Bad Humors and Empty Laughs — Aya Ragragio

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The film Joker has played into the agenda of people of various political stripes. Conservatives have stoked up fears of it instigating mayhem on the streets, there are liberal voices who criticize its depiction of mental illness or its supposed glamorization of “incel” tendencies. Each assessment can be examined by the individual watcher if they are so inclined. But what I want to address here is whether it is the progressive masterpiece that some claim it to be. I think it is not.

Basically it has been lauded for its unflinching look at destitution and the systemic violence that afflicts the poor, a form of violence that far outweighs any that a single desperate person can commit. The idea is correct, but we have to ask if depiction is enough. We have more than enough current examples across the globe to show that people know that poverty, or austerity, or neoliberalism or powerlessness in the face of a rotten government are the enemies. Moreover, in Hollywood, depictions of systemic violence have, more often than not, already been coopted as devices to simply move the plot forward. So if we want to make a case for Joker as a progressive movie, we will have to do much better than that.

The most common way the film is described is that it is a dark and scary look at how one man descends into madness in a world that is even crazier than he is. People are warned that they may be disturbed because of the bloodshed and graphic violence. But what disturbed me more was how Joker failed to grasp the complexity of class struggle, while blatantly capitalizing on it as a theme. For all the hoo-hah, this is just another movie that fell back on tokenism and well-worn stereotypes.

Working-class zero

For example early in the film we hear that there is a garbage collectors’ strike: OK, so in this iteration of Gotham City there are what we may call as the organized masses. But that is the last we hear of it. The strike merely becomes a backdrop – literally, because the movie needed a reason for Gotham to be visually full of dirt.

Some reviews (such as here and here), by invoking specific scenes in the movie, try to cast Arthur Fleck in a sympathetic light as the wronged every-man, a Hollywood character favorite. I must admit that in the throes of watching the film I too could find it easy to feel pity for and outrage on behalf of Arthur Fleck. But when a Hollywood movie tries really hard to make you feel a certain way, that is precisely when we should snap up and pay attention because this is where ideology operates.

There is, at best, ambiguity about that last scene with Arthur Fleck and his neighbor Sophie together. Did he or didn’t he hurt her? I don’t think that is the point we should be debating about, because if we frame the question that way, then we are still using Arthur Fleck as the pivot by which to evaluate that scene. If we are really for the poor, we should re-focus back on Sophie because she is much more disadvantaged than Arthur Fleck in many ways, as a woman, a single mother, a person of color, and even within the movie universe itself she is just a prop Arthur used in his delusions. In that scene my sympathies were completely not for Arthur Fleck but for the startled Sophie. She didn’t just “ask him to leave” as one of the reviewers blandly put it. I felt her surprise, her fear, her panic, I felt her mind flit from her own safety, to her child’s safety, to that rapid mental calculation about what she should do (run back in the room and hide, or fight off the attacker, or just *beg him to go*). Why? Because I’ve been there. Every woman I know has been there. I didn’t care one iota about Arthur Fleck at that moment. I cared about Sophie. That there is the possibility that “he left” isn’t the point – the terror had already been inflicted, the violence had already been committed.

Here’s another. Was there real solidarity between Arthur Fleck and the social worker who was also a black woman? The social worker arguably had class consciousness, but what message did our main character actually get? Remember that at the very last scene, when Arthur Fleck was already in the asylum, he kills (or at least attacks) his therapist – also a black woman public employee. It wasn’t solidary he felt. He was looking for a scapegoat. The bearer of bad news becomes a substitute for the bad news – in this case the rotten system – itself and gets harmed in its place, while the rotten system continues chugging merrily along.

Let us not mistake Arthur Fleck’s killing of the three Wall-Street types on the subway to be motivated as some romantic class-based gesture. At least the movie was clear that it was an unintentional killing. They just all happened to be in the same car and they just happened to be assholes. Here’s a thought experiment: the movie doesn’t lack for lower class people who were also cruel to Arthur Fleck, so what if those who had mocked him in the subway were not richy-rich types but were lower-class, and he had killed them instead?

One of the reviewers say that Arthur Fleck’s narrative trajectory reflected Rosa Luxemburg’s “choice for our future” as a choice between socialism and barbarism. The review is correct in saying that the movie showed how Arthur Fleck – and perhaps even society as a whole – was at the cusp of making such a choice. But in a filmic set-up where rich people are despicable and the poor people are just as reprehensible, the only possible ending (and de facto response to social problems) is to rampage on the street and burn everything. At a time when protesters in Hong Kong are fighting for legitimacy, and not to be branded as mere vandals and rioters, this movie isn’t doing them any favors. I am reminded of the phrase popularized by Mark Fisher: it is easier to imagine the end of Gotham City than to imagine the end of capitalism. It’s a classic reactionary Hollywood trope: the rich are destroyed by the poor and the poor just destroy themselves.

Knowing, but doing it anyway

And this leads to one last point about how the film ultimately undermines any “revolutionary” potential the Joker as a character potentially could have had.

At the film’s climax of the TV studio shoot out, when Joker has already presumably gone over the edge, he is still nevertheless able to articulately express the circumstances that led to his insanity: What do you get when you cross a mentally ill loner with a society that abandons him and treats him like trash?! Instead of owning his acts like a true psychopath would (he’s supposed to be an iconic supervillain, after all,) or at least someone whose resolve has erased any need for a Big Other, Fleck falls back on a tidy explanation.

Also, this moment is a clear instance of what Žižek calls the cynical functioning of ideology. Different from Marx, who described the functioning of ideology as “they don’t know what they are doing, but they are doing it anyway,” cynical ideology shows the paradox of “they do know what they are doing, and they will do it anyway.” Arthur Fleck knows who his enemies are and lashes out. But his lashing out is still shaped by the fantasies that led to his misery in the first place, such as his seeking out celebrity and the class comforts of being part of the Wayne family. Moreover, while he victimizes people from across the class spectrum, we are left with little doubt that the carnage he unleashes will ultimately doubly victimize people of color and the working-class of Gotham like himself.

Going back to Rosa Luxemburg’s choice, Arthur Fleck still chooses barbarism in spite of being fully aware that it was the system that was screwing him over – not Murray Franklin, not his mother, not his therapists, not even his clown co-worker who may have been a bastard but was also as proletarian (and hence as exploited) as himself.

Like the Joker, people (including the film’s audience) know who/what is screwing them over. And yet, and yet (and many a frustrated organizer will feel this), it is still not enough to mobilize them. They do not choose barbarism (at least they are not like the Joker in this sense) but neither do they choose socialism. So between socialism and barbarism there is that cynicism, or that cynical ideology that manifests as the shrugging of shoulders that do nothing to stop the hurtling forward of capitalism.

The “righteous anger of the sick, the poor and the downtrodden” (as one of the reviews above put it) should be a genuine revolution for systemic change, not cynical and irrational burning and killing. Lashing out is not mass movement. “Pulpy revenge” is not mass movement. Anarchy on the streets is not mass movement. Murder is not mass movement. That the reviewer – in arguing for Joker to be progressive – conflates all these does nothing to credit all hardworking women and men everywhere who foster painstaking persuasion and education, disciplined mobilization, and sharp class analysis precisely to prevent such things from happening.

The question is not, “who is exploiting us, and in what ways?” We (as well as Arthur Fleck) know the answer to that already. The question should be “what is to be done?” If the movie had even broached this in any meaningful, substantive way, then that is the only time I will concede that Joker is a progressive film.

Even vigilantes have class too

But the story does provoke one crucial thought. As it turns out, this film isn’t just the origin film of the villain we know as The Joker, but the origin film of his nemesis – and superhero – Batman. In this version we see how Arthur Fleck’s deranged decline is intertwined with the formative years of a young Bruce Wayne. Believing that Thomas Wayne is his father and that Bruce is his half-brother, Fleck travels to their ensconced country manor hoping to be welcomed, but ends up terrorizing the boy through the estate’s tall metal gates. Later in the film, the defining moment of Bruce’s youth – the murder of his parents – is shown as a direct result of the city-wide turmoil instigated by the Joker figure.

This is an interesting juxtaposition. The possibility that Arthur Fleck and Bruce Wayne are related is entertained, and we see how trauma becomes integral to their becoming the Joker and the Batman respectively. Fleck unravels and vows mayhem upon Gotham, and Bruce, though appearing more methodical, becomes just as obsessed to stop it. But essentially, both take the law into their own hands as vigilante-figures. The main difference, of course, is that Arthur Fleck is lower-class and is a vigilante in the crudest of ways. Bruce Wayne, on the other hand, is upper-class, whose vigilantism is hidden behind sleek appearances and snazzy technologies. Now we can ask, does this have anything to do with why we consider the former a villain and the latter a superhero?

This is an expanded essay from an earlier version that appeared elsewhere (davaotoday.com/main/todays-views/bad-humors/).

Aya Ragragio is an anthropologist and archaeologist. She is also married to someone who fancies himself to be Lacanian.

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