Why Joker Is Sparking a Backlash Over Its Portrayal of Incel Violence

The tail-end of 2019 belongs to the clowns. If It: Chapter Two and Joker perform as well as expected, Warner Bros. will walk away with a lot of money. Reviews for both have been largely positive, and director Todd Phillips' Joker even earned a standing ovation last week in its premiere at the Venice Film Festival, in part due to Joaquin Phoenix's spellbinding performance.

However, a shadow lurks at the edges of Joker's promotional build-up, with critics expressing concern that the almost-sympathetic portrayal of Batman's archenemy might inspire real violence, with some reviewers citing a parallel between the motivations of Phoenix's Arthur Fleck and those of real-world "incels." It's important to ask, however, whether the concerns surrounding violence in Joker are warranted -- and if they are, how likely the film is to inspire actual acts of violence.

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What is an Incel?

If you have been on the Internet for any given period, you've likely come across the term incel. For some, it's a catch-all insult directed at any misogynist, but in reality, the term refers to a specific type of person.

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Incel is a portmanteau of "involuntary celibate," someone unable to find a sexual partner, despite a desire to have one. Most self-proclaimed incels are males who desire female partners. The incel community often believes women hate them because of their outward appearance. However, judging from their often-vindictive and hateful views of other people and the world, it's more often that they can't find a partner due to their sexist and antagonistic behavior.

Incels often hate other men, or "Chads," who they believe to "own" all the things they want due to their gifted positions in society. They also hate women for their "judgmental" views of men, as they believe women only want to date a "Chad," a wealthy person. Most incels believe the sole function of women is to fulfill the incel's sexual fantasies.

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While most incels are simply unpleasant people, some bottle up their hatred for the world until they explode. A notable example of the latter is Elliot Rodger, who in 2014 murdered six people and injured 14 others near the University of Southern California, Santa Barbara, before killing himself.

Is Joaquin Phoenix's Joker an Incel?

Joker wants audiences to sympathize with Arthur Fleck as it paints a picture of the sort of person who could become such a monster. What would drive a person to madness? In this case, it's mainly because Fleck lives a miserable, hollow existence.

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Some reviewers believe Phillips & Co. have succeeded in that aim, in large part because of Phoenix's performance. Audiences relate to Fleck and his pathetic struggle for happiness turned violent war against the establishment. He's shown, at worst, as a product of his environment and, at best, a man exacting revenge against a society that wronged him.

In The Guardian, critic Christina Newland draws the comparison between Fleck's motivations and those of incel killers like Rodger:

In Joker, Joaquin Phoenix’s unhinged Arthur Fleck is in every sense a loser – and perhaps in all but self-identification, an incel. He is friendless aside from his mother, works as a party clown, and his paralysing tendency to burst into peals of maniacal laughter unnerves everyone he meets. And when, like Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver (obsessed by Betsy), he becomes romantically intrigued by Sophie (Zazie Beetz), a pretty girl he barely knows, his fantasies go into overdrive.

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While the review goes on to offer a slight counter to this incel association, it's still an unnerving parallel to the real-world mindsets that drive the incel community.

Perhaps This is Just Effective Storytelling


However, some reviewers argue that at no point does the film place the Joker squarely in the right. Instead, it exposes the world that led Fleck to become a monster. Yet, at the end of the day, he's still a monster.

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Joker draws heavy inspiration from Martin Scorsese films, which frequently feature morally dubious protagonists who commit crimes and atrocities of increasing intensity. While you understand, and may even like, the protagonist in Goodfellas, Casino or The King of Comedy, the film goes out of its way to establish he's not a good person.

It can be argued that making audiences relate to the Joker is an effective storytelling strategy. You sympathize with this man who becomes a monster, and those feeling are corrupted by the knowledge that he will go on to commit horrible crimes.

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Through this lens, Joker becomes a cautionary tale to rational viewers. No rational person would be motivated by watching the film to commit crimes. However, it's important to remember that incels are not rational.

Will Joker Motivate Incels?

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Is Joker just an effective character study, or the most sympathetic portrayal of the incel community in cinematic history? In Vanity Fair's review, Richard Lawson offers a succinct summation of Western sympathies toward those destructive men who feel wronged by the world:

That’s a complexity of causality that many Americans don’t extend to non-white men who commit heinous crimes; there, the thinking seems to be, the evil is far more easily identifiable. But those angry loners—the ones who shoot up schools and concerts and churches, who gun down the women and men they covet and envy, who let loose some spirit of anarchic animus upon the world—there’s almost a woebegone mythos placed on them in the search for answers.

...Is Joker celebratory or horrified? Or is there simply no difference, the way there wasn’t in Natural Born Killers or myriad other “America, man” movies about the freeing allure of depravity?

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The comparison to Natural Born Killers is particularly concerning. Oliver Stone's controversial 1994 film was linked to at least eight crimes in the decade following its release, including those committed by spree killers Ben Darras and Sarah Edmondson. One Texas boy who decapitated his classmate is quoted as saying he committed the crime because he "wanted to be famous, like the natural born killers."

In that sense, Joker could very well prove destructive. The film depicts a sympathetic protagonist who possesses several traits with which an incel might identify. (IndieWire's David Ehrlich goes so far as to describe the film as "a toxic rallying cry for self-pitying incels.") While a normal person can relate to Arthur Fleck, that's not the same as how a so-called incel might feel validated by the film. It argues that, yes, the world is awful and every paranoid delusion you possess has a basis in reality.

Directed by Todd Phillips, Joker stars Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Bill Camp, Frances Conroy, Brett Cullen, Glenn Fleshler, Douglas Hodge, Marc Maron, Josh Pais and Shea Whigham. The film arrives in theaters Oct. 4.

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