Mental health has been a topic of heated debate for many years. People who suffer from a mental disorder are subjected to stigmatization and negative perception from the public’s side. During the recent decade, there were a lot of attempts to spread awareness on mental health and dissolute the stigma through the use of different media such as art, film, photography, and so forth. While these efforts can be generally regarded as successful, some of the attempts to highlight people’s struggles with mental illness have been controversial. One such case is the movie Joker, directed by Todd Phillips. It narrates the story of a man who suffered a traumatic experience in childhood and, as a result, develops a mental disorder through the course of the film. While many people argue that the movie highlighted the inequalities that many people with similar problems face, the debate of whether Joker’s criminal behavior was caused by his traits or mental illness remains unanswered. This question is critical since the portrayal of Joker as a mentally ill person has contributed to further stigmatization of people with mental disorders.
Stigma in Joker
It is essential to address the fact that the movie reinforced the negative prejudice associated with mental illness. Evidently, most modern societies are hesitant to accept the behavior they are not accustomed to. The film portrays the main character experiencing a pseudobulbar effect, which makes him laugh uncontrollably. Nierenberg (2019) claims that unlike the predecessors of this movie “that stigmatized electroconvulsive therapy but it did not stigmatize those with psychiatric disorders,” Joker showcases mental diagnosis in a negative light (p. 510). Instead of making the protagonist a figure that an audience can relate to and, consequently, normalize, the screen depiction of various mental illnesses showcase that his conditions are something to be afraid of. As Nierenberg (2019) claims, not all movies on the topic of mental illness pose a threat of imposing prejudice and stigma onto mental illness; conversely, they can spread awareness in a positive way. However, this type of narrative has to be done in a respectful and relatable manner, which is not the case for Joker.
Mental Illness and Criminality
In addition to perpetuating the issue of stigmatization, Joker also implies the link between criminal behavior and mental illness, which further worsens the social perception of the mentally ill. Rice et al. (2015) emphasize that the unjustified criminalization of people with mental disorders in media has been a widespread trend that significantly affects one’s ability to seek treatment and be accepted by society. The link between mental illness and criminal activity is not statistically accurate. U.S. Department of Health & Human Services (2017) states that “only 3%–5% of violent acts can be attributed to individuals with a serious mental illness” (para. 9). Despite being untrue, the media proceeds to reinforce the connection between psychological disorders and violent actions, which consequently makes the general population believe that mentally ill people are also dangerous. While some fans of the film argue that Joker became a criminal due to his personal characteristics and traits rather than his condition, the correlation between mental illness and violence remains (Alexander, 2019). This perception is harmful since it promotes exclusion of and discrimination against people in need of psychological help.
Coping Mechanisms: Leading by Example
Lastly, it is necessary to address the movie’s effect on the personal choices of people who are predisposed to mental illness. Joker reflects the harsh social conditions people with psychological problems live in: lack of governmental support, no acceptance from loved ones, and fear from strangers. It also provides graphic imagery of substance abuse and excessive violence as other ways to cope with the issue. Crant (2018) investigated the effect of negative imagery on people’s perceptions and found out that there is a considerable change in opinions after watching material that propagates a specific message. Similarly, Joker’s vulnerable audience might be susceptible to its influence and become less likely to seek professional medical help in favor of reverting to unhealthy coping mechanisms that the movie promotes.
Contrary to this belief, the findings of the study that investigated the effect of violent images on the human brain show that no impact is done by showcasing graphic imagery (Pan et al., 2018). However, due to differences in the context, the outcome might vary too. Thus, it can be argued that Joker can unconsciously condition vulnerable populations to inadequate coping mechanisms and normalize substance abuse and unsocial behavior.
In conclusion, it can be said that Joker, as directed by Todd Phillips, is a prominent example of a harmful depiction of mental illness on screen. Although there are cases of mental health issues portrayed in a way that normalizes the conditions and reduces the stigma, Joker showcases that inadequate narrative can have reverse effects on the controversial situation. The movie presents the protagonist as an unstable and dangerous man, which perpetuates the negative view of the mentally ill. Furthermore, Joker draws elaborate connections between criminal behavior and mental illness, implying their direct correlation despite being factually incorrect. Lastly, the unhealthy behavior of the main character can be imprinted into the minds of the vulnerable audience and determine their future actions in dealing with their mental health.
Alexander, B. (2019). How accurate is ‘Joker’s portrayal of mental illness? The answer is complicated. USA Today. Web.
Crant, J. (2018). The relationship between media portrayal of schizophrenia and attitudes toward those with schizophrenia. Journal of the Indiana Academy of the Social Sciences, 21(1), 48-56. Web.
Nierenberg, A. A. (2019). The Joker movie and the stigma of psychiatric disorders. Psychiatric Annals, 49(12), 510-511. Web.
Pan, W., Gao, X., Shi, S., Liu, F., & Li, C. (2018). Spontaneous brain activity did not show the effect of violent video games on aggression: A resting-state fMRI study. Frontiers in psychology, 8(1), 2219-2220. Web.
Rice, T., Hoffman, L., & Sher, L. (2015). Portrayal of violent male psychiatric patients by entertainment media and the stigma of psychiatric illness. The Australian and New Zealand journal of psychiatry, 49(9), 849-850. Web.
U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. (2017). Mental health myths and facts. Mental Health. Web.