‘Joker’ as mental health advocacy is a joke

J. Martin Rochester, Curators’ Distinguished Teaching Professor of Political Science Emeritus at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, is the author of 10 books on international and American politics.


I just saw “Joker,” the Todd Phillips movie tracing the roots of the DC Comics supervillain character. Perhaps the most succinctly accurate movie review I read was the following:

“‘Joker’ left me feeling conflicted. Joaquin Phoenix is brilliant, and the film is undeniably fascinating, but the violence is unsettling and leans dangerously close to being irresponsible.” (Rajeev Masand, News18, Oct. 4)

Unsettling? “Joker” makes “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” look like “Mary Poppins.” Irresponsible? No more than Walmart selling Joker pajamas. What’s next, a movie biopic celebrating Harvey Weinstein?

“Joker” is R-rated but probably should have been X-rated given the scale of violence and other disturbing images in the film. Phillips reportedly had to remove a bathroom scene in order to maintain the R rating. 

I actually had considered taking my almost-teenage granddaughter to see the movie with me. How stupid that decision would have been. As mesmerized as I was by what I saw, I could barely make it through the two-hour screening.

“Joker” managed to win top prize at the Venice Film Festival; Phoenix has been widely hailed as a sure Oscar contender for his portrait of a deranged clown named Arthur Fleck; and the movie broke October box office records with almost $100 million during the opening weekend, earning as of late November a total of a billion dollars worldwide.    

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So what is the takeaway here? That, as Andy Warhol said, “Art is anything you can get away with”? That the more demented a persona you can create on screen, the more you may qualify for an Academy Award nomination? That the more blood and gore you can show, the bigger an audience you are likely to generate? That the violence that can result from mental illness and social-economic grievance, both of which are vividly captured in “Joker,” must be better understood, empathized with, even condoned, given society’s failure to adequately address such issues?   

All of the above. It is the latter that has raised the biggest question among critics and, for me, the most troubling one: Does “Joker” legitimize and thus encourage the kind of individual and mass violence we see so frequently today stemming from mentally disturbed people as well as groups experiencing class and other conflicts?    

Let’s first look at mental illness. 

There is no question that mental health concerns are on the rise, particularly among young people. Based on questionnaires administered to several hundred thousand Americans in the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, Jean Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State, reports that “more U.S. adolescents and young adults in the late 2010s, versus the mid-2000s, experienced serious psychological distress, major depressions or suicidal thoughts, and more attempted suicide. These trends are weak or nonexistent among adults 26 years and over, suggesting a generational shift in mood disorders. … Researchers even saw a slight decline in psychological distress in individuals over 65.” (Science Daily, March 15).  

Close to home, on Jan. 3 St. Louis Public Radio announced “U of Missouri campuses addressing increased student mental health needs.” The University of Missouri Curators have noted that over half of college students in Missouri have experienced anxiety, over 30 percent have suffered major depression and almost half have confessed to suicidal thoughts. 

At my own university, Chris Sullivan, head of University of Missouri-St. Louis counseling services, recently said, “UMSL has seen a 50 percent increase in students seeking mental health services on campus over the past five years.”Sullivan’s counterpart at UM-Rolla, Patti Fleck, says that the increased number of students accessing services may reflect the fact that “we have been successful in reducing stigma.”

It is not clear why young people are becoming more prone to mental disorders than the elderly. The increased need for counseling on the part of students may be due not only to the increased acceptability of seeking help, but also to growing high school pressures, helicopter parenting and social media. The increased anxiety that goes with repaying higher student loans may also contribute, as average in-state tuition and fees increased to $20,770 in 2017-2018 from $7,470 in 1997-98. (James Koch, “The Impoverishment of the American College Student”)

Of course, relatively few people with mental disorders, whether young or old, commit violence against themselves or others. The Arthur Fleck character in “Joker” does a disservice to both the mentally ill and society when he suggests we should expect and excuse such behavior, as he does during the climactic scene before he does a horrific shooting:

 “What do you get when you cross a mentally ill loner with a society that abandons him and treats him like trash?”

With such wide news coverage of each awful event, there seems an epidemic, copycat effect that is helping to spur recent school shootings and other acts of mass violence. 

The “Joker” movie itself has been linked directly to at least one homicide. A Reno Gazette Journal headline of Nov. 14 read, “Man Accused of Fatal Shooting During Zombie Crawl Claimed to be ‘Arthur Fleck’ from ‘Joker.’ ” 

There are ways to encourage more spending on mental health services, but we do not need more movies that inspire and rationalize violence in support of the cause.

“Joker” invites the criticism that it also inspires and rationalizes violence in the name of redressing societal inequality, a la the yellow vests movement in France and anti-fascist movement in the United States. 

It should be noted that inflammatory mass street protests in “Joker” are not quite as brutally graphic as the violence shown in another recent film that has attracted rave reviews, “Parasite,” which focuses more squarely on the gap between rich and poor. Both movies are sympathetic to the left-leaning class warfare rhetoric emanating from politicians worldwide these days, including many 2020 U.S. presidential candidates. 

It may be true that we are far from any real class war.  “Most workers wouldn’t suddenly clock out from their jobs at Target and march into the streets to overthrow capitalism” (Mike Pearl, “How A Real Class War, Like With Guns, Could Actually Happen,” VICE, Nov. 25, 2018), any more than the 70 percent of millennials who say they would vote for a socialist candidate would turn to violence to achieve victory, according to a YouGov/Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation poll released in October. In any case, we should be able to narrow rich-poor gaps without the incendiary stimulus of movies like “Joker.”

If Hollywood were not so notoriously liberal, you might think the film industry was promoting gun violence.