Who’s Laughing Now? On Mental Illness in Todd Phillips’ Joker

Who’s Laughing Now? On Mental Illness in Todd Phillips’ Joker

In Todd Phillips’ reimagining of the comic book villain the Joker, one man’s mental illness becomes the tool with which chaos spirals. Hannah Strong peels back the layers of a myopic film to discern who the true villains are. 

While writing in his diary, frustrated and forlorn, Joaquin Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck makes a psuedo-intellectual observation about his situation. “The worst part about having a mental illness is people expect you to behave as if you DON’T”. He dots the O with a smiley face. In my mind, the worst thing about having a mental illness is not being in control. It’s wanting to end my own life because of a minor setback. It’s being so unhappy, I drink until someone has to call an ambulance. It’s the feeling of total isolation; that if you walked into oncoming traffic or slit your wrists, not a single person would notice, let alone care. It’s not that people expect you to act like you’re fine (although they do sometimes, certainly) – it’s that it becomes impossible to distinguish reality from whatever your brain chemistry is determined to make you feel instead.

But Todd Phillips, the mastermind behind Joker, the Sad Clown movie currently shaking down the box office and bothering every Best Films Of 2019 list going, isn’t interested in reality. For all his insistence that his superhero movie isn’t a fantasy, he’s preoccupied with presenting a mentally ill character who sees his mental illness as a contributing factor in his violent actions.

When we first meet Arthur Fleck in Joker, he’s a shy, chronically depressed man suffering from a neurological disorder which causes random laughing fits. In reality, this is called the pseudobulbar affect; in Phillips’ film, it’s an unnamed condition for which he carries a little card to show bewildered strangers when he has an attack in public. He also has an undisclosed mental health condition, for which he’s previously been hospitalised, and takes several types of medication. When a social worker asks Arthur if he’s been having any dark thoughts, he stares at her and glibly remarks, “All I have are dark thoughts”. As the film progresses, Arthur loses the support of his social worker due to budget cuts, and (for some reason, as though pharmacies also cease to exist) access to his medication. This – in tandem with some bullying by local thugs, and a sense of rejection from the rest of the world – causes Fleck’s mental health to worsen significantly.

The film’s profound cynicism has always been its hard sell. In an attempt to distance itself from any notions of being a superhero movie, it presents a grim-dark world in which people are pathologically self-serving and profoundly jaded. Cuts to social services render the most desperate for help deprived of it, and Phillips attempts to use a fractured society as a catalyzing factor in his protagonist’s journey to becoming an infamous mass-murderer. “What do you get when you cross a mentally ill loner with a society that abandons him and treats him like trash?” Joker says, with a grin. The answer involves shooting Robert DeNiro in the head on live television, in a scene reminscent of the tragic real-life suicide of Christine Chubbuck.

At a time when resources for those struggling with their mental health continue to be criminally underfunded by governments around the world, it makes sense to highlight this. Yet Joker doesn’t advocate for better provision for the mentally ill. It undermines anything it attempts to say about the need for better mental healthcare by presenting Arthur Fleck as an unstable man prone to violent outbursts, whereas in reality, multiple studies have proven that the mentally ill are among the most vulnerable in society, more likely to be a victim of crime than people without a mental illness. Additionally, as Time pointed out last year in an article about the dangers of drawing a link between mental illness and gun violence, they are more likely to harm themselves than others.

The stigmatisation of mental illness in cinema has existed for decades; Phillips’ film isn’t thoughtful enough to have anything to add to the conversation. It merely perpetuates a pre-existing, harmful narrative: that people with a mental illness are inherently dangerous, violent individuals who should be avoided, and that there’s some sort of catch-all iteration of insanity, rather than a litany of mental health conditions which might be dismissed as such, each with their own unique symptoms and difficulties. 

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Previous iterations of the Joker, in both print and film, have side-stepped drawing such connections between mental illness and violence by deliberately showing the character as sociopathic or psychopathic. Although not perfect terms, these epithets are not ‘mental illnesses’ that can be treated with medication,  and as Jon Ronson’s book The Psychopath Test highlights, many diagnosable ‘psychopaths’ aren’t violent either. Some of the most horrific acts throughout history have been committed by people with no diagnosable mental illness, lucid and in complete control of their thoughts and actions – but it’s human nature to attempt othering, distancing ourselves from the anthropological capacity for wickedness by looking for ways in which we are different.

The enduring appeal of the Joker as a character is that he forces us to confront the nature of evil and human capacity to commit unforgivable deeds, which ultimately is still something science cannot explain. In giving Arthur Fleck a vague but definite mental illness, Phillips’ film seems to nudge audiences in the ribs and mutter, “Get a load of this weirdo” in an absurdly unhelpful manner.

It’s exhausting, living with a mental illness. It’s exhausting forcing yourself to get out of bed every morning when you feel like you’re worthless. It’s exhausting going to the cinema and seeing your pain twisted into something grotesque for the sake of entertainment, seeing the suggestion that something you hate about yourself might make other people hate you too. Every day above ground is a good day when you come back from the brink, and to those who manage to win the battle with their brain one day at a time, we deserve so much better than the misinformed, myopic mess of Joker.

Hannah Woodhead (@goodjobliz) is the Associate Editor at Little White Lies. She is currently writing a book about film and raising one beautiful houseplant. She considers both of these things as equally important.

READ ME is a platform for female-led writing on film hosted by Girls on Tops. Louisa Maycock (@louisamaycock) is Commissioning Editor and Ella Kemp (@efekemp) is Contributing Editor.

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