This was a “journal” assignment I completed for a semiotics course (January 14, 2013).
Recently, I helped make a short parody about Batman and Joker for my digital video class. Although I helped write the original script, I became concerned about the portrayal of Joker that my group was working with. I was very happy when one of my group members suggested an alternate ending—this was the person playing Joker, and he was developing Joker as a likeable character. We ended up portraying Batman and Joker as roommates who had some differences of opinion (specifically, about cleanliness and paying rent), and finished with a reconciliation scene. Joker’s behaviour in our video was bizarre, but very human.
While we were making the short film, I began to think about the Batman movie The Dark Knight. In this movie, Joker is dehumanized. His insanity and pseudo-reason (his carefully planned and unrepented brutality; the multiple, conflicting stories he tells about his scars) are portrayed as impossible to predict, an unreasoning cruelty being unleashed, often, against people who have no connection to Joker: he is destruction without motivation. The impossibility of understanding him makes his uncontrollable brutality all the more terrifying. He is a devil figure, inhuman—or a warped human being—both physically, with his botched clown makeup, and psychologically. The fact that it’s by and large considered normal, and that it’s even celebrated, to portray a human being in this way is deeply troubling to me on many levels.
This is a hegemonic rendering of mental illness which is reminiscent of witch hunts. First off, there’s the horrific way this portrayal connects physical difference (the makeup and scars) with specific and undesirable character traits, as an “outward sign” of “inner deviance”. This seems to me to be rooted in bogus socio-cultural assumptions about physical, intellectual, and psychiatric difference. Where I live, these assumptions are, thank god, less prevalent than they were a couple of decades ago, but they’re still all too common in many places and among people who I interact with day-to-day.
In addition to this treatment of physical differences, mental illness is portrayed as an almost supernatural evil (we could segue here into portrayals of demonic possession, again picking up on the theme of physical “deviance”) that can only be “corrected” by the death of the ill person. There is no room in this portrayal for the healing of the ill person, or for unhealed, but very human, mental illness. The viewer is interpellated by this reading of madness and pulled into the ideology of terror, horror, dehumanization, and demonization. The ill person, much less than being a capital-S Subject, is demoted from being a lower case-s subject of analysis to being an object of hatred, looming larger than life as a source of evil that gets a rating of social and personal worth below zero. The ill person is thus sensationalized and reviled in this hegemonic reading of mental illness.
Unhappily, it seems like the assumptions of movies like Hitchcock’s Psycho are still with us. More happily, we’re starting to get works like The Silver Linings Playbook. And of course, older films like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and As Good As It Gets also challenge the evil-demon-“psycho”-killer stereotype.
Thwaites, Tony et al. “Ideology” from Introducing Cultural and Media Studies: A Semiotic Approach. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002. 158-175.
The Dark Knight. Dir. Christopher Nolan. Perfs. Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Gary Oldman. Warner Home Video, 2008. DVD.
TRIGGER WARNING: The rest of this post discusses abuse.
Now, all of the above being said, I think it’s necessary to look into another key element of Joker’s behaviour, which is that he is abusive, to say the least. I’m not going to go too much into theories about sociopathy here, although this would certainly be relevant to the character.
I have a friend who once said to me that she dislikes it when people say abuse happens in cycles, because she feels it’s telling victims of abuse that they will become abusers. While I can see why she would have a problem with that message, I don’t think that’s necessarily what’s being communicated by talking about cycles of abuse. Not all people who are abused become abusive; but frequently (although not always), people who are abusive have been abused. And I think that’s key to addressing abuse as a social problem. I don’t think it exonerates people for acts and patterns of abuse. I think accountability is key – but I think that accountability is different from blame. In some cases, accountability may mean being very gentle with a person, and in others it may mean being very firm, maintaining an emotional, social, and physical safety buffer (particularly when someone is manipulative, physically abusive, or sexually abusive), and calling people out on things they really don’t want to be called out on. I think the difference between accountability and blame, for me, is that accountability looks at the experiences of the abusive person and invites them to participate in changing the situation; blame applies blanket categories and uses labels as a silencing tool.
Now, I am well aware that there are a lot of cases where people are in very real danger due to the behaviour of someone who is abusing them. I’m not saying that the person who is being abused should go to their abuser and try to negotiate with them. In milder cases, it may be that this kind of one-on-one intervention is appropriate. In cases where someone (a parent, a peer, an authority figure at school or work, or, obviously, anybody else) is severely abusive and threatening someone’s safety, or has demonstrated a persistent pattern of abusive, whether it’s consistent or intermittent, a one-to-one approach is most likely not appropriate. Third party assistance and, potentially, ending the relationship would generally be what I’d advocate in this kind of situation. But how do society and the third party intervenors address the abuser during and after this process?
I think this is where accountability versus blame is particularly important. Ok, it’s possible not everyone can be rehabilitated (although I think “rehabilitation” is a problematic concept; I’ll deconstruct that in a different post). I’ve encountered a lot of theories about why this is sometimes the case. But I’ve met some people who, although they are very abusive, do seem to want to change. They just can’t always do it with the social and emotional tools at their disposal. In order to change seems to be a pandemic of abuse in our homes, schools, workplaces, and cyberspaces (in particular, homes and cyberspaces, since – perhaps for logistical reasons – they haven’t seen the recent policy changes of workplaces and schools), it’s key to address why people behave abusively. Not to condone or excuse abuse, but not to drop the ball after pointing it out, either. The saying about “teaching someone to fish and feeding them for life” perhaps has a flip side; fail, as a society, to address a problematic pattern of behaviour, and you perpetuate it. I am relieved to hear that there are instances of court-mandated counselling. I think this type of accountability needs to become part of the conversation – in school assemblies about bullying, workplace anti-harrassment training, parenting classes, pamphlets about mental health. It’s good to implement such accountability strategies, but they’re not fully, socio-cultrally in swing until there’s a popular awareness of them, and an overt, dynamic social conversation going on about them. I think an interesting justice model that exemplifies such an approach is First Nations talking circles. I’m not saying this approach will be appealing to all individuals or effective in all cases – but neither does the standard Euro-centric paradigm. (By Euro-centric, I mean “part of the European cultural colonial diaspora” – I’m not hating on people from Europe 🙂 )