What ‘Joker’ says about mental illness and society

| Senior Forum Editor

We all patiently awaited the arrival of “Joker.” After the cinematic blunder that was “Suicide Squad,” it’s safe to say that most of us left “Joker” with a sense of heaviness that was simply unexpected. The movie sought to create an alternate origin story of how the Joker came to be, and for two hours, we watched this story unfold. But more importantly, we watched a man with a mental illness in a broken society.

Let’s focus for a moment on the man behind the Joker: Arthur Fleck. Arthur worked gigs as a clown, focusing primarily on this while he scribbled jokes in a notebook on the side, with aspirations of performing stand-up comedy. Early on in the movie, we as an audience were made aware of Arthur’s mental illness. We saw him as he handed out his cards during bouts of uncontrollable laughter. We watched as he scribbled phrases of hopelessness into his journal. We watched as he was mercilessly mocked by those he met for something he could not control.

The movie then took this fact and ran with it; it created the Joker out of Arthur Fleck, a man with a mental illness who had been wronged too many times by the world. They created a murderer out of a suffering man. They created the Joker at the expense of mental illness, something that I feel we cannot ignore.

In today’s time, we are still working to reduce the stigma that surrounds mental illness. In a survey released by the American Psychological Association (APA), 87% of American adults believed that those with a mental health disorder should not be ashamed of having one. This is a positive notion, that the mentality of individuals within society are shifting in a more positive direction in their views of mental health. However, there were still some who reported more adverse feelings towards mental illness. Within the same survey of American adults, 33% of respondents strongly or somewhat agreed with the idea that people with mental illness scare them. Then Joker was released, five months after the release of the data in this survey. A movie filled with graphic, senseless killings, all done by a man with a mental illness. How do those 33% view this movie, this character? It likely added to their preconceived—and misguided—fear of those with a mental illness. The movie, generally, painted the picture that mental illness,when compounded with external issues, is essentially synonymous with violence, which is not the case.

In the same survey, 86% of adults agreed that there is still a stigma behind the phrase “mental illness,” and this is largely where the problem lays. With this in mind, although progress has been made, we still have a long way to go, and Joker—although cinematically impressive—seemed to pull us out of our efforts to reduce this stigma and thrust us back into a world where mental illness is miscategorized and misunderstood.

We cannot ignore the role that society played in this movie. We’ve seen the memes, the ones that say, “Creating the Joker 1989: throw him into wasted chemicals/Creating the Joker 2019: throw him into society.” I’m sure you let out a laugh or two as you scrolled past the image on Facebook, but when you really look at it beyond its face value, there’s a lot of validity in this statement. As a society, we must strive for openness and acceptance, accepting the things that makes us different from one another, not using them to drive a wedge between each other.

In Joker, Arthur was teased and belittled to a point where he no longer felt valued within the society that he lived in. He had been beaten, robbed, humiliated and lied to throughout a large duration of the movie. And to make matters worse, the governmental department which had funded his therapy and medications had de-funded the program, leaving Arthur without medication or therapeutic help. There is no doubt that society had a large impact on Arthur, and that’s something to take note of. In any case, but particularly in the case of mental illness, we must approach each other with understanding. We should be there for our friends, peers and loved ones, offering support without judgement.

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