex from a prostitute in a cab, had his penis bitten off when the cab hit a pothole. The punch line of the story is that while “she’s still got a dick in her mouth,” the man “don’t want to go to a hospital because he’s somebody,” and so “the hooker pulls out a needle and thread [and] sews his dick on backwards.” Turner, disgusted, interrupts with, “I wonder what he’s gonna say to his wife,” at which point Mann notices her and turns professional, critiquing her handling of the holdup. This is an important scene, since the story which Mann tells demonstrates a model for structuring sexual relationships that is charged with both economic and patriarchal power. The john (“he’s somebody,” just like the yuppie Eugene) cannot go to the proper authorities, and thus is a sympathetically comic figure to the police, who can relate, as men, to the difficulties in regulating their sexual life with their social life. But while the john is the butt (or the dick) of the joke, Mann makes the hooker’s stupidity the point of his telling. Intended as a bonding moment between male buddies, Mann’s story pointedly reveals Megan’s uneasy role in her new job. Mann, speaking exclusively to the other male, Hoyt (“you gotta hear this, you’ll piss yourself”), effectively excludes Megan from police life. Although he will, in partial redemption, become her mentor, we must wonder how Turner, already forced to defend her actions in the supermarket, could possibly mount a defense against this kind of world.
Not only does Mann’s story exclude Megan from the force, but the detail of the hooker’s well-intentioned misplacement of the man’s penis also appropriately captures the film’s construction and critique of women’s roles in men’s affairs. The cabbie — the other accessible male — was only upset about the blood in his car. So having lost his penis because of a woman (and in an illicit relationship he must hide in order to protect the privileged status which allows such women in the first place), the john has no recourse but to turn to this hooker in order to help him put it back on. The hooker’s ever-ready needle and thread and her expected skill at sewing recall the familiar feminine trope of the weaving woman and the trope of male desire for the domesticated whore. Her getting it backwards, though, and then being laughed at later by two men, demonstrates a troubling confusion between the sexes. The passing back and forth of “somebody’s” penis, signaling the appropriate and inappropriate use of phallic authority and referring to the loss of the thug’s gun, points out Blue Steel’s anxiety over women's taking part in homosocial relationships. But this lesson is entirely lost on Mann and Hoyt, who share the story between themselves. Unwittingly leaving Turner out, they simply recirculate their own masculine anxiety.
The point, which the men miss but which Megan relies on from the start, is that the phallus is mobile. The film’s exchanges make this clear: the passing back and forth of guns in the first half of the film (Eugene taking the thug’s, Chief Hoyt taking Megan’s) is matched by the passing back and forth of bullets at the end. The passing back and forth of the guns, the passing back and forth of bullets, and the passing back and forth of the penis all represent the same thing: the inaccessible economies operating between genders, and the use and care men and women should have for their phalluses. I wonder here if Blue Steel does not set Megan up to be the hooker with the penis in her mouth, or if it is possible that she is rather, in Hunt’s eyes, the john with the penis on backwards.
Eugene, in naming the detached bullets after Megan, asks a related question, as did the thug, when he dismissed Turner as a hooker by saying,
“I didn’t come here to fuck with you bitch.”
If we reread the holdup scene with Mann’s joke in mind, we would conclude that Megan is the castrating hooker, but one who loses the phallus due to her inexperience or due to the fact that she has no interest in sewing it back on anyways. Blue Steel elsewhere pointedly demonstrates that Megan is very un-domestic. Early in the film, Mann criticizes her for not having food in her apartment, saying,
“You want to keep secrets, do me a favor. Go shopping.”
Later, in a scene with Tracy just before she is murdered, Megan mock-proudly tends Tracy’s stove, saying,
“There, I boiled water.”
So, reading Mann’s joke in light of Megan’s domesticity, the film’s plot presents her with another challenge. In recovering the thug’s stolen gun, she is also asked to successfully restore the phallus to its proper place. We are again confronted with ambivalent readings. Is Megan foolishly ignorant of the authority invested in the gun and its bullets, or is she intentionally working against patriarchal signification here? Eugene’s inscription of the bullets avoids answering these questions directly. His lovingly aggressive behavior towards Megan suggests that the aim of the phallic gun is not the condition of authority, but rather the repeated, ritualistic expression of authority. If anything, Hunt wants to give the phallic gun back to Megan, not so she can have it, but so that she can sew it back on in order to bite it off again.
Ultimately, however, the reading of the heroine cop as vengeful feminist castrator is unsuitable since it does not take into account the complexity of Megan Turner’s characterization. Yet, arriving at this reading again makes my point about the burden placed on this female character if we conceive of her as the only well-rounded subject in the film. It is the film’s spectacularly violent ending, generated by Hunt’s unstoppable pursuit of Megan, that covers over the complexity of the yuppie devil’s desire and makes coherent readings of Blue Steel difficult.
We might believe that Hunt was already insane before he entered the supermarket, and this would provide an easy solution to the film’s problem. In this case we would read the film as a straightforward thriller, and understand the film’s coding of Hunt as a yuppie as simply metaphoric for the kind of lonely, pointless, and crazy-making existence yuppies lead. Yet, we would then give short shrift to the interrelated complexity of Eugene and Megan’s relationship. The problem with reading Eugene as a metaphor for how Reagan-era excess and 80s greed can make one crazy is that we may then be tempted to read Megan metaphorically as well. That reading could posit how feminism, for example, could make guys go crazy or turn women into castrating vigilantes.
While the film relies somewhat on the concept of a purely evil, obsessive psycho for the dramatic heft of its conclusion, I find it more suggestive to read the first three-fourths of Blue Steel as a parable of yuppie desire. Watching a woman shoot a man turns Hunt on, especially in the field of the supermarket. Rather than read his later psychotic break as a symptom of his yuppie lifestyle, we could find his behavior indicative of the limited forms of yuppie sociability that he was already engaged in. An isolated figure, he is unable to make sense of Megan Turner. He finds in her a set of incompatible problems, a beautiful woman capable of public violence. What fuels the yuppie devil’s ambition, paradoxically, is a kind of over-recognition. Thus, Hunt tells Turner “I know you better than you know yourself,” and “We’re two halves of one person, you and I.” Such a strange kind of identification demonstrates how reliant on others the yuppie devil is for his identity. By looking at Hunt, I suggest that his yuppie devil character is not unproblematically evil or psychotic from the outset, but rather that such yuppie devil characters are constructed only in a gendered relation to feminine heroines.
The female dick
I want to turn now to critical response towards Blue Steel’s heroine and villain, especially in light of Kathryn Bigelow’s Hollywood reputation. The majority of Blue Steel’s reviewers flatly dismissed the film based on its yuppie villain. David Denby wrote Hunt off as simply “a schizophrenic commodities trader.” Roger Ebert agreed, suggesting that Hunt is
“a customer who hit the deck long before the shooting started. He is already a deeply troubled man.”
“Blue Steel reveals almost nothing else about [Eugene], yet it counts on audiences to greet him with instinctive mistrust.”
Utilizing a recurring surface/depth model, Maslin elsewhere claimed,
“It is the film’s contention that just beneath his high-gloss yuppie surface there lurks a deranged, psychotic killer yearning to break free.”
While it is certainly in keeping with yuppie iconography to focus on Hunt’s “high-gloss” superficial qualities, critics contradict themselves if they also assert that underneath this lies a “depth” which can be so simply described (and ignored) as “deeply troubled,” “schizophrenic,” “deranged,” or “psychotic.” I situate my own analysis against such readings of Hunt, which mask finding any depth in his yuppie persona in favor of an ill-defined, one-dimensional reading of “schizophrenia” or “psychosis.” Interpreting Eugene as the “customer who hits the deck” — a literal euphemism for “yuppie psycho” — is a construction which works to contain contradiction and nuance by appealing to the vague category of mental illness. The difference with how Blue Steel codes the killer lies in coding his psychosis as a yuppie one. While Eugene Hunt is an early prototype for later, more well known representations of 80s yuppie killers (such as Patrick Bateman in the film and novel American Psycho), Blue Steel works from the outset to complicate Hunt’s yuppie character. His behavior is more than just a product of his insanity, and it actually works in counterpoint to the film’s narrative development of Megan’s character; the two characters are developed only by means of their increasingly complex visual relationship.
Blue Steel shares many features with Bigelow’s previous film, the vampire western Near Dark (U.S., 1987), most noticeably both films’ play with genre conventions and their hyper-realistic depictions of violence. The success of Near Dark, Bigelow’s marriage to powerful Hollywood director James Cameron, having Oliver Stone and Edward R. Pressman as producers, and her reputation in the media as an attractive woman had predisposed critics suspiciously to anticipate Blue Steel. Additionally, the apparently feminist subject matter of this film and its self-stated intention to be a cross between Dirty Harry (dir. Don Siegel, U.S., 1971) and Fatal Attraction (dir. Adrian Lyne, U.S., 1987) made the question of (or the critical decision about) the film’s sexual politics even more divisive.
Sympathetic critics initially marked Blue Steel as “postfeminist,” later drawing fruitful comparisons to The Silence of Lambs (dir. Jonathan Demme, U.S., 1991). In fact, both film share iconography — female investigators, difficult training sequences, mentorship relationships with men, psychosexual villains, and knowledgeable references to specularity and the cinematic apparatus. Also both are unusual in depicting a postfeminist female detective: rookie, ambiguously sexed, occupying the troubling identificatory space between female victims and female detectives. Cora Kaplan labels Blue Steel part of the “Dirty Harriet” genre, which feature“fantasies of female omnipotence” that
“rehearse . . . the uneasy positioning of women, and by implication feminism, in postfeminist dystopia.”
Kaplan also emphasizes Bigelow’s film theory training in order to draw out the self-reflexive relation Bigelow establishes between her scripts and her direction. Blue Steel’s suspenseful precredit training sequence, its association of the gun with the film camera, and its constant invocation of the theme of vision all invoke theoretical questions about the cinematic apparatus and the extent to which film audiences participate in the narrative, as well as questions about how well cinema can represent cultural experiences. Following in this vein, I argue that rather than see Blue Steel as simply representing a shared cultural experience of yuppie villainy, we should examine how Blue Steel and other yuppie devil films work to construct and manage the anxieties that yuppies raised in the late-80s popular imagination.
From a feminist perspective, Bigelow’s self-conscious narrative use of film theory ideas such as the cinematic apparatus marks one way in which we can read the film’s plot against its execution. Rather than dumbly absorb the violence of Blue Steel’s conclusion, viewers might read the film’s closing in light of feminist film theory’s ability to read film texts heterogeneously, so that we need not trace one uniform meaning onto Hunt’s or Turner’s character. For Kaplan, Blue Steel takes up the “synthesized popular feminism” of this period to interrogate how theory in particular
“concerns the construction of contemporary sexuality and sexual difference in — and by — the field of vision.”
Blue Steel is literally concerned with one result of the acceptance of feminism since the late 70s — the gradual admittance of women into traditionally male occupations. So, Blue Steel and The Silence of the Lambs, which center around law enforcement occupations that require a high level of specular knowledge, demonstrate even more the visible contradiction that literary critic Jane Gallop wrote about in 1992:
“In the American academy feminism gets more and more respect while in the larger society women cannot call themselves feminist.”
Ironically, as it becomes possible for films to depict characters such as Megan Turner in traditional male roles, it becomes more difficult to explicitly identify these advances with academic feminist thinking. For this reason, I think, Bigelow has made an especially knowing and subversive film which simultaneously presents and parodies conventional wisdom about both men and feminism in popular culture.
However, as with The Silence of the Lambs, Bigelow’s film may be a contradictory project if the “fantasies of female omnipotence” found in “Dirty Harriet” films give way either to misogynistic readings of violent women or to a complacent comfort with these heroines’ dehumanizing violence. Since the clichéd narrative conditions of the cop film ostensibly frustrate feminist aims, these films are of necessity always parodic, ironic, or incomplete. Thus I do not fault Blue Steel for not presenting a coherent female subject, but enjoy Megan Turner as an example of what Linda Mizejewski punningly terms the “female dick,” a sort of hybrid gender performance which takes into account both her sexed body and her unusual career as a police officer. Pointing out that the female investigators in Blue Steel and The Silence of the Lambs are positioned both within and against legitimating patriarchal institutions of justice, Mizejewski illustrates how the female dick, with her professionalized violence,
“poses a substantial threat to heterosexuality as organized by mainstream cinema.”
Like Kaplan, Mizejewski focuses on the self-reflexive intertexuality of Bigelow and Demme’s films, particularly the cinematic metacommentary, and also how both directors position their female characters against gendered career roles as well as against class and economic markers.
While the issues of sexuality and gender tend to dominate feminist readings of Blue Steel and The Silence of the Lambs, both films also significantly interrogate class groupings. Economic class is especially important in late-80s Hollywood cinema since it marks another category against which the female dicks are constructed — Reagan-era economic policy and the icon of the yuppie. Both Blue Steel and The Silence of the Lambs have protagonists specifically marked as of a lower class than the antagonists. For Blue Steel, part of the danger Megan Turner faces is succumbing to the allure of Eugene Hunt’s lavish yuppie lifestyle as he takes her to expensive dinners and romances her high above the Manhattan skyline in a helicopter. Megan is trapped between the yuppie’s newly-minted wealth and the depressing familiarity of her father (Philip Bosco), a dour, alcoholic, working-class man who physically and mentally abuses his wife and is scornful of his daughter’s desire to become a police officer. From her family’s perspective, Megan is a progressive character, and viewers are sympathetic with her intention to better herself. The same is true of Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) in The Silence of the Lambs, and both films’ heroines share this double burden of escaping their class origins and occupying masculine professions. Yet while The Silence of the Lambs invokes the “white trash” trend in 90s serial killer films (recently analyzed in Jump Cut by Nicola Rehling), Blue Steel’s yuppie devil villain is a problem, for he is seemingly the logical extension of Turner’s own impulse towards self-improvement and economic betterment. As Mann dryly comments of Hunt, he is an ideal mate for someone like Turner. He’s got
“nice suits, a good salary — your mother would approve.”
Looking at the villains in these two films, comparisons with The Silence of the Lambs make it further clear how easily the yuppie devil trope has been accepted. Work on Demme’s film has doubly focused on the female detective and her positioning between two male villains — the psychosexual Jame Gumb and the cannibal psychiatrist Hannibal Lecter. Curiously, though, no such comparable work has been done on Blue Steel’s yuppie villain Eugene Hunt. As did Maslin, most reviewers of Blue Steel hastily accepted Hunt’s yuppie devil characterization, paradoxically finding this devil simultaneously self-possessed and raving mad. This, I think, is an effect of Ron Silver’s performance, which in some ways does present Hunt as a classic film psychopath, “stereotypically nuts and then some.” Yet Silver only fully employs such a characterization at the film’s end. Earlier, Silver plays Hunt as a mix of contradicting thriller tropes: he is predatory and cunning, he charms his way into the heroine’s heart and family, and he knows how to cover his tracks and stay one step ahead. These qualities also align socially with models for a yuppie’s behavior; in the 80s, it was good to be cunning and charming, good to try to get ahead. It is only in the latter part of Blue Steel, where Hunt displays cinematically “psycho” behavior — killing a prostitute, hearing voices from God, and overconfidently taunting his victims — that Silver really begins to act “stereotypically nuts.”
Silver’s performance in Blue Steel, then, works in part on a visual level of typecasting. Silver often portrays Jewish or Mediterranean types. Before Blue Steel he starred as a Holocaust survivor in Enemies: A Love Story (dir. Paul Mazursky, U.S., 1989), and his next role after Eugene Hunt was as Alan Dershowitz in Reversal of Fortune (dir. Barbet Schroeder, U.S., 1990). In Blue Steel, his tailored, manicured look ethnically and socially distinguishes him from the fair, working-class Megan Turner. In the visual contrast Blue Steel sets up, viewers are inclined to read Hunt as an example of the dangerous, sexy urban type, while Turner is the pretty, innocent girl from the suburbs. The fairy tale aspect of their relationship is brought to the front when they first meet. Then Hunt, hailing a cab in the rain, makes a reference to The Wizard of Oz:
“Hey, remember what happened to Dorothy when she didn’t get out of the storm.”
In this case, Dorothy’s protector turns out to be a wolf in disguise.
Die, yuppie scum!
For feminist audiences, the stakes of turning back to reconsider Blue Steel's male villain may not immediately be clear. While in the latter part of the Reagan 80s the yuppie became a symbol of the amorality of unmitigated economic success, I argue that the yuppie’s promise of a lifestyle of wealth proved impossible not because of the falsity of Reaganomics or Wall Street capitalism, but rather because the instant success of the yuppie did not provide an imaginative space in which to place women. The 80s yuppie theme was supposed to be one of equal opportunity. This shaped the yuppie’s scorn of those who were not successful: “Go get a job,” yuppies sneered. As an initial political and demographic category, the label “yuppie” applied to both men and women; in this view money was more important than sex. Early representations of the yuppie in fact strived to be desexed, pointedly sublimating sexual activity to the greater good of economic activity and personal achievement. Many jokes dealt with the absence of sexuality in the yuppie lifestyle. For example, Marissa Piesman and Marilee Hartley’s best-selling The Yuppie Handbook: The State-of-the-Art Manual for Young Urban Professionals, published in 1984, the “Year of the Yuppie,” repeats the joke about yuppies needing to consult their calendars before scheduling sex with their spouses. A similar idea is picked up in Blue Steel; Megan is surprised when Eugene refuses her offer to come up to her apartment. This mild sexual rejection of Megan dovetails with Eugene’s de-sexed lifestyle, and he goes home to work out instead.
Another example of the yuppie’s asexuality occurs in the curious language used in initial media descriptions of the yuppie. As in Janet Maslin’s words in the epigraph to this essay, the yuppie was at first presented as a strange animal — it is a “creature for our age,” “a mythological demographic beast,” or the “newest political creature” which belongs “on the endangered-species list.” Described here in a way that is more taxonomic than demographic, the yuppie was rarely portrayed as a human. Nor was the “creature for our age” shown as a friendly one. The first moment in Blue Steel when Eugene does seem interested in sex, he hires a prostitute and ends up murdering her, howling at the moon like a wolf as he clutches her blood-soaked dress. Later, after he hides the thug’s gun in Central Park and goes to retrieve it, the wolf motif is repeated. Forgetting exactly where he hid the gun, Hunt growls and digs at the roots of trees with his hands. Turner interrupts him, and he gives her a wild, animalistic look. Hunt’s beastly image extends the yuppie’s asexuality to metaphoric levels; the yuppie devil is nonhuman in its pursuits.
Such an image has transformed the yuppie’s original characterization. Like the jokes about the yuppie’s sex life, initial social representations of the yuppie in film and television were humorous in nature. Because it is a simple character to get — self-obsessed, pampered, eclectic, snobbish — the yuppie provided a comic foil to saner ways of living. In the popular television program Family Ties (1982-1989), Michael J. Fox stole the show by portraying Alex P. Keaton as a tie-wearing young Republican humorously out of step with his hippie parents’ values. In middle-class, everyman comedies like National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (dir. Jeremiah S. Chechik, U.S., 1989), Chevy Chase and Beverly D’Angelo play characters scorned by their yuppie next-door neighbors, whose perfect lifestyle, indicated by an elaborate stereo system, chic bedroom decor, and jogging routine, is turned upside down by the simple-hearted Griswolds. Played for laughs, these yuppie characters are ridiculed for their image-obsessions, illustrating to middle-class audiences the frivolity of pretentious aspirations and asking us to sympathize with the frustrated aims of the everyman.
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 apotheosis of middle-class forebodings about the corrupting effects of affluence.”
"The very frivolity of yuppies — and hence of the very subject of yuppies — was a distraction from the deeper changes their appearance signaled. In the eighties, the class contours of American society were undergoing a seismic shift. The extremes of wealth and poverty moved further apart."
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
“specifically addresses the anxieties of an affluent culture in an era of prolonged recession.”
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 dealing with here is something that began as a demographic category with cultural overtones and ended up as a moral category.”
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
“its fable of a fractured identity in a post-capitalist, hyper-mediated world seems now a mirror of our culture rather than a warning about it.”
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
“a metaphor for the conspicuous consumption of Ronald Reagan’s America in the 1980s.”
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,
“Consumption is a portmanteau pun; it signals the excesses of crass materialism and simultaneously transforms ‘good taste’ literally into a matter of life or death.”
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
“another tale about self-fashioning in a gilded age of greed.”
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,
"There’s this theory out now that if you can catch the AIDS virus through having sex with someone who is infected then you can also catch anything, whether it’s a virus per se or not — Alzheimer’s, muscular dystrophy, hemophilia, leukemia, anorexia, diabetes, cancer, multiple sclerosis, cystic fibrosis, cerebral palsy, dyslexia, for Christ sakes."
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
“must increasingly imitate himself. Such self-parody is symptomatic of boundary fluctuation.”
These fluid boundaries are central to Bateman’s inability to be himself and not “the other”; he is especially
“horrified by the threat of feminization.”
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,
“was a nonexistent phantom figure whose effect as image was nevertheless real.”
Likewise, Bateman in Ellis’s novel finally realizes,
“There is an idea of a Patrick Bateman, some kind of abstraction, but there is no real me, only an entity, something illusory. . . . I simply am not there.”
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 funny thing is, no one has ever found a yuppie. Not even the people who look and sound like yuppies will admit to being yuppies.”
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.
4. “The Big Chill (Revisited), Or Whatever Happened to the Baby Boom,” American Demographics 7, no. 9 (1985): 29. Yuppies and Baby Boomers are sometimes used interchangeably, but most consider the latter to be more inclusive; American Demographics put the number of yuppies at 4.2 million, or 5 percent, of Baby Boomers.
6. She also will not see Eugene when he sneaks up from behind in Tracy’s stairwell, although she does notably take the advice at film’s end, when Eugene rises up in the distance behind her on a subway platform and she spins around to shoot at him, precipitating their final showdown.
7. Cynthia Fuchs asks, “Is it dad, Eugene, or some vague reference to male authority and corruption?” Review of Blue Steel by Kathryn Bigelow, Philadelphia City Paper, n.d., n.p., http://www.mith2.umd.edu/WomensStudies/
FilmReviews/blue-steel-fuchs (August 12, 2006).
8. In another context, a Time magazine article reports that “up to now, yuppies have proved harder to kill than Freddy Krueger” (Walter Shapiro, “The Birth — and Maybe Death — of Yuppiedom,” Time, 8 April 1991, 65).
10. Roger Ebert, review of Blue Steel by Kathryn Bigelow, Chicago Sun-Times, 16 March 1990, http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/
article?AID=/19900316/REVIEWS/3160301/1023 (August 12, 2006).
13. Unfortunately so, as Christina Lane points out that “an overwhelming focus on Bigelow’s appearance undoubtedly directs attention toward what she looks like and away from what she looks at” (“From The Loveless to Point Break,” 63). See, for instance, Betsey Sharkey’s description of Bigelow’s “nearly model-perfect face” (New York Times, 11 March 1990, H17).
14. Cora Kaplan, “Dirty Harriet/Blue Steel: Feminist Theory Goes to Hollywood,” Discourse 16, no. 1 (1993): 51. Kaplan borrows the phrase from a made-for-TV movie starring Angie Dickinson, Prime Target (dir. Robert E. Collins, U.S., 1989); David Denby also takes the phrase “Dirty Harriet” as the title for his review of Blue Steel.
21. The Yuppie Handbook (New York: Long Shadow Books, 1984), a knockoff of Lisa Birnbach’s The Official Preppy Handbook (1980), is the inaugural text of what was labeled, ad nauseam, “The Year of the Yuppie.” Discussing the “Year of the Yuppie,” Newsweek’s New Year’s Eve special report suggests that in 1984 “all these people finally learned who they were” (Jerry Adler et al, “The Year of the Yuppie,” Newsweek, 31 December 1984, 14). Impatient with the past, yuppies had to wait until 1984 to have a name for themselves, and as Jane Feuer points outs, “George Orwell was wrong: 1984 would come to represent an orgy . . . of consumerism,” since it “was also the year of Reagan’s reelection, of Diana Vreeland’s Yves Saint Laurent retrospective at the Met, of the rise of Dynasty to the top of the TV charts, [and] of Miami Vice.” Seeing Through the Eighties: Television and Reaganism (Durham: Duke UP, 1995): 14. What is interesting is how The Yuppie Handbook, with only one or two possible prior print citations, was able to get the yuppie lifestyle so dead on a full year earlier.
22. Maslin, “Now, Slyly”; Cheryl Russell, “Question: What Do You Call a Yuppie Stockbroker,” American Demographics, January 1988, 2; Steven V. Roberts, “Hart Taps a New Generation of Young Professionals,” The New York Times, 18 March 1984, 26; and Lee Eisenberg, “Goodbye to All That,” Esquire, February 1988, 15. See also George F. Will, “Yippity Yumpies,” The Washington Post, 25 March 1984, C7.
30. Marilee Hartley, coauthor of The Yuppie Handbook, explicitly points to yuppies’ children, who supposedly “will have a humanizing effect” on their yuppie parents. Dowd, “Retreat of the Yuppies,” B4.
34. Seltzer, Serial Killers, 150. Other nonfiction works include Tim Cahill’s Buried Dreams: Inside the Mind of a Serial Killer (1986, on John Wayne Gacy), Joel Norris’s Serial Killers: The Growing Menace (1988), Ann Rule’s The Stranger Beside Me (1989, on Ted Bundy), and Elliott Leyton’s Hunting Humans: The Rise of the Modern Multiple Murderer (1984). Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon (1981) was successfully filmed by Michael Mann as Manhunter (U.S., 1986), and Demme’s 1991 adaptation of Harris’s The Silence of the Lambs (1988) won multiple Academy Awards. Such novels as Ira Levin’s Sliver (1991), Paul Theroux’s Chicago Loop (1990), Lew McCreary’s Minus Man (1991), Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian (1985), Dennis Cooper’s Frisk (1991), and Andrea Dworkin’s Mercy (1991), feature at their core graphic murder and dismemberment, sexual and serial violence. Dworkin is an interesting case in point of the popularity of these fictions for both men and women; journalist Edwin McDowell quizzically discusses “the acceptance of such novels by many women” (“All the Rage in Fiction: Serial Murder, Multiple Murder, Hideous Murder,” New York Times, 15 April 1991, D8). The locus classicus, Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho (1991), is discussed in this essay.
35. Alessandra Stanley, “Catching a New Breed of Killer: Two Drifters Confess to Committing Hundreds of ‘Serial Murders,’” Time, 14 November 1983, 47. Note also Time’s use of the word “breed,” delimiting the human and the animal to explain these figures.
39. See especially Roger Rosenblatt’s hysterical review “Snuff this Book! Will Bret Easton Ellis Get Away with Murder?” (The New York Times, 16 December 1990, B3) and Richard Bernstein’s more temperate response (“‘American Psycho,’ Going So Far That Many Say It’s Too Far,” The New York Times, 10 December 1990, C13).
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