Why so serious?

Aaron Howard, an Assistant Psychologist, finds that Joker is uncomfortable yet progressive in its depiction of the realities of mental health.

Being an aspiring clinical psychologist and a huge fan of superhero films, I was particularly excited for the release of Todd Phillips’ Joker. For those of you who have not yet seen it – and spoilers follow – Joker follows the story of Arthur Fleck, a man living in a dystopian Gotham around the 1980s. We see how society’s most vulnerable groups are living in dilapidated housing projects, and how funding cuts for social services impact those vulnerable to isolation, including the titular character. A revolution is in the air as the tension between the rich and poor grows, catalysed by a Trump-like figure blaming the poor for their own poverty and calling them ‘clowns’.

What I like most about this film is actually the cause of most of the controversy. Joker is a tale of how adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), social isolation and marginalisation can lead to bleak life trajectories, including criminality. The criticisms, mostly from America, claim that ‘incels’ – the ‘involuntarily celibate’ online subculture characterised by their resentment towards females, and males they perceive as more sexually successful as themselves – will see Joker as a rallying cry which will inspire further mass shootings. 

I believe that there are two logical explanations for these negative reviews. The first is that it is easier to blame movies and video games for mass shootings than poor gun control policies, despite the lack of evidence supporting this. The second is that accepting that environmental and societal factors can, in extreme cases, lead to such outrageous acts as homicide, is a bitter pill to swallow.

Of course, so many superhero films have been based on the premise that childhood suffering has been the motivation for heroes to take charge of their destiny and better themselves. Whilst this is a lovely concept which does on occasion play out in real life – consider the research on post-traumatic growth – we know from studies on ACEs that childhood adversity is more likely to take you on a negative life trajectory.

Some critics have suggested that Joker is stigmatising in terms of mental health, yet in my eyes it is actually quite progressive. We see how Joker’s mother was beaten by her abusive partner and developed traits of psychosis as a reaction to the trauma. Mrs Fleck creates a grandiose delusion in which she was in love with her boss, who fathered her son Arthur. To her, this was a way of escaping her reality of chronic abuse and a lack of control. We also discover that she was given the label of ‘Narcissistic Personality Disorder’ in wake of her abuse, which really provokes feelings of sympathy for her plight. There is another particularly poignant scene in which a woman on a bus becomes irritated by Arthur’s involuntary laughing, caused by his pseudobulbar affect (a type of emotional disturbance characterised by uncontrollable episodes of laughing and/or crying, or other emotional displays. This occurs secondary to a neurological disorder or brain injury: it is suggested that Arthur suffered a brain injury as a result of the beatings he received from his mother’s partner). This scene expertly illustrates the frustration and helplessness that involuntary mental health conditions can cause the sufferer.

Overall, I believe the portrayal of Joker in this film is a step in the right direction for mental health awareness. In other iterations, including cartoons aimed at children, the Joker has been depicted as being a mentally unstable clown who was ‘created’ when he fell into a vat of boiling chemicals. Whilst it may be more uncomfortable to accept that societal failures create mental health problems, it is surely less stigmatising for those who have to live with them on a day-to-day basis?

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