Who’s Laughing Now?

I’ve heard a lot of things, both positive and negative, about last year’s, Joker, which is up for a Best Picture Nomination. I’d heard a lot about it because of the way it handles mental illness, specifically the mental illnesses of Arthur Fleck, who goes on to become the sociopathic supervillain, Joker. And this past weekend I finally got to see it.

I wanted to like this movie, I really did. I love it when you have a dark villain and I love it when movies dive into a character’s development and their back story, as this movie attempts to do. Yet this movie uses mental illness as a prop, one that is as appropriate as a gun in a children’s hospital. Rather than dive into the actual person, it focuses on his mental illness, and you are left feeling like you really don’t know him. And rather than dive into key incidents in Arthur’s life, it instead drops them into the conversation and then leaves them their unused.

There are lines I like. Probably the one I like the most, which has been quoted many times by mental health advocates, is the fact that when you have a mental illness, people expect you to act like you don’t, which is sadly, even cruelly, true. Yet rather than set this up as just one aspect of Arthur’s being, it makes it the center point of the film, and treats the series of unfortunate events as just triggers for mental illness, as if anyone with a serious mental illness is just a few really bad days away from becoming a psychopathic supervillain.

Beyond merely struggling with mental illness, this rendition of the Joker makes him seem uneducated, even downright idiotic, as he appears to have difficulty with writing and spelling. Yet the Joker should be portrayed as someone who is brilliant, yet apathetic about what happens to society as he sets a torch to it. Yet without further explanation, the movie almost makes it seem as though the unintelligence is related to his mental handicaps.

In reality, individuals with mental illness are rarely dangerous, and portraying them as such furthers a dangerous stigma.  Furthermore, they can be incredibly intelligent, but having a character story that focuses so much on mental illness might cause people to overlook that fact and might further fuel the many negative stereotypes that tie mental illness to intelligence.

And I want to be clear, I am okay with a villain struggling with mental illness. Yet make him more relatable and less sociopathic if you are going to have a solo villain film as this one is. I am sure as far as the actual composition of the movie, there is a great deal that can be said, both positive and negative, about this film. However, I am not a movie critic, so I will leave those discussions for those who are. Rather I just wanted to share my deep disappointment as someone who battles mental illness every day, and greatly disliked how it was handled in this film.

If you have different thoughts, I would love to hear them. And until next time, thanks for reading, and be well.

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