“Portrayal of Mental Illness in Joker” by Charles Soffel
Magnificat, April 2022
Mental illness has played a significant role in many of our favorite movies over the course of the film industry’s history. Some of our favorite characters in the most popular films suffered from some sort of mental disease that entertained us to no end. We laughed hysterically at Jim Carrey’s schizophrenic character in Me, Myself and Irene, we were terrified at the edge of our seat when Michael Myers escaped from the mental hospital to go on a gory killing spree in the Halloween series, and we rooted for Batman to lock up our favorite (mentally ill) super-villains back into Arkham Asylum. These films and characters brought us entertainment, but how their mental illness was portrayed is a different story. We will ask the question, how is mental illness portrayed in the film industry?
In this essay I will be making the argument that mental illness is not only portrayed negatively but also as a societal issue rather than an individualistic one. More specifically, we will be taking an in-depth analysis of the 2019 film Joker, written and directed by Todd Phillips, as to how these negative portrayals apply. We will first take a look at how mental illness is historically portrayed throughout the film industry and what negative stigmas the film industry created about mental illness, what effect these have on our perception of people with mental illness in the real world, and how mental illness is connected with violent behavior in film.
We will then specifically look into the film Joker and see how mental illness is portrayed negatively in this film as well. I will be making the argument that people with mental illness in Joker are portrayed as poor or lower class, they are portrayed as weak, and are portrayed as being betrayed by the society surrounding them. The purpose of this research will bring us the realization of how these cinematic stigmas affect our perceptions of mental illness in the real world, like how we view people with mental illness, how our relationships with them are affected, as well as how they view themselves and their unwillingness to seek help because of these perceptions.
To begin we will look at how the film industry has negatively portrayed mental illness throughout its long history. We will examine what negative stigmas the film industry created about mental illness, what effect these have on our perception of people with mental illness in the real world, and how mental illness is connected with violent behavior in film.
Stigmas in Film
Firstly, the film industry has created many stigmas about people with mental illness. Bhugra (2005) grouped these stereotypes into categories: the “rebellious-free spirit, homicidal maniac, female as seductress, enlightened member of society, narcissistic parasite and zoo specimen” (p. 251). The article goes on to explain how these stereotypes are not only dangerous to the perception of people with mental illnesses, but also to people that work in that particular field. Psychiatrists, for example, should “be aware of how their profession is depicted in films, as this is how patients and their families form their images of psychiatry and psychiatrists” (2005, p. 251). As we can see, film depictions can have real world consequences on their viewers.
Pirkis et al. (2006) takes these stigmas a step further by adding a few additional stereotypes that aren’t as common, the simpleton and the failure or victim. Pirkis et al. (2006) goes on to explain how “Several studies have shown that people with mental illness are more likely than other characters to be portrayed as victims, as having few skills, as being unemployed, or as having a poor quality of life” (2006, p. 530). We can see that these stereotypes or stigmas do not paint people with mental illness in a positive light, and as we will see can affect the way we perceive them in the real world.
Effect on Perception
Now that we have explored the stigmas of mentally ill people in film, we can begin to see how these stereotypes affect the way we view them in the world as well as how they view themselves. Kimmerle and Cress (2013) discuss many different studies that showed how people’s perspectives on the mentally ill were skewed based on the movies and television they watched. The first study by Wahl and Lefkowitz (1989) found that people who watched a movie with a mentally ill violent person perceived people with an illness more negatively than when the movie’s violent character did not have an illness. Also, in another study by Granello and Pauley (2000), the results found that the more people watched television the more they found mentally ill people as inferior to people without an illness. Finally, one last study by Angermeyer, Dietrich, Pott, and Matschinger (2005) found that people preferred to stay socially distant from people suffering from schizophrenia based on what they saw on television.
Besides affecting people’s perceptions of mentally ill people, these stigmas also take a toll on how mentally ill people view themselves. Goodwin and Taijudin (2016) found that negative depictions in the media, such as being violent or dangerous, can be a main cause of stigma and can result in people with mental illness to enter social isolation. This can also result in mentally ill people avoiding seeking employment opportunities or even refusing to receive treatment for their illness.
Finally, the last and most frequent theme is how mentally illness is connected to violence in film. Violent behavior is the most popular stigma about mentally ill people in movies and television. We see it all the time as the killer in horror movies or the crazy super-villain trying to kill the hero and take over the world. Swaminath and Bide (2009) explained a survey that found over 50% of the participants noted seeing mentally ill characters as violent in tv, film, or documentary, and an additional 29% said they read about violent mentally ill people in newspapers. Furthermore, when the participants were asked what characteristics define a character with a mental illness, the responses were violent, abnormal, and likely to kill violently.
Kondo (2008) also goes into how mentally ill characters have been portrayed dangerously as violent. As someone who suffers from mental illness herself her take on the issue is an interesting and personal one. She goes on to explain how in her thoughts “the greatest fallacy of mental illness purported by the film industry is that there is a direct link between mental illness and violence” (Kondo, 2008, p. 250). Kondo explains that from her own personal experience, there are only a low percentage of people with mental illness that are actually violent. She references the movie Psycho and how his actions are explained by his mental illness by a “psychiatrist” at the end of the film. This was just one example of many of the “homicidal maniac” stigma in film, as it is the most popular portrayal of mental illness in the media.
The film industry has created many stigmas about the mentally ill, and we can see how these stigmas affect our perception as well as how people with mental illness perceive themselves based on what we watch. Also, we can see the most used stigma of the mentally ill is that of the violent type. All of these themes can be found in the analysis of the 2019 film Joker. However, I will be taking it a step farther by also analyzing how the mentally ill are also represented by the poor class, portrayed as weak, and betrayed by society.
Next, for the analysis of Joker, the method I will be using is narrative criticism. I chose Narrative Criticism because the film follows the four key features according to Foss. The first characteristic being that “it is comprised of at least two events, so the world referred to in the story must undergo a change of state” (Foss, p. 320). There is a clear change of state from the beginning of the film to the end, not only from Arthur’s state of mind, but the state of Gotham City itself.
The second characteristic is that “the events in it are organized by time order” (Foss, p.320). There is a sequence of events that takes place in Joker as Arthur’s interactions with society gradually contribute to his mental instability ultimately resulting in his final violent outbursts. The third characteristic is that “it must include some kind of causal or contributing relationship among events in a story” (Foss, p. 320). The film in this case definitely has a relationship between earlier and later events through Arthur’s mental state. Early events shape Arthur’s actions later on in the film. The last characteristic is that “it must be about a unified subject” (Foss, p. 320). Joker does follow a unified subject about the life of Arthur Fleck and his downward spiral into becoming the Joker.
The movie Joker, written and directed by Todd Phillips, is the origin story of one of the most infamous comic book super villains of all time. Rather than have him running around battling Batman, Joker dissects the whys and how the clown prince became the notorious evil character we all know him as. The story follows Arthur Fleck, a man trying to follow his dream of making it as a stand-up comedian in an unforgiving city while trying to overcome his status in the lower-class, a dead-end job with co-workers that isolate themselves from him, bullies that appear around every corner, all while battling his own mental illness and responsibilities of taking care of his ill mother. As things get worse, Arthur’s mental state deteriorates farther and farther until he begins to spiral into a dark descent of deviance and violence there is no returning from.
Joker was a box office smash grossing over one-billion dollars worldwide. It was also celebrated winning 111 awards and 227 nominations. Most notably, Joker won 2 Academy Awards for Best Performance by an Actor in a leading role (Joaquin Phoenix), and Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures (Original Score). It was also nominated for nine other Academy Awards including Best Motion Picture of the Year. Joker also won 2 Golden Globes for Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture (Joaquin Phoenix) as well as Best Original Score – Motion Picture. It was also nominated for 2 other Golden Globes for Best Motion Picture – Drama and Best Director – Motion Picture (Todd Phillips) (IMDB, 2021).
After exploring some of the more common portrayals of mental illness in the film industry we can dive into the analysis of Joker and see what other negative themes surrounding mental illness are present in the film. As mentioned earlier, the main claims I will be making surrounding this film are that mentally ill people are viewed as poor or lower class, they are portrayed as weak, and they are portrayed as betrayed by society.
Portrayed as Low/Poor Class
The first claim that mentally ill people in the film are portrayed as lower class or poor is prevalent in the film. We can notice this distinction early in the movie in the first few scenes. After seeing his therapist, the main character Arthur, takes a crowded bus home. As soon as he gets off the bus, we can see the type of neighborhood that he lives in. As the bus pulls away, he starts walking down a street that has a wall covered in graffiti, homeless people on the sidewalk and piles of trash stacked so high they are almost as tall as Arthur himself. Arthur then approaches his local pharmacy to pick up his prescriptions for his condition which we can see has bars covering all of the windows. As he continues his walk back to his apartment, he has to climb a long staircase. When he reaches the top, it’s covered in even more stacks of trash.
Finally, Arthur is able to reach his apartment complex. Here we can see more evidence of his economic status as he enters the building; it is again covered in graffiti with paint peeling off the walls and ceilings. He stops at the apartment’s mail area which is covered in metal bars. The door to his apartment is also in bad shape as we can see the paint peeling off of that as well, and we are then introduced to the fact that Arthur is living with his mother in what appears to be a one bedroom apartment.
The next piece of evidence that Arthur is in a poor economic class is his employment. Arthur works as a clown-for-hire, doing odd-end jobs around town. The actual facility where his locker is and where he gets dressed up is in rough condition. Also, we can see from Arthur’s clothes that they are raggedy and have patches. In the scene right after we see his apartment, he is back at work attending to his shoes, which look like they are falling apart. Arthur also has his shirt off and we can see how skinny and malnourished he looks.
In the same scene, Arthur is called in to talk to his boss. The conversation is about a client complaint on Arthur that he disappeared with the client’s sign because a group of kids stole it from Arthur and then broke it. His boss tells Arthur that if he doesn’t return the sign, he will have to take it out of his paycheck. We can see that money is very frustrating for Arthur as he is seen angrily kicking a bunch of trash bags outside of the building because he knows he cannot return the sign.
The last piece of evidence that Arthur is portrayed as a poor lower-class individual is his mode of transportation. Arthur takes public transportation everywhere that he goes. In the first scene on his way to his apartment he is on a crowded bus with a very diverse group of people, none of whom look happy. Later Arthur ends up losing his job because of an incident that happened at one of his gigs. He takes the subway back home and again we can see the type of condition that it is in. The seat he is sitting on has graffiti drawn all over it as well as all of the walls of the subway car he is in. The lights of the subway are also going in and out for most of the trip that he is on.
We can see just from these three instances that Arthur who has a mental illness is portrayed as being poor or lower class. We can see this through the conditions he is living with, the job he holds and lack of money that it generates, as well as his mode of transportation and the condition of the vessels of his transportation.
Portrayed as Weak
The next claim is that mentally ill people are portrayed as weak. We can see evidence of this throughout the majority of the film and he is constantly the victim of bullying and abuse. The first example of this is the beginning scene where Arthur is working at his clown job, twirling a sign outside of a local business. A group of kids approach him and knock the sign out of his hands. The kids then proceed to pick the sign up and run off with it, prompting Arthur to chase after them while yelling “stop them,” to which of course no one does. The kids run into an alley and look like they have finally given up luring Arthur into the alley. He is then struck in the face with the sign and then kicked and beaten while he is lying on the ground (Phillips, 2019). In this instance Arthur can be seen as weak first by being targeted by the group of kids, and then when he is unable to protect himself against this group of young children.
The second instance that Arthur appears weak is at his job. While he is getting ready for work we can see the massive bruise on his shoulder from the attack. One of his co-workers appears to feel bad for him and gives him a gun in a paper bag. This gives us the impression that Arthur is clearly incapable of defending himself and needs the assistance of a weapon. In the same scene he can be seen speaking with his boss. We can tell by the way his boss talks to him that he doesn’t view Arthur very highly. He first stops Arthur from sitting in a chair in his office because “this won’t be long,” and then tells Arthur that “some of the others think he’s a freak” (Phillips, 2019).
Later on Arthur is fired from his job because the gun his co-worker gave to him fell out of his pocket during a gig. Arthur’s boss refers to him as a “fuck up” and “a liar” and fires him over the phone. He also says that the co-worker who gave him the gun claims that Arthur tried to buy it from him the week prior. We can see that his co-worker was planning on setting him up to get him fired from the beginning and wasn’t helping Arthur defend himself at all (Phillips, 2019). Arthur’s weakness is shown through his inability to defend himself to his boss, as he yells over Arthur, and also that he is seen as the weak link when his co-worker attempts to get rid of him.
The next piece of evidence that shows that Arthur is portrayed as a weak person is during a confrontation on the subway following his termination from his job. Arthur is riding the subway home when three men dressed in suits, who appear to be inebriated, are picking on a young lady sitting in the same car. Due to a mental condition that Arthur has he uncontrollably laughs when he gets nervous, so he starts laughing gaining the attention of the three men. The men begin picking on Arthur because of his laugh and the fact he’s dressed like a clown with one of them asking “is something funny asshole?” (Phillips, 2019)
One of the men begins singing the song “send in the clowns” as one of the other men takes off his headpiece to his costume. The men then proceed to take Arthurs bag from him and elbow him in the stomach. One of the other men holds his arms and Arthur does his best to defend himself by weakly kicking at one of them. Arthur is then punched in the face and falls to the ground on the subway where they start kicking him just like the kids at the beginning were doing (Phillips, 2019).
We can see from these scenes that Arthur is looked down upon by his boss, co-workers and even complete strangers. He is constantly bullied, made fun of, and beaten up because of his appearance and his mental condition. We can also see that the more it happens the more it affects Arthur’s psyche and his progression towards becoming violent.
Betrayed by Society
The final claim is that the mentally ill are portrayed as betrayed by society. This is a large factor in Arthur’s descent into complete madness. The first betrayal of Arthur comes from his state-provided therapy sessions, where he also receives his medication from. During his session he is beginning to open up to his therapist stating how he doesn’t feel like he even exists, when she interrupts to tell him that the state cut their funding and Arthur will no longer have his therapy or meds. Arthur then tells her that she doesn’t listen and never truly listened as he is trying to open up about finally being noticed after committing a murder. His therapist finishes telling that they won’t be meeting any longer and that “they don’t give a shit about people like you Arthur” (Phillips, 2019).
The second betrayal of Arthur comes from his television idol Murray Franklin, played by Robert DeNiro. Arthur does not know who his father is and fantasizes about meeting Murray and Murray saying he would give up the show biz if he “had a kid like you.” In a scene where Arthur is visiting his mother in the hospital the Murray Franklin show comes on and starts showing a clip of one of Arthur’s stand-up comedy routines. At first Arthur is excited that he is on the show until he realizes that they are just making fun of him on national television. Murray even refers to Arthur as “this Joker” setting up Arthur’s future persona. Arthur’s demeanor is completely changed and we see he is cut very deeply by this (Phillips, 2019).
The final betrayal is done by his mother. As we stated earlier Arthur does not know who his father is and is led on by his mother to believe that millionaire Thomas Wayne is. Arthur confronts Wayne at a theater where he is told that Arthur was adopted and that his mother is crazy. Arthur is able to steal a file from the asylum his mother was a patient at to find out that Wayne was telling the truth, and he also finds out that he was abused as a child by his mother’s boyfriend where he was found tied to a radiator with severe trauma to his head. While Arthur is reading this file we can see him slip farther and farther into insanity.
Arthur has clearly been dealt a bad hand, but the little comfort and hope that he did have was from three sources: Murray Franklin, his mother, and his therapy/medication. When all three of these things betray Arthur’s trust he no longer has anything to hold on to and slips deeper into his insanity. From this point forward Arthur turns into his persona The Joker
The movie Joker has many negative stigmas and portrayals of mental illness. As discussed earlier, it holds the same negative stigmas and violent behavior discussed at the beginning of this essay. However, the film goes even further to portray mentally ill people as poor, weak, and betrayed by society. One difference I see from this film about the perception of mental illness is that it represents mental illness as more of a societal issue rather than an individual one. The perception of mental illness can be looked at mainly as a singular person’s problem to deal with. This film, however, shows how there can be multiple causations to a person’s condition improving or deteriorating. What if Arthur had a different living situation? What if Arthur had a supportive work environment that provided him a chance to succeed rather than throw him out and torment him? What if Arthur had a better support system at home? What if Arthur was able to receive medical treatment that was designed to help him? Would Arthur have ever become the Joker? Perhaps the big takeaway from analyzing this film is that we as a society can help if we listen and not turn our back to those in need.
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