“Is it just me or is it getting crazier out there?”
– Joker and the culture of fear
Alicja Pawłowska, Queen Mary University of London Graduate
After seeing “Joker”, I cannot doubt the positive reviews anymore. The magnificent role of Joaquin Phoenix is probably one of the most overwhelming performances I had a chance to see in my entire life. However, I believe there is more to it than pushing the boundaries of superhero movies, breaking the records of first weekend sales and an analysis of madness reaching the shades of darkness that the blockbusters rarely manage to capture.
There is more to it because of the times in which it was released. The times when the UK announces the Ministry of Loneliness, when the feeling of not having an impact on the way our countries are run is escalated through the polarisation of political opinion and mass media. When over 300 million people worldwide suffer from depression with over 11% of the world’s 18-year-olds being depressed and 800 000 people committing suicide every year, “Joker” comes right in time for the identity crisis. We can look at Arthur and say – in some way, we are all clowns.
Thomas Wayne called “clowns” everyone who violently took over Gotham way before Arthur became a Joker. At that time, both Arthur and people like him could hardly be called clowns. The ending, however, shows us their different face... is it the true face of all of them?
The search for identity never stops – we’re trying to find out who we are all the time and some of us never find themselves. The popularity of social media makes this task both
easier and harder: the ideal filtered content makes us feel less important. Arthur had a dream of becoming a stand-up comedian, however, his sense of humour is rather different from what is considered funny. Instead of simply not succeeding in his field, he was repeatedly mocked from all sides.
Here’s an example. You’re going to a bar with friends. One of them brings her colleague - Steve. He turns out to have a problem with a Turkish waiter and refuses to be served by him and instead calls over a skinny blonde waitress to come and “bring him what he wants”. Your friend Kathy can’t stand his behaviour– she starts shouting at Steve that he’s a “racist prick” and that he is a “monster that doesn’t respect women and will never get married”.
Who did something wrong? Most of you will say – well, of course Steve! True, but not quite. At the same time, you and Kathy made a mistake too. Kathy had an emotional reaction and made comments that might have nothing in common with who Steve really is. She made assumptions and decided to say something hurtful that will make Steve feel excluded. The effect of staying quiet, on the other hand, depends on Steve’s interpretation: either you agree with him or with Kathy. If it’s the latter, it will make him feel even more excluded.
What follows is that Steve can feel misunderstood, not respected and isolated. Of course, his behaviours are, for many, unacceptable. Yet it doesn’t mean that the way to treat him is to make him feel unimportant. Such ostracism (leading to loneliness), feeling like you don’t have an impact on what is happening around you, feeling of not being understood or noticed by others – these are some of the effects that such behaviours have on Steve. The more frequent, the stronger.
How about Arthur Fleck? Due to his family history, psychological illness and social status, he felt all of the above at the same time, day by day. Some of you may come out of the cinema and think – Joker is not a villain after all, he did not hurt people that didn’t hurt him. However, in the horror-like scenes of murder, it’s hard to believe that Arthur is not evil to his bones. It is a contradiction in itself. It is a crisis, a crisis of identity.
There are basic limitations to this analogy – “Joker” is a heart-breaking story of a villain who didn’t want to become one, a villain that we want to help. Arthur becomes a victim of his own delusions and ostracism. But then he is followed by the masses. Because he is not alone.
The great divisions now seen in the political debate in many countries: USA, UK or Poland - is also in a way, a result of the mistakes of Kathy and the feelings of Arthur Fleck. The rise of extremist views resonates with the hollow parts of human identity: treating specific race, nationality as a superior to all other and saying that this superiority may be a justification for aggression respond to the years of ostracism and lack of impact that people with such views felt for years. How many times during a discussion, Stevens were called fascists, enemies, ignorant? How many Stevens were simply not given a chance to explain their points? The history shows us that pushing these kinds of views can lead to unimaginable consequences – that’s why many of us are scared to the bones. Fear drives us into ignoring other people’s thoughts. Fear drives us into racism or national supremacy. Of course, many supporters of such movements would be of the same opinion, no matter their experiences, but dare to think how many of them were sick and tired of the exclusion by the majority. Not even to mention the low-income families that e.g. in Poland are finally noticed by the government and given help that they can feel instantly – through the 500+ programme. These families do not focus on the rule of law, or constitutional rights – therefore, the Law and Justice Party retains the impressive support of the masses [Read more here] while undermining the fundaments of democratic society – it gives people what they want. That’s why citizens think that they have a real impact on what the state does, and the Law and Justice Party is likely to continue getting their votes.
This problem is also drawn upon in “Joker”. Arthur never felt noticed or that he has an impact on anything. When he commits a violent crime, people start to notice him. This turned out to be his way of attracting attention and influencing the higher ranks in society that ignored the needs of the poor, the unnoticed or mentally ill for such a long time – all done by putting on a mask of Joker. What if he was noticed and supported by society in the first place? He might have been perfectly happy, making kids smile in hospitals because his mother told him that he came to this world to bring “joy and laughter”.
The tiredness, pain and need for attention, the culture based on fear of the unknown – this is what drives us all. When someone calls us either an “activist” or a “fascist” , we become one. When someone calls us a “clown” – we become a clown.