Flat White

What the Joker furore says about our gatekeeper journalists

29 October 2019

12:24 PM

29 October 2019

12:24 PM

Perhaps the only thing to come out of the cinemas recently that is as interesting as Todd Phillip’s Joker has been the audience’s reaction to it. The backlash began even before its release, from hand-wringing concerns about who might ‘feel seen’ by the film to unfiltered outrage at the apparent perpetuation of sympathy for violent, ‘white’ men and stigmatising mental health myths.

Yet Joker is by no means the first film to depict a disturbed and violent character, nor is it even the only movie about a disturbed and violent clown in cinemas right now. What sets Joker apart from the rest is that it holds a daringly veracious mirror to the ugliest parts of society that so rarely get exposed to the spotlight, and the impassioned response indicates many would rather those parts stay in the dark.

The connection the film draws between mental illness and violence has given rise to two opposing camps, those, like those in — of course — The Guardian, who call the film “dangerously misinformed”, claiming it “perpetuates damaging stereotypes”, and those who appreciate seeing an unmoderated account of harsh reality.

Proponents on both sides of the debate err by portraying the link between mental illness and violence as clear-cut. If people with mental illnesses, even more serious ones, are being appropriately treated then the evidence that they are more dangerous than anyone else is thin. However, the lie, peddled in the name of preventing false  stereotypes, that there is no link between serious, untreated mental illness and violence clouds our ability to properly address the issue and even reduces the imperative to provide psychiatric boarding and community-based health programs for people who need it.


Phillips’ narrative is not factually incorrect; a protagonist that is off medication for his mental illnesses, and was also a victim of child abuse, would be statistically more prone to violence than the general population. The audacious refusal to soften its depiction of mental illness to appease the outraged makes Phillips’ Joker a uniquely honest examination of the side of mental health we prefer not to acknowledge.

Still more complaints arose because Joker gave a voice to the incel community, that is ‘involuntary celibate’ and typically misogynistic men. Whether the Joker, or Arthur as we know him for most of the film, belongs to this community depends on audiences’ interpretation of the events inside his neighbour’s apartment when it was revealed that his relationship with her was a fantasy or even evidence of psychosis. The sirens outside the window, while he laughs painfully on his couch after returning to his own apartment, are ominous. The albeit ambiguous inclusion of this scene means Phillips is, in a way, providing these outcast members of society a blockbuster movie megaphone for attracting sympathy.

For those who feel mass shooters who happen to be white males already receive a kinder portrayal from the media in the aftermath of atrocities, Joker seems to add yet more excuses for their actions. However, to fixate on Arthur’s white skin is to ignore the film’s more important and sophisticated examination of the way, not just mental illness, but poverty, the lack of recognition from one’s government and the absence of meaningful human connection can push people to the fringes of society and towards sinister nihilism.

Audiences are not wrong to condemn Joker as dangerous; Phillips, as both writer and director, somehow manages to depict someone who murders without remorse whilst relishing in the fear he creates as human like no film has before. One of Joker’s more run-of-the-mill criticisms has been the predictability of its plot. Although perhaps audiences are missing the point here too. Instead of trying to twist the plot, Phillips achieves something more unsettling. He makes us understand the experience of the very worst people, who we would normally dismiss as incomprehensible, that is, born evil or just crazy. That is the final and most uncomfortable truth of the film – that as much as we want to say denounce terrible violence as senseless, Joker forces us to consider that perhaps we understand it a little more than we would expect.

The film seems to lack moral instruction on the uncomfortable realities it exposes; instead, its aim, it seems, is simply to shove them in our face and say “there! This exists!” and force us to acknowledge it.

Perhaps the film’s point is merely that wherever we see our society reflected back at us, we should be very unnerved. Yet the response to Joker’s candour has revealed the media’s overreaching desire to be the gatekeepers of truth.

To rescue something positive from Joker, besides the quality of filmmaking and acting, perhaps it tells us that if evil can be explained by despair rather than depravity, then it is, to some extent, in our power to prevent it. One can’t help but feel that it would have taken just one act of kindness to restore Arthur’s faith in humanity and deter the fictional violence that has caused so much controversy in our world.

So, if you left this film feeling concerned and conflicted that you saw someone so monstrous as human, don’t be. Perhaps the one clear stance this film takes on is the importance of empathy in a world where wealth determines the hierarchy and leaves decent people to suffer.

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