By Daniel Lindvall.
The essays in this issue examine the history of the yuppie on the American screen, from the cusp of the Reagan era to the current aftermath of the Great Recession of 2007-2009. The starting point is the contention that the yuppie remains a key character type of the neoliberal era – in life as well as on screen – pronouncements of his (or more rarely her) death notwithstanding. This is so not least because the defining personality traits of the yuppie – superficial individualism, empathy deficit disorder, conspicuous consumption – perfectly embody the ethos behind the ongoing, ever-deepening and widening marketization of society and the accompanying and seemingly unstoppable increase in inequality.
Thus, according to several recent psychological studies, there is a negative link between wealth and levels of compassion and empathy, as well as ethical behaviour (Stellar et al. 2012; Piff et al. 2012; Kraus et al. 2010). The rich simply care less about their fellow human beings and are also less “empathically accurate in judging the emotions of other people” (Kraus et al. 2010). Furthermore, greater inequality is linked to increased status anxiety and status competition, leading to a heightening of competitive consumption (Wilkinson and Pickett 2009: 44, 215). Thus, much like the sunglasses of the 1988 sci-fi cult classic They Live, the yuppie serves as a prism that renders visible the psycho-politics behind the often contradictory rhetorics of the ruling class ideology under neoliberalism.
The term “yuppie” – short for “young urban professional” or “young upwardly-mobile professional” – was coined around 1982. This was the year that Michael J. Fox first appeared on American television screens as teenage, Reagan-loving “puppy yuppie” Alex P. Keaton in the generational sitcom Family Ties (1982-1989). Sweet Alex Keaton, however, was still as much a product of the 1970s and the nurture bestowed on him by his hippie-liberal parents, as of the new decade. Instead, it is arguably two films set in the mid- to late 1980s that more than any others have shaped our cultural image of the first generation yuppie; Wall Street (1987) and the eponymous filmatization, from 2000, of Brett Easton Ellis’s 1991 cult novel American Psycho. The latter film gave us the classical portrayal of the “psycho yuppie,” as Christian Bale and director/writer Mary Harron brought Patrick Bateman to life with perfection.
In the same year that Ellis’s novel first appeared, Time magazine famously published a mock obituary of the yuppie under the heading, “The Birth and – Maybe – Death of Yuppiedom” (Shapiro 1991). As it turned out, Time was wise to hedge its bet with a “maybe.” The self-confidence of the yuppie was initially shaken by the recession of the early 1990s, much as it was ten years later by the dotcom crash and 9/11, and again during the early days of the latest financial crisis. But every time the real-life yuppie has returned with a vengeance. Thus, writing in the lifestyle magazine Details fifteen years after Time magazine’s obituary, self-styled yuppie Jeff Gordinier could snigger at the “provincial” tastes of Wall Street’s Gordon Gekko, concluding that, “compared with us, the eighties greed head was practically restrained.”
And how could it be differently when every crisis is skillfully managed by the ruling class to launch another round of attacks on the working class (as vividly described by Naomi Klein in her seminal 2007 exposé The Shock Doctrine), while finance capital continues to be treated as an all-powerful divinity, whose appetites must always be satisfied. As a result, economic inequality remains forever on the rise, hitting levels of income inequality that now even surpass – by a wide margin – those of the so-called Gilded Age and the era of the “robber barons,” before the turn of the 20th century (Piketty and Saez 2014: 838).
Here a word or two on the much-discussed “death of the middle class” may be necessary. Those who believe that this phenomenon will also, finally, mean the end of the yuppie are labouring under the common misunderstanding that the yuppie was a product of actual upwards social mobility. In reality, the yuppie was always a fantasy, not a product, of such mobility. To an extent – in its positive, celebratory version – the yuppie was part of a neoliberal ideological fantasy, covering over the fact that real “social mobility in the USA declined rapidly, as income differences widened dramatically in the later part of the century” (Wilkinson and Pickett 2009: 160). That is, the rise of the yuppie went hand in hand with economic policies that made it increasingly difficult for working and middle class people to become “upwardly mobile.” However, alongside declining opportunities, the rewards for those few who succeeded grew, and continues to grow, exponentially. Thus, from one crisis to the next, the yuppie evolves into an ever greedier, ever more self-entitled, ever wealthier and more powerful and inhuman version of itself. Today is the era of the elite yuppie, the super yuppie. Of trust fund playboys for president and sweatshop cyber-moguls planning holidays in space.
This is not, then, an autopsy, but a study of the shifting screen presence of a living and evolving phenomenon.
Daniel Lindvall is Film International‘s editor-in-chief.
Gordinier, Jeff (2006), “The Return of the Yuppie,” Details, November. Accessed 1 June 2015 at: http://www.details.com/culture-trends/critical-eye/200611/the-return-of-the-yuppie. No longer available at the date of online publication of this piece, 22 April 2017.
Klein, Naomi (2007), The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, Toronto: Knopf Canada.
Kraus, Michael W., Côté, Stéphane and Keltner, Dacher (2010), “Social Class, Contextualism, and Emphatic Accuracy,” Psychological Science, vol. 21, no. 11, pp. 1716-1723.
Piketty, Thomas and Saez, Emmanuel (2014), “Ineqaulity in the long run”, Science, vol. 344, issue 6186, 23 May, pp. 838-843. Accessed 1 June 2015.
Piff, Paul K., Stancato, Daniel M., Côté, Stéphane, Mendoza-Denton, Rodolfo and Keltner, Dacher (2012), “Higher social class predicts increased unethical behavior,” PNAS [Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America], 109:11, pp. 4086-4091.
Shapiro, Walter (1991), “The Birth and – Maybe – Death of Yuppiedom”, Time, 8 April. Accessed 1 June 2015.
Stellar, J.E., Manzo, V.M., Kraus, Michael W. and Keltner, Dacher (2012), “Class and compassion: socioeconomic factors predict responses to suffering,” Emotion, 12:3, pp. 449-59.
Wilkinson, Richard and Pickett, Kate (2009), The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better, London: Allen Lane.
 These are only two of the many ways in which inequality harms the general social wellbeing, as made clear by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett’s 2009 summary of recent socio-medical findings regarding inequality in The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better. See also The Eqaulity Trust website: https://www.equalitytrust.org.uk.