Mental Illness is No Joke

Kristyn Carrell, Bradley Dinger, Madison McClary, Alexa Micozzi, Wande Sogbesan, Angelo Soriano, & Melissa Steinheiser

Left to right, Frank Farley, Kristyn Carrell, Bradley Dinger, Madison McClary, Alexa Micozzi, Wande Sogbesan, Angelo Soriano, & Melissa Steinheiser

Frank Farley (, Kristyn Carrell, Bradley Dinger, Madison McClary, Alexa Micozzi, Wande Sogbesan, Angelo Soriano, & Melissa Steinheiser1

A Review of Joker, Director: Todd Phillips

Joker is a film that goes deeper than many DC Comics-influenced films. It is not just a seeming descendant of the Batman movies but is a psychological horror film with an extremely complex central character who embodies just about every character quirk you can think of and an underlying political theme of the 1% vs the 99%, the haves vs the have-nots, social inequities, incivility, and a psychology of the victimized, the marginalized, the disenfranchised and the ignored among us.

(Let’s make clear at the outset that we feel strongly that the continuing scarification of clowns and clown behavior, stealing this historic figure of joy and fun from innocent childhood and giving it horrific characterization, is an assassination of a childhood icon, reinforced by the instant film and to some extent the Joker figure in earlier films, the Pennywise of Steven King’s work and the It movies, and more. We urge a return to some degree of healthy joyfulness in the media treatment of clowns!)

An interesting outcome of the present movie has been the real political demonstrations (Sharf, 2019) of angry and unhappy citizens wearing Joker masks or make-up in public protests with perhaps some emotional contagion and social facilitation. Few Hollywood productions over recent decades have seen such political impact, the more surprising that Joker is not a documentary or docudrama specifically directed at hot political issues. It might be argued that the film feeds on the current anxiety and stress over political uncertainties and perhaps can be seen as in accord with the most recent national stress survey of the American Psychological Association showing high levels of politically related stress (American Psychological Association Stress in America, 2019).

The figure of Joker, Arthur, superbly rendered by Joaquin Phoenix in an Academy Award performance, seems to incorporate in part almost a random sampling of diagnostic issues from the DSM5 (American Psychiatric Association, 2013) and way beyond. Hallucinations, delusions, thought disorder, impulse control, perhaps dissociative identity disorder, you name it, a general mélange of psychological problems, disturbed behavior, and social orientations (e.g., nihilism), coupled with psychological solutions to some of those problems, invoking in the latter one might suggest, Hamlet’s famous soliloquy “To be, or not to be: that is the question: Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, Or to take arms against a sea of troubles, And by opposing end them?”(Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 1). Arthur is beset by troubles, including bullying victimization, designation by co-workers as a freak, lack of respect and support from others, discouragement (e.g., his avocation is as a clown and comedian entertaining kids at a hospital, to which his mother notes—don’t you have to be funny to be a comedian?), frustration everywhere with a perfect storm of things going wrong. And he carried with him a psychiatric history, as did his mother, and the film ends with him apparently in a psychiatric facility. He wanted love, going so far as fabricating a love relationship with a woman. But all this changes when the “weapons effect” takes hold, wherein he is given a handgun, which he didn’t want, from another worker to help him even the odds. This is a transformative moment. He also seems transformed when in his avocational clown role vs his everyday working state. In his clown garb and make-up on a subway train he is bullied badly by some male passengers and turns to his new equalizer, his hand-gun, in his first killing. This event, his first successful retaliation against bullying, produces a dance of ecstasy, perhaps a reflection of the hoary theory of aggression in response to frustration, and the dance being that of a winner. He is not apprehended and the event of course makes the news as a clown killing people on a train, perhaps a vigilante, implying Arthur’s new self-efficacy/self-assertion.

A theme somewhat reminiscent of the movie Network (1976)—”I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!”–pervades Joker. It is this theme that has apparently been picked up in one way or another in some public demonstrations over perceived injustices and inequities as noted above.

Arthur has serious mental health problems and these are revealed in a variety of ways, but the connection to violence, his murders (real or fantasy?) such as of his mother (she never revealed his adoptive status so he was “living a lie” because of her, etc.) and a TV host played by Robert DeNiro, may be viewed by many as a disservice to the field of mental health, implying extreme violence connected to diagnosable mental illness, strengthening an already debatable stigmatization. Certainly connecting a clown figure to mental illness and to murder is not helpful in this or any culture.

In sum, this is an engaging, intense film about a singular, compelling, memorable, and totally bizarre character that sows seeds of fear, misunderstanding, and confusion concerning mental illness … It does no good for this contemporary global health issue that should be of concern to all of us.


American Psychiatric Association (2013). The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. American Psychiatric Association, Washington, DC.

American Psychological Association (2019). Stress in America 2019. American Psychological Association, Washington, DC.

Network (1976). Film directed by Sidney Lumet, written by Paddy Chayefsky.

Sharf, Zack (2019). The face of Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker is turning up at government protests around the world. Indie, October 28.

(Footnote 1: The co-authors are students in Dr. Farley’s undergraduate course “The Meaning of Madness” at Temple University, Philadelphia.)

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