On the politics of Joker

WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD

Over the weekend I saw Joker with a friend. The movie has been controversial to say the least. Despite the connections the commentary has had with my research interests I’ve been hesitant to write anything about it. Now that I’ve seen it for myself, boy do I have some feelings. 

But first off, I feel it is a shame that I and so many others are spending more time engaging with the commentary around this movie instead of engaging with the movie itself. As a piece of art, Joker was incredible. The movie left me feeling shaken and speechless. The cinematography was stunning, Joaquin Phoenix was mesmerising, and the script left me feeling both emotionally wrecked yet driven to discuss it with everyone I know. In short, it is a masterpiece. 

Many critics have written about the artistic merits of the film – I especially recommend Luke Buckmaster’s excellent review. But for me, it is the politics that drive my interest in this movie. 

Much has been written about what Joker is about, and a lot of it has missed the mark. I’m going to start my analysis about what Joker is not. 

Joker is not a movie about incels.

This is a personal bugbear. As incel communities are drawing more attention, the commentary surrounding them is becoming more confused and the term itself is losing its meaning. For many commentators, ‘incel’ has become simple shorthand for ‘misogynist’, or more broadly a shorthand for a ‘bad man’. This has been one of the major criticisms of Joker, with claims that Arthur “could easily be adopted as the patron saint of incels.” 

Relationships with women do form part of Arthur’s terrible story. At the start of the movie he meets Sophie, a single mother who lives in his building, and we are led to believe they start a relationship. We soon discover this is all in Arthur’s head. After Arthur enters her apartment, a very scared Sophie calmly and clearly asks him to leave. 

But this does not make Arthur an incel. It is a small part of Arthur’s story that is dwarfed by the other issues in his life – his mental health problems, cuts to services, and the loss of his job among other issues. This differentiates Arthur from most incels, who put their inability to form sexual or romantic relationships at the core of their social alienation. Other issues are often secondary. More importantly, Arthur does not resent Sophie for asking him to leave, nor does he resent feminism for his lack of female companionship. This goes against much of incel culture, which presents a range of arguments against both women and society for their inability to gain girlfriends. More than anything, Arthur’s fantasy relationship with Sophie shows the extent of his mental health problems and his desire for a human connection. An incel he is not. 

Joker is not a movie about male entitlement

One argument goes that Arthur is simply an entitled white man who has lashed out because he has not received what he believes he is due. 

‘Entitlement’ is a common frame around white men and men’s rights in particular. Sociologists like Michael Kimmel argue that white men have been socially conditioned to feel entitled to power, wealth and control. They are now lashing out because that power, wealth and control is under threat.

But Arthur never had power, wealth or control to begin with. He is the victim of assault and abuse, he works in a menial job until he’s fired, his mental health issues worsen after social service cuts, and he lives with his mother in abject poverty. Unlike the men Kimmel describes, Arthur never seeks material wealth, power, or sex — the most he strives for is to be a comedian. Instead he longs for visibility, human connection, and help in a time of crisis. These urges are relatable – and they are reasonable.

The commentary around Joker and entitlement shows how many of us have come to see a decent life as a privilege instead of a right. We should be suspicious of anyone who questions our entitlement to dignity, security, and respect.

Joker is not a movie about toxic masculinity. 

Yes, Arthur is a man who commits violence. And as my friend said after the movie, he would surely react differently to the deal life has handed if he were a woman. That has led some critics to blame his violence on the notion of toxic masculinity. These critics see Arthur’s maleness as driving his actions.

But watch the movie closely, and you see that Arthur does not blame women for the injustices he faces, and he lacks many of the stereotypical characteristics associated with ‘toxic masculinity’. His violence is directed at those who have harmed him, or those who symbolise power and authority.

Joker shows violence that is far more complex than what we would see in someone raised to believe in violence as a solution. When the movie does show us stereotypical masculinity, Arthur is presented as its victim. We see this dynamic at play in his job, on the subway, and in glimpses of his harrowing childhood. That makes it harder to explain Arthur’s actions with ‘toxic masculinity.’ 

What is Joker about? 

The first thing the Joker is, is a movie. And it is a movie that presents the origin story of a comic book character — a notorious super villain. Unless we wanted an origin story that simply depicts Arthur as inherently bad (which would create a rather boring origin story!), it is naturally going to go into the depths of lead to his violence, and it does so very well. In doing so, I agree, to an extent, with Tad Tietze that the film is somewhat ambiguous about its politics. The films morals are often blurred, with the distinction between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ characters often not clear. The violence is messy and often with no clear goals, realistic to the realities of violence in our real world. This departs the movie away from the superhero genre, and modern political debates, which often seem to want to see things in black and white. 

Despite claims that Joker is a film for the Trump-era, I argue that when the movie does engage in political critique, it’s critiques are far more left than right. This happens in two ways. 

First, and most obviously, the rage of the film is directed at the state and the elite. The film’s villains (although they don’t have fit the norms of superhero movie villains as they all have good and bad characteristics), fall into three categories — Thomas Wayne,  the head of Wayne industries (and father of future Batman Bruce Wayne), who has a questionable history with Arthur’s mother and is entering politics on a platform attacking the poor; Arthur’s job, where he is made to pay for a stolen sign and fired; and the state, which cuts Arthur’s social services and access to medication, and creates a culture in Gotham City of violence and despair.

Arthur takes his anger out on individuals, but they are in many ways proxies for these actors. His first three murders are against affluent white men who worked at Wayne industries. These men were harassing a woman on the train and went on to attack Arthur. Arthur then murders a former workmate who double-crossed and humiliated him, leading to his firing. He kills TV host Murray Franklin after he mocks Arthur on television. Arthur once admired Franklin, but he comes to represent the wealthy elite who knock him, and others, down. Finally, it is implied that Arthur murders a state psychiatrist at Arkham, a representation of the state that forgot and betrayed him.

The only aberration is the murder of his mother, Penny Fleck, who Arthur smothers while she lies in her hospital bed. I read this murder as the consequence of a long history of systemic abuse that faced both of them. When Arthur was a boy, he and Penny were both abused by her violent boyfriend. Penny was blamed and sent to a psychiatric ward at Arkham. Arthur murders her after discovering this, continuing this cycle of blame wrought upon a woman for being the victim of domestic violence. The film does not condone that violence, but it shines a light on it. 

This leads to the second reason I see the social critique of Joker as being more left wing – the notion of empathy. Some critiques object to empathising with Arthur, arguing that it glorifies his violence. This has led to concerns that it will create copycat murders and shootings, particularly in the US.

Joker does lead you to emphasise with Arthur. I certainly empathised with him, even after he started on his cycle of violence. But I don’t think that is a problem. It is the movie’s greatest strength. 

Joker shows that violence doesn’t come out of nowhere. Violence is not just the result of ‘bad people’ who are somehow fated to do ‘bad things’. Instead, the film’s message is that inequality, discrimination, and mental health issues (amongst other things) can create violence. Violence is a result of both individual and social factors. In some ways I think Michael Moore explains this best when he argues, “Most of the violence in the movie is perpetrated on the Joker himself, a person in need of help, someone trying to survive on the margins of a greedy society.”

Just as importantly, violence is not black and white. Every character in Joker is a blurred mess — all a mixture of good and bad. There is no clear villain and no clear hero. The violence often has no purpose of meaning, it is just the outcome of years of built up frustration, despondence and rage. It is not clear what is good and what is bad, just like the realities of real life. 

This is why I find the criticisms of Joker, particularly from the left, so mystifying. These criticisms are determined to ignore the range of social structures that can lead to violence. Instead they direct all of focus to the individual — trying to find purely good and purely bad characters. This gets to the point where critics have argued that the way to deal with characters like Arthur is to “make them look like the loser schmucks they are.” The criticism shows a tendency, prominent within identity politics, to view everything through an individual, and very black and white, lense. Arthur is violent because he’s a bad, white, man. Those responsible for Gotham City’s cuts, corruption, and poverty are left off the hook.

This, I think, is a very conservative analysis. The left has traditionally led the study into social causes of violence and criminality, especially structures of domination that lead to the criminalisation of the poor. Crime is a social issue, not just an individual one. Parts of the left are abandoning that position to score identity politics goals. 

Joker does the opposite of this. It de-individualises the problem, showing how structural and individual factors can combine to create violence and rage. It shows how social change could be an antidote to this violence — Arthur would not have become violent (at least to the same extent) if he had support, security, and a decent life. As Micah Uetricht argues, what Arthur needs is social services. The left should be standing with those who fight for these rights instead of accusing them of ‘entitlement.’

There is nothing wrong with having empathy for Arthur. We should empathise with him, even as we condemn his violence. Arthur has been a victim of systematic abuse for his entire life, and Joker is an indictment on the society that made him what he is.

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