Author's Note: this is a blog from my previous site, but it had such a good impact on people that I wanted to make sure it was brought over. It's still just as important as when I first wrote it.
2019’s The Joker is hands down the most traumatic and triggering mental health portrayal that I’ve seen in years, and not in any sort of positive way.
Anyone whose been here before, you’ve heard this phrase from me many times, but I am happy to say it again: the mentally ill are not just martyrs or villains. They are people.
And somehow The Joker makes Arthur Fleck both a martyr and a villain while playing hard and loose with his humanity. And watching it in a theater, hearing people laugh and cheer and play sinister music over moments that looked like stories I’d heard from people like me or experienced myself?
I had never felt so fucking dehumanized.
And you wanna know the most tragic part? The Joker isn’t a bad movie. It’s shot beautifully, it’s entertaining and complex, it has amazing actors and costumes and scenes.
But I think it’s possibly the worst mental health representation I’ve seen in years and it broke my heart to hear people love it, even though of course they would. Because unless you are intimate with real mental illness, it wouldn’t make you so sick.
Picture a world where someone played sinister music to you swearing after you vomit from chemo, because you’re pissed about being that sick.
Imagine a world where a disabled person is turned into a calculated murderer after being brutally attacked on the subway.
Imagine a world where all your worst fears as a mentally ill person happen. Your co-workers react inappropriately to your conditions. You lose your job after someone else gave you horrible advice and you were so desperate for the pain to stop, you took it. You’re trapped in your own head and you are treated like a freak even though you’re just trying to make a little kid smile. You try to follow your dreams regardless of what people say, only to be mocked on nation-wide television. You lose access to your meds and it’s completely out of your control and you have to face the person you are unmedicated and no one cares.
There’s so many more moments and it absolutely traumatized me, to see those very real experiences for me be treated as these powerful villain-building moments.
I don’t know anyone like me who gets told that they’re losing their life-saving meds and reacts by becoming a city-burning anarchist. At best, they resign to suffer. At worst, they decide to die.
How many times do I have to scream that people like me are more likely to hurt themselves or be abused than they are to ever hurt anyone else? Why do people like me have to watch ourselves be brutalized on screen and turned into dead heroes or insane villains? This is the third time this year where I watched a movie that had a “person like me” and every single one killed someone they loved. Midsommar‘s Terri ended her parent’s lives and then her own. Mr. Barbour of The Goldfinch was so wanderlust with the ocean, a bipolar disaster, that he got himself and his son killed. And The Joker, a non-descript ball of undefined mental illnesses, killed three men on the subway, his mother, his co-worker, and then his childhood idol, Murray Franklin. And these are the only ones I remember because it’s when I started paying attention and they all are horrible.
No fucking wonder people are unnecessarily scared of us, when all they see is this. It’s like no one could fathom us being any different. Or, worse, there’s no other way we could be interesting.
I know people like me that are parents, partners, doctors, lawyers, writers; amazing fucking everyday people.
But you don’t get to see them in movies or TV, not unless they saved hundreds of lives or “overcame their disability” like true fucking inspiration porn. I had to find them on Twitter, on forums, in their own spaces where they hide because too many people reacted like they were possible axe-murderers or too much to ever love.
Healthy folks? Fucking stop. I can’t care about how beautiful or interesting The Joker is when the movie does not care about remembering that he is a real, ill, broken person. Real ill people don’t do that. The violent ones are so few that the fact this has become the default is disgusting. This movie disgusted me.
How dare you include such a truthful, disabled moment of trying to mimic people’s speech to fit in with this grating music of foreboding evil behind it. How dare you have him get up so deliberately and calculatingly after killing a person in self defense; I don’t know anyone like me who wouldn’t be panicking in the corner. They wouldn’t get rid of the victims with such cold deliberation. That’s not the instability of a mind, that’s someone who knows how to kill. How dare you remind me of the pain of losing jobs, my medicine, and worse just because they’re great trauma to turn him into a murderer?
How dare you put such real, raw moments that mentally ill people do feel and play them like they are the key events in building a villain?
I’ve never felt so heartbroken for people like me in my whole life. I came out of that theater sobbing. I don’t cry in public but I couldn’t stop. There were so many people laughing and cheering. There were people in the parking lot mocking his laugh, something that throughout the film was written on a card to explain it was a neurological condition.
Those kinds of cards are real. I can’t think about people laughing about that without crying. Because now, if people hand out their cards that explain disorders like that, something that’s been helpful for those of us who can’t express while distraught, there’s a chance someone might say, “Oh, you have a card like The Joker.”
And I hope that’s enough to explain why this movie doesn’t give a fuck about people like me and it did everything wrong by us.
The small moments in other films hurt enough, but a whole movie of all these careless abrasions have left my insides so fucking raw that I can’t stand the fact people enjoy this movie. And stupidly, I still can’t blame them. It’s beautiful and it’s well-made and clearly everyone worked their asses off.
Well, except whoever was in charge of researching mental health. They learned enough to portray uncannily realistic moments of it, but not enough to know how awful this movie treats us.
Please stop making mental hospitals look like that. Please stop making villains out of us. Please stop acting like you know us when you do this to us. Please stop forgetting there’s so many of us that are just normal human beings.
I can’t stop people from going to this movie, not when it has such raving reviews. I get it. There’s a lot to like. But not for me. I can’t see that movie ever again.
When I was a teenager, the thing that ran around my head the first time I tried to kill myself was that I was dangerous and everyone I loved would be safer without me. I can’t think too long about the fact that this film would have made a young me feel justified in that. I can’t keep thinking, no matter how stable I am, maybe the fact the movie left me in tears meant it was right. Maybe I’ve fooled myself and maybe I am dangerous.
But stable, adult me knows that is why this film can be dangerous. This isn’t who we are. I can’t let this be what everyone thinks we are.
I keep trying to find some sect to blame. Maybe if mental health education was better, it could be okay. Maybe if movies had more variety, more positive portrayals of mental illness, this could be okay. Maybe if systems cared more about us, maybe if people already weren’t so afraid, maybe if we weren’t already hiding because society likes us better alive and invisible.
But it’s not okay. I’m not okay today because of that movie. And it’s not just The Joker, and it’s not this tome of evil. It is the epitome of what’s wrong with how people see us, though, because no matter how honest some moments are about what we struggle with, we’re still cast as easy villains.
And that’s so fucking wrong, but part of the reason it’s so wrong is because a lot of people can’t even tell that it’s happening.
Be careful if you watch The Joker; I don’t want anyone walking out feeling like I did. So, if you are triggered by seeing yourself in awful people, or the sinister music over relatable moments bullshit, please choose your health over the film. Most importantly, though, take care of yourself because I know it’s hard and it isn’t fair but we’re not villains. We are people. Other people may find it too easy to forget that, but we won’t.