Augustine: The sympathy in “Joker” serves a purpose

Kathryn Augustine, Assistant Opinion Editor

Released in theaters less than two weeks ago, the film “Joker” is already awash with controversy. “Joker” traces the evolution of Arthur Fleck, a mentally ill outcast who is relentlessly terrorized, into Joker, a revered, embittered anarchist and mass murderer. In cultivating sympathy, some critics argue that “Joker” may incite violence in individuals in predicaments that mirror Fleck’s.

There is no doubt that select scenes of the film are problematic. When Fleck commits murders without a twinge of regret or guilt, he is hailed a hero who is standing up to the wealthy, privileged classes and garners a following. This insinuates that violent acts provoke fame and an increase in social standing. Inarguably, the film promotes this toxic message that has the potential to encourage violence as a solution to hopelessness.

However, I view the reinforcement of Fleck’s violence by his followers as a possible trigger for mass shootings, not the depiction of Fleck’s past. Expressing sympathy for isolated individuals who are deprived of mental healthcare and external support is not dangerous. Refusing to recognize and depict in the media what actually contributes to violence is what perpetuates the cycle of violence.

From the start of “Joker,” Fleck’s battle with mental illness is glaringly obvious. On top of grappling with constant abuse working as a clown and unsuccessful attempts at socialization, Fleck wrestles with suicidal ideation and sudden bursts of howling, inappropriate laughter. Fleck initially receives government-appointed care from a social worker, who encourages him to journal and provides him with a myriad of medications.

The neglect begins when Fleck asks his social worker for a change in the dosage of his medication. Instead of validating Fleck’s pain, she scoffs that he is on seven medications and surely, his drug cocktail must be doing something. She dismisses and belittles Fleck’s discreet cry for help. At a later, second visit, Fleck’s social worker informs him that he can no longer attend sessions with her because of dismal government funding. This means Fleck is not only unable to vocalize his emotions, but he also cannot receive the medication he needs to support his mental health.

These scenes generate sympathy, not for Fleck’s decision to murder relentlessly, but for individuals like him who are isolated and mentally ill, yet denied adequate care and support. It criticizes the dismissal of mental health issues by medical professionals and government officials. The termination of Fleck’s therapy sessions and his inability to access medication is the turning point for his evolution into Joker.

Does Fleck’s now diminished system of support excuse his future actions? Of course not. The point of illustrating how Fleck is dismissed is not to provoke pity. Rather, Fleck’s neglect importantly sheds light on a preventable contributor to violence.

I cannot say with certainty that Fleck wouldn’t have escalated to that level of violence if he continued with therapy and medication. However, perhaps if he continued with his medication and the social worker was able to recognize warning signs of homicidal behavior, Fleck might’ve remained Fleck. There’s the possibility that Fleck wouldn’t have transformed into a thoughtless murderer.

People are hesitant to express sympathy for a person who acts violently, as many critics of “Joker” have pointed out. However, creating sympathy is necessary in order to understand why individuals pinpoint violence and terror as a quick fix. This understanding should yield a greater focus on providing mental healthcare so that violence can be replaced with appropriate coping mechanisms. While “Joker” is flawed, using sympathy as a tactic to draw attention to mentally ill individuals neglected by society is not destructive.

Kathryn Augustine is a Medill sophomore. She can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.