Why Is the Joker Serious?
Because white men always get the benefit of the doubt.
This piece was published during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the movie being covered here wouldn't exist.
Todd Phillips' film The Joker about the Batman's arch-nemesis has received ecstatic accolades. It's also been accused of glorifying white male rage. This praise and this criticism aren't opposed; they're two sides of the same smile. Assessments of quality in film are closely tied to preconceptions about gender. Movies that embrace a male perspective or male concerns are often seen as important, edgy, real, and profound. The Joker demonstrates that a certain kind of toxic masculinity ensures high art cred.
The Visceral Meaningfulness of White Guys
The movie features Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck, a mentally ill man who lives with his mother, works as a clown-for-hire and longs to be a stand-up comic. Over the course of the film Arthur endures escalating indignities. He's robbed and beaten by kids, loses his job, loses access to his therapist, is rejected by his maybe father billionaire Thomas Wayne, and discovers that his mother was institutionalized for neglecting him as a child. In response to these slights and traumas, he becomes increasingly violent, murdering three wealthy jerks who harass him on the train, and killing comedian Murray Franklin (Robert DeNiro) live on air. These acts of violence, done in clown make-up, inspire a violent populist movement, and the film ends with Arthur in (still in that make-up)Tje dancing happily amidst a burning city.
The Joker, set in a filthy, seedy metropolis meant to evoke New York of the 70s and early 80s, is obviously indebted to Taxi Driver. But Arthur isn't just Travis Bickle. He's also that other DeNiro character Jake LeMotta of Raging Bull, Walter White of Breaking Bad, Tony Soprano of the Sopranos, and all the other complicated, dangerous, violent, but sympathetic white men who populate prestige film and television. Phoenix's mercurial method performance—laughing uncontrollably, veering between vulnerability and hyperbolic violence—registers as visceral and meaningful in part because white men behaving badly is a trope for visceral meaningfulness.
The key to unlocking that meaningfulness is ambiguity. The viewer should empathize with the Complicated White Man, without fully condoning his acts. Perhaps even more importantly, the movie has to capitalize on the fact that the complicated hero is a white man, without acknowledging that the way that violent fantasies are linked to racism and sexism. So for example Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver shaves his head like a radicalized skinhead, but without an explicit white supremacist ideology.
Just Enough Racism
The Joker is a masterclass in this kind of cowardly but validating dogwhistle. Arthur is first beaten up by a group of teens of color. He gets his revenge on the cruel, chaotic city via a Bernard Goetz like shooting on a subway. But the movie carefully makes sure the victims there are wealthy white men, even if they evoke Arthur's non-white tormentors.
Similarly Arthur's resentment of the two black women who serve as his therapists doesn't escalate to violence (or if it does, it's presented very elliptically.) He stalks another black woman in his building, but again he doesn't actually harm her. He murders his mother, but without the explicit bloodiness of his other kills, and only after it's established that she was complicit in his childhood abuse. A little person is mocked and humiliated, to make Arthur seem more powerful and tougher in comparison—but Arthur doesn't actually kill him. Arthur rants about how the city has become crueler and ruder, but the MAGA implications about changing demographics and the encroachments of non-white people are rigorously blurred out.
Arthur's anger is identifiably white and male, which makes it important and profound. But it's not too identifiably white and male, which would make him a white nationalist terrorist. His resentment is, we're assured, is not anti-woman or anti-black, but anti-elitist. It's directed especially at Thomas Wayne, the man who should be Arthur's father, but has rejected him, denying him the wealth and power to which he is entitled. Racism and misogyny are painted over with the familiar clown make-up of economic anxiety.
One Joke to Rule Them All
The Joker is celebrated for its white male antihero—and even moreso because of its obsessive, unitary focus on that antihero. Except for a very brief detour at the end of the film to reprise Batman's origin story, Phoenix is "at the dark heart of every scene" as critic Owen Gleiberman enthuses. If he's not there for a dramatic moment—like his mother's stroke—then that moment is left off-screen, unfilmed. You're so deep in Arthur's head that it takes most of the movie before you realize that his romantic relationship with a woman he meets on the elevator (Zazie Beetz) is a delusion.
The singular, claustrophobic attention on Arthur is meant to convey intensity and auteurish concentration. As Laura Mulvey explained in her famous essay "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema", classic Hollywood cinema is "structur[ed]…around a main controlling figure with whom the spectator can identify." Mulvey adds that the viewer identifies with the male lead as he moves the action forward, creating a "satisfying sense of omnipotence." Arthur, initially disempowered, bullied, and despised, picks up the gun and by the end of the film is giggling and chortling as he shoots down his enemies.
One of the films more striking images is of his clown face looming in a television camera, filling the screen and taking control entirely of what you see and what is filmed. Arthur's assertion of control and power is also director Phillips' assertion of ownership; a demand that the viewer recognize the (male) artistry on display. And this assertion of male control connects the film to the classic validating history of Hollywood cinema. It's not an accident that the movie ends with an evocation of Psycho's final scenes. Arthur, shut up in an asylum, breaks into uncontrollable laughter, just as Norman Bates, locked in the police station, breaks into an eerie smile. The implication is that Arthur and Norman are in on the same joke.
The joke in both cases is that the director both gets to disavow white male murderousness and claim credit for it. The clichéd antihero, the disingenuous dogwhistles, the ostentatious erasure of other perspectives, the references to other white guy protagonists, all make The Joker read as an important film to many cultural arbiters. In a patriarchal society, masculinity is celebrated, and that means that toxic masculinity is seen as profound, serious, controversial, gritty, real, and cool. The Joker shows that no matter how tired the act, critics will look at even the most clownish white guy, and take him seriously.
This essay was first published on Patreon in 2019
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