The Joker’s Origin Story Should Explore Mental Illness

If an origins story is essentially a character study, then The Joker film should portray a more nuanced take on mental illness.
Heath Ledger Joker
By  · Published on August 24th, 2017

If an origins story is essentially a character study, then The Joker film should portray a more nuanced take on mental illness.

On Tuesday, it was reported that a Joker origin story is in development. Who’s on board? None other than Todd Phillips (yes, the director of The Hangover) and Martin Scorsese. This had a lot of people going “whaaaa.” The reaction has been mixed though. Some people were surprised, yet hopeful by the Scorsese affiliation. Others were downright exhausted with the prospect of another Joker film, especially a film that isn’t part of the DCEU.

Instead of asking whether we need another Joker film, I want to think about The Joker’s various diagnoses and how these incorrect labels are harmful both socially and narratively.

But first, let’s look at the history of the Joker in film and TV. There are plenty of image galleries and YouTube videos on the evolution of the Joker. I won’t spend time talking about the various iterations. But one thing is for sure, The Joker’s aesthetic evolution is deeply connected to the evolution of his mental state. The goofier he looks, the saner he is, and therefore the less menacing he is, at least that’s the perception. Basically, the more he looks like Barnie had a baby with a circus clown, the tamer he is. Indeed, when the character was first created in 1940, he was an amalgamation of Conrad Veidt’s performance in the silent film The Man Who Laughs and images on playing cards. He was a murderer, but there was no indication of his mental instability.

The Joker, or Jack Napier, has been casually diagnosed with a plethora of mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia, dissociative identity disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder. But mostly he’s referred to as just “crazy” and “insane”. Heath Ledger referred to him as “a schizophrenic clown.” And when the actors that play The Joker speak about their preparation for the character, they usually refer to meeting with and talking to people with psychosis. This “authentic” approach to acting contributes to the perception that The Joker is just as or more psychotic than the patients the actors interviewed. This most certainly promulgates the idea that people with schizophrenia, PTSD and identity disorders are dangerous.

In a compelling critique of The Joker, entitled “’What Do You Think I Am? Crazy?’”: The Joker and Stigmatizing Representations of Mental Ill-Health”, authors John Goodwin and Izzat Tajjudin go through each casual diagnosis of The Joker and try to match the symptoms with The Joker’s behavior(s). Unsurprisingly, The Joker is not consistently compatible with any of his diagnoses. They argue that he is too high-functioning to be schizophrenic, despite the American Psychiatric Association citing a low level of functioning as a criterion for a diagnosis of schizophrenia. As for Dissociative Identity Disorder, they argue that it is the alternating and evolving narratives that create the perception that he has changing personalities. After all, when you’re dealing with a character who is over 75 years old and has been re-invented across mediums (with different rating systems), there is going to be some inconsistency in his personality and back-story. 

And finally, they discuss the PTSD diagnosis. In many of his origin stories, The Joker’s bleached skin and green hair is the result of a botched robbery, in which his pregnant wife is killed and he escapes but falls into a vat of chemical waste. I think by most standards that counts as a traumatic event. As The Joker says to Batman in The Killing Joke, “All it takes it one day to reduce the sanest man alive to lunacy.” It’s interesting how this traumatic event links Batman to The Joker. Both of their lives changed in a single night, both of them have experienced terrible loss. Batman lost his parents, The Joker lost his pregnant wife. DC suggests that trauma is a pendulum that swings from evil to good. I’d like to see the film explore that.

Eventually, the authors do conclude that the evidence suggests that his most suitable diagnosis is psychopathy: his grandiose self-worth, his lack of remorse, his need for stimulation, his irresponsibility, etc. Psychopathy is very different from PTSD, DID and schizophrenia.

So, why does this matter? Well, besides the stigma that misdiagnosing a mass murder like The Joker creates, there is also a narrative concern to be had. If you slap a (incorrect) label on someone, than their actions are often explained as symptomatic of their illness. But what is fascinating about The Joker? It’s not his murdering Robin, or paralyzing Batgirl. What’s fascinating is the why. And the why is very related to his psychopathy. The Joker does not perform crimes silently. They spectacles to be stared at with fear and amazement. And his target demographic is Batman. And he is not motivated by wealth or revenge really. He is motivated by his need for attention. Specifically Batman’s. Batman and Joker is more iconic than Batman and Robin.

The Joker is no doubt a fascinating character whose unpredictable and calculating crimes are an iconic counterpoint to Batman. In 2017, The Joker is pretty relevant. His anti-establishment, arguably Marxist ideology speak to both far-right activists and socialist anarchists. So, the question of whether “we need this movie” is far from the point. But what we do need is a nuanced character study that doesn’t use mental illness as a harmful substitute for psychological depth.

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