Why Joker sends all the wrong messages about mental health
by Christian Decker
Those of you who know me are probably aware of the fact that I’m a massive Batman fan. I grew up watching the animated series, dressing up, and reading stories about Batman. So naturally one of my favorite villains, if not my favorite, has been the Joker. Completely devoid of morality or any sense of human decency, the Joker causes chaos and mayhem wherever he goes, pissing off Batman and driving him ever closer to the edge. One of the reasons I think the Joker makes such a good villain is that he has no redeeming qualities whatsoever. He is just this being of pure evil that has no regard for any of his actions and how they affect people.
Naturally, when I heard they were making a movie about the Joker I was pretty excited. I’m pretty into comic book fandom, just maybe not to the extent of the “Release the Snyder Cut” fanatics, but certainly enough that this kind of media and entertainment means a lot to me. The excitement turned to a little apprehension when I found out that the movie was gonna be a Joker origin story. Those of you familiar with the Batman comics know that Joker doesn’t really have a set origin story, it bounces around from time to time, often changing and it’s never clear, which I think adds to the mystery and destructive nature of the character. Though I love the 1989 Batman, it’s the one thing about the movie that I don’t like.
I became much more apprehensive when the origin story grants a sympathetic lens to the Joker’s actions. That’s a big yike from me chief. After watching the movie, I can see what they were trying to go for. A very, “we live in a society” type of movie that clumsily places elements of class warfare mixed with a lack of social welfare programs to help those less fortunate or struggling mentally. I actually agree with the accolades that the movie received. The score was brilliant, and Joaquin Phoenix delivers a powerhouse performance. However, when you look at how the movie portrays people with mental health struggles and the services that go along with it, problems emerge.
Joker seems to think that people are always one second away from snapping and shooting a television host on live TV. It’s not exactly a great way to address the host of mental health issues that people across the country deal with every day. If you want to make a movie about eating the rich, then do that, but not while demonizing the mentally ill. The movie seems to think that the only recourse mentally ill people have for venting their frustrations is murdering people.
In addition, the movie gives a less than ideal portrayal of mental health professionals. The psychiatrist who treats Arthur, who later becomes Joker, seems rather unfeeling about any of Arthur’s issues and blatantly tells him to his face later that the city government, “does not care about people like him” when they cut funding to the mental health sector. Telling a person with mental health issues that no one cares about them is a giant red flag, and I can imagine it would make people struggling with mental illness a bit reluctant to seek treatment.
Regardless of what someone’s situation is, telling someone that no one cares about you isn’t a good way to help them. There seems to be a massive disconnect between the reality of people living with mental illness, and how the movie seems to think people could act. Sure, maybe it’s just the story of one guy and his descent into madness, but it alludes to a much larger problem in the entertainment industry. Statistically speaking, mentally ill people are much less likely to perpetrate violent crimes and are in fact much more likely to be victims. To the movie’s credit, Arthur is the victim of several acts. However, when he turns to violence himself, it reflects an idea in our collective minds that mentally ill people are gonna go out and kill everyone if bad stuff happens to them.
Showing a movie where people begin to riot because things are bad without offering a decent solution to the problems that are addressed in this movie sets bad precedent as part of a long history of movies that address mental illness in some of the worst ways. I think we as a collective need to start holding directors and filmmakers accountable for attempting to change the focus on which we look at people with mental health issues. It’s time to stop reinforcing these harmful stigmas.