If the Joker is just an origin story–how the Joker became the Joker–then the movie probably did its job.
If the Joker tried to be more than an origin story, and is also commenting on society’s lack of empathy for others–like those with mental illness– then it might have fallen short by using mental illness as a trope.
Note: a “trope” is, most generally, a way to give the viewer access to or understanding of a storyline.
Should mental illness have been dropped from the Joker movie?
Mental illness was a important trope to bring this character’s backstory to life.
a mental illness explains that laugh
Pseudobulbar affect or PBA is a condition in which someone laughs or cries uncontrollably, or has facial expressions that don’t match his or her emotion. It may be caused by damage to the pre-frontal cortex region of the brain, as a result of stroke or disease or head trauma. Childhood physical abuse was mentioned in the Joker.
PBA often creates anxiety and humiliation, which leads to social isolation, frustration and depression. It can be helped through anti-depressants and an FDA-approved drug therapy for use in ALS and MS patients.
This condition feels like a perfect fit for the Joker, who is humiliated throughout his life for his condition.
a mental illness explains the development of conditions that led to the character’s demise
While we don’t know what causes someone to become a mass murderer, we know that social isolation and rage are significant contributors. This is consistent with the movie, and easy to buy into as a viewer.
Mental illness should have been omitted from the story line.
mental illness gives us an easy “out” for society’s role in the character’s descent
Mental illness provides an excuse for the abuse Fleck/Joker receives. If he didn’t have an uncontrollable laughing problem, and he was treated poorly because, say, he was awkward, then we could have a discussion on the way we treat each other for being different (must read on this: Malcolm Gladwell’s new book Talking to Strangers). This could create a storyline with more depth, something for the viewer to walk away with, and to talk about.
But, since the Joker has a disorder, and most people don’t understand this disorder, we can almost give society a tiny pass on it. It’s super weird (and maybe terrifying) to be around someone that laughs uncontrollably, right? Well, even if you’re more understanding and kind and empathetic than most, it could provide an excuse for plenty of others.
By bringing mental illness into this, the conversation on society’s lack of empathy for others can be somewhat muted.
the movie is about the human capacity for evil
The movie might more accurately and simply be described as a struggle to understand a human being’s capacity for evil. The arts have taken deep dives into this theme. Think: Lord of the Flies. As the stranded boys develop their society, the evil inside them develops as well. No mental illnesses were necessary to show a human’s (sorta fascinating) innate ability for violence and rage.
people who suffer from mental illness represent only a small portion of mass murderers
Dr. Michael Stone, a forensic psychiatrist with data on 350 murderers, explains that only about 20% of mass murderers were diagnosed with a mental illness prior to their killing spree. The other 80% were dealing with (or, not dealing with) anger, isolation, and depression, and likely didn’t seek out mental health treatment.
What if the movie were about the 80% of mass murderers that are simply living on the fringes, without mental disorders?
multiple references to societal problems mean that the movie tried to do more than simply explain the Joker
Cuts to welfare block Arthur Fleck’s access to his medicine, and worsen his condition. Trash is piling up on city streets, leading to unrest. Race issues and classism are among the struggles the character must combat.
This seems like a movie that wanted to be more, but the ease with which mental illness explained the character’s decline seemed to get in the way of bigger conversations.