Masculinity’s Role in the Joker

Joker, the dark origin story of Batman’s archnemesis, may be about a clown, but it is anything but fun and games. The film opened this past weekend to criticism for its violence and misrepresentations of mental illness. Joker follows antihero and bullied comedian, Arthur Fleck (played by Joaquin Phoenix), as he spirals into madness and turns to a life of crime. Joker snagged major box office numbers this weekend but has also brought in mixed reviews—and even more mixed feelings on the message of such a violent film. 

In the seven years since the Aurora, Colorado shooting at another Batman blockbuster, mass shootings have regularly made headlines. Months leading up to the film’s release, experts worried that Joker would inspire copycats. Aurora shooting survivors and family members of the deceased voiced their concerns against the new spotlight on the deranged clown. Mother of Aurora shooting victim, Sandy Phillips, called the film’s focus on the Joker “like a slap in the face.”

“My worry is that one person who may be out there — and who knows if it is just one — who is on the edge, who is wanting to be a mass shooter, may be encouraged by this movie. And that terrifies me.”

Director Todd Phillip gave a tone-deaf response to public outcry, as he questioned some of the backlash and defended the movie by reminding audiences that it is based on a fictional character “that’s been around for 80 years.” In an attempt to quell fears, the film’s studio issued a response that extended sympathies to gun violence victims and emphasized a belief that film can be used “provoke difficult conversations.” But even so, the film seems to be creating all the wrong talk. The film faced backlash due to its depiction of mental illness. It’s made clear that Fleck is mentally ill early in the film, and his decline in wellbeing and the failure of the mental health system is portrayed as the root cause of his violent behavior. While the film constantly alludes to Fleck’s nondescript mental illness, Joker perpetuates the myth that those with mental health disorders are dangerous. With research proving otherwise, in the modern era of regular mass shootings and discourse that ignores the role of masculinity in violence, Joker completely misses the mark. 

Take Action! Call out the mental health stigma in the media and point out the often-ignored role of gender in violence.