At first blush, the new hit film Joker seems to hit all the right notes for progressive audiences. It floats various left-wing talking points: the need for health care and social services for all levels of society, the great divide between the average person struggling for survival and the callous rich, the importance of empathy. It centers around a marginalized and mentally ill protagonist who finds empowerment in rejecting the hypocritical strictures and bankrupt moralizing of society. It features an odious, Trumpian billionaire who calls poor people “clowns” and is presumably Republican. It reimagines a traditionally evil character and casts him in a more sympathetic light while turning traditional notions of morality on their head (for other examples of this approach, see Maleficent, Wicked, Suicide Squad, and Lucifer, for starters). The film even found great success early on among attendees of the Venice Film Festival, winning three awards, including the Golden Lion for best film. So it’s surprising that Joker should be making so many waves among the people that might be expected to enjoy it the most. But it seems that the high priests of progressivism (read “radical leftists on Twitter”), have completed their examinations and declared to their flock that Joker is actually a bad movie, a “problematic” movie, and even a dangerous movie. But how?
Directed by Todd Phillips (best known for The Hangover and its sequels), Joker tells the story of Arthur Fleck (played by Joaquin Phoenix), a socially outcast man with a history of mental illness who is doing his best to get by and take care of his aging, mentally deteriorating mother as society crumbles around them. He works as a clown for hire, a job he took out of a professed desire to bring people joy and laughter, but he aspires to become a stand-up comedian. He idolizes and projects his desperate need for a father-figure onto Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro), the host of a late-night talk show that he and his mother watch religiously. Phoenix turns in an industrial-strength performance as disasters rain down on Arthur like the blows of the beating he receives in the film’s opening scenes. He loses his job. The social services program that provides him with therapy and medication has its funding cut. His dream of performing stand-up comedy is transformed into a source of humiliation. As Arthur attempts to navigate the maze of misfortune that surrounds him, his actions cause him to become the unwitting hero of the social revolt that is tearing through Gotham. The cinematography and score are tense and uncomfortable and serve to highlight Arthur’s isolation and weakening grasp on sanity and hope. The violence is gritty and unstylized. All in all, Joker is not a comic-book movie, at least not in a way that audiences will find familiar from the recent glut of Marvel and DC Comics movies.
If one were to attempt to locate the nexus of the political outrage surrounding the film, one might arrive at a viral post by a Rachel Miller, later boosted by a Heather Antos (editor at Valiant Comics) to her 31,000 Twitter followers, which was subsequently picked up by a Vox piece by Alex Abad-Santos and from there percolated into various other reviews. Reading the post in question, it is impossible not to notice Miller’s cavalier detestation for “lonely white boys,” whom she rather bafflingly later refers to as “fuckboys,” a term usually designating men who will seduce women but will not commit to them. Numerous other Twitter users joined in voicing their outrage at the idea that the Joker might sympathize with and inspire violence from those most terrifying of social deviants: incels. For those who live under the rock known as “real life and the problems and considerations associated with it,” the word “incel” is a neologism for “involuntary celibate,” those (usually assumed to be white men, although there are women and minorities for whom the label also applies) who are unable to obtain sex or romantic relationships.
Miller and those who boosted her message are presumably left-leaning individuals, a group that, taken roughly, are prone to habitually rhapsodizing over the virtues of empathy and even suggesting that it is the dearth of empathy that accounts for many of the world’s problems. Knowing this, one might expect that they would be a little more eager to actually demonstrate some of the virtue that they praise so highly in regard to Fleck and real people like him.
But the explanation for why they don’t is not difficult. In his 2016 book Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion, Paul Bloom examines the many ways in which empathy is far from an unquestionable moral good. Important among those failings is the way that empathy and its application are highly influenced by prejudice and notions of, to borrow from Chomsky, “victim worthiness.” So it isn’t that shocking that the bulk of reviews written by hand-wringing leftists have very little to say about the specter of suicide that hangs over the entire film. Arthur Fleck, but for a twist of fate or two, would have ended his journey at his own hands, an outcome increasingly common among young men these days. Though left-wing media makes much of the misogynistic and hateful language to be found in the online forums where incels congregate, it has far less to say about their preoccupation with suicide, the contemplation of it and the continual trade and production of “sui-fuel” (content meant to help push the viewer closer to the act). But then again, male suicide itself is a subject that left-wing media is loath to address.
Matthew Rozsa, a news writer and movie reviewer at Salon, finds time to object to the film’s handling of mental illness: he argues that the movie depicts mentally ill people in a problematic fashion because Fleck is portrayed as “prone to violence” (a claim so ridiculous as to be laughable. Apparently, in Rozsa’s mind, if a person ever snaps under any amount of abuse, they were always “prone to violence”). But he does not at any point mention Fleck’s depression or suicidality. Instead he objects, among other things, to the fact that one of the female characters is used as a plot device rather than a fully fleshed-out character in a movie in which she plays a minor part. I could expound on the sundry ways in which this complaint too is utterly absurd, but for the sake of time and to avoid spoilers, I will instead simply point out that in a movie in which suicide hangs in the air as heavily as the endless smoke from Fleck’s endless supply of cigarettes, the “problematic” nature of a female character being used to move a plot in a story that is not about her (and ignoring the vast supply of minor male characters who serve the same function) is of greater importance to Rozsa. To quote a line from Miller, “Do you see what I’m getting at?”
Go to MSNBC and type “male suicides” in a search, and one of the first results will be a 2016 article that focuses on the fact that female suicides are increasing at a higher rate than male suicides. Any increase in suicides is tragic, but this is a misleading statistic. Allow me to explain. Numbers from the CDC show that from 1999 to 2017, among women aged 15 to 24, there was a 93 percent increase in the number of suicides. Among men of the same age, the increase was only 35 percent. But the raw numbers paint a different story: if you look that the actual deaths per 100,000 people, the number of men rose from 16.8 to 22.7, and the number of women rose from 3 to 5.8. Five point eight compared to 2.8. Do you see what I’m getting at?
An interesting note: searching “male suicides” on Vox will produce one piece focusing specifically on self-poisoning among teens (probably because narrowing the scope of self-harm and suicide in this way allows the author to focus almost exclusively on teenage girls), but also and inexplicably (within the first 10 results no less) an essay from earlier this year by Rachel Vorona Cote titled “ ’90s erotic thrillers and the satisfaction of watching women burn the world” (italics added), in which Cote glorifies female sociopaths such as Basic Instinct‘s Catherine Tramell.
Here’s an old meme. It’s intended to be the headline on the front page of a newspaper: “World ends. Women most affected.” The inspiration for the joke is the pile of news stories and editorials that frequently take a problem that primarily impacts men and then frame it as if whatever secondary impact on women is the real issue of importance. Take, for example, the slew of headlines from earlier this year that addressed the problem of young men failing to achieve economically as variations of this headline: “Broke men are hurting American women’s marriage prospects.” Or this one, which similarly argues that the real cost of the steady decrease in men graduating from college is that women have fewer and fewer dating prospects, since they refuse to date men “less intelligent” than themselves. But perhaps the most insulting example of all is Hillary Clinton’s claim in 2015 that “Women have always been the primary victims of war. Women lose their husbands, their fathers, their sons in combat.” Taken together, it’s fairly obvious that those who write headlines and make statements like these have very little consideration for men.
There is an African proverb that’s been thrown around a bit lately. It goes something like this: “If you do not initiate your young men into the tribe, they will return and burn the village down just to feel its warmth.” Earlier this year, Esquire sparked outrage when it chose to run a cover story examining the life of a 17-year-old white boy in the first of what was to be a series of vignettes intended to present a cross-section view of life in America. The Twitter firestorm was immediate and ferocious. While announcing the decision during Black History Month (it was the cover for the March issue) was either careless or intentionally provocative, many of the objections to the piece were not aimed at the poor timing. In a piece for HuffPost, reporter Jenna Amatulli asks why the magazine had chosen to focus on a white male rather than anyone else, “There are countless narratives of white men in history. Why, in 2019, are we adding yet another?”
For Amatulli and those who echoed her sentiment, white men have had their say, and it will not be necessary to consider them, their thoughts, or their experiences in the future. When Taylor Swift bewails her life of “running as fast as [she] can, wondering if [she’d] get there quicker if [she] was a man” in a song off her latest album, one is tempted to ask if she has forgotten who she is. But such is life in today’s America, where a pop icon with millions of fans and a net worth of over $360 million can whinge about the supposed unfairness of her life in lazy, vapid lyrics over a lazy, uninspired background track and receive applause and adoration, but a nobody teen struggling to make sense of the world he has been thrust into must not have his voice heard: he has too much privilege. So too with the dreaded incel menace. When white men have been painted as the supposed benefactors of every unfair advantage that society has to offer, to have large numbers of them failing so dramatically challenges the accuracy of that portrayal.
This essay began with a question, one that I’ll answer now: Why doesn’t the Left love Joker? The Left should love this movie. In all the ways I’ve previously mentioned (and others that I haven’t), Joker dances to their tune. In one crucial way, however, it does not. It takes a member of a demographic that certain powerful elements of the Left have come to regard as persona non grata and depicts him rejecting the moral authority of a society that stubbornly refuses to care about or listen to him. In 2017, at an event for Maine Democrats, Richard Fochtmann, who had run as a Democratic state senate candidate the year before, was caught on film voicing his enthusiastic approval of white male suicide:
You know, today I saw a thing that said a lot of men — white men — are committing suicide, and I almost said, “Yeah! Great!”
Rather than being appalled at an expression of such inhuman callousness, the audience in the video can be heard laughing and cheering.
Perhaps what is most interesting about the film is its subtle way of forcing the Left to confront its own hypocrisy. Though, in Joker, it is the Trump stand-in, Thomas Wayne, who calls those who have failed to find a place in society “clowns” and “losers,” in reality, this is the exact language that the modern Left uses to describe incels. So when a film depicts a man who, pushed to his limit by the cruelty and neglect of the world he lives in, elects to revenge himself on society rather than ending his own life, it is unsurprising that it should arouse the indignation of some. Joker‘s obvious message is that the most effective way of disarming these individuals is with compassion. But to the hate-filled, any solution that does not allow them their hate is an unacceptable solution.