Joker, Woke Culture, and America

Why, despite wanting to like the film, I don’t recommend watching it.

I’m not the biggest Batman fan in the world, but of the DC pantheon, he’s probably one of my favorites, and so I’ve been looking towards the dark, gritty Joaquin Phoenix-powered Joker film since the trailer first dropped.

That said, I skipped on reading reviews prior, and tried to go in to viewing it last night with an open mind.

Sadly, I was disappointed.

Don’t get me wrong, I actually think Phoenix’s acting is brilliantly captivating. He brings an empathy and terror to the character, and the transformation from Arthur Fleck into Joker was one where you can’t look away.

But, I’m a viewer who cares about the themes of a film, and Joker ended up being too problematic for me to fully enjoy. If you’re someone who is blind to racism and sexism, angered by classism, and upset about the constraints of woke culture and just want to see a downtrodden white dude fight back against the system in an explosion of violence, you’ll probably love this film, and can stop reading now.

Also, from here on out, spoilers abound. Can’t say I didn’t warn you. Here’s a photo to prevent those who don’t want to see the spoilers from seeing them.

So what’s the beef I have with Joker? I’ve got three.

Problem #1. Mental Health.

Joker has a few great lines about the state of mental health. It rightly calls out how highly stigmatized it is, and we watch as Arthur Fleck (Joker’s name in this film) struggle to get the medication he needs to stay stable as Gotham slashes funding to the city-funded counseling sessions he attends.

As someone who has attended therapy myself, I am all too familiar about the costs of mental health care (not cheap), and the film rightly criticizes the lack of support for those who, ironically, need the extra support the most. This it makes clear.

That said, we find that dark part inside all of us cheering as Arthur finds himself without the cloud of anti-psychotic medication and starts killing people who have wronged him.

Both himself and his mother have been institutionalized, and both have committed grave acts of violence and abuse against people, deserving and undeserving.

While I get that perhaps the film is trying to tell us we need to help those who need it, it also stigmatizes mental health as this completely explosive, dangerous condition that needs to be medicated away. In reality mental health issues affect about 1 in 5 of all Americans. There’s a big difference between having a mental illness, a serious mental illness, and being a threat to oneself or others, and this film doesn’t show any of that nuance, choosing to, as most films to, bask in the glory of violence.

Problem #2: The Intersection of Racism and Sexism.

There have been a lot of other articles, and I found this NY Times piece to say pretty much what I want to say, so I’ll just quote them here:

“The fact that the Joker is a white man is central to the film’s plot. A black man in Gotham City (really, New York) in 1981 suffering from the same mysterious mental illnesses as Fleck would be homeless and invisible. He wouldn’t be turned into a public figure who could incite an entire city to rise up against the wealthy. Black men dealing with Fleck’s conditions are often cast aside by society, ending up on the streets or in jail, as studies have shown.

And though Fleck says he often feels invisible, had he been black, he truly would have been — except, of course, when he came into contact with the police. They’d be sure to see him.”

And while I could go on about the lack of diversity in Hollywood, when you have a film about a White antihero going around killing people, I’d rather not populate those side characters with Black actors.

It’s increasingly notable that beyond the powerful White men who Arthur murders, he’s surrounded by Black women, all who are unnamed in the film, and all but one who are unnamed in the script.

What’s worse is that while all the White men have actually made some transgression against him, the Black woman therapist he kills (or at last in implied to have killed) at the end of the film is genuinely trying to help the guy. Additionally, his neighbor (who he imagines he is in a relationship with but it turns out it was all a delusion), is implied dead as well by the ambulance sirens crying out as he leaves her apartment after he confronts her and the audience realizes their relationship was all in his head.

I give the film credit that it spares us yet another Black woman being killed onscreen, but what does it say by having Arthur kill people who have been abusive towards him and Black women?

Problem #3: The Woke Culture Issue

I’ve seen a lot of discussion about “cancel culture” and “woke culture” and pretty much everyone who is complaining about curating expression in a way that is more sensitive to the traumas other people have experienced just rubs me the wrong way.

“We can’t be funny anymore,” and “being PC is silencing people,” are just terrible excuses about for not being empathetic. Professional comedians and directors complaining about how they feel stifled because they can no longer make fun of disabled people, or minorities, or anyone else who has been historically marginalized really get no sympathy from me.

Frankly, I believe that if you’re not skilled enough to write something that is funny and empathetic to other people’s experiences, then you shouldn’t be paid for comedy.

But this is a review of Joker, and this diversion is important mainly due to who directed the film, Todd Phillips.

Phillips, known as a comedy director, switched to the dark and gritty as he felt shackled by woke culture. He told Vanity Fair “There were articles written about why comedies don’t work anymore — I’ll tell you why, because all the fucking funny guys are like, ‘Fuck this shit, because I don’t want to offend you.’”

I’d like to give Joker the benefit of the doubt that it was trying to say something profound about mental health, or be sensitive about it’s inclusion of women of color. However, the fact that the director seems to be unable to understand why crass comedies are no longer in favor doesn’t push me in that direction. Rather, I feel like he was trying to make sure people wouldn’t call the film racist by throwing in a bunch of Black women into unnamed roles.

Overall, I liked the film itself, but as someone who studies media and it’s affect on us, I don’t really find the benefits outweighing the detrimental parts.

Do I think it’s going to radicalize more mass shooters? No, I don’t think that films or video games are ever really at fault, and that we do, in fact, need to de-stigmatize mental illnesses and provide services to people in need.

Do I still think that it has the ability to trigger trauma and shame in people who struggle with mental illness? Yes.

Do I think it critiques a society that allows people to feel isolated and alone, cut off from the resources they need to survive? Yes.

Do I think that it’s still a problematic piece of film that, while having redeemable qualities, shouldn’t really be recommended or hailed as a cinematic masterpiece due to it’s problematic depictions of race, gender, and mental health? Also yes.

Exploring trust, leadership, art, business, skeeball, and horror fiction — Co-Founder, + Coach @ altMBA +

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