Gotham Is Burning
Stop me if you've heard this one:
"What do you get when you cross a mentally ill loner with a society that abandons him and treats him like trash?"
Oh, you know that one? Well, then I do not have to warn you that this article spoils key moments of Joker.
In creating this cult hit, the writers made one interesting decision I would like to highlight. It wasn’t just that they gave the starring role to the villain, or that we were going to see yet another reimagining of an iconic character’s origin story; it was that they made him an incel.
Coming out of the previous Batman trilogy, and an even more iconic representation of Joker (Heath Ledger>Joaquin Phoenix>Jared Leto) the team behind Joker decided to double down on the grim realism of the previous trilogy. They made Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker real and relatable to us. Arthur Fleck (his real name) has a mental illness he cannot hide. He cannot “mask” his inappropriate laughter. He is forced to stand out and seem strange to the inhabitants of this film’s world.
They also made him an Incel, which is an abbreviation of “involuntarily celibate.” This group was, at one point, just a male community, but over the last few years, Femcels began to organize in the same way. A lot of the cause of the craziness of incel forums is the amount of (often untreated or poorly treated) mental illness within them. It is in part that their mental illness makes dating and having sex harder for them, so they overrepresented in incel forums more than the general population.
Arthur’s chances of romance throughout the film are next to nothing. He lives with his aging mother in a box of an apartment they can hardly afford. He is a professional clown, and not even a particularly good one. He creeps out the only woman whom he talks to in his building in front of her daughter because he misunderstood social cues in a creepy way. You cringe until he goes on a date with her and she’s pretty sweet and supportive, and maybe you’re thinking, yeah, this is what he really needs.
As the climax crashes down though you realize -- only a moment before Arthur does -- that it’s all just been a fantasy. During a mental breakdown he enters her apartment freaking out and plops on her couch. He needs her support, like in his fantasy, but he is a stranger to her. She is terrified, as much for her daughter as herself, and demands he leave. He has nothing, and it crushes him to see that his sweet memories are not real.
Up until he breaks into her apartment though, his one real, cringeworthy interaction with her is still the healthiest interaction he has with a woman that is not his mother.
In a lot of ways, Joaquin’s Joker is a good case study of a lot of issues the men and even women in the incel community have interacting with society. But, especially among the men, there is a bigger problem.
They are killing people at an alarming rate, and the problems here are not just sexual in nature.
Disclaimer: This is a large community, only a few commit mass murders. This is disturbing but does not mean that everyone in the community supports, condones, or even considers these actions.
According to VoxPol, incels “believe that a socio-genetic conspiracy theory is preventing them from having sexual relationships with women. Denied their right to sex because society has deemed them unworthy, some of their members have retaliated with mass murder… Incel discussions online blend this fevered conspiracy with a toxic mix of misogyny, eugenics and racism.”
Angry with a world never giving them what they want, they choose to hate the world, spewing venom in large online forums and poisoning the hearts of young men until one of them snaps and starts killing people. In the way that this develops in a decentralized group, it is a case study in stochastic terrorism.
So, why is this happening? I do not mean to oversimplify a broad topic, but I feel like much of America’s recent rise in mental illness, the likes of which are displayed front and center in Joker, results from increasing alienation from society.
Arthur: “Is it just me, or is it getting crazier out there?”
Social Worker: “People are upset. They are struggling. Looking for work. These are tough times.”
Arthur: “I just don't want it to feel so bad anymore.”
The Boy Crisis is a phenomenon that happened over the last few generations of young men in western cultures having failed to thrive in school compared to their female counterparts. I feel like the cause has two interlocking parts: traditional gender roles define a male as a primary breadwinner, and these young men were in school when the middle-class jobs disappeared, and the economy crashed. That caused a generation of men to feel listless and uncertain about their place in society, and in the way they are expected to relate to women.
There is also an intersecting mental health crisis. There is a bit of talk about literal masks in the movie, but in the mental health community, mask means something different entirely. Masking means hiding your illness so that society thinks you are "normal."
The two main symptoms of Arthur's mental illness in the film seem to be delusional hallucinations and his laugh. The laugh seems to be how he copes with the stress of high emotion. When stressed he often laughs uncontrollably, even when it is inappropriate. With such an obvious symptom, there is no way for Arthur to go about masking his condition. There is nowhere in Gotham for him to hide or blend in. His laughter even stands out in the audience of a comedy club, a place you are supposed to laugh, because he laughs at the tension in the joke (build-up) not the release (punchline).
But his laughter does serve as a mask. It is my favorite part of Phoenix's whole performance -- his laughter changes based on the emotions he is feeling when he is triggered. His laughter can be light in a tense situation, but it can also shift to mournful sobs when he is really feeling pain, but in either case, it is still clearly a laugh.
Over a quarter of Americans from 18-25 have a mental illness. Over 22% of Americans aged 26 - 49 do as well. But for the financially secure 50+, the rate drops to just over one-ninth of the population. The wealth gap facing millennials is especially dire, forcing many to go untreated. Collectively they only own 3.2% of the US wealth. To catch up to where Gen X was at 35, they would need to find a way to triple their wealth by 2023. To catch up with Baby Boomers, they would have to more than double that. To put it in perspective, Baby Boomers owned over 21% of US wealth by the time their median age was 35.
Unlike the work cultures they made that wealth in, the US labor market today is more centralized and dominated by monopoly while at the same time being less well represented by strong unions, like the Baby Boomers had been. Workers aged 16-34 make up 45% of the US retail industry, where jobs are becoming increasingly unstable as Walmart and Amazon eat up the retail market. Not only was there economic uncertainty when they were in school, they graduated into the worst jobs. Then even those began to dry up for them, being replaced with even lower paying gig work. This is a newer type of employment model where you, the worker, are not technically an employee, so you do not have a minimum wage or any of the normal legal protections that an employee would have.
Generations of men were raised by their fathers and even mothers telling them their worth and accomplishment would come from having a good career, and for America’s youth that is looking like an increasingly unrealistic goal. For Arthur Fleck, who has yet to become Joker, and for the citizens of Gotham, this also seems to be the case.
Arthur is a dancing clown who wants to be a comedian who sees a Gotham social worker to help him make it through the week. He keeps a journal/joke book for her, and one of his jokes is especially telling, though it is really something that only works on paper.
“I hope my death makes more cents than my life.”
Economic devastation is leading him to despair, and none of the seven medicines he is on are making him any more money as a clown. Even his social worker is eventually taken away from him by city budget cuts. To him, it is all simple: “I just don’t want to feel so bad anymore.” He does everything society tells him to do; he works hard, rolls with the punches, and aspires to be greater, and yet he feels worse than ever.
Gotham as a city also highlights the failure of over-policing. A massive part of the city budget is spent on the police, and yet, organized crime has always had a home in Gotham. The police roam the streets picking off simple street crime and questioning old ladies right into the hospital, but the real criminals running more like businesses, or even employers, are left to run free until Batman enters the timeline. The police are shown to be corrupt or outright in the pocket of organized crime. The police in Gotham make its streets more dangerous, not less, and the money poured into the force could, in the world of the movie, be reallocated into mental health programs and job opportunities that might prevent future super villains like Joker from emerging.
Like the garbage, the city’s failures pile up in Arthur’s life until he feels as if there is no other option and he lashes out violently at a system that has shown repeatedly it does not care for him. He murders three well-to-do men who were taunting and laughing at him in a subway car, but the Gotham media sees undertones of class in the killings. Gotham’s famous capitalist Thomas Wayne, who represents upper-class money and political power in the film, comments on the murders, saying the city’s less fortunate are a “bunch of clowns.” The masses respond by taking to the streets in clown masks with signs saying, “Kill the Rich.”
Towards the end of the movie, the people turn on Thomas Wayne. He and his wife Martha are killed in the streets, the way the austerity Thomas was pushing for as a rising politician had to people of their class through poverty. The mob flips the police car holding Arthur, carry him on their shoulders and placing him on top of the car where he is reborn as the Joker in front of the city’s angry and downtrodden.
Finally, people look up to him, and he has the status he had always wanted as a comedian. For the first time in his life, he feels like he is somebody, and he dances on the police car as Gotham burns around him.
For many incel killers, there is an element of desire for this exact reaction, in gratitude that they killed some of the Chads and Staceys of the world. I do not name any here because often they kill for notoriety, seeking this exact moment of fame. Often, they take their own lives after the murders, and a certain, especially toxic corner of the incel community worships them like martyrs in a great revolution to come.
I wrote this to make two points: first, that the incel community’s issues have basis in reality, but second that there’s a better way forward. These issues can be lessened greatly through good government policy investing in the people -- the opposite of the austerity measures we see taking place in Gotham.
First, we must do something to help those who go without treatment for their mental health issues for reasons of poverty, and we can’t lean on the state's limited budgets to provide this aid any longer. We need a federal program like Medicare for All to provide healthcare, and in this case, mental healthcare to all.
Second, we must supply good paying, middle class jobs to the men (and women) of this country through a government job guarantee paid for through the federal budget. We must end the necessity of holding multiple low paying jobs when we could work for a purpose and be able to support our families again rebuilding and updating America’s aging infrastructure.
Finally, we must do what we can to broadly reduce feelings of alienation in the workforce. To do this, we must supply workers more power within the economy. More democratic power in their workplaces is a start. Breaking up monopolies so companies must compete for labor is another factor. That said, I think the biggest step forward would be implementing a basic income guarantee in addition to our current social safety net, promising that if you work or not, you will not have to waste away and die of poverty. This gives workers a real choice when choosing to work, because the equation is no longer “it’s better than nothing.”