. “Don’t bother being nice”: ‘Joker’ and the Art of Misogyny | Ceasefire Magazine

Film | “Don’t bother being nice”: ‘Joker’ and the Art of Misogyny

Since its release last month Todd Phillips's 'Joker' has garnered both commercial and critical success as a study in alienation and mental illness. Beneath the artfulness, however, is something really horrible, writes Neal Curtis.

New in Ceasefire - Posted on Tuesday, November 5, 2019 9:43 - 0 Comments

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Note: This review contains plot spoilers

Even before its release, Todd Phillips’s Joker had already generated a significant amount of controversy. This was mainly over the support the film had received from incels, who had seen this depiction of a marginalised and victimised white man as their Black Panther moment.

For those not familiar with the term, ‘incels’ is derived from the claim by certain men that they are “involuntarily celibate”. Simply put, incels are heterosexual men who are unable to develop social or sexual relations with women, and have chosen instead to blame their dysfunction on women. This ascribed “fault” is what supposedly justifies the hostility and violence incels direct against women, and if incels were holding out hope that Joker would deliver for their forsaken identity politics they were richly rewarded.

What is interesting about Joker, however, is that the artfulness of the film has won it many accolades, including the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. To be honest, when I first saw the film I was also taken by what I thought was pretty accomplished directing, a decent script, interesting cinematography and a brilliant central performance from Joaquin Phoenix in the lead role of Arthur Fleck/Joker. The film is also a pretty complex portrait of mental health and a society indifferent to it, and it is the complexity of who is responsible for Arthur’s transformation into the Joker that left me struggling to know exactly what I thought about it.

Certainly, on first view, there were elements I found immediately problematic. The scene where Arthur brutally kills his former colleague, Randall, is awful, but not just because of the retributive violence. The scene also offers the audience a chance to laugh at Gary, another former colleague, but also a man with dwarfism who can’t escape Arthur’s apartment because he can’t reach the security chain.

The film also offers an especially nihilistic and contemptuous view of popular politics, where resistance to the spite of billionaires is shown to be inchoate, directionless and mindless. In our current context, too, marked as it is by the resurgence of white supremacism, the request to somehow identify with the violence of a victimised white man is deeply problematic.

However, after the dust had settled, so to speak, and the fine grain of the film’s complexity was no longer acting like a fog, I could begin to see the general terrain of the film a little more clearly. Its trajectory is marked by the roles of four black women. Again, bearing in mind that the study of mental health is really little more than a Trojan Horse for the re-centring of (victimised male) whiteness, Arthur’s relationship to these women becomes extremely important, and is central to the film’s misogyny, or more specifically its misogynoir.

The first of these women appears early in the film. We see Arthur playing with a child on the bus only to be chastised by the child’s mother. His attempts to explain are met with hostility. Here, the black woman sets up the incel trope that Arthur is actually a “nice guy” who is misunderstood and underappreciated. We are then introduced to the second black woman, a social worker who counsels Arthur, but who, in his words, “never listens to a word” he says. Again, this black woman fails to appreciate him or engage with who he really is.

The third black woman is a neighbour with whom we are led to believe he develops a relationship. This, it turns out, is all in Arthur’s head and we are thereby offered another incel trope of unrequited love and the rejection of a “nice guy”.

Before moving on to the fourth woman, however, I would also like to note that the actual moment of Arthur’s transgression, the murder of the three bankers on the subway, also fits perfectly with this incel narrative. The fact that they are white men shown to be harassing a woman was an element of the complexity I spoke about earlier that had initially confused me. However, this scene also enacts a regular incel complaint that such “Alpha males” don’t deserve the women they get and it is the “nice guys” like Arthur who are unjustly rejected. The scene of the subway, then, just like the projected romantic liaison with the neighbour is another incel fantasy.

So, given this story of the victimised and misunderstood white man, his relations with the three black women take on particular significance. Thus, when the fourth black woman is murdered by Arthur — now fully in Joker mode — the message is chilling. She is the first person we see him engage with in Arkham Hospital after his arrest, and she is also the first person he makes a cold, calculated decision to kill.

Previously, every other killing had been rooted in some perceived injustice. This included the murder of his mother, whom he believed had allowed the abuse that so damaged him as a child. Interestingly, though, despite seeing the effects an abusive relationship had on her, the mother is not afforded the same sympathy as Arthur, and this killing becomes yet another example of the film’s misogyny.

Returning to the three black women, however, it is no accident that all of them have been clearly presented as interrupting, blocking or denying Arthur’s desire to express himself. In the wake of the final murder, then, the film’s message is clear: Don’t even bother trying to be nice, just eliminate them.

Again, we might excuse the film as an important study in alienation or mental health, and we might base our defence on the film’s aesthetics and dramatics; but beneath the art is something really horrible and we have a responsibility to not let art put a gloss on the film’s demeaning and pernicious politics, especially in an age when that politics is in the ascendancy.

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Neal Curtis

Neal Curtis is an Associate Professor, Media Film and Television at the University of Auckland. He is the author of War and Social Theory: World, Value, Identity (2006), Against Autonomy: Lyotard, Action and Judgement (2001), Idiotism: Capitalism and the Privatisation of Life and editor of The Pictorial Turn (2010). His latest book, Sovereignty and Superheroes (2016), is published by Manchester University Press.

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