The Joker’s Lessons on Male Violence

On Friday night, I sat down to watch a film that some critics have suggested that we should fear and stay away from. It’s called ‘Joker’. This film was pre-emptively labelled as “dangerous”, “right-wing”, ”irresponsible” and even “Incel-friendly” by online critics (Abad-Santos, 2019; Ehrlich, 2019; Thompson, 2019). Several commentaries suggest that the film panders to Incel culture – supposedly at a risk of inciting and celebrating murder, especially mass murder perpetrated by ‘lone’ white men who perceive themselves as marginalized. In a climate where this violence accounts for the clear majority of solo mass murder events, I can understand why there was a heavy police presence at cinemas around North America. I also understand why, in the weeks prior to the film’s release, US military were instructed to be on high alert for potential mass-shootings at film screenings. However, I think the fear response may cause us to overlook an opportunity to understand the social and systemic causes for such violence.

Incels (Involuntary Celibates) are an online group of men who perceive themselves as the losers in the genetic lottery. They self-describe as ‘beta males’ who cannot find a sexual partner, yet desire one. Self-proclaimed members of the group have engaged in horrific acts of violence, particularly aimed against their perceived oppressors: women. Incels are bound by a fundamental set of beliefs known as the ‘Black Pill’ that unites a wider online anti-feminist ‘manosphere’. The Black Pill represents beliefs of hopelessness, fatalism and biological determinism rooted in a selective representation of evolutionary psychological theories. Zack Beauchamp (2019) describes the Black Pill as “a profoundly sexist ideology… that amounts to a fundamental rejection of women’s sexual emancipation, labelling women shallow, cruel creatures who will choose only the most attractive men if given the choice.” Media scholar Debbie Ging (2017, p.12) highlights that such superficial interpretations and recycled theories are used to support Black Pill claims such as “women are irrational, hypergamous, hardwired to pair with alpha males, and need to be dominated”. In my upcoming Master’s thesis, I describe the Black Pill as a philosophical and ideological device used to both explain Incel’s lack of sexual and social success, as well as a radicalisation tool to ‘Black Pill’ other young men. The overall ‘aim’ of the Black Pill philosophy is to reassert a so-called ‘natural’ order of a hierarchical system of racial and gendered oppression.

For some Incels, the Black Pill is supposed to incite chaotic violence and to ignite social and structural change. Incels revere certain public figures and fictional characters who display extreme acts of – in their eyes – martyrdom. They salute other mass-killers such as Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold (who perpetrated the 1999 Columbine massacre) and Seung-Hui Cho (the 2007 Virginia Tech shooter) for their chaotic and harmful behaviours in response to perceived oppressive social norms. Fictional characters such as previous iterations of The Joker have also been held in high-esteem for their violent rejection of society. The final scenes of Joker, when chaos erupts in the city of Gotham and civil disorder plunges the city into anarchy, evokes the sort of violence that some Incels call for.

With this context in mind, I can see why people were concerned with the film’s release. However, there has been a conflation of ideologies along the way. Incels (wrongly) believe that the root cause of their oppression is women, feminism, and cultural diversity while Joker highlights the social, cultural, economic and political systems that oppress us all!

I believe that the story Joker tells and the issues raised are profound and they reflect our real world of diverse forms of state, corporate, institutional social and inter-personal violence.

The film, starring Joaquin Phoenix as the Joker, acts as an origin story for Batman’s arch-nemesis. Set in the early 1980s, it follows Arthur Fleck, a failed stand-up comedian who turns to a life of crime and chaos in Gotham City. Todd Phillips, the director, pulls no punches here. As Michael Moore (2019) also describes in his review of the film, this is New York city. It represents the ills of our present-day society: the rich who rule over us, the banks and corporations for whose profits we grind, day-in and day-out, and the media which feeds us a daily diet of ‘news’ that they think we should absorb.

Gotham is a city on the brink of eruption. The film begins with a running commentary of a citywide garbage crisis – it reports on giant rats, mutating viruses and pathogens from the mountains of human waste lining the streets. Homelessness and unemployment are rife. With an upcoming election on the horizon, the rich and powerful line-up to deliver their usual speeches of empty promises and the demonization of the feckless and poor who haven’t worked hard enough and are fully deserving of their penury.

The juxtaposition between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’ is a central, recurring theme through the film. It reflects on the present day. At its core, this film is about class struggle within the neoliberal capitalist system. It asks us to grapple with a chilling question: what if, one day, the alienated and dispossessed decided to fight back? What if those who have been stepped-on, ridiculed, violently beaten and invisibilized decide to rise up in violent chaos?

The hand wringing around Joker shows that many don’t want to engage with how previously law-abiding people turn into Jokers. How people kick back after safety nets have been cut. How people are found to be wanting in a hypersexualized and commodified culture that constantly tells us that we need to be better, richer, smarter, stronger, sexier.

But, if we are all being oppressed then why is it (white) men and boys who disproportionately react with large-scale violence? Michael Kimmel’s recent work gives us some clues to understanding such ‘Angry White Men’. Kimmel (2013) traces a rise in social equality and a ‘feminization’ of the workforce since the 1960s, coupled with structural changes brought in by the adoption of neoliberalism.  Slashed taxes for corporations and the wealthy, severed social spending on welfare and education, the valorization of individualism, the removal of work opportunities, and economic deregulation left some groups of men perceiving they were ‘in crisis’. For many lower and middle-class men, such structural changes have undermined traditional masculine identities of success, and of being the primary breadwinner.

Some men responded to such structural changes with feelings of fear and powerlessness. Kimmel (2003, p.148 ) refers to this as ‘aggrieved entitlement’, a state where men believe “themselves to be entitled to power – by a combination of historical, legacy, religious fiat, biological destiny, and moral legitimacy”. Others banded together and created Men’s Rights Activist groups, seeking to challenge what they considered unfair feminist law reforms and policy discourses that opposed men. Some men’s rights advocates sought to reassert their perceived social power by calling for the disestablishment of domestic violence services that protect women, as well as other services that might ‘advantage’ women (Dragiewicz, 2008; Kimmel, 2003, 2013; Schmitz and Kazyack, 2016).

Research on extreme expressions of masculine violence often centre on the structural issue of hegemonic masculinity. This dominant form of masculinity constitutes a singular vison of a Euro-centric, heterosexual, middle-upper class (privileged) masculinity that asserts authority over other forms of masculinity as well as experiencing collective privilege over women (Connell and Messerschmidt, 2005). Most men are barricaded from achieving such a normative standard, yet it is defined as universal and exalted throughout wider society. Young men are implicitly taught to prove or assert their masculinity over others through domination and violence.

Groups, such as Incels, who are experiencing economic, cultural and political malaise are united by an over-subscription of such dominant notions of masculinity. They are unable to achieve the standards that they must live up to within problematic imaginings of the mythological ‘real man’. Academic research on Incels demonstrates that Incel-related violence and their overt displays of misogyny are extreme responses to being unable to achieve perceived normative standards of masculinity (Ging, 2017; Jaki et al., 2018; Vito, Admire and Hughes, 2017). Feeling victimised by their (supposedly) declining economic and social power, such mass-murder events are often attempts to reassert their masculinity over others. They destroy others and themselves to show that they are a ‘man’.  Joker embodies the full force of these structural forces, pushing and pulling on him until he ultimately snaps.

I do want to be clear – this film is not a film about Inceldom. Instead, the film reflects the cultural, political and economic malaise that many currently experience. It reflects problematic constructs of hegemonic masculinity – that are universally violent and destructive. It highlights the lack of social understanding or empathy for those experiencing disability and mental health problems, as well as cuts to funding and its effects. It’s about a life lived under constant alienation for being different. It’s about being bullied and lashing back at a society that creates the conditions for bullying to happen. We see all these effects of structural violence in the film because most of its featured violence is experienced by the Joker himself. The film is uncomfortable not because of the Joker’s ideology but because it is a stark portrayal of how our normal broken system can “invite bloodshed and chaos” (Newland, 2019). I for one, hope that instead of chaos and division, we can reach an understanding and start to heal the festering wounds that underscore so many aspects of our collective. We should not support the acts of violence, racism and outright misogyny perpetrated by men who feel marginalized. Instead, we must critique and challenge both the individuals and the systems that have failed them.

Angus Lindsay is completing a Master of Arts in the Institute of Criminology, Victoria University of Wellington. His MA research explores the virulent climate of online anti-feminism within the ‘manosphere’, in particular the emergent subculture of ‘Incels’ (Involuntary Celibates).

References

Abad-Santos, A. B.-S. (2019, September 25). The fight over Joker and the new movie’s “dangerous” message, explained. Retrieved from www.vox.com: https://www.vox.com/culture/2019/9/18/20860890/joker-movie-controversy-incel-sjw

Beauchamp, Z. (2019, April 23). Our incel problem: How a support group for the dateless became one of the internet’s most dangerous subcultures. Retrieved from www.vox.com: https://www.vox.com/the-highlight/2019/4/16/18287446/incel-definition-reddit

Connell, R. W., & Messerschmidt, J. W. (2005). Hegemonic masculinity: Rethinking the concept. Gender & Society, 19(6), 829-859.

Dragiewicz, M. (2008). Patriarchy reasserted: Fathers’ rights and anti-VAWA activism. Feminist Criminology, 3(2), 121-144.

Ehrlich, D. (2019, August 31). ‘Joker’ Review: For Better or Worse, Superhero Movies Will Never Be the Same. Retrieved from Indiewire.com: https://www.indiewire.com/2019/08/joker-review-joaquin-phoenix-1202170236/

Ging, D. (2017). Alphas, betas, and incels: Theorizing the masculinities of the manosphere. Men and Masculinities, 22(4).

Jaki, S., De Smedt, T., Gwozdz, M., Panchal, R., Rossa, A., & De Pauw, G. (2019). Online hatred of women< in the Incels. me forum: Linguistic analysis and automatic detection. Journal of Language Aggression and Conflict.

Kimmel, M. (2003). Misframing Men: The Politics of Contemporary Masculinities. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press.

Kimmel, M. (2013). Angry White Men: American Masculinity at the end of an era. New York: Nation Books.

Newland, C. (2019, September 02). ‘Incel’ violence is horrific, but Joker is complex and doesn’t take sides. Retrieved from www.theguardian.com: https://www.theguardian.com/film/2019/sep/02/incel-violence-joker-rightwing-film-joaquin-phoenix

Schmitz, R., & Kazyak, E. (2016). Masculinities in cyberspace: An analysis of portrayals of manhood in men’s rights activist websites. Social Sciences, 5(2).

Thompson, C. (2019, September 02). Why ‘Joker’ Is Being Called A ‘Toxic Rallying Cry For Incels’. Retrieved from https://www.whimn.com.au/play/unwind/why-joker-is-being-called-a-toxic-rallying-cry-for-incels/news-story/37062f1af2e74acc255c0eb5d44a5709

Vito, C., Admire, A., & Hughes, E. (2018). Masculinity, aggrieved entitlement and violence: considering the Isla Vista mass shooting. NORMA, 13(2), 86-102.

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