The discourse surrounding Todd Philip’s Joker went from slightly interesting to disconcerting to utterly insufferable. For those who need a crash course in what’s going on, families of the 2012 Aurora shooting (where a crazed gunman murdered 12 people) successfully campaigned to not have the movie screened there. This prompted a series of posts threatening a repeat shooting, which made the US Army release a private memo warning its members of a potential attack. Questions of the movie’s content have caused star Joaquin Phoenix to walk out of an interview, and Todd Philips to make an array of bizarre defences, including blaming the reaction on the far left and saying this kind of culture is why the film was made in the first place.
And look, a lot of this is publicity baiting. I’m not really that interested in what the studio or Philips have to say here. I want to go back to the source of the entire controversy, and that is the possible influence this film could have. Concerns have been raised pretty early on, especially when the first trailers came out, about the depiction of the popular Batman villain. This was a reimagining of The Joker as a down-on-his-luck social outcast whose frustrations and lack of success cause him to snap and become a violent psychopath. That’s at least the impression of it anyway-as of the time of writing this, I have not seen it. Either way, this prompted a discussion online about whether apparent sympathetic portraits of dangerous, socially isolated men is the best course of action considering the amount of killing sprees caused by people matching this kind of profile.
It spurs up a lot of questions and, frankly, these are interesting ones to consider.
Do Depictions of Violence or Violent Characters in Media Influence Violence in Real Life?
Well, I mean, I think that’s a rather unhelpful question to ask here.
What are You Talking About, You Knob?
It’s a rather disingenuous way of framing these issues because, well, the answer is rather simply no, of course not. Violence in films has gone up to the point where PG-13/12’s films nowadays are more violent than R/15’s in the 80s, but studies have consistently shown no correlation between that and real life actions, including this one from back in January. People tend to look for cause-and-effect, and when there isn’t any, it just doesn’t exist. But it’s a little more complicated than that, as media rarely ever influences people this directly.
I mean, that’s not to say it never does. The popularity of Jaws lead to a change in perception of sharks as maneaters and had them mass fished out of waters. More infamously, Birth of a Nation helped to revive the KKK. Thing is, people would find it hard to deny this, because it’s a direct, observable effect. Films with a less direct, more implicit or sociological impacts is a little more difficult to demonstrate. But it does happen, and it’s not always negative. The social phenomenon that Brokeback Mountain set off helped immensely for the visibility of LGBTQ+ people in media, and impacted how they were perceived. That’s not a direct effect, that’s a media source adding positively to a changing viewpoint in society.
It’s not as though people don’t understand the more implicit effects of negative media depictions. The use of blackface is rightfully condemned and no longer practiced because of the negative way it affects how it’s audiences see black and other marginalised people. It doesn’t directly make people more racist, but it reinforces ugly stereotypes that collectively hurt racial minorities. The idea that people aren’t influenced by positive depictions of violent characters should not be that surprising.
We Tend to Love Assholes: Positive Depictions of Horrible People
An important point of distinction is that a lot of these influences can be unintentional, some can even run contrary to the text’s deliberate purpose. American History X is a refutation of the broken ideology of neo-Nazis and the corrupting nature of hatred. Yet far rightists fucking love American History X, and feel it speaks to them. The semiotics of Nazi paraphernalia and sympathetic portrait of these fascists runs contrary to the film’s intended message and can attract the very crowd it speaks out against. This is something explored by the Frankfurt School and the media’s influence on Weimer Germany prior to takeover of the Nazi Party. This video does a great breakdown of these ideas, but to put it as simply as I can media has a way of reinforcing and depicting cultural values in spite of its intent, and I believe this can be seen in how we view the Broken Man.
People love an antihero, but what modern audiences really connect to is someone who goes against society’s conventions or has been broken by them. This, in of itself, is not a problem, but we have a tendency of reinforcing misanthropic, bigoted ideas in order to make a character seem “cool” or “edgy”. Tells it like it is, you could say. Examples of these include A Clockwork Orange, Fight Club, Breaking Bad and Rick and Morty. These are often cited by “edgy boys” as films and TV shows that they hold up in high regard and really speak to them.
What’s funny is that every one of them speaks out against the type of people they depict, but none of that really matters. These characters are “cool” and they speak to the people they connect to. Though not for unfounded reasons. Maybe they cannot find any meaningful life path and are frustrated by the world around them. Maybe they’ve been shat on by life and feel embittered by the roadblocks put up to their personal happiness. Maybe they see through life’s falsehoods and insincere messaging and want to lash out and behave cynically because they cannot make a genuine connection with their surroundings and has led them to be depressed. Isolation can be like a poison.
Even if all these artists never intended to fester negative outlooks, the way these characters are depicted as fun or righteous can be really appealing. And it’s in this culture that festers and celebrates this kind of negative behaviour that can lead to people being influenced to take things too far and go down a dark path. Not everybody will, not even the vast majority, and none of this can be used to excuse their actions or behaviours, but there are enough. Maybe that’s something we should be exploring in textual analysis, of how such an important aspect of our culture can leave an impact in ways that may be toxic.
Okay, now let’s move back to Joker finally.
Joker’s Happy Face
Like I said above, I haven’t seen the movie yet, and this is purposeful. To be clear, however, this discussion has been overblown and hyperbolic. It’s important to actually view the film if you want to comment more clearly on it. To speak about its potential impact is fine, but we can’t really give a clear critique of something we have not seen. I just wanted to make the point, having not seen it, that worries of its influence have a foundation, even if the text itself is a scathing condemnation of men like Arthur Fleck.
Whether or not Phoenix’ Joker is depicted in a sympathetic light or not is not entirely the point. I somehow doubt Warner Bros pushed money and their IP into something that glorifies the mass killings of a psychopath. I doubt it’s a legitimate sales pitch of theirs. But its imagining of The Joker as a failed comedian who is frustrated by his place in society is kind of worrying because of the people it may impact possibly too strongly on.
It’s also important to note that The Joker is a really popular character. There’s a reason he has resonated so much with people over decades. Making such a beloved villain a more understandable guy before snapping is perhaps not the greatest framing because his ideology tends to stick with people even when he’s just depicted as a monster. Heath Ledger’s Joker is a blunt psychopath with an incoherent world view of preaching chaos as the only natural order. He’s unambiguously horrific, yet there are those who will share memes about how this Joker had a point. There is something alluring about laughing at the world’s bullshit, after all.
Coming down to it, I don’t think this movie will cause a violent outburst. And I don’t think censorship or banning it, or other films like it, is the answer. Hell, a lot of the works I’ve mentioned in this post I believe have value. And people need to calm the hell down ’til at least the thing is released to the general public. I just think, in a world where mass shootings are connected to a lot of socially detached men with similar baggage this protagonist appears to have, having a conversation about how these portrayals influence people is an important one. Because, even if it’s in the smallest way, it may help shift cultural ideas away from celebrating such toxic behaviour or, better still, help bring up questions of why these young men attach themselves to such damaged and/or dangerous characters and what’s the best way to redress that. And this conversation is far more insightful, and potentially important, than if this fucking movie is necessary to trigger the libs or whatever.
I mean, regardless of its implicit influence, there is an explicit influence this madcap overreaction is truly creating. And that’s widening the market reach so Warner Bros can act like this film is more daring and controversial than it actually is and get in those curious. Whether it affects our culture remains to be seen, but how it affects the bank account of an incredibly rich conglomerate is apparent. We truly live in a society.