Mental Illness Not Violence is the Central Theme of “The Joker”

Joaquin Phoenix as the Joker

“The worst part about having a mental illness is people expect you to behave as if you DONT.” – Arthur Fleck / Joker

Joaquin Phoenix’s portrayal of The Joker is stellar. While many people are sidetracked by the violence (which is certainly reprehensible), there are many takeaways from the movie pertaining to mental illness.

It is very obvious from the onset that Arthur Fleck (The Joker’s real name) leads a tortured life. Employed as a clown because his mother always told him he was put in the world to make people happy, he is bullied by kids and adults alike.

He tells his social worker that she never hears him which is symbolic of how he walks through the world; invisible, nonexistent, unheard, and unloved. A coworker hands him a gun to protect himself from bullying. It is not long before he uses it, not in a premeditated way, but to protect himself from being beaten up on the subway by three wealthy and arrogant businessmen.

As the search for the subway killer ensues with the sole clue being that he had a clown face, Arthur feels a twisted sense of accomplishment and admiration as a movement explodes in the city with people in clown costumes.

The takeaways:

(1) Mental illness has a stigma in our society. Arthur writes in his journal that “The worst part of having a mental illness is people expect you to behave as if you don’t.”

He is on seven medications and has a maniacal laugh. People stare, ignore, bully, or ridicule him. The only kindness he experiences is in his own delusional mind with a female neighbor in his apartment complex. When some of the city’s programs are cut, he loses access to his social worker and his medications. He is alone and suffering from extreme mental illness.

It is not hard to understand what drives him to anger and violence. Again, it does not justify his behavior, but it is not hard to see how he gets to that point.

I am reminded of the powerful quote: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.” If only more people adopted this mantra in the world we live in, perhaps it would be a happier place.

(2) Just like physical illnesses, mental illness is not a choice. Arthur does not like his circumstances; he did not choose to be this way. He has a strong attachment to his mother and is shown caring for her as she is weak and suffering from various physical and mental ailments. There are tender moments when he is cutting up her food and bathing her where it is clear that he is capable of love. He has redeeming qualities, a fact I suspect is true of everyone suffering from mental illness.

(3) Medication does not solve mental illness. Arthur’s behavior when he is on the medication is not much better than when his medication is no longer available. Pills can’t fix everything, and it is time for our society to acknowledge that and work as hard at helping patients with mental illness as we do helping cancer patients and those suffering from other diseases of the body.


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