Mental Health in Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker

— Written By Luke Shealy
en Español

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Cinema has a long history of stigmatizing mental illness by featuring many characters struggling with mental health as violent villains. Our surrounding culture affects how we view the world. The media we consume can play a large part in how we perceive other people. While the challenges of mental health disordeA figure wearing clown makeup is pictured against a black are being treated with respect in more and more movies, unfortunately not all modern films are bucking the trend of associating mental illness with unnecessary and untrue stereotypes. 2019’s Joker is one example of a problematic film that was met with critical acclaim. This piece discusses the ways in which Joker played a role in enforcing negative associations with mental illness. It was submitted to #PassTheMicYouth by members of Shattering The Stigma: an international student-led project that seeks to eliminate the stigma around mental health.

Mental Health in Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker

By Shattering The Stigma

The film Joker, directed by Todd Phillips starring Joaquin Phoenix, debuted in October of 2019. It went on to gross over $1 billion worldwide and win multiple awards, including Academy Awards for Best Actor and Best Original Music Score. The film takes place in Gotham City and revolves around a man named Arthur Fleck (Phoenix) who, despite being ostracized by society, is persistent in trying to pursue his dream of becoming a comedian. As the film progresses, we see Fleck’s mental state gradually deteriorate as he becomes increasingly violent, and eventually transforms into the role of the notorious Joker.

Fleck’s progression into “madness” throughout the movie is problematic because it strengthens the link between mental illness and violenceーa connection that is a detrimental contributor to the stigmatization of mental illness, but we’ll get into that later. Fleck’s progression into “madness” throughout the movie is problematic because it strengthens the link between mental illness and violenceーa connection that is a detrimental contributor to the stigmatization of mental illness,

At the start of the film, Fleck is shown to struggle with a disorder that isn’t exactly specified, but is most likely to be the Pseudobulbar Affect or PBA, which is often caused by injuries or neurological conditions. According to Mayo Clinic, the primary indicator of PBA are episodes of uncontrollable laughing and crying. Crying is actually a more common sign of PBA, which leads many to mistake the condition for depression. The audience also gets a close look at Fleck’s personal life and the struggles he endures, such as taking care of his sickly mother at home, being attacked in an alley by a group of teenage boys, and losing his job. The culmination of these events further harms Fleck’s mental state and worsens his (possibly PBA) symptoms.

Roles of cinama film laying on the ground with a white background.

This perspective into Arthur Fleck’s life (and Joaquin Phoenix’s amazing acting), causes us as viewers to sympathize with Fleck’s struggles and empathize with his despair. We are even shown snippets of his journal entries, one of them being, “the worst part of having a mental illness is people expect you to behave as if you don’t.” Although the film does a fantastic job of presenting a mentally ill character audiences can emotionally connect to, according to this article from the Guardian, this quote, and many of Arthur Fleck’s journal entries about suppressing negative behaviors associated with mental illness, only contributes to the stigma that surrounds it. When Fleck mentions the expectations of behaving as if he doesn’t have a mental illness, his entry begs the question, how is someone with a mental illness supposed to act? As the movie progresses, the answer to that question is subtly revealed: violent.

We are also given a look into Fleck’s frequent meetings with a social worker, where he discusses his condition, emotions, and everything else he struggles with. However, the social worker doesn’t seem to properly empathize with Fleck. Sure, she sympathizes with him, or shows pity for his condition, but doesn’t seem to really understand his feelings. She even reads the words, “I just hope my death makes more cents than my life,” out loud from Fleck’s journal, and aside from asking a few unrelated questions, doesn’t elaborate on the context for those writings. Fleck even addresses the fact that he feels she doesn’t truly listen to what he tells her, and expresses his disappointment with being asked the same questions week after week. Later on, the social worker tells Fleck that the government has cut funding for Social Services and that their meetings and Fleck’s medications will be stopped. Social workers, counselors, therapists, etc. are licensed to practice and are trained to do so. The lack of empathy shown by Fleck’s social worker could promote negative perceptions of mental health providers and discourage those struggling with mental illness from seeking help with the notion that their voices won’t be heard.

After Fleck bears the unfortunate news from his social worker, his rapid descent into “madness” we talked about earlier, begins.

At this point, Arthur Fleck no longer has a job, has stopped taking his medication and meetings with his social worker, and is shunned and taunted by the public. According to psychiatrists, this series of events leads many viewers to conclude that Fleck “went on his killing spree because he is ‘crazy,’” and therefore, an unfortunate connection between mental illness and violence is perceived. Fleck is now completely “crazy” and has assumed his role as “The Joker.” Although Arthur Fleck’s character may have caused many of us to sympathize with him earlier in the story, that sympathy disappears once he becomes violent and audiences are left with the results of a mentally ill man who is now a murderer because he did not receive treatment. This ostracizes the mentally ill in our society, causes a foggy understanding of mental health, pushes mental health farther into the shadows.

A handrawn 3-D maze in the shape of a human brain. Black on a white background.

Now that we’ve discussed the “Joker” and how the film portrayed mental illness, let’s talk about how we can learn from it and what we can do about it.

We can ask ourselves the below questions from Constantly asking ourselves questions about what we perceive in books, movies, and tv shows allow us to delve deeper into analyzing which elements contribute to the stigmatization of mental health, and understand how we can go about reversing it.

  • “After seeing the relationship between Fleck and his social worker, how do we keep overworked and burned out public mental healthcare staff from losing empathy and compassion?”
  • “How do we reduce the real violence involving persons with mental illness that is more prone to occur when those who are paranoid and/or psychotic are without treatment?”
  • “What should mental healthcare leadership do to fulfill our ethical priority to address problems that worsen the public’s mental health?”

The American Stroke Association has more information about the Pseudobulbar Affect. Here, the features of PBA, treatment, coping techniques, and more are described!

Happy learning!

Questions for Extended Dialogue

  • Can you think of other films that stigmatize mental health?
  • Did you watch ‘Joker’ and think it to be problematic?
  • How does media representation of mental health enforce how people view mental health? Why is this important to consider?

Do you have a story to share? Check out our submissions page where we work with young activists to amplify their experiences!