Madness in fiction: Is there room for the Joker in modern cinema?

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The first thing I notice is the Glasgow smile. Like a trail of blood that refuses to dry, it coats the scars etched across his mouth .I look upwards and see his dirty, mangled hair, its strands dangling carelessly over his forehead. The rest of his face is covered entirely in white powdered makeup, obscuring what little semblance there is to anything remotely human lying beneath – just some wild and monstrous thing. He was sickening. He was terrifying. He made me want to look away – but I couldn’t. I stared back at him, completely mesmerised.

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This was the first thing I saw every morning as a 14 year old boy. A poster of this peculiarly dressed, frightening clown staring back at me, with madness looming in his eyes.

This was the face of the Joker.

This is a character that is unquestionably vile and repugnant in nature, yet one so entertaining that he has endured within the public consciousness since his creation in 1940 until the present day.

The question I want to ask, is simply why? Why are we, the public, so attracted to such colourful (pun intended) portrayals of insanity? And more importantly, why as an anxiety ridden teenager did I find this clown, a character that arguably every embodies every negative stereotype about mental illness there is, alluring enough to decorate my walls with his ghastly visage?

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Just how bad is modern fiction’s portrayal of mental illness?

Upon The Dark Knight’s release back in 2008, Ledger’s interpretation of the character was  described as ‘immortal and sadistic, motivated by madness and in almost all psychosis films, that character will kill’ , and it difficult is hard to argue with this. After all, within the space of 152 minutes the Joker commits armed robbery, blows up a hospital and corrupts, both physically and emotionally, a good and morally upstanding man. He displays absolutely no empathy on behalf of his victims. Instead, he revels in their anguish and suffering. In short, as a character, there is no question that he is a mentally disturbed, violent individual with no redeeming qualities.

Here is where the point of contention lies. As I have discussed in my previous entry, the connection between violence and mental illness is simply a myth that has gotten out of hand. However, if you believe everything that the entertainment industry has rolled out in recent years then there is a chance that you believe that the opposite is true.

According to a recent survey, TV characters with mental health issues ‘were 10 times more likely than other TV characters to commit a violent crime – and between 10 to 20 times more likely to commit a violent crime than someone with a mental illness would be in real life’. This figure in itself is astoundingly high, and this is supported by research that suggests that the physical appearance and behaviour of mentally ill characters plays a part in audience’s perception of them. Indeed, some people would go as far as to say that these traits ‘serve as visual signifiers to cast these characters – who are often threatening or evil – as the “other” ‘.

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It isn’t all bad news however. While in many areas television is failing to highlight mental illness for the complex and debilitating matter that it is , as an industry it is gradually changing. In fact, television writers are upping their game to write characters that are (presumably) engaging enough to engage the audience whilst providing a more accurate interpretation of what it means to struggle with inner demons:

-It is now the case that producers are hiring psychologists and psychiatrists as consultants on TV sets, which is an indication that they are taking the necessary steps to ensure that their depiction of mentally ill characters are as accurate as possible. A recent example of this would be The A Word, a BBC drama that explores autism and how it impacts the sufferer and their family in a realistic and poignant way.

-This seems to have paid off when it comes to soap operas, as a study carried out by Populus states that  ‘54% of 2,004 people […] recalled seeing a character with mental health problems said it had improved their understanding’ of the issue.

In extension of this, I would argue that a program such as Eastenders, which takes place  in a fictional London borough ,has a bigger responsibility to normalise the serious nature of mental health problems as opposed to a comic book movie whose lead protagonist  goes around beating criminals to a pulp whilst wearing a bat costume. Let that sink in for a second. He is a man – dressed up as a bat.

Don’t worry. It took me a while to comprehend the silliness of it too.

Just how much responsibility should works of fiction have in their portrayal of mental illness?

‘Cinema’s mainstream menfolk are often brutal or stupid or both, women are frequently airheads, bitches or sanctimonious bores, while children are regularly presented as satanically possessed or, even worse, nauseatingly cute’

This quote highlights (in a strongly worded way), that the debate ultimately comes down to whether fiction in its own right exists as a means to entertain, or as a means to carry moral and/or political messages that reflect the current state of society. Peoples opinion of this subject will differ according to whichever option they prefer. I would offer an alternative opinion however, and say that there are many great works of fiction out there that can do both.

Yet, I think if I could only choose one or the other, the former must take priority. It is because  of the escapism they afford that I am able to get through every bad day that comes my way. If all forms of fiction only adhered to the parameters of this often difficult existence, then what would be the point in watching them in the first place?

Fiction falsifies everyone

This is the nature of art. You only have to look at iconic works to realise that, in reality, we are all misrepresented by the media. Yet we uphold their iconic status nonetheless:

-Are the police force really as inept as Sherlock Holmes makes them out to be with his absurdly high level of intelligence?

-Would we really be as daft as the muggles are in Harry Potter (I’m looking at you Dursley family), at the notion of magic existing?

-How in the world do people not ask more questions about this strange, wandering time traveller in Doctor Who who turns up, stops whatever monster is plaguing a terrified group of humans, and then pops back in his blue box without so much as an eyebrow raised?

I could go on.

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I also believe that having a mental illness is usually not as exciting as the media is guilty of making it out to be. In fact it is often invisible; the true drama goes on inside our heads, not in our actions. On the outside we could be any Tom, Dick and Harry. In other words, most of our lives are nowhere near as exciting and ostentatious as a character like the Joker.

Saying that, it can certainly still be done. There have been a number of that have delicately handled characters who suffer with some form of mental disorder, from dramas such as The A Word, which I have already mentioned, to more popular, ongoing series such as Homeland. So from that point of view you could accuse me of being unimaginative.

You could argue that I overestimate people’s intelligence that many of them do hold some misplaced belief that all of us mentally ill are violent, abhorrent creatures and are basing solely of characters like the Joker. I sincerely hope this is not the case. I just believe that there is room for both faithful and unfaithful interpretations of mental health issues. People need to take responsibility for their own knowledge, and areas where they are ignorant, and not rely on superhero inspired films to get their ‘facts’.

With this in mind, let’s allow characters like the Joker to exist within realms of fiction, where they belong. For some he is just a clown with a really dark sense of humour. For others he is an externalised personification of their own internal madness. For many he is the agent of chaos itself.

What or who is the Joker? You decide.

The Joker could be anyone. We look at and feel repulsed by his crimes sure. Yet, under the right circumstances, we are all capable of inexplicable and horrendous violence. What if you lose everything you care about until you have nothing left? When that happens,can we really help but ask ourselves, am I capable of such inhumanity? As the man himself says in The Killing Joke;

‘All it takes is one bad day to reduce the sanest man alive to lunacy. That’s how far the world is from where I am. Just one bad day.’

Also if we do decide to censor these kind of characters from gracing the screen, where do we draw the line exactly? I think it would be a slippery slope that would limit imagination and actually reduce our quality of life, rather than enhance it.

As delicate a subject as this is, I suppose I am in the minority when I say that the alteration of all fiction for the sake of accurately representing reality is not the solution to ending the stigma.

Education on real life issues on the other hand, is.

So on that note, I want to end this post by saying that I greatly look forward to seeing Jared Leto’s interpretation of the character in Suicide Squad next month.

Suicide Squad.

Now isn’t that a contentious title for a film?

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Emotional support helplines:

Samaritans :116 123

Sane Line:0845 767 8000

5 thoughts on “Madness in fiction: Is there room for the Joker in modern cinema?

  1. I feel like in many situations, mental illness is an easy tool for writers to use in order to explain a character or a plot point. It’s easier than coming up with a back story or a motive. Unfortunately, it does lead to a lot of inaccurate representation.

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    1. I agree, that there is a tendency among writers to generalize mental illness a lot.Bipolar disorder is a particularly fascinating subject for producers as it allows them to portray a character who can fluctuate between being two sides of the same coin. Obviously this is not representative of the disorder at all.

      I think it all comes down to the kind of genre you’re writing about. In the case of the Joker, he’s clearly an exaggerated character , and as several posters have rightly pointed out, the reason behind his endurance as a character is his that he represents the darkness in all of us that,under the right circumstances and psychological mindset, we are just as capable of committing the atrocities that he does .Which is both a terrifying yet fascinating concept.

      If portrayals like this were the only representations of mental illness in fiction, I would be far more worried about it all. Thankfully, more accurate representations of what sufferers like us go through are becoming more prevalent. The King’s Speech is a film that comes to mind. You should check it out if you haven’t done so already. It really is a marvelous film!

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  2. There is a danger of over simplifying and over familiarizing the general populace to mental health concerns to the extant of reducing it to “it’s all in your mind”. Frankly I despise it when the news reports a crime, usually homicide, and adds at the end of a report as if this explains everything. Like you pointed out a person with mental health issues is more likely to harm him/herself than to harm another. Very well written and thought out, thanks for writing and posting.

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