Joker: reflection of our society

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“What do you get when you cross a mentally ill loner with a society who abandons him and treats him like trash? You get what you f**king deserve.” This is the last thing Arthur Fleck says as he completes his transformation into the titular Joker with a graphic display on national television.

Leaving the theater last Thursday, I felt gross and numb as I tried to make sense of what I had just witnessed. Multiple critical reviews described Joker as being something of “an anthem for incels” — involuntary celibate people — but once the film became available to a wider audience, it became apparent that this film is not a promotion of incel ideology.

But where did this notion come from, and how does Joker really connect to our society? It isn’t difficult to see how this movie could be interpreted as incel-friendly. Arthur is a friendless young man with a mental illness who lives with his mother in his seemingly meaningless life. He meets a woman who lives down the hall, but his attraction towards her never leads to an intimate relationship. Identity crisis and a failed romance subplot alone don’t make someone an incel, though.

While Arthur does fit most of the demographics of the present-day incel community — almost entirely men under 30 years old — his worldview is distinct from that of incels. The “inceldom” is a subset of the manosphere. Members of the manosphere believe that only the most attractive and successful men attract women and that men are either alpha Chads, forever alone, or “normie beta cucks.”

Going beyond the “red-pilling”, or entering the manosphere, incels can also consume the “black pill”. This is essentially misogyny-driven catastrophizing, where incels believe that immutable physical, mental, or social characteristics leave them with no hope at having a sexual relationship — and therefore no happiness. All they can do is “lie down and rot”. After watching Joker, I can confidently state that this is not who the Joker is. While I haven’t been able to pin down what Arthur’s specific worldview and motives are, his anger and frustration were in no way directed towards women.

It’s concerning that people have taken Arthur and flattened his entire character down to being a representative for a community in the dark corner of the internet. Arthur has serious problems in his life that he has little to no agency over.

He and his mother were abused while he was a child. The hysterical laughter caused by his mental condition makes his peers view him as a “freak.” He must care for his mother alone in a run-down apartment. He’s unable to receive adequate mental health services because of cuts to social programs. He is a product of the broken system he’s lived in, his behavior largely molded by external factors.

The reason, I believe, that early viewers were so quick to label the Joker as a hero for incels is that many people don’t actually understand who incels are or the process of falling into the vicious cycles that lead people to take the black pill. However, there also appears to be a wider misunderstanding of what leads individuals to adopt radical worldviews.

Too often, people will view extremists with disdain and dismiss them as simply vile people, rather than taking the time to understand that they’re vulnerable members of our society. They are people who have become susceptible to dangerous ideologies and have fallen through the cracks because of systemic socio-economic failures. Arthur, the Joker, is one of these people.

What Joker can tell us is that it’s incumbent upon us to provide a support network for people in danger of falling into the same descent that Arthur does in this movie. Seeing it happen stretched out over a two-hour film, Joaquin Phoenix’s portrayal of this complicated journey will make people uncomfortable and uneasy. That makes sense. It shouldn’t feel enjoyable or exhilarating watching someone’s life and mind fall apart, but this happens every day to members of our society who feel hopeless or punched down.

Over the course of the film, Arthur repeatedly finds his life being chipped away or made worthless. He loses his job because a coworker throws him under the bus for having a weapon. The social worker he visits appears to offer little support for him and once that public service is defunded, he loses his access to psychiatric medications.

His trust in society is broken after what he experiences. He discovers from his mother the true identity of his father, but later is told that his mother had been placed in a mental hospital with delusions while Arthur was a young boy (in fact, he was actually adopted). After Arthur performs at a local comedy club, his hero, talk show host Murray Franklin, mocks him when clips of his set are shown on-air. He feels lied to by the only two people he’s placed trust in. At that point, for vulnerable people like Arthur, reality stops mattering.

In his journal, Arthur writes, “I hope my death will make more cents than my life.” This is what extremism can lead one to, a loss of meaning in one’s life that they (incorrectly) think only death could fulfill. It’s what’s been happening to the people being radicalized on our always connected but socially isolating internet. Hopeless people, after facing repeated failure in their lives with no sense of improvement, seek explanations for their despair. For these people, often mentally ill or under severe social pressures, radical beliefs such as the ones offered by incels help them make sense of the world, while guiding them towards the nihilistic death cult black pilling leads to.

After mulling through all this, I found myself asking the question: How could we have stopped Arthur from becoming the Joker? While I still don’t have an exact answer, I do believe there are approaches we could use to prevent people from going down the path of extremism that Arthur went down. It’s clear that isolation is unhealthy for everyone. Lost in a void without meaningful connections, the emotional wear this would have on someone transcends material status, but especially for people under powerful economic and professional stress.

We need to do more to ensure that people have adequate support systems to help keep them from drifting off into radicalizing internet forums. We can establish better mental health infrastructure for this and perhaps promote more social interaction for those on the fringes.

Using incels as an example, we can create positive support groups and teach social skills to help would-be incels form positive friendships (and potentially, romantic relationships) rather than feel driven to form viciously unhealthy relationships with members of the incel community. There’s something deeper, though, about our society’s interpersonal culture and how we humanize — or dehumanize — others. Somehow, this needs to be shifted in order for us to address the Joker’s type of nihilistic attitude towards people and institutions that have permeated throughout radicalizers.

Arthur wants to be treated with decency and wants to live a respectful life, but when he is essentially pushed out of society and has his identity wiped, he becomes the Joker, similar to how vulnerable people can become incels. Once it feels like all you can do is “lie down and rot”, violent revenge on those who wronged you seems much more appealing.

We live in a society. No one should have to live through it as Arthur does.