Note: There will be spoilers for the Tod Philips “Joker” film and a lot of the characters storylines from the comic books through the years. If you plan to see the film and haven’t yet, you’ve been warned. If have somehow made it through life without having a general overview of the way the character is portrayed in the comics, and don’t want any of that spoiled… good luck with that. Let me also make clear that I love these characters. This is not a piece meant to attack their existence. It’s much more an exploration of what our perspective on them, as they’ve been presented to us says about us as an audience and culture.
Joker, as a fictional creation, has been around for 79 years. He made his first appearance in Batman #1. Countless writers and artists have drawn him. Batman, the two character have become a cultural icons together. Batman being obsessively devoted to order and rule, and Joker being the representation of chaos always being out there, around the corner, waiting to undermine it all with death and destruction.
In part because Todd Philips new film starring Joaquin Phoenix hit theaters this past week, and has been stirring up controversy for a few months due to it’s taking of the top prize at The Venice Film Festival, there is a new conversation happening about portrayals of people who experience mental illness.
Some of this is due to the script for Philips version of the character beginning the film as a person struggling with mental illness. Advocates for the mentally ill and for mental health (oddly, these are often very different) are concerned that the film is supporting the stigma against people who experience mental illness. Examples of this stigma are prevalent in many of our public debates, and a plethora of our fictional narratives. From the constant cries of “mental illness” being the problem with gun violence, even though people with mental illness are exponentially more likely to be the victims of violence than the perpetrators, to 90% of the creative content surrounding serial killers and the like, the reality of what people with mental illness experience and how they interact with society is under represented, while it’s an extravagant understatement to say the fiction of them being supremely dangerous to society is over represented in a way that is so vast it ends up eclipsing the truth.
Aside from the basic desire to see some level of our experience portrayed realistically, if we look at the number of portrayals of people with mental illness where it’s portrayed in a negative light, and then compare it to the number of instances of people experiencing mental illness being portrayed in a positive light or having their mental illness portrayed neutrally, it’s overwhelming to realize just how rare anything like the reality of our lives is presented to the public in mass media. The number of portrayals of people with mental illness as dangerous and destructive outnumbers every other kind of portrayal to a degree which is would be comical, if not for the havoc it helps to bring to the lives of people who already have the added struggle of meeting norms of behavior and practice which don’t take our existence into account, at all. A quick search on this topic provides enough content to keep even the most dedicatedly curious busy for days, ranging from pieces expressing personal experience to the most well regarded of academic research.
The new “Joker” film is attempting to do what has been avoided (for the most part) since the characters inception, give him an origin story. Over this 79 year period, there have been a few different origins floated for Joker, but none of them have been definitive. Depending on the writer, the timeline a story takes place in or even the particular dimension they inhabit (just about every major comic book character has been presented as having multi-dimensional versions), it can all change.
This is one of the aspects of the character which has allowed him to become a cultural icon and to become this almost perfect representation of chaotic evil in fiction. Where most characters, both good and evil, have an origin which has some very fundamental pieces of their origin which don’t change, Batman watching his parents die as a child, Superman crashing to earth and being adopted by people who represent a kind of “salt of the earth” couple, Spider-Man being bitten by a radioactive spider and a loved one being killed, Lex Luthor having an obsessively controlling father and then being confronted by a man from the stars that no earthly power can control, Harvey Dent being confronted with an impossible choice resulting in both his disfiguration and the shattering of his personality into warring factions which can only compromise over random chance. Just about every iteration of these characters share these basic traits. How exactly Joker came to be Joker is an unknown.
The history of the character plays into our fears about the unknown. In more of the storylines than not, the only thing driving Joker to whatever dastardly scheme he’s undertaking is his obsession with undermining Batman, who represents our understanding of order. It makes sense that the two characters came to iconic status together, because they represent the way our social, political and economic systems have always been portrayed. Batman is always attempting to impose order, within or outside of the legal or social standards, and Joker is always attempting to undue that order, against the legal or social standards. Joker has most consistently been the character which pushes the whole of the Batman mythos into new narrative ground for this reason. They’ve continued to have cultural relevancy and popularity because together, the two characters create a sense of tension which requires us to examine the fundamental assumptions we make about how we look at the concepts of “order and chaos”.
Some of the most revered storylines in the history of the characters are very specifically about Joker causing Batman to have to ask himself if his obsession with order and often more specifically, the methods he employs in the pursuit of that obsession, are actually justified or reasonable or even good in the most basic way. The best Joker storylines have always been about forcing Batman into confronting the moral inconsistencies inherent in the character and it’s canonical history. They highlight the schisms at the heart of the connections we make between legality as a basis for order, and justice as the reason to establish and impose order while it often requires opposition to that same order.
If we’re going to talk about the questions of Joker and his relationship to the portrayals of mental illness, we have to take into account that in the overall history of the character, there is essentially no concrete diagnosis for him. Depending on the writer, there have been off hand mentions of him being a psychopath (which isn’t actually a diagnosis recognized by the APA, it’s a term that comes from the legal realm, not psychology or psychiatry as medical practices) or the more studious writers who have actually attempted to map a real world diagnosis onto the traits the character is known for or that they are specifically highlighting in their portrayal of the character. This lack of an actual diagnosis or an attempt to adhere to the traits which are required for specific diagnosis is important. It allows for all of Joker’s behavior to be filed under “mental illness.”
Because the two characters are so intrinsically connected, we can’t get into how Joker’s representation is perceived or how it effects our real world assumptions and ideas about mental illness without also considering Bruce Wayne/Batman. Let’s be absolutely crystal clear here… If we were to take the characteristics of Bruce Wayne/Batman that have been constant through the characters existence, it is undeniably clear that he is deeply, profoundly mentally ill and he experiences a great deal of suffering as a result. The most interesting and most influential of the Batman storylines which don’t involve Joker, do center this idea as a possibility, and the films tend to make some reference to the idea, but they haven’t yet delved into it with any substance. When this is at the center of a Batman storyline in the comics, it is almost always a story revolving around Batman and the extended “Bat-family”.
For just a second, try and forget the way Batman has always been portrayed these 80 years. Just step back and try and imagine what it would be like if the basics of what make Bruce Wayne Batman were revealed in morning news when you were sitting there, thumbing through your social media feed. You wake up, sit down, pour yourself a coffee/tea/kombucha, whatever you flavor happens to be, and this is what you read…
One of the richest men in the world was revealed to have been spending his nights dressed up in a costume, risking his life, so he could chase down and beat street criminals into giving him information to fight corruption. Using his vast economic and intellectual resources he created new inventions dedicated to that endeavor that he also hid from the world. He also used his status as an incredibly wealthy and powerful person to gain access to law enforcement resources at the local, state and federal levels. To hide all of this, he created an entire separate public persona as a kind of bumbling, vapid playboy, instead of revealing the well of incredible intelligence, discipline and focus it took to undertake his crusade.
Then, in addition, he had enlisted the help of various orphans or victims of trauma, trained them, given them their own costumes, including weapons, gadgets and vehicles and financed all of this. What would happen if we found out this same person had used his vast corporate empire to obtain government contracts to launch and maintain an entire network of satellites, as a cover story for being able to achieve constant surveillance of an entire city, and eventually the planet as a whole because he believed only he could truly protect the people on the planet from themselves and from extraterrestrial life?
Now, imagine the story being that this person did all of that, because they saw their parents killed as a child.
Then someone else who in their opposition to this very rich oddity had killed thousands in the pursuit of their obsession to unmask him or just convince him to stop acting as this alias he’d created. This person, with this alter ego, a bottomless fortune, beating people up at night, had refused to stop doing that in order to prevent the person obsessed with them from continuing to kill people.
That version of the story is patently terrifying. As much as that person would terrify me, personally, I would desperately wish for them to be able to get whatever help it is they needed to find whatever peace they need. I can’t even fathom the depth of the experience of trauma that drives the person described above. Living would be hell.
There would be absolutely no question that this would be someone we would collectively regard as deeply, inexorably broken and without doubt, profoundly mentally ill. Their entire lives, and vast amounts of wealth would immediately be placed under some kind of guardianship. Someone would be appointed to protect them from themselves, and the rest of us from them, within 72 hours. All of the resources of the psychiatric community would be brought to bare, and for the rest of their lives, they’d be under psychiatric evaluation, at least, if not legal supervision as well.
To put it in terms that aren’t clinical, Bruce Wayne is out of his fucking mind. To even just let go of the most fantastic aspects of the Batman canon, Bruce Wayne is a person in the throes of a traumatic experience of such incredibly damaging proportions, he doesn’t even recognize that he needs help, and worse, he’s socially supported by his status. His social and economic status allow him to drag other people into his obsession, with the only consequence being the safety and injury of the people he drags into it. At what point in his life is someone like Bruce Wayne going to encounter a set of circumstances which makes it materially impossible for him to continue to indulge this obsession?
Think about it in these terms… Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby and R. Kelly spent decades being serial rapists and abusers. There is no way to put a positive spin on their actions. Still, those resources enabled them to have entire networks of enablers and protectors, and none of them come even close to the resources Bruce Wayne has in the world of Batman. As the Batman universe is concerned, this is a single individual with resources closer to that of The Catholic Church, which has spent nearly a century covering up a world wide epidemic of child sexual abuse in it’s ranks. The lengths the Church went to are mind boggling. Imagine one individual with those same resources and a similar depth of obsession, just not with institutional power, but instead with his own personal sense of morality and justice.
Batman is secondary persona that deals with Bruce Wayne’s trauma in a profoundly destructive way. We accept the version of the story which portrays Batman as a hero, because he’s the defender of order and social hierarchy. We think about Batman as having an almost super human level of discipline and focus, but it’s perspective which gives it that positive spin. A slight change of perspective reveals obsession and dangerously compulsive, narcissistic behavior.
As it relates to our sense of order and stability, it’s not at all convenient to start to see Bruce Wayne and Batman as the victim of a compulsive obsession so deep it robs him of any sense of happiness, contentment and pleasure. if we were to find a Bruce Wayne like person in the real world, it would be tragic to see someone with that level of ability and moral compunction be constantly doomed to fear, pain and this level of compulsive drive. Even if we map on a level of genuine heroism, it’s a profoundly tragic character and story, to a degree that isn’t enjoyable or fun or aspirational. We have to ignore it for the story to exist.
We don’t want to see Batman as a product of his own mental illness, because it’s not very convenient to our narratives about order, regardless of the suffering that mental illness causes. We place a value on the traits which are direct results of this character being profoundly mentally ill, and his suffering is worth the price of those traits. In point of fact, it is central to the narrative of Batman’s heroism that he suffers and is utterly discontented. In more ways than not, the suffering is what differentiates Batman from similar characters like Green Arrow or Iron Man. As their narratives and their storylines go, Green Arrow and Iron Man could give up being their super hero alter ego’s and experience far less suffering. That’s not true of Bruce Wayne. The suffering is central to his character and one of the reasons we find him heroic. Bruce Wayne didn’t create Batman out of some sense of moral righteousness. He created Batman out of a suffering so fundamental, he couldn’t no create Batman or some equivalent.
Take a step beyond all of that, and the next thing to become clear is that one of the fundamental reasons we refuse to talk about Batman as the creation of a person who is experiencing extensive mental illness is that both Bruce Wayne and Batman feed into narratives about masculinity that we protect in order to not have to face how damaging the concept as a whole can be. Mental illness is a weakness, and a man as powerful, effective and successful at his crusade as Batman is, could never be accepted as being mentally ill, because it would threaten the order imposed on masculinity every day.
That is the underlying reality of who the hero is in the equation of Batman versus Joker. As an audience we need to see Bruce Wayne suffer from life altering, demoralizing mental illness resulting from profound trauma while denying that is exactly what he’s experiencing to see him as a hero. That he is mentally ill is what differentiates him from the vast majority of other costumed hero characters, and we will ignore this fact, in order to be comforted with by the fact that the same suffering drives him to constantly impose an order which comforts us.
To put it plainly, we don’t give a fuck that Bruce Wayne suffers from mental illness. We so fervently prevent ourselves from caring, we don’t even portray the character as being mentally ill, when every trait that makes him what he is points to it, and we require he suffers for our entertainment and our intellectual and moral comfort. It’s no stretch to admit this is because where this narrative is concerned, we want to identify with Batman. Only on the rarest occasions do we step back and start to ask questions about how Batman or Bruce Wayne reflect on our reality and our perceptions in the way we’re asking about Todd Philips “Joker” movie, and the character in general. When we do, it’s pretty uncomfortable, because it’s hard to deny that Batman is the prototype for a fascist vigilante.
When we take the Joker and Batman, and look at this discussion of the politics and representation of mental illness, what’s undeniably clear is one very simple thing: We don’t really care about mental illness until it disturbs our comfort, our norms and our order. If it’s comfortable for us for someone to suffer as the result of mental illness, we will even raise them up to a place that says their suffering is heroic, before we will find comfort in the relief of their suffering at the expense of our own comfort. Batman not only protects those norms in the narrative form, he is representative of them as a character.
That brings us to back to Todd Philips “Joker” and it’s representation of mental illness.
In the film, Arthur Fleck, who becomes Joker by the end, isn’t given a specific psychiatric diagnosis. He refers to and is referred to as having mental illness. Additionally, he has a neurological condition, Pseudobulbar Affect which is used as the explanation his laughter at what would otherwise be inappropriate times. Later in the film, it’s revealed Arthur has suffered a series of concussions and brain injuries as the result of childhood abuse. Brain injury is one of the causes of this condition, and as such, there’s at least some recognition due to the film makers for being logically consistent and doing their homework.
It’s consistent with the history of the character to not give a specific diagnosis or to have so many different diagnoses over time that they become meaningless. The DSM, which is used to diagnose and specifically categorize collections of symptoms as a particular illness, has 265 diagnoses in it, before modifiers are included. Wanting to be able to portray a character in the way the story calls for, without being tethered to the specifics of a single or even a few different diagnoses is understandable. It’s also consistent with the history of the character to ask whether or not Joker is a variety of mentally ill we even understand.
There’s an aspect to this which lends itself to abuse of the portrayal of people with mental illness because it means there isn’t any need to tie a character to any sense of realism. It is part of what is responsible for creating the kind of stigma people with mental health issues experience. There are very few mental illnesses society at large can behaviorally identify because the public is never presented with realistic portrayals of any specific variety of mental illness. With fiction, and especially cinema, because it is hard to give audiences access to the inner dialog of a character, some degree of what could be read as sensationalism should be acceptable. As someone who has lived with mental health issues for some 30 years and is a writer, even if I were to write a script with the goal of presenting a character who experienced symptoms in the same way I have, it would still be different than even people who have the same or similar diagnoses as mine. It may ring true to others more than it doesn’t, but it’s guaranteed that even then, the way we experience it differently would leave my representation open to criticisms of sensationalism that would be valid. Though the experience of how we’re treated by the society we live in can have many, many, many things in common, that’s still different than what we experience with our own symptoms etc.
There is a difference between depicting someone as mentally ill, and depicting what are experiences that are common to people who have mental illness in their dealings with the rest of the world. On that count, “Joker” is very good. For people whose symptoms aren’t altogether internal, and have some manifestations which can be seen/realized in a short interaction, there is a truth in how it represents those experiences, and the way people react to them. Arthur is not having a good time and basically everyone in his life treats him terribly. It’s worth noting that Arthur is in every single, possible way not the ideal of masculinity that is presented by Bruce Wayne/Batman as well, and the symptoms of neurological condition and his mental illness prevent him from even getting close. That plays in to a lot of the abuse he suffers as well.
This should all be taken with a grain of salt though, because by the end of the film, it’s very clear we’re dealing with a narrator who may not even be reliably allowing himself the truth.
Trying to gauge “Joker” as a film that represents people with mental illness is almost a moot point though, from a narrative standpoint. Taking the whole, from beginning to end, it’s not a film about someone who is experiencing mental illness. It’s a film about identity, and very different from Bruce Wayne/Batman, Arthur Fleck ceases to exist and fully becomes Joker. Fleck loses every strand connecting him to the identity he has at the beginning of the film, including the entire history of who he thought he was, where he thought he came from, his beliefs about his own parents, all of it is torn away from him. Fleck becomes Joker when he makes the decision or at least comes to believe that attention alone is power, and then bases his identity on that power.
In the way it’s revealed, “Joker” doesn’t seem to be saying Arthur Fleck was mentally ill, so much as it is saying that what is taken for the symptoms of mental illness are symptoms of Fleck trying to be someone or something he never was. Arthur Fleck is a misdirection or a con job that’s been perpetrated on this person. He is, and always was Joker. He’s not mentally ill. There isn’t enough of what we understand as a person for him to be mentally ill. Even in the conventional narratives about mental illness, progression means a worsening of symptoms. That’s not what happens here. The more Arthur Fleck becomes Joker, the less he’s experiencing and suffering from symptoms.
There are some people who will say, “Well, with people whose symptoms include delusions or hallucinations, they may experience a lessening of the feelings of suffering as their illness progresses and their delusions take over.” This is true, people experiencing truly manic and/or delusional episodes often don’t experience emotional or psychological suffering in the height of those episodes, they’re afloat on the rapture of the delusional state they’re in. The problem with that as it refers to Joker is that part of Arthur becoming Joker is specifically him losing his delusions. Those delusions were there for Arthur, and in becoming Joker, they’re not necessary anymore. The delusions protected Arthur from more suffering. When he becomes Joker, he’s immune to suffering, so the delusions are jettisoned. In many ways, “Joker” is a movie more akin to a narrative about possession, except that Joker is being possessed by Arthur Fleck, and when he’s rid of Fleck, so is his suffering.
It’s also true that identity and mental illness can often be deeply intertwined, but again, in both reality, and in the overwhelming majority of portrayals of mental illness, symptoms of mental illness progress as the sense of identity begins to break. They don’t regress as the illness begins to create questions about the individuals identity.
If anything, this “Joker” does rely on something very much central to the character as it has always existed. The question about Joker has always been, “Is this character mentally ill or is this character something we don’t even have a name for, something we don’t understand other than to say ‘evil’?”
Where this character is most severed from the canonical history is that obviously, this is an origin story, but more importantly, this character is never going to be a master criminal. He stumbles into every bit of his awakening that is his journey to becoming Joker. Arthur Fleck isn’t a complete dunce before becoming Joker, but there is nothing to suggest the person who was Arthur Fleck is going to be capable of the maniacal scheming which is central to the mythology of Joker. This character is never going to master chemistry or strategy in the way the canonical Joker has. Everything that leads to the stripping of the Arthur Fleck identity is chance. With one exception, none of what strips him of his delusions is done through his own agency. It’s all chance or other people being careless with their sense of treating Arthur Fleck as a human being with dignity, and none of that is even particular to him because they’re just terrible people.
And this is the thing about “Joker” which is both great, and absolutely horrible. It uses Joaquin Phoenix in a mesmerizing performance to portray this persons suffering in order to get our attention, but it ends up being empty, and without conviction, and itself a con. It’s actively working very hard to not say anything at all. in some extremely superficial ways it nods at the fact that severe inequality breeds instability. In the same superficial way it passes by the idea that extreme privilege breeds a lack of compassion, that problems can result from undermining the social safety net and so on, but none of these things have any weight, and if Joker is who Arthur Fleck always was, and he’s a supremely unreliable narrator, it negates even those extremely superficial acknowledgments.
It is, from a narrative standpoint, exactly the kind of story Joker would tell about his origin. It ends up being nothing but a con to get the audience to pay attention to the story, and then negates everything about the story which made it seem like it was worth paying attention to. There’s still no explanation or understanding of why this character is who he is or why he does what he does, unless you buy some extremely thin bullshit, which the film is going out of its way to portray as bullshit. More than anything, this is the source of people’s displeasure with the film. On some level, critics and audiencs are not willing to admit or capable of understanding the film itself is a con, because unlike something like “The Usual Suspects” it doesn’t ever tell the audience they were just conned.
For those of you who have seen the film, take this from the standpoint of the ending of the film, with Joker sitting across from a mental health professional, in an institution of some kind, how much stock would we put in the story he’s just recounted? How much of what he just told this person is real, and how much isn’t? How much is specifically meant to portray himself in a way that makes some sense, a way that we would want to hear to explain why the person sitting in front of us is sitting in front of us? Is this character mentally ill or are they so far out on the extreme of what we generally consider a sociopath because we don’t have another name for it, they’d give Ted Bundy or Charles Manson a run for their money?
It ends up coming back around to the fact that the movie isn’t interested in the suffering someone is experiencing as the result of mental illness or even the way that mental illness presents. It doesn’t care enough about mental illness to be about that. If anything, this is where the sin lies in it’s treatment of and portrayal of people with mental illness. It goes to great length to portray Arthur as suffering at the hands of society, which it does portray with more realism than most films, and then it completely negates that there’s anything important about it. It’s all just part of the con.
In this way, it fits in perfectly with the overall way we’ve treated the entire mythos and iconography surrounding Batman and Joker. It just doesn’t really care about anything related to mental illness until it somehow disturbs the order or comfort of people who don’t experience mental illness, and whose stories and existence are valued. It’s not some kind of diabolical empowerment story, although it certainly could be taken that way by a public which isn’t particularly interested in attempting to think beyond the basically superficial.
The question about Joker shouldn’t be about how it portrays people who experience mental illness, because really, when we look at Bruce Wayne, it kind of doesn’t matter how we portray people with mental illness. The difference between Joker and Bruce Wayne/Batman isn’t whether or not they’re mentally ill, because there really isn’t a metric which would suggest either of these characters is in anything like a healthy mental state. There’s something fundamentally underneath our portrayals of people with mental illness which betrays what the problem really is, we just don’t care about their existence or whether or not mental illness causes them suffering unless it upsets the order and norms which give comfort to everyone else.
There may not be a measure or diagnosis for what Joker’s behavior is, but that doesn’t change the questions we should be asking. Unless we believe in something like genuine evil, and that a person can be so lacking in humanity in every other conceivable way as if to be it’s embodiment, we basically have no other choice but to believe Joker is mentally ill. He’s certainly not suffering though, and if the character didn’t disturb our sense of order and normalcy, we wouldn’t care. What bothers us about Joker is that we’re afraid there are things about him which might exist in the real world and we may have some of his traits.
We absolutely don’t care that mental illness causes Bruce Wayne suffering to a degree so severe that it pushes him to take actions we’d consider to be on the furthest bounds of ludicrous if even a tenth of Batman mythology were real. This would be a person whose entire existence is a tragedy. They would be nothing but the guilt for a sin they never committed, and they’d be making themselves a martyr for that uncommitted sin. We don’t care about this, because this character defends our sense of order and our norms. We can ignore it, because our order and our norms say this is someone we should admire and someone whom we should emulate, within the bounds of our norms and order, even though what he has can’t be considered a life which allows for anything like contentment or peace. His only happiness is in the moments of some victory between horrors he sees around every corner.
Batman and Joker exist, specifically because we have to tell stories about mental illness in a context that doesn’t upset the order which gives comfort and peace to all of the people who don’t experience mental illness. The minute we start to decide to make addressing the suffering of people with mental illness, and no longer rendering their experiences invisible, Batman and Joker would have no reason to exist. Attempting to portray them in the world where that is the order which dictates the norms renders them both so incredibly ludicrous and at the same time cruel and tragic that they’d be unbearable. We’d have to come to realize that so many of the kinds of narratives we’ve been taught about order versus chaos are just distractions and redirections, meant to prevent us from actually looking critically at the consequences for the order we impose, and the chaos it creates in lives that remain invisible, for no other reason than to preserve those narratives and a cruel order.