"Put on a happy face" The Controversial Representation of Mental Illness in 'Joker'
Is the film ‘Joker’ enjoyable? No. Is it an important piece of cinema? Yes. ‘Joker’ is starting conversations about mental illness. It is a social commentary, advocating inclusion and, ultimately, listening to those who are suffering. Because of this film ‘people are starting to notice…’
‘Joker,’ a 2019 American psychological thriller directed by Todd Phillips, re-imagines the inception of our most-loved (or most-hated) Batman nemesis, the Joker. The film is a study of Arthur Fleck, an outcasted, mentally-ill, aspiring comedian, portrayed convincingly and sensitively by Oscar-winning actor Joaquin Phoenix.
It is a deliberately provocative movie, teetering on the edge of entertainment and torture. Debates over its (mis)representation of mental illness and violence have overrun social and popular media. The Guardian headline ‘Why Joker’s depiction of mental illness is dangerously misinformed’ encapsulates this. However, the Metro Online praises ‘Joker’s depiction of mental illness as being ‘raw’ and ‘necessary.’ Just like the classic Superhero theme of Good vs Evil, ‘Joker’ has created polarised responses. The only thing that can be agreed is that ‘Joker’ is a huge talking point.
“People are starting to notice”
The Guardian article argues that ‘Joker’ perpetuates the harmful stereotype that “mental deterioration necessarily leads to violence against others,” amplifying stigma and fear. However, throughout the film Arthur largely does not provoke fear, he evokes sympathy. ‘Joker’ goes against the grain by portraying a psychopathic ‘villain’ as, above all else, human. Phillip’s direction actually breaks down stereotypes about mental illness, as we are forced into Arthur’s shoes. His acts of violence, if not justifiable, are made understandable. Inequality in society becomes the real villain, as it is his environment- his poverty, past-trauma, and social mistreatment- that are the main causes of his mental deterioration and violence. Violence in the ‘Joker’ is not due to mental illness, it is due to social prejudice. Instead of pervading fear and stigma about mental illnesses, Phillips holds a mirror up to (the even more terrifying) social inequality.
The Guardian also criticises the representation of mental illness as "many disorders have been squashed into a plot device." Arthur displays traits of depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, narcissism and psychopathy. His only definite illness is pseudobulbar affect that causes his frequent, uncontrollable outbreaks of laughter. This hotchpot mental illness has understandably been critiqued as generalised and confused. However, this generalised approach can represent, and speak to, a wider spectrum of mental illnesses. ‘Joker’ defies categorisation to convey how elusive mental illnesses are by nature, as invisible and highly-personal. Mental illnesses will not always ‘behave’ how we expect them to.
“The worst part of having a mental illness is people expect you to behave as if you don't.”
‘Joker’ importantly highlights how difficult it is to be ‘different’ in a society that only caters for the ‘normal.’ Arthur cannot hide his mental illness as it manifests in uncontrollable laughter. The Joker’s iconic cackle is something that we have been conditioned to fear in the DC Comic universe, but Phillip’s film normalises and subverts it; we feel sorry for him. His condition alienates him from the small child he kindly tries to entertain on the bus, endangers him on the subway, and ironically makes him a national laughing stock on 'The Murray Franklin Show.' Society rejects him because of his mental illness. People can feel like they have to hide their mental illness, or ‘behave as if you don’t’ have one, in order to ‘fit in.’ ‘Joker’ makes this prejudice, and mental illness itself, visible, prompting audiences to be kinder to those suffering.
Secondly, ‘Joker’ necessarily advocates making mental health treatment available to all. In Gotham, mental wellbeing is an economic privilege. Due to his poverty, Arthur is over-medicated and his counselling sessions are of poor-quality. He eventually says to his social worker “You don’t listen, do you?...All I have are negative thoughts.” Towards the end of the film, due to government cuts, the minimal social support he has is pulled from under him. He is left alone and unsupported. Without criticising the NHS, Metro writer Mel Evans highlights the statistic that “according to a report by the TUC last year, in 2013 there was one mental health doctor for every 186 patients accessing services which, in 2018, fell to one for every 253 patients.” Many who suffer from mental illnesses cannot get the help they need, particularly if they are less economically privileged. ‘Joker’ shines a light on this issue, raising awareness and encouraging us to listen.
A take-away from ‘Joker’ is that we must work on inclusion in society, and at LetsReset, inclusion in the workplace. Mental health issues need to be talked about, and people who are suffering need to be listened to. We have to quash social prejudices and accept the differences of others to ultimately combat stigmas surrounding mental illnesses. Take off your mask, and be unashamedly who you are.
By Grace Proctor, LetsReset Content Editor.