Analyzing three messages in Joker on mental health, class, and how our society determines an individual’s worth.
“Your blog posts are so sad,” is something that I have heard a good amount since I have started making my writing public on BraveNewLove. The statement is true — many of the things I discuss in my blog posts can be viewed as sad or unsettling, but a big part of the message of living authentically involves openly discussing aspects that shame or society would tell you to hide. A big part of the message of BraveNewLove is that it is OK to share these aspects of our lives so that we can better understand and create space for each other.
The funny thing to me is that even though I hear from the other side of that coin when folks comment that my posts are “too positive,” or “forgiving” when it comes to interacting with allies of the LGBTQ+ community or the “takeaway messages” of my posts, I still feel more of a pull from the “your blogs are too sad” side of the discussion. That is why even though I believe many of the folks who have made those comments are doing so genuinely and without any negative intentions it still makes me examine the situation. Why do I always FEEL the “your posts are so sad” voices so much more strongly than the folks who say I should be more realistic regarding the sadness of certain situations? It’s almost like the voices insinuating that I should be posting happier content have more strength and power in my mind. Which begs the question, what is it that makes us feel that way — that one side of an argument is what ‘should be done’ over the other?
The “your posts are too sad” voices also remind me of the ones that come forward when I post something too politically polarizing on Facebook which also, for some unexplained reason, always seem to have more pull in my mind than the voices of folks that agree with me. I still don’t understand fully why that is, but I do believe that it is connected to a desire to keep things at a status quo, or in other words, remain comfortable. The topics and the tone of some of my posts can tend to be uncomfortable and unsettling sometimes in the same way that my political posts on FB can be unsettling as well.
In a sense, the FB posts about not having equal rights as an LGBTQ+ citizen mirror my posts on BNL because they are offering a voice that goes against the system or establishment, and this can be unsettling for others — especially those who are not feeling any pressure in those areas. I believe that feeling of unsetting the establishment can be felt by all different types of individuals, and we all can understand that speaking against the establishment or the way things “should be done” in our society is very tough. This “feeling” that we all have is so strong that it tries to silence any opposition to the status quo. I guess what I am trying to say is that my message with BraveNewLove would be to create space for others to live authentically which requires listening to the voice that creates discomfort. It also means that we do not tell them to smile or ‘put on a happy face’ just for the sake of making things easier on us.
or those that haven’t been keeping up with the business side of movie news (aka most folks who aren’t nerds like me), there is a bit of controversy surrounding Joker that is worth knowing about. There are a ton of folks in the movie critic world and otherwise who do not like this movie calling it careless and stating that it promotes and glorifies violence. Those strong attacks against the character of the movie, in general, are also paired along with smaller critiques of the movie regarding tone, writing quality, and heavily (read: HEAVILY) pulling from previous award friendly movies such as Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy (highly recommend those two films if you liked Joker).
I disagree with the attacks stating the movie encourages and glorifies violence and believe that it is actually a cautionary tale for reasons that I will outline below. In order for those statements regarding the film encouraging violence to be true, you would need to view the main character, Arthur, as someone to aspire to be like. I believe, on the other hand, that the messages of the movie are far more compelling if you find ways to empathize with Arthur throughout the film without thinking he should be emulated.
Rather than do a full deep dive into the film because this isn’t a movie review blog, I am going to focus on three quotes that represent pivotal parts in the film where, I believe, its true messages come through very strongly. These points involve mental health, shame, and creating space for others which are all very integral parts of living authentically and encouraging others to do so as well.
PSA that some spoilers for the film lie ahead so stop now if you want to see the film without knowing any elements of the plot, BUT my biased opinion is that reading this commentary on the film might make it a more interesting watch even if you know a couple plot points. #humblebrag
“Put on a happy face”
This quote was used a good bit in the marketing for the movie but also utilized in the film as a message that Arthur, our main character who later starts going by ‘Joker’, heard from his mother quite frequently while growing up and on-screen as an adult. It obviously resonated with me pretty strongly due to selecting the line as the title of this little essay. I think that it is the strongest message of the movie overall that almost all of us can relate to in some way. It is also why I believe that almost anyone will be able to empathize with Arthur in the movie whether folks want to admit that or not.
Whether you are a woman, in a public-facing role at work, LGBTQ+, a person of color, or even a person of faith, you probably identify with the notion of being told to smile when you didn’t feel like smiling for some reason or another. For reasons that experts who aren’t me could probably tell us, our society has determined that smiling is the best default to have. My theory is that it is because it means everything is going ‘fine.’ It means, “Nothing to see here, let’s keep things going on like they always have, or no reason to stop on my account.”
No matter what the end reason, we are all told to smile and ‘put on a happy face’ as the common way to keep things operating at the status quo. I feel like we have become a bit of a “Smile, even if you don’t feel like it,” culture in so many regards because of this reason.
Like I’ve written about previously, I have taken my commitment to live openly and authentically to FB and have shared some opinions of mine that could be termed as “polarizing” even though they were extremely important issues to me and my life as an LGBTQ+ Texan. Sometimes these posts can lead to folks who disagree to engage both rationally and irrationally depending on their temperament and invariably whatever is going in their day at the time. No matter what the dialogue looks like, I believe that many engage because my comments have somehow translated the discomfort that I was feeling when I made the original post, and it is that discomfort that leads them to actively engage (whether rationally or irrationally).
In that way, I strongly believe that it is important to listen to voices crying out in despair because they are usually crying out for legitimate reasons. While I think that many folks out there would agree that we should listen to these voices, I don’t think we always do it in practice. One most common example I can think of running up against this in my own quests to be authentic would be when I am speaking out regarding anti-LGBTQ rhetoric and homophobic actions or practices that are taking place and having folks more or less tell me to quiet down, use softer language or that I am incorrectly interpreting what is happening to me as an LGBTQ+ person. No matter the direct language used the overall theme is to get back in line and stop causing a scene. “Put on a happy face,” so that you can’t make all this noise talking about what is wrong with the world.
I want to be very clear that I am not saying I don’t take part in this type of behavior as well. When I’m not the one making the noise, I can DEFINITELY think of times in my life when I have just wished that someone would “knock it off” and “quiet down” about whatever injustice they are experiencing. I might not be actively silencing them and telling them to put on a happy face but I am definitely not creating space for them either.
In the context of the movie, Arthur is dealing with a significant amount of mental health issues that are never properly addressed either due to them being ignored by his mother or inadequately treated by a governmental worker. He eventually loses all support when the governmental program providing his medicine gets shut down due to lack of funding — a common element in our current world — and all the while he is told to “put on a happy face.” This type of imagery makes me contemplate the times when I’ve seen or heard something going on that was clearly due to a mental health issue but stayed silent hoping the person would just put on a happy face and get back in line.
Again, no easy answers here but keep reading and I’ll cover a couple of action items at the end that I think are worth trying.
“People who can’t get their lives together are clowns”
The second piece of the film that I think is worth discussing is this very capitalistic inspired line that folks ‘who can’t get their lives together are clowns,” which is delivered by Thomas Wayne in the film. Wayne is the father of Batman, Bruce Wayne, who is only a child during the time period of this movie and is a very wealthy and successful businessman. He is definitely part of the 1% and the line echoes the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality of the political thinking that usually comes down on the side of naked capitalism. In many ways, I fully agree that hard work is needed for success. That said, at the same time, I am equally aware that not all decks are stacked equally and that this rhetoric tends to either hide that fact or simply ignore it.
While out of context and with the glowing commentary that I provided above, I think most folks wouldn’t agree with the statement above that people who can’t get their lives together are clowns. That said, based on many of our attitudes and behaviors in this world, it looks like as a culture we still hold this belief to be true on some level. It is why we tend to ask each other questions about what we do, not because we are genuinely interested in the motivations and passions of the individual in question, but because we want to measure their job against an invisible measuring stick we have created based on what society told us is important in order to ultimately determine the worth of the person we’re having a conversation with. I feel like this pubic adherence to this idea that folks who can’t get ahead in life somehow aren’t working hard enough, or shouldn’t be taken seriously, really gets in the way of our ability to be empathetic towards their experience. In a sense, we dehumanize these people who “can’t get their lives together,” by casting them aside as something that should be laughed at instead of listening to their human needs.
In the example of the movie, Arthur is objectively the one down on his luck for a variety of reasons including mental health issues previously discussed. Thomas Wayne casts him aside at a couple of integral moments of the film and basically personifies the quote above with his behavior in every way. For many reasons such as his mental health issues, lack of support growing up, and most acutely in the context of financial success, being born without a significant amount of wealth in a system stacked in favor of the wealthy — again direct commentary on our current society — Arthur is not nearly as successful as Thomas Wayne. In other words, he is the one that can’t get his life together, and that lack of ability to “get his life together” is one reason he should be cast aside as something to laugh at. The second reason will be examined below with our final quote:
“You wouldn’t care if it were me dying in the streets.”
This line is delivered in a scene that I’ll discuss more in a moment, but it is spoken by Arthur to Murray, a late-night talk show host, that he admires and wants to emulate. Murray is a driving force and role model for Arthur in the film inspiring him to want to pursue comedy. He eventually becomes a guest of Murray’s talk show in the third act of the film and when things aren’t going like he would like them to, Arthur states that no one in the audience would care if he had died similarly to other characters in the film previously — wall street businessmen — that the audience of the show was expressing concern for. This, along with the fact that Arthur ‘couldn’t get his life together’ is the reason why he can be cast aside, no matter how many problems or misfortune comes his way. The simple fact that at the end of the day, he just doesn’t matter to anyone.
I know this one is a hard pill to swallow as a commentary on our society, and I might lose even more folks who haven’t already quit reading up until this point when I agree that we tend to try to find reasons as a society to not care for the less fortunate. Obviously we don’t want to cast the innocent or deserving (defined as however, you define those terms in your eyes based on your worldview) aside, but if we can find any reason — like the fact that you have mental health issues, have a criminal record, struggle with addiction, live below the poverty line, or are literally too dirty — we are likely not going to think twice about you. A sad fact, but it is true, y’all.
I feel like most reasonable folks would agree that is an unfortunate fact in our capitalistic society, that at the end of the day, we are only in it for ourselves and there really isn’t any incentive (short of belief in a higher power) to go out of our way to help others. You can kiss the chances of us going out of our way to help others goodbye as well if the individual in question doesn’t have any “social capital” that would make helping them worth our time. We see the commentary in other movies even, with a recent film that I watched with my boyfriend called ‘Welcome to the Dollhouse’ coming to mind for me.
The primary message of the film is that no one (including family) really cares about the main character: a pre-teen girl who doesn’t really fit in very well and has a crush on a boy that doesn’t feel the same for her. The film is a little dry because nothing really changes throughout the entire course of the movie. Now, ‘Welcome to the Dollhouse’ wasn’t a hit by any means, but it did develop a cult following for many reasons over the years since it came out in 1995. I believe that one of those reasons is because the movie was one of the first to present how life was so viscerally pathetic for our main character in a time when movies tended to make things glossy. The reason there are no changes in character arcs, character growth, and no real lessons learned by our main character is the point the filmmaker is trying to get across. That we as a society could care less about those who are less fortunate than ourselves and have no real incentives to do so unless they maintain some sort of political capital — good looks, wealth, or power.
Why This Matters
I believe these messages are resonating worldwide as well. It’s telling to me that on the other side of the world in South Korea, Bong Joon-Ho, made a movie this year that had commentary on a similar topic:
‘Parasite’, which is also nominated for Best Foreign Language Film and Best Picture at the Oscars, also has something to say about the disparity between classes and people’s worth based on their social capital. Our lead characters in the film who represent less fortunate members of society at some points refer to ‘having a plan’ to get ahead, but the director makes it very clear at the end of the film that these plans are pointless and incapable of working out for members of the lesser class. The director took it one step further to illustrate that the realization that bridging the gap between classes is actually out of reach can be what leads to folks feeling like consequences for their actions no longer matter.
This “nothing left to lose” theme is present in ‘Joker’ as well. In the film’s most captivating scene (the one where he delivers the “you wouldn’t care if it were me dying in the streets,” line) Arthur quietly admits that he no longer cares what could happen to him based on his actions. For folks interested in why Joaquin Phoenix is a frontrunner for the Oscar for Best Actor for playing Arthur (Joker), this would be a scene to watch. Arthur delivers the line while turning from Murray, the host of a late-night television show that Arthur (Joker) is being interviewed on, to the audience and says the line quietly and almost under his breath. He delivers the line with spite, derision, and a small smile. We think he is going to end his life in this scene because the film has heavily implied it up to this point. We believe that Arthur will finally end his own suffering, and much like he stated earlier, the audience in the movie would be able to write him off as a lost cause that they didn’t need to worry too much about. That said, the director takes a different turn and has Arthur shoot the television host after stating that “we get what we deserve.” In that moment, we as the audience of the movie ‘Joker’ are immediately likened to the audience within the movie itself who just saw the late-night host get shot who definitely didn’t see it coming either. Shock, panic, and outrage erupt.
The problem for many folks is that we’re challenged to care about Arthur in the film, which we aren’t “supposed” to do. It is oh so easy when we can write off terrible people, but when we see their backstory and start to identify similarities in the hurt they feel to the hurt that is in our own lives, things get muddy. We start to see that the inadequacies of a system presented in the movie that doesn’t provide for proper mental health services for those who need them, includes folks who work their asses off and will never ‘get ahead’ due to economic factors still being disregarded by those who are more fortunate, or people who are getting upset for being overlooked are told to conform. The problem is that all of these issues with the system the movie is putting forth in Gotham perfectly mirror our current world here in 2020. Which means that our systems, and our action or inaction in those systems, are what create our monsters.
Like I stated in the beginning, I don’t believe that Arthur is a character to aspire to be like, and I don’t think he is a ‘robin hood’ figure as some folks have unfortunately stated. That said, I do believe that the backlash to this movie can be somewhat accounted for by the fact that it shines a spotlight on apathy and complicity through inaction in our current society, and folks don’t like to have that feeling about themselves.
I can empathize with the fact that it doesn’t feel good to examine and acknowledge how we help create some of the monsters in our society through neglect, but my experiences highlighting discomfort I face as an LGBTQ+ citizen lead me to believe that we need to try. I can very much relate with the thought that this is too big of an issue and that there isn’t an easy answer, but I don’t think that means that we throw our hands up in the air and remain apathetic because of the consequences that ‘Joker’ points out.
With that in mind, what can we do to reduce some hold that shame has on our society? Truly. Here are a couple thoughts that I alluded to at the beginning that might help folks on the mental health front:
- When someone cries out in discomfort, think about how you engage with them. Are you asking them to get back in line, conform and ‘put on a happy face,’ or are you creating space to let them feel their emotions and express what is causing them problems.
- If you aren’t the type to reach out when someone does make their discomfort known publicly, ask yourself why that is the case? A very legitimate reason that comes to mind would be a feeling of inadequacy when dealing with mental health issues and I’ve included some resources below that would be great to share if that resonates with you. Sometimes a conversation is all that is needed as well so that someone can feel heard.
- What issues are you covering with your smile? I’m a big fan of talk therapy and recommend it to everyone as something to try in case it might be helpful.
Now in the spirit of being open to holding space for others, I’ve recommitted to making BraveNewLove a space where folks can be authentic in their experiences with mental health. That means not being overly happy or showing performative positivity and meeting folks who reach out in the community where they are at. It also means trying not to grasp for silver linings when there aren’t any in certain situations.
While I don’t have all the answers, I think that one place to start is in the space that we allow for others to be authentic about what is going on in their lives without forcing them to put on a happy face aka fit in and conform to the status quo. It seems to me that if the normal state is ‘happy’, meaning nothing is uncomfortable enough to try to change, the default seems to be apathy which leads to a society that is complicit to our own evils through our own inaction.
If you think you might be struggling with mental health issues, feeling like you are alone, or that you have no one to talk to about something, please know that there are folks out there willing to listen. I’m including a few resources below and a link to even more here.
- Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) provides information on prevention, treatment, and symptoms of anxiety, depression and related conditions (240–485–1001)
- Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA) provides information on bipolar disorder and depression, offers in-person and online support groups and forums (800–826–3632)
Suicide And Crisis
- The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention provides referrals to support groups and mental health professionals, resources on loss, and suicide prevention information (888–333–2377)
- The National Domestic Violence Hotline provides 24/7 crisis intervention, safety planning and information on domestic violence (800–799–7233)
- The Suicide Prevention Lifeline connects callers to trained crisis counselors (800–273–8255)
Suicide And Crisis
- Needhelppayingbills.com provides information on state and local assistance programs, charity organizations and resources that provide help paying bills, mortgage assistance, debt relief and more
- NeedyMeds provides information on available patient assistance programs (800–503–6897)
- Partnership for Prescription Assistance helps qualifying individuals without prescription drug coverage get the medications they need
I run an authenticity blog called BraveNewLove that is committed to creating space for folks to live authentically through discussion of life, wellness, and faith. If any aspect of this post resonated with you, I’d be honored if you checked out some more of my writing or joined the newsletter to be part of the BraveNewLove Community.