Violent Joke of Fragile Masculinity

None of us wants a “joke” that substitutes bullying masculinity with another destructive version of masculinity, do we?

In the opening scene, Arthur sits in front of a mirror and forcefully hitches both sides of his mouth up and down. This evokes a powerful reference to two key landmarks of Ancient Greek theater. A bitter expression of happiness and a jagged expression of sadness. Here, the person we will watch transform from Arthur to Joker signals to us what we are going to encounter.

Joker: “I used to think my life was a tragedy; but I just realized that it was a comedy.”

Beyond admiration and hate, the film Joker offers an opportunity to discuss imposed masculinity and its consequences. However, through the traditional way the film relapses at the end, it misses precious possibilities for constructing a “new masculinity”; it evolves from fragile hope to a masculinity on the way to self-destruction.

I think discussing this impressive cinematic work of art and its probable influences under various headlines is also a significant opportunity to reconsider the power of art that is always emphasized.

What do we see?

In Todd Phillips’s film Joker, we see mostly men, from the opening scene until the end. They are traditional types who do not abstain from verbally or physically harassing Arthur Fleck, who hasn’t yet become the Joker. These are either a group of adolescent boys, workers trying to make their living by clowning, law enforcement officers, white-collar employees, or bosses in suits belonging to the privileged class. The common point of these men is that they are quite ordinary. They are people who see themselves as more powerful than everything and everyone, dominating the weak; who are grim-faced, pitiless, and rough, as Arthur claims at some point.

Due to his mental condition, his occupation, physical characteristics and even due to his distinctive sense of humor, Arthur is insulted by this hegemonic masculinity and marginalized. In Gotham City, where lawlessness, injustice, unemployment, and poverty pervade, where the streets are filled with rats and trash; Arthur is rendered “invisible,” owing to his naïve attitude and difference from others. He becomes an uncanny human being that people avoid because of his disturbing laughter, which is a result of his neurological disorder.

How does a man whose biggest dream is to become a comedian, who tenderly takes care of his mother Penny and pays regard to her kindness; who is harmless, struggles to solve his mental problems, and whose mother tells him to smile relentlessly in a city where no one smiles, gradually transform into a psychopath?

If cinema and/or other branches of the visual arts bring masculinity into discussion, it is also imperative to contemplate what kind of masculinity would be constructed instead of the rude, sovereign, violence-legitimizing or justifying masculinity that has been vastly and blatantly represented and acclaimed until today.

Ebru Celkan/K24

And then…

This compelling routine is crowned with grief. In the dark world of Gotham City. Arthur loses his job; he can no longer be prescribed the seven medicines he takes regularly since the health system is down; he cannot ensure his only care and love, because Penny falls ill. Eventually he becomes a standing joke of the talk show producer he admires.

Men plunder Arthur’s unique identity and tenderhearted feelings.

The transformation of naïve Arthur, poised to become a comedian, into a nihilistic and sociopath joker (Joker) begins when he uses violence. This initial use of violence paves the way for the uprising of Gotham City residents against the rich. Violence brings more violence.

Arthur has no desire to become a leader. He just wishes one thing, with his own words:

Arthur Fleck: “I don’t want to feel sick anymore.”

Well, do we need one more male hero legitimizing violence?

I would like to clearly distinguish two points. Joker is a quite impressive and powerful movie, in which actor Joaquin Phoenix delivers a magnificent performance. It promises meaningful identification particularly for the people who are bullied. And this is exactly what makes the story dangerous. It’s an issue that we do not hear women’s own stories told by women and do not see women making decisions in any critical moment. It seems as if female characters are punished with silence. For example, that we do not see Penny’s story in her own words poses an obstacle in our relation to the film.

Around these indicators I keep asking questions evoked by the film.

Is it necessary for Arthur Fleck to take revenge against society, insistently marginalizing his fragile masculinity before he turns into the Joker by using violence and intensifying the dose of violence at every turn? Is the antidote to this cruel masculinity yet another kind of cruel masculinity, using violence as a tool? What does identification of people with another man who transforms into a killing machine mean in our age? Isn’t it essential for us to think again about what men full of rage who want to change their lives do to the world? Is the possibility of a new future again blocked by anger, hatred, and rage?

Posing these questions based upon an unsettling film such as Joker may seem annoying and disappointing. However, if cinema and/or other branches of the visual arts bring masculinity into discussion, it is also imperative to contemplate what kind of masculinity would be constructed in place of the rude, sovereign, violence-legitimizing or violence-justifying masculinity which has been vastly and blatantly represented and celebrated until today. In the world in which men are enabled to express only anger among their other feelings, maybe we can broaden our scope to a new possibility by refusing violence entirely and imagining a renewed ethos that takes compassion as the fundamental principle.

Ultimately, none of us wants a “joke” that substitutes bullying masculinity with another destructive version of masculinity, do we?

Ebru Nihan Celkan