What “Joker” has to say on mental illness

Drishti Upadhyaya, Features Editor

Every murder starts with a trigger. The killer isn’t always the man who pulls it.

Mental illness has become a buzz topic in Hollywood, with a surplus of films addressing the topic. In the past, the mentally ill were demonized in media, solely portrayed as one-dimensional monsters who act without reason and rhyme. Horror, in general, tends to thrive on the “crazy serial killer” trope, notably seen in “The Silence of the Lambs”. Lately, Hollywood has begun to shift to a different, extreme take on mental illness: romanticizing it. Soft words, sharp knives, and tears streaking the prettiest of faces. The most beautiful pain in film. Losing control in the most sensual way possible. This new take on mental health culminated in “13 Reasons Why”, which has been criticized greatly for idealizing mental illness and suicide.  

Mental illness has yet to be treated as what it is: an illness. It isn’t pretty, but it isn’t terrifying. It is an illness and should be respected and portrayed as such. 

Hollywood sways between two extremities on the spectrum, going from hating mental illness to loving it in the blink of an eye. Glorifying an illness and vilifying it isn’t going to help society’s perception. 

“Joker” set out to change this depiction, but may have done more harm than good. 

The film follows Arthur Fleck, who soon dons the name “Joker”, as he struggles to succeed as a comedian and is constantly harassed because of the illness that causes him to laugh at unpredictable times. Fleck tries to hide his illness due to the stigma surrounding it. 

Though Fleck’s jokes fail to please crowds, laughter haunts him wherever he goes. People degrade him for his illness, and see him as the punchline to a sick joke, both figuratively and literally. Arthur is attacked by three men and kills them in self-defense. He unintentionally starts a movement against the privileged and kills another man without a just reason. 

“Joker’s” emphasis on the role society plays in driving many to murder definitely leaves people with greater sympathy for the mentally ill, but the way the message was given wasn’t well executed. “Joker” wrongfully portrays the mentally ill as ticking time bombs, ready to go off at any time. The harmful message about an underlying need for violence in the mentally ill sets back the Mental Health Movement considerably. The movie never acts to justify the murders, but rather portrays them as a cautionary tale, warning viewers to respect the mentally ill. While the intentions are good, the film can leave audiences with a lasting negative impression on mental illness, and even a fear of those suffering. 

The film focuses on Arthur’s self-destruction due to his illness, and how this led to him hurting others. Arthur is drawn as the victim in this story, and his illness is shown to harm him more than it harms others. While this definitely adds to one’s sympathy towards him, portraying the illness as something linked to violence definitely ruins the compassion audiences gain.  

Despite these issues, “Joker” does succeed in portraying mental illness as an illness. Arthur’s everyday life is affected by his affliction, but it isn’t displayed as either good or bad. He acknowledges how society expects him to act as though he isn’t ill, but he can’t. There is always an underlying connection to his illness, and how it influences his everyday life. Yet, it doesn’t become his life, a major issue Hollywood has in portraying mental illness. Arthur is a three-dimensional character who doesn’t act solely based on his illness. He has dreams and aspirations, and love for life as well as a hatred of those living in his. The film establishes him as a well-developed character, who feels incredibly real. His illness isn’t something beautiful the movie needs to glorify, nor something terrible it needs to demonize. It is portrayed as something neutral, with only society reacting poorly. Ultimately, Arthur is drawn as a victim, with society painted in a negative light. 

While the “mentally ill murderer” trope doesn’t do any good, the film manages to tread a steady path in how it explains mental illness in the context of an average life. For a film to be so straightforward in its depiction of something many either romanticize or degrade is revolutionary, and sets the path to more honest depictions in the future.

“Joker” may have created short term damage, with its depiction of a mentally ill serial killer who feels an underlying need for violence due to his affliction, but ultimately pushed a message of empathy and kickstarted a new portrayal of mental illness in Hollywood.