On Wednesday, August 28, the latest trailer for the DC Comics/Warner film, Joker, hit the Internet and immediately began trending on social media. Having been a reader and collector of DC Comics for 44 years, I was naturally curious about it even if I had misgivings based on the first trailer released back in April.
I also was a bit suspicious because I have, in the last decade or two, come to understand the mainstream comic book/superhero genre as increasingly conservative, covertly or overtly upholding some deplorable pathologies aimed at stereotyping, diminishing, or dehumanizing marginalized peoples, while normalizing white supremacy, patriarchy, and most importantly white innocence (Yes, I even had my problems with Black Panther). In other words, the genre is no exception to a Hollywood rule that has been in effect for as long as there has been a Hollywood. Maybe the genre was never an exception; In War, Politics, and Superheroes: Ethics and Propaganda in Comics and Film, Marc DiPaolo argues that military propaganda and Western might-makes-right were always the prevailing points of mainstream superhero comic books.
I watched the trailer and was immediately struck by how Black people are featured in it. The first Black people we see are a woman and her child riding the bus. The film's star Joaquin Phoenix (Joker), seated behind them, is making silly faces at the child, making the child laugh. Unprovoked, the woman—replete with the requisite eye and neck roll that every non-Black person believes makes Black women Black—turns around and chastises Phoenix’s character for “bothering” her child. Phoenix, who was only attempting to be kind, shrinks down into himself and apologizes. The woman on the bus is depicted as unnecessarily mean and presented as one of the causes of the Joker’s impending violence. And, as someone on Twitter pointed out, she is also inhabiting a position that Hollywood often cast Black women of particular hue and stature: Mammy.
The second Black person we see is Joker’s therapist. According to the trailer, she’s the face of an ineffective, incompetent, bureaucratic system that is of no use to depressed, disaffected men like Joker. As she’s explaining that she will not be able to treat him anymore, he says: “You don’t listen, do you? You just ask the same questions every week. How’s your job? Do you have any negative thoughts? All I have are negative thoughts!” The fact that a Black woman inhabits this role is cruel and deceptive, but also ironic because it was not Black people who designed a healthcare system that neglects and overlooks; it is Black people especially who are neglected and overlooked by this system.
While we hear Joker’s voiceover chastise the therapist, we see him being attacked by kids of indeterminate race, but they seem to have Black and brown skin. One has his hair slicked back and in a ponytail, which is a hairstyle Hollywood often uses to mark a character as Mexican, or some other Hispanic or Latinx ethnicity.
After those markers are established, we then begin to see the rest of society—that is, white people—taking its shots at Joker, which, according to the trailer, is what leads to his transformation into a villain. But what the trailer doesn’t show is one detail that might be in the script.
According to pop-culture website CBR, a verified Joker script was leaked to the Internet. In it, we discover that as a child, Joker was raped by his mother’s boyfriend. This, too, is meant not only to make the Joker a sympathetic character, but also explain where his anger and violence come from. The problem with presenting this element is not that it isn’t realistic. The problem is that, in an anti-queer society, it fuels the false equation of queerness with child rape.
Anti-queerness offers the idea that queer people are out to corrupt children through deception, subterfuge, and abuse. Presenting Joker as a victim of a male rapist confirms that idea in the mind of an audience already primed to receive it. Too few people in the audiences are open to the idea that queerness is not synonymous with pedophilia and will interpret a male adult raping a male child as an act of homosexuality rather than one of pedophilic molestation. They do not pathologize heterosexuality in this way: If a male adult rapes a female child, his act isn’t attributed to his sexuality (though, often, the child in that situation will be blamed rather than the adult); if a female adult rapes a male child, it is often not even seen as rape at all, and the male child is expected to consider himself lucky.
Further, Joker rests on an ableist premise: That a person suffering from mental illness will, necessarily, resort to violence. An ableist society relies on mental illness to both mask and explain behaviors that it deems antisocial—especially when the subject is white. When white boys shoot up the place, it’s not said that they are merely emulating the pathology of the empire that was built specifically for them from the bones of its conquered. No, it’s said that they must be “ill.” Yet, violence is the United States’ genesis, thus it's normal and it's wellness. To actually be ill in America would mean to behave contrary to its nature; that is, in ways that are peaceful and life-affirming.
I must not leave out that we see from that trailer that Joker’s love interest is a woman of color, more precisely, a biracial (Black and white) woman. Some see this as progressive and as proof that there can’t be anything racially problematic about Joker because of that bit of casting. As feminist philosopher bell hooks notes in her book, Reel to Real:
“White directors now assume that simply putting Black characters in their films means that they could not possibly be perpetuating racism by way of their work…Those Black characters can be construed cinematically so that they become mouthpieces for racist assumptions and beliefs.”
To begin, we’re not even clear on what role she actually plays in the film. We don’t know if she will be “fridged” (killed in order to provide motivation to the male lead), or wind up doing something—like breaking up with him, not returning his romantic intensity, or wanting to instead just be platonic friends—that, in the minds of some men, justifies rage. One thing that is super-clear about the mainstream comic book/superhero industry: misogyny is shared by creators and fans alike.
Further, there are some assertions that because Joaquin Phoenix is Puerto Rican, this film couldn’t possibly have racial problematics—as though Puerto Rican is a race and not an ethnicity; as though Joaquin Phoenix isn’t white simply because he was born in a Spanish-speaking territory; as though anti-Blackness, in particular, doesn’t exist in Puerto Rico; as though even if Phoenix was visibly Brown, people of color don’t participate in and perpetuate anti-Blackness.
Additionally, this isn’t director Todd Phillips’s first brush with racially problematic displays.
I offer that in a country led by the current occupant of the White House, this film, as presented by the trailer—with imagery that recalls Charlottesville torch carriers and Proud Boys brawling in the streets of New York—functions as a dog-whistle to aggrieved white men, and those who aspire to or sympathize with their grievances and ideals, and share their values. I don’t know if the film itself will twist and show itself to be the opposite of what the trailers present, but taken at face value, the trailers feel like a love letter to every white dude who has ever committed (or ever wanted to commit) a massacre; who has ever shot up a church or a synagogue or a mosque or a school or a mall. Or a movie theater.
For that reason, and given how American society coddles and empathizes with white men and boys who commit mass murder, and wrings its hands over taking their weapons of destruction from them, I’m not ashamed to say that don’t feel safe going to see this film in a public movie theater. (Me saying this, however, is not me saying that other people shouldn’t go and see the film if that’s what they desire. People should go and draw their own conclusions. After all, there is no such thing as perfect media. We all love something with flaws because we, ourselves, are flawed.)
Joker is not the first form of media to embrace this position. Breaking Bad, Falling Down, Die Hard, and others serve the same purpose of not only giving the invader the right to mourn what he perceives as the loss of what he rightfully earned through conquering, but also the justification for retaliation. These artifacts offer forth that the natural state of whiteness is not merely superior, but also successful. If a white person—especially a white cisgender non-disabled heterosexual male—cannot attain success, then it must be the fault of some Other: Other race, Other gender, Other gender identity, Other sexuality, Other ability, Other country, and so on. But what it can never be is whiteness’s own mediocrity or ineptitude piercing the façade and reclaiming its proper place in reality.
For those whose rebuttal is that this analysis is premature (I hope that it is!), that it is an “over-analysis,” a “reach” (possibly the most empty, lazy, and meaningless term social media and comments sections have embraced), or that it is “woke” as used in its demeaning form (which masquerades as a dismissal of elitism, but is really, in fact, pointing toward the fragility and ignorance that prompts individuals to resist critical analysis of the objects and artifacts from which they receive joy because they believe confronting any flaws might rob them of that joy and implicate them as flawed participants)—I refer again to hooks:
“Hegemony requires that ideological assertions become self-evident cultural assumptions. Its effectiveness depends on subordinated peoples accepting the dominant ideology as ‘normal reality or common sense…As long as no one makes the demand, we are not just held captive by white supremacist capitalist patriarchal imagination, we will not have eyes to see the liberatory visions progressive filmmakers offer us.”
I reject the idea that analysis is a “soapbox” or “high horse” or fodder of the “ivory tower.” I rebuke the idea that media is “just” entertainment; I don’t believe there is any such thing because there’s too much evidence to the contrary. It’s art. And it’s, therefore, of some use. I have a right (and perhaps even a responsibility) to examine what it is being used for—even if that means introspection and reflection is thrust upon a populace that seeks the darkness and comfort of the theater precisely to escape such duties. Critical thinking need not be a joy-stealing activity. But it can almost always be a liberating one.
Robert Jones, Jr. is a writer from Brooklyn, New York. He is the author of the forthcoming novel, The Prophets, from Putnam Books. He has written for numerous publications, including The New York Times, Essence, OkayAfrica, The Feminist Wire, and The Grio. He is the creator of the social-justice social-media community, Son of Baldwin, which can be found on Facebook, Instagram, Medium, and Twitter.