“Joker” potentially allows men who identify with Arthur Fleck’s descent into violent criminality to find not only acceptance, but also celebration, empathy, and vindication—and that is both irresponsible and dangerous.
This essay contains spoilers for “Joker”
“Among many mass killers, the triple privileges of white heterosexual masculinity, which make subsequent life course losses more unexpected and thus more painfully shameful, ultimately buckle under the failures of downward mobility and result in a final cumulative act of violence to stave off subordinated masculinity… White men are not systematically disenfranchised, and so they have not built up the requisite psychological and emotional mechanisms for dealing with loss.”
At the beginning of this year, I had lofty plans to write something about white male terrorism. I knew that the 20th anniversary of the Columbine Massacre would fall on April 20, 2019, and just one day before would be the 24th anniversary of the Oklahoma City Bombing. The plan was to deliver a retrospective look at these events through a lens that is rarely taken up in mainstream discussions about these acts of terrorism and those who carried them out. Several things in my life conspired to prevent me from completing this project, but that’s neither here nor there at this juncture. Watching “Joker” was a noteworthy reminder that these conversations will always be relevant, whether or not they fall adjacent to tragic anniversaries. Most of the reviews I’ve read about the film have essentially declared it to be a dull, hollow, and shallow spectacle, “a story about nothing” really. To an extent, I agree. Even so, I think “Joker” leaves us with plenty to explore. Even though a significant portion of what happens in the film may not even really be happening—in fact, it is confirmed that at least some of what we see is part of Arthur Fleck’s/Joker’s fantasy world—I believe it is still worthy of deeper consideration.
The surface story is a ham-fisted lament and push-back against “political correctness” and “woke culture”—as alluded to by Todd Phillips in a recent interview. What is known to the rest of us as holding people accountable for their oppressive views and refusing to laugh at or with them is seen as a newfangled cage by those who think that punching down at marginalized people is a legitimate form of entertainment. They are increasingly more stifled by this society, by the “PC Police” and “Social Justice Warriors.” It’s an imagined oppression, of course, especially for Funny Men like Todd Phillips who feel like they just aren’t allowed to laugh anymore, a frustration visually represented throughout “Joker” by Arthur literally choking on his own laughter. His condition, Pseudobulbar Affect, causes him to laugh when the rest of society thinks it’s inappropriate for him to do so, and this is used as a reason to ostracize, isolate, and abuse him. He only stops choking back this laughter once he fully embraces nihilistic violence.
That said, I don’t agree with the consensus that “Joker” is an incel manifesto. At least not solely. Rather, I see it as a mirror for the specific brand of violence that is white male terrorism. To be fair, I completely understand why others read Arthur as an incel. He probably is one, and the film certainly deals in misogyny. However, he never explicitly expresses any of the types of sentiments about women like we’ve heard from Elliot Rodger or David Berkowitz. His inability to have normal social interactions and develop romantic and/or sexual relationships with women is not the defining aspect of his character, nor is it the reason he goes on his eventual murder spree. Though it almost certainly contributes to it, it’s not what drives him specifically. His violence is more akin to the kind carried out by white men who get “fed up” and convince themselves that they are more disenfranchised than anyone else. The type of white men who become terrified and enraged by the prospect of social progress, which they see as leaving them behind—especially racial equity and inclusion—so they rail against the system for all the wrong reasons, projecting their rage at figures representative of the structures they believe are holding them back. People who only have a “good point” if you squint, tilt your head and look at it in the right light, but even then, you need to have deeply-ingrained oppressive ideologies to find yourself in agreement with them.
What a lot of people don’t know about the Columbine Massacre—largely due to misinformation and rumors propagated by the media—is that Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were inspired by Oklahoma City bomber, Timothy McVeigh. Specifically, they wanted to cause even more damage, create more fear, and achieve a higher body count than he did. The Columbine tragedy was not a simple school shooting, it was a planned terrorist attack by a narcissistic psychopath and his depressed follower, bullies, and worshippers of Nazi iconography. If the bombs they’d set around the high school had gone off, the casualties would have been closer to what they originally hoped for. The fact that they idolized McVeigh is no small detail to me because McVeigh’s radicalism was rooted in white supremacy.
On April 19, 1995, 168 people died and over 600 were injured when McVeigh parked a truck bomb in front of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. It had been two years to the day since the government siege of the Branch Davidians cult had met a fiery end in Waco, Texas—which had occurred less than a year after the deadly siege at Ruby Ridge in Idaho. Both of these events came as a result of government entities in conflict with white supremacists stockpiling weaponry in anticipation of an impending Race War. A culture of anti-government conspiracist thought and staunch racism from the radical, white separatist “Patriot Movement” is what radicalized McVeigh, but what truly set him off was the 1994 Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, a measure requiring “a waiting period of 5 days before a licensed importer, manufacturer, or dealer may sell, deliver, or transfer a handgun to an unlicensed individual.”
People like McVeigh may be against government control, but only because they are convinced the government is coming to take their guns and leave them at a disadvantage in conflicts with people of color, a future they see as inevitable. Their oppression is an imagined one and their rage is a byproduct of their racial anxiety. They fear the loss of institutional power. In the end, McVeigh was largely regarded as a “mentally ill loner” and the white supremacist motivations behind his actions became lost in mainstream understandings of the bombing, which is mostly understood be only anti-government by those who don’t know the full story. This is what I see reflected in “Joker.”
Let me be clear. Joker is a supervillain and he behaves like a supervillain. His character is just as violent and unhinged as I expect him to be. That is not what is problematic about this newest take on the Clown Prince’s story. The problem is that it tries incredibly hard to make us feel bad for Arthur Fleck, and Joker by extension, which in turn makes his vengeance feel justified. The film irresponsibly affirms Joker as a sympathetic figure and propagates the “mentally ill loner” narrative in a way that mirrors real-world narratives about white mass shooters and domestic terrorists.
Arthur’s existence as a downtrodden loner is reinforced at every turn, it’s inescapable. He’s relegated to a menial job as a clown for hire due to his off-putting behavior and mental illness. While working a gig twirling an “Everything Must Go!” sign, he’s harassed, has his sign stolen, and is physically assaulted by a group of brown youths who his coworker later refers to as “savages” and “animals”—which feels pretty indicative of racial anxieties to me. Then, he is accosted by an angry Black woman on the bus for innocently making her son laugh—in fact, many of the people attached to the moments and situations in which Arthur is/feels unfairly treated, misunderstood, or invisible are Black women, which I’d say is also quite revealing. Soon after this, he’s physically assaulted while in clown costume again—this time by a group of rich, drunken white men who have just sexually harassed a woman on the subway. He ends up killing them. After this, Arthur continues to experience blow after blow, stressor after stressor. The bad news and unjust experiences just keep piling up more and more, culminating in him being unemployed, without access to mental health services or medication, with new shocking information about his past that reveals even more abuse and abandonment, and leaves him feeling ultimately alone in the world and without identity.
After the subway murders, the people who were already being vocal and striking against Gotham’s privileged elite like Thomas Wayne (father of Bruce Wayne, the eventual Batman and Joker’s arch-nemesis) begin wearing clown masks to emulate the unknown “vigilante” whom they assume killed the Wall Street bullies as a political statement. What also helps to precipitate this is the fact that Thomas Wayne himself speaks out against the killings and, in true fascist scum fashion, gives the dissenters a derogatory label: clowns. As a result of witnessing this embrace of his image as a symbol of resistance, even though no one knows he is the one behind the clown make-up, Arthur begins to find an importance in his existence that he never felt before. He tells his social worker, “For my whole life, I didn’t know if I even really existed. But I do, and people are starting to notice.”
By the end, what “Joker” achieves—whether intentionally or not—is a blurring of the lines between the anti-capitalist, anti-fascist, anti-cop, anti-establishment uprising by the poor, working-class citizens of Gotham and Joker’s self-centered, nihilistic, anarchist vengeance. The reason Joker is heralded as a hero, in the end, is because the rioters project their beliefs onto him and align their frustrations with his. They have no idea that his murder of the three men on the subway had absolutely nothing to do with them being wealthy jerks, but was instead an act of pointed retaliation for what they did to him. He may have shot the first two in self-defense, but the third, he hunted down and emptied his clip into with intention and malice. The rioters don’t know that his behavior on Murray Franklin’s show is a direct response to him mocking Joker’s bad stand-up routine, not a political statement about socioeconomic disparities in Gotham. His actions are rooted in his own narcissism and insulated worldview, not in solidarity with the rest of the working poor and their rightful anger.
“What do you get when you cross a mentally ill loner with a society that abandons him and treats him like trash?” he asks Murray. “I’ll tell you what you get. You get what you fucking deserve.”
“Joker” lazily uses the same dangerous logic and reasoning that has been used for this kind of violence since Columbine. If only these “mentally ill loner[s]” could have been helped by society, if only they hadn’t been bullied and treated like trash. These are the gaslighting sentiments we hear again and again, rather than people taking a hard look at the reality of white male violence, what motivates it, and what radicalizes them.
The film is described by the studio as an “exploration of a man disregarded by society [that] is not only a gritty character study but also a broader cautionary tale.” But there is no caution to be found. As it exists, the film feels more like an honoring of the character the filmmakers claim to only study. It does no work to challenge Joker’s belief that he is justified, and instead provides him with a sea of (real or imagined) cheering fanatics who seek to emulate him. “Joker” potentially allows men who identify with Arthur Fleck’s descent into violent criminality to find not only acceptance, but also celebration, empathy, and vindication—and that is both irresponsible and dangerous.