The upcoming film ‘Joker’ recently released its second trailer, receiving much fanfare and acclaim. The movie will follow Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) and his descent into madness. Arthur will change from a failed comedian into the Clown Prince of Crime that fans of Batman know and love. While there is palpable excitement for the film, there is also an extremely problematic message that this film perpetuates- that the mentally ill are dangers to society. This isn’t unique to ‘Joker’, between our current administration’s hateful rhetoric and the years of negative representation of mental illness in the media, the mentally ill have often been characterized as the monsters hiding in our closets and under our bed. The monsters we should be fearing don’t even bother hiding.
Joker is one of the most famous characters in media. Whether its film, tv, video games, pajamas, cereals or basically anything else you can think to buy, the Joker can be found on it. He is Batman’s most formidable foe and rivals the Cape Crusader in terms of popularity. What superpower does he possess to stand toe to toe with the Dark Knight? While some would argue none, in the comics, Joker has been depicted as having “super sanity.” Essentially the idea is that the Joker is only “insane” because he can understand the workings of the world on a level that “normal” folk are unable to perceive. While we may view his deeds as evil, to his “super sane” mind, they make perfect sense. This casts Joker as the “Other.” One who doesn’t fit into societal norms. Joker inflicts extreme violence, so he is to be feared. His violence comes from his insanity, so his mental illness is also to be feared. By learning through media to fear any mind we don’t understand, we are taught to fear those whose minds work differently in the real world.
What does the Joker himself think of all this? In Alan Moore’s 1988 graphic novel “The Killing Joke,” he says:
“You see it doesn’t matter if you catch me and send me back to the asylum… Gordon’s been driven mad. I’ve proved my point. I’ve demonstrated there’s no difference between me and everyone else! All it takes is one bad day to reduce the sanest man alive to lunacy. That’s how far the world is from where I am. Just one bad day.”
This portion of the Joker’s famous “One Bad Day” monologue voices his belief that anyone can become as crazy as him if they have a bad day. Joker attempted to drive Commissioner Gordon mad, though in the end, Gordon resisted and Joker was thwarted. The fallout of this is that Joker didn’t become this way because of one bad day but because his mentally disturbed mind was prone to violence. This again perpetuates the fear that the “Other” is dangerous to the “Normal” because it teaches them to fear those around us. We all know that everyone is capable of having a bad day and if we subscribe to the Joker’s way of thinking, we know what a bad day can lead to.
There are countless other examples of the mentally ill being depicted as monsters in media. Why do we do this? Why do we fetishize the mentally ill as these amoral fiends that are one step away from killing us all? The answer is it’s easier to vilify a marginalized group like the mentally ill than it is to acknowledge our societal problems.
We have corporations that are willing to sell us out at the first sign of profit. We have lobbyists who corrupt our politics with ill-gotten gains. We have people willing to defend a document rather than the innocents lost to needless gun violence. These are monsters not even a man dressed like a bat can thwart. What can we mere mortals do against them? Fighting nameless and faceless conglomerates seems impossible; they have more money and resources than most of us could ever comprehend. We want to fight back but it feels impossible. When we are offered an easy way out, we take it. In this case, the out is the mentally ill.
We blame these cases of great evil and harm on the mentally ill because it helps us to accept how these things can happen. A “normal” person couldn’t do this, only a monster. There is no Boogie Man, Dracula or Wolfman to blame our problems on. Instead of accepting the social responsibility we all have, we sensationalize the mentally ill until they resemble the monsters that go bump in the night. Real monsters don’t go bump in the night. Real monsters work during the day in board rooms all over the country. They don’t come and suck your blood, but they do profit off it. And that is no laughing matter.