Review: Joker (Todd Phillips, 2019)
There is no shortage of controversy surrounding Director Todd Phillips’ recent film, Joker (2019). From the release of teaser trailers onwards, critics and fans have posed questions across media platforms about the film’s intent, impact, and timing. During the press tour, Phillips’ own comments regarding the film served only to exacerbate these debates, leading The Washington Post to declare Joker one of the most “divisive movies of the year.” Phillips explained, for example, that while the film appeared to be about the eponymous villain of DC’s Batman comics, Joker was most decidedly not a comic book film. The distance between Phillips’ film and comic books is evident not only in the storyline, but also in the acting, the setting, and in realistic portrayals of violence (a choice Phillips defends by arguing that “the cartoon element of violence” in other films has made viewers immune). Thus, unlike many concurrent superhero films, Joker does not make use of animation or visual effects. Instead, the film immerses audiences in the often-delusional fantasies of the main character primarily through the powerful, yet unnerving performance given by Joaquin Phoenix. The film is undeniably disturbing, but not because of its unorthodox take on the character, or Phoenix’s convincingly tortured portrayal of him. Rather, it is the unchallenged normalcy of the nightmare it promotes that does the most damage, telling yet another story of white male supremacist rage that the film assumes, nee demands, that you will find interesting (Fig. 1). It might indeed be interesting. Progressive it is not.
Centering on the life of Arthur Fleck, a Gotham City resident who attempts to navigate financial precarity, mental illness, and familial obligations as he pursues his dream of becoming a comedian, Joker wastes no time in demonstrating the instrumental nature of misery, loneliness, and violence to its plot. Gotham, we are told, has become a city of financial ruin for the majority of its inhabitants and is overrun with crime. For Arthur, this results not only in being regularly subjected to street violence, but also in the loss of crucial mental health services owing to city-wide budget cuts. His circumstances get worse when poor decision making on his part results in the loss of his job. Overcome with anger and grief, one final provocation on the subway launches Arthur into a killing spree that drives the evolution of his “Joker” persona (Fig. 2).
For many critics, this narrative problematically conflates mental illness with brutal violence. Joker does seem to link mental illness to violence, but it is not always Arthur’s struggle with his condition that inspires his brutality. At times his use of violence is framed as entirely rational, clear-headed, and even warranted, implying that his actions are not a result of mental illness, but rather a response to (perceived) injustice. A month prior to the film’s release, Warner Bros attempted to address concerns about the glorification of characters like the Joker saying, “Make no mistake: neither the fictional character Joker, nor the film, is an endorsement of real-world violence of any kind.” In fairness, this statement is at least half reflective of the truth; I do not think there is any clear endorsement of Arthur’s actions. I am not a great fan of graphic violence (this film is full of it), and I do enjoy superhero comics and films (this film is not indicative of those things), but neither of those facts really contributes to my primary concern regarding Joker. What I find most troubling, as a feminist cultural studies scholar, is the persistent centering of white male characters as ultimate, and thus universally representative victims of social ills. In other words, it is not what Joker does differently that disturbs me. Instead, I take issue with the ways the film maintains the status quo of white male victimhood as the watermark of the effects of socially produced pain, and creates even a self-conscious patriarchal fantasy that nevertheless perpetuates the unchallenged notion within mainstream media that it is only men who are allowed to dream (or, at the very least, that is only male dreams that we should find interesting).
As has been noted in almost every review of the film, Joker is purposefully evocative of numerous films from the 1970s and 80s, most notably Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), and The King of Comedy (1982). In all three films, a loner who fantasizes about changing his lot in life, and to varying degrees, changing the world, resorts to some form of violence when confronted with reality. These films have all been described as startling or disturbing, but as valuable contributions to the American cultural landscape for the ways they provoke “important discussions” about social dysfunction. Author Andrew Farago places the main characters of these films alongside other “antiheroes” like Heath Ledger’s Joker, Tom Hardy’s depiction of Batman villain Bane, and Rorschach in Alan Moore’s comic Watchmen (1986) as part of the “long tradition in pop culture of audiences embracing antiheroes, and in many cases, outright villains.” Of characters like the Joker, psychologist and scholar Travis Langley says that “it’s so easy for people to project anything onto that adaptable character.” And herein lies the problem, despite the fact that every single character listed here is in fact a white man (or was played by a white man), there seems to be an assumption that each one is a kind of blank slate, a neutral subject that is infinitely adaptable and widely relatable. This is problematic because, if nothing else, it is a case study in androcentrism.
If we assume that white men’s experiences and ways of knowing are the most universally representative of human experiences and knowledge we elide the specificity of such a subject position (Fig. 2). This is especially troubling when thinking through social hierarchies and systemic violence. In consistently centering white men as most representative of socially-induced victimhood, we lose sight of the fact that in the US, it is white men, as a group, who benefit most from social systems informed by neoliberalism and capitalism (Jacobsen Koepke 2007). In continuing to generate “gritty” fantasies about white men who are victims of corrupt societies, with the expectation that they are sufficiently “adaptable,” we ignore the real ways that they are not.
The repeated focus on a white male character who has been victimized by, and yet revolts against social systems, also minimizes the violence that character wages against others. In Joker, Arthur discovers that his mother too suffers from mental illness and that she allowed him to be abused in his childhood. Rather than extending the critique of failed social systems to Arthur’s mother, and thus opening the possibilities for relating to another model of victimhood, Joker relies on a well-worn trick of patriarchal storytelling—that of the “evil mother.” Popular in fairytales and horror films, characterizations of cruel, violent, wicked, or evil mothers position individual women as aberrational and uniquely guilty of horrific behavior, thus erasing the social pressures, restrictive cultural norms, and gendered violence to which women are subject (Haas 1995). Arthur murders his mother, but can we expect audiences to criticize that behavior when the scenes preceding her death are filled with montages of newspaper headlines describing her monstrous behavior, and flashbacks centering on her narcissistic indifference? Relatedly, Lawrence Ware points out that in the grand scheme of Arthur’s suffering, his (heavily implied) murder of two Black women seemingly matters so little that we do not even see them happen. This fantastical erasure of violence against Black women does not upset the status quo of our lived reality in the US, nor does it provide a particularly provocative talking point since we already know that systemic violence against Black women and women of color is largely invisible within our mainstream white supremacist society (Ritchie 2017).
I understand that not all white men experience the same level of privilege, and certainly, it is important to recognize that white men who live with mental illness are often subject to systemic inequity and even violence. But our continued centering of white male experience as if it is sufficiently representative of the varied ways disenfranchised people are abandoned by “the system” is not provocative. To continue to fantasize that the story of the “lone wolf” white man is universally adaptable and reflective of all human experiences of socially constructed pain is to blatantly ignore the specificity of this experience, and to minimize the suffering of his victims. In a country where every new mass shooting committed by a white man is met with an overwhelming media response that attempts to understand how a young man could be driven to such violence, and that frequently fails to meaningfully recognize his victims, Joker does little to push “difficult conversations around complex issues” in new directions.
Jacobsen Koepke, Deanna. “Race, Class, Poverty, and Capitalism,” Race, Gender & Class 14, no. 3/4 (2007), pp. 189–205.
Haas, Lynda. “‘Eighty-Six the Mother:’ Murder, Matricide, and Good Mothers,” in From Mouse to Mermaid: The Politics of Film, Gender, and Culture, eds. Elizabeth Bell, Lynda Haas and Laura Sells (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1995).
Ritchie, Andrea. Invisible No More: Police Violence Against Black Women and Women of Color (Boston: Beacon Press, 2017).
Dr. Sam Langsdale is a Senior Lecturer in Philosophy & Religion at the University of North Texas. Her interest include feminisms, contemporary critical theory, and women in popular culture. She has a number of publications on film and on comics, and is the co-editor of the forthcoming volume Monstrous Women in Comics, to be published by the University Press of Mississippi.