Joker as Social Commentary

The worst part of having a mental illness is people expect you to behave as if you don’t. -Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck in Joker (Warner Bros. 2019)

This quote is the perfect summary of what it is like to live with having a mental illness or any disability whatsoever. It accurately captures just how much society lacks empathy and compassion to people like myself that suffer a very real and debilitating condition. Almost every aspect of the film shows just how marginalized people are and it takes aim at society’s cutting funding for treatment and social services. Even the social worker said, “Arthur, they just don’t give a shit about people like you … They don’t give a shit about people like me either.” Watching this film saddens me because this was supposed to take place sometime in the 1970s to the early 1980s. I think we are left wondering how, in 40 effective years, mental illness treatment has progressed at a glacially slow pace. Perhaps it is more accurate so say that we have made no progress whatsoever.

We are treated with disdain by our employers and the manufacturers of our medicines raise the costs to the point of unaffordability; we are expected to beg for scraps. Some psychiatrists say that the movie paints an alarmingly inaccurate view of mental illness but they’ve never lived a day in our lives or walked in our shoes. Psychiatrists, being doctors, lead a life of relative privilege. I do not hear them advocating loudly for our help. Joaquin Phoenix even has a startlingly truthful look at mental health counselors when he says to his social worker, “You don’t listen, do you?” Oftimes I wonder whether those caring for me really and truly listen or just go through the motions. I can understand how and why Alex Fleck snapped. There is many a time when I have wanted to snap because you only matter if you’re both public enemy #1 and have a mental illness - otherwise you just have a mental illness.

The film also offers some anti-capitalist overtones because Wayne Enterprises supposedly fired Arthur Fleck’s mother for getting sick. Wayne himself champions the employees that got killed by Arthur in retaliation for a beating that Arthur took. Wayne characterizes the clown as coward hiding behind a mask. Is this a metaphor for criticism of mental illness? Does society look upon people with these kinds of conditions as cowardly, slovenly, or lazy? Ultimately you will have to be the judge but I ultimately think that is not so far from the truth. I am an atheist and I remember hearing a member of the faithful that I am not trying hard enough and not praying hard enough. I am smart enough to understand that some mythical sky daddy is not going to come swoop down and suddenly heal me if I pray harder or more fervently.

Just like Fleck, there is hardly a day that goes by that I do not think about death or suicide; thinking it is preferable to life in a society that no longer even makes a pretense of token caring about the suffering. Joker is the impetus for revolution from all oppressed: be it the disabled, people of color, the poor, and disenfranchised et al. The mental health field is woeful and despicable. Even the professionals want us to behave as if we don’t have mental illness. It is not my fault that I was born with a chemical imbalance in my brain, and furthermore, it is not my fault that I was born on the Autistic spectrum. I did not do something wrong in a previous life, I am trying harder than your simple mind can imagine, and prayer is not the answer!

See also