I know it’s been a long time since I’ve ranted at you. I’ve had a lot going on in my life, and I’ve been a little shy of writing for the public. I’m trying to get back into it, though. And what better reason to get back into it than a nice, vitriol-filled review of a movie I hated? Whooo!
If you’ve known or followed me for any length of time, you know that I’m not one to go around telling people what kind of media they should or shouldn’t like. I do think it’s ridiculous to claim that art doesn’t have an effect on the collective psyche, but I also don’t think people are generally going to go out and harm people or themselves just because they read a novel or watched a movie.
It’s pointless and oppressive to shame people for what they like. Usually we can’t even control what we enjoy. It just hits the right buttons in our brains and releases the happy chemicals. I will NEVER try to deny someone their happy chemicals. HAPPY CHEMICALS ARE IMPORTANT.
I do believe, though, that it’s important that we pay attention to the discourse around art. Quite often, the discourse is the most important part of a piece of media. It’s how we learn as individuals, and how we progress as a society.
That’s why I hate-watched Joker, even though hate-watching isn’t a thing I usually do. This movie is getting so much attention. I knew the subject matter would be difficult for me, since I am a psychotic person, and many of the people I care about deeply are also psychotic, so I wanted to be able to speak about it in the hopes my opinion would be heard and would make folks think about this portrayal of mental illness.
In theory, I didn’t really have to see the movie. It would have been easy enough to point out that this was yet another “psychotic person becomes a mass murderer” story, and that this tired, old trope is harmful to psychotic people. After all, only 3-5% of violence is because of mental illness (even less of it because of psychosis), and yet around 99% of mainstream psychotic characters are portrayed as creepy mass murderers or serial killers. It didn’t take a full watch to realize that DC was rehashing this narrative.
But I wanted to be able to discuss the film with authority, and with a firm grasp of the complexities and subtleties of the plot. Hopefully, this will make folks more apt to listen.
I really do hope folks listen, because our lives could depend on it. While I don’t expect we’ll see much violence directly attributable to this movie, I do think it will have an effect. The average non-psychotic person is TERRIFIED of psychotic people, and while there may not be any studies on it that I can find, you can’t tell me that media portrayal doesn’t contribute to general fear of us. These portrayals are both a symptom of, and fuel for, saneism.
And saneism is rampant. Even though psychotic people are only responsible for a statistically insignificant portion of violence in the world, it is legal to lock us up just for being who we are. Neurodivergent folks are the only group in this country where it is still, in 2019, unambiguously LEGAL and COMMON PRACTICE to lock us up for existing.
That’s because y’all think it’s only a matter of time before we “snap” like Joker did and start killing people. Even though that never really happens.
One of the people I’m closest to in this world is schizophrenic, and although his mother has known him for going on 27 years and he has never hurt her, she STILL goes around saying that she’s just waiting for him to “snap” and murder her.
It’s not logical, y’all.
And yet, this illogical belief that we’re dangerous means that psychotic people are locked up for existing, and are much more likely than sane folks to be hurt and killed. We’re just hanging out minding our own business, and y’all take it upon yourselves to pull a preemptive strike on us.
THIS, in fact, is something that was portrayed QUITE WELL in Joker. There were several other aspects of the psychotic experience that were also portrayed quite well.
So, I guess I’ll actually talk about the movie.
As Deadpool once so aptly said, “You’re so dark. Are you sure you’re not from the DC universe?”
As all of you probably know, I’m a Marvel stan. I can get a little uwu-y when discussing the MCU in particular.
Because of the fact I like superheroes, I really tried to get into the DC movies. After all, who wouldn’t want a whole ‘nuther set of movies to watch when they’re depressed? There’s only so many times in a row I can watch Guardians of the Galaxy before I get restless.
However, DC movies have a fatal flaw in my mind: they take themselves MUCH too seriously.
Marvel also deals with complex issues, and their characters and plots have a way of making you think. However, they know that a huge draw of the films is the explosions and the attractive people in capes who can do magic. They’re not trying to be pretentious art films.
Joker, however, has forgotten its entertaining comic book roots. People are quick to call this movie a “masterpiece”. They’re comparing it to Taxi Driver, another pretentious load of crap that exploits psychosis for cheap thrills under the guise of artistic expression.
That’s partly because having a psychotic character is an easy way to level up on the artsy fartsy scale: if you’re “tackling” the “serious issue” of psychotic mental illness in your book or film, people consider your work “brave” and “complex”.
This is exactly why folks say that yet another rehashing of a musty and unimaginative comic book villain’s origin story is a “masterpiece”. It’s probably also why some readers have said my book The Other Place is literary fiction, when in reality it’s a YA story about a guy trying to figure out his love life and art career while gangsters mess with him. But since the main character happens to be schizophrenic, it obviously must be serious literature.
Dressing your work in the sepia tones of high artistry isn’t the only reason sane people include psychotic characters, though. Non-psychotic people love psychotic characters, even though they hate us as people.
For one, Psychosis is, in their minds, a way to explain aberrant and violent behavior without the trouble of developing your character’s personality and motivations. Don’t want to strain your writing muscles by coming up with a logical backstory about why the villain wants to kill your hero’s parents? Just make her crazy! Psychotic people just want to kill everyone for no reason, right?
I think the biggest reason non-psychotic folks write us into their stories, however, is because they want a vehicle to live out their violent revenge and power fantasies—and a vehicle which they can view as “other”: different enough from them that they’ll be spared the guilt brought on by identifying with the character’s motivations, and saved having to identify and examine their own non-socially-acceptable violent urges.
This is the same reason psychotic people are scapegoated for violent crimes in real life: people don’t want to think about how they share toxic ideologies and habits with a mass-shooter. They don’t want to examine the fact that some of their ideas can lead to violence. So they say “You’d have to be crazy to do something like that”, and immediately write off killers as psychotic. It’s an easy way to explain certain behavior without affecting their own cozy worldview or threatening their privilege.
Unfortunately, this scapegoating has a profound negative affect on people like me, who have psychosis.
I fear that movies like Joker feed into that sort of narrative, and thus make life measurably worse for psychotic people.
BEWARE: HERE BE SPOILERS
There are a lot of things about the movie that I might have liked, if things had been different. Joaquin Phoenix is a damn good actor. He played a believable neurodivergent person at first, albeit an extremely depressing one. DC of course falls into the rut worn down by so many before them in assuming that psychotic people are never happy.
Joker also did do a very good job of portraying how psychotic people are treated by society. I had to hide my face in Kid’s shoulder during the scenes where the character was beat down by strangers for being “weird” or “creepy”. He also receives a lot of lower-level ostracism which hit home pretty hard.
The way his counselor treated him—not really listening to him—also rang true. I’ve had great providers, but they’re not all great. And when the funding for his treatment got cut, leaving him without a way to obtain his medication, it was an apt, albeit simplistic, commentary on the way shit like that works in our society.
However, in the end, the movie did more than fail to portray psychosis realistically. It turned out to just be bad storytelling.
There was one instance of true delusion portrayed in the movie. Phoenix (argh! Of all the actors, why him…I’ll be calling him by the name of his character—Arthur Fleek—from now on) at one point got a girlfriend. It was jarring…not because psychotic people can’t have romantic relationships (although that bigoted belief is probably why most people would find it jarring) but because the way the romance started was completely unbelievable: he stalked her, and she liked the fact he was stalking her, so she came to his apartment and they started dating.
I thought it was incredibly bad writing and a horrible message, but I was happy for him because the girlfriend was really supportive. I thought it (and his fairly healthy relationship with his mom) were good touches in a movie that was otherwise trying WAY too hard to be dark. However, it soon became clear that my happy thoughts were in vain: he didn’t have a girlfriend. It had all been a delusion…although the scenes that had happened with the woman there had actually happened, she just hadn’t been there.
So, for those of you who don’t know, this isn’t how delusions work, at least in any instance I’ve experienced or heard of. Either you hallucinate people who don’t exist, or you become confused about whether something has happened or not, but I’ve never heard of someone having a walking daydream like that, imagining someone is there when they aren’t (and truly believing it). Obviously, this aspect was just something the writers did for shock value, because the subplot served no other purpose I could discern. There were no other instances of this type of delusion, either. It was really ungrounding, because I kept expecting other unbelievable, badly-written plot twists to also be delusion when they weren’t (like when he was called to go on the talk show).
Then, all the great character development Joaquin Phoenix did went out the window at the end when Arthur Fleck changed from a well-developed, nuanced, and believable human into a cartoonish villain. About ¾ of the way into the film, he just started killing people for no discernable reason. This, I suppose, is a “breakdown”, and it makes sense to sane people, especially given that Fleck was off his meds. But, y’all, not only do we not turn into mass murderers because we’ve had a bad day, we don’t turn into completely different people either (folks with DID might, I don’t know, but this wasn’t portrayed as that, just psychosis).
He even murdered his own mom—who he’d cared about deeply and had a good relationship with—for no real reason (for those of you who have seen it, I don’t understand why he’d believe she was lying to him, and wouldn’t suspect that her so-called delusions weren’t concocted by the psychiatric community and Thomas Wayne as a cover story. Even if he did believe her story wasn’t true, I don’t get why he’d kill her and then celebrate when he’d shown every sign of caring about her before).
Then he suddenly got political ideas, when he’d never shown much interest in politics, or patterns of political thinking, before.
This just isn’t how psychosis works. Not just the killing part, either. Our personalities don’t completely turn around until we’re unrecognizable. Psychosis is basically a mood. Just like you act different when you’re happy than you do when you’re sad, we act different when we’re psychotic than when we’re not, but we still act like the same person.
Speaking of politics, there was an unrelated thing about the movie that bugged me, too: he right-wing spin. The people protesting income inequality were portrayed as mindless sheeple and, literally, clowns. They were carrying placards that said “Resist”, and their hero was a mass-murderer. It wasn’t a very subtle metaphor, but it can’t be that subtle or the teenage incels who tend to go all bug-eyed over movies like this wouldn’t get it.
The whole movie was just a mess, and it’s just annoying that people unironically call it a masterpiece.
Anyway, that’s my opinion. I’m not trying to say you shouldn’t see the movie or that you should feel bad if you like it. I just hope you’ll keep in mind that this is not a realistic portrayal of psychosis, or any form of mental illness, because it seems most folks think it is. Consider volunteering somewhere where you can get to know some real psychotic people, in order to counteract the messages in this movie, and others like it. Maybe just talk to that guy who hangs out on the street corner singing to himself and see if he might be way cooler than you thought. You could also read books with Own Voices psychotic characters, like my book The Other Place, or Jet Set Desolate by Andrea Lambert.
Thank you for reading.