An unsustainable society: In ‘Joker,’ societal influences on violence are brought to light

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A nontraditional kick-off to October’s spooky cinema releases was Todd Phillips’ “Joker,” a dark and twisted origin story of the iconic Gotham villain and Batman series antagonist, sparking an outbreak of controversy and commentary surrounding the content and messages of the film. Void of conventional cinematic cheesiness such as jump scares and special effects makeup, Phillips’ use of realistic horror weighed heavily on audiences, perhaps more than any Halloween season movie could.

Before he evolves — or rather, devolves — into the infamous Joker, Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is a Rent-a-Clown with his fair share of personal baggage. In a depiction that combines undertones of class conflict, wealth inequality and poverty, Arthur and his mother live an impoverished and isolated life; they find companionship in each other and bond over the nightly “The Murray Show,” a fictional show reminiscent of programs such as “The Tonight Show” or “The Late Show.” 

Studying intently, Arthur watches Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro) with amazement, as Franklin is the father figure and comedian role model of his dreams. Arthur remains distinguishable from the disgruntled working-class clowns and non-clowns, protected only by a fleeting shred of faith that he might make it big and have a better life someday. Unlike his constant battle with various demons, however, this hope soon passes, thus catalyzing the creation of the Joker. 

He allows the film’s narration to teeter between the personas of a perceivably incompetent Arthur and a vengeful Joker, leaving the audience emotionally confused: Are we supposed to feel sorry for the Joker?

The audience’s first substantive encounter with Arthur in his clown element involves a brutal mugging and beating, and although perpetrated by a group of teenagers, immediately emphasizing the rejection by society that eventually wears him down. Despite his efforts to see a therapist and make connections with people in his community, a distinct pattern becomes evident as the audience is walked through the daily struggles of Arthur’s life: lack of empathy from others and severe ostracization as a result of his mental illness. Fired from his job and cut from his therapy services, a frustrated Arthur begins his journey to criminality, recreating himself under a new image as Joker. 

Critics have called the film a “hollow” attempt at commentary, regarding the venture into the realities of human disconnection and exclusion as overall ineffective. While Philips uses graphically raw and vividly disturbing displays of violence to illustrate Arthur ascending into the Joker persona, perhaps what is more significant is the unreliable narration: He allows the film’s narration to teeter between the personas of a perceivably incompetent Arthur and a vengeful Joker, leaving the audience emotionally confused: Are we supposed to feel sorry for the Joker? Thus, some argue that the inclusion of Arthur’s life is intended to humanize the inhumane actions of a killer, a justification for acts of unspeakable violence during times of personal insecurity. While the actions of the Joker are horrifying at best, there is merit in the film’s attention to the violence born of hegemonic masculinity.  

The holistic portrayal of Arthur’s character — from his day job as a clown and a failed comedian, his slender physique and delicate, feminized dance numbers, his mental illness and socially awkward laughing condition, to his role as a caretaker for his mother — suggests a man that has been thoroughly emasculated by his society’s perceptions of masculinity. The foils to Joker’s disheveledness (Thomas Wayne, Murray Franklin and the three nameless Wall Street men) symbolize capitalism’s finest and, evidently, Gotham’s conception of ideal men. Wholly disparaging Phillips’ depiction of the Joker as harmful humanization rather than recognizing the juxtaposition of these two archetypes highlights the exact element of irony embedded within the film. Socially, we have accepted one of these two kinds of men to be a criminal, but not both. 

No, we are not supposed to feel sorry for the murderer, but we are all somewhat responsible for the creation of Joker.

The film’s purpose is not to deflect or project the Joker’s actions onto others. Rather, it draws attention to the fact that, collectively, we have decided that mechanisms that produce extremists such as Joker are sustainable. When Arthur’s successful comedic inspiration references sexist material, it becomes an incentive to pursue power through these dominant avenues. “Joker” demonstrates the cause and effect of social violence in slow motion or overtime, encapsulating its detrimental capacity. In her empirical research on the role of humor in perpetuating hegemonic masculinity, Barbara Plester argues that hegemony doesn’t inherently justify violence, but hegemonic authority is gained as a result of societal institutions that normalize this imbalance of power.       

Arguably the most challenging part of watching any film with scenes of realistic horror (including but not limited to performances of gun violence and rape) is the potential for content to transcend fictional bounds as “Joker” does. After sorting through my own muddled emotions, I arrived at a possible answer to my own haunting question. No, we are not supposed to feel sorry for the murderer, but we are all somewhat responsible for the creation of Joker. Even after subtracting the fantasmic elements of fiction and storytelling, an underlying collective responsibility for social violence remains. 

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Contact Ashley Soliman at [email protected].