There is a large push from the LGBTQA community for more queer characters on film, along with an opposite push against sexual diversity. A recent debate on whether or not Spider-Man should be bisexual made it clear some fans want characters who are usually coded as straight to appear gay or bi or trans. But what about a character who has been coded as queer in the comics being sexually fluid on-screen? What if that character is, quite frankly, a monster?
The comics have featured Batman's iconic nemesis, the Joker, as queer-coded previously. In The Dark Knight Returns, Joker refers to Batman as "Darling." In Death of the Family, the Joker has an almost romantic obsession with Batman. There is a lot of evidence that indicates the Joker might not be as straight as he lets on. It might be tempting for some writers and directors to want to bring that queer side of the Joker to the big screen. However, this decision would be objectively misguided and harmful.
Is the Joker Gay?
The Joker's sexuality, much like his past, is a mystery. In no story has the Joker ever really demonstrated in uncertain terms his sexual inclinations. His dealings with Harley Quinn might lead some to see him as straight, but every iteration of Joker and Harley indicate that the Joker sees Harley as a tool. He uses Harley's attraction to him as leverage to manipulate her.
If anything, the Joker seems to feel infatuation for Batman more than any other person. Frank Miller's Joker is often the most overtly queer of all of them. Miller's real Joker flirts with Batman while threatening him. In The Dark Knight Rises Again, the Joker-esque Dick Grayson is coded as gay. For now, put these depictions in the back of your mind, understanding that the films often draw heavily from Miller's work and why this might prove highly problematic.
What About on Film?
On film, the Joker has often been coded as straight, with one very important exception. Tim Burton's Batman presents Jack Napier, a career criminal who is set up by his boss after the latter learns that Jack is sleeping with his girlfriend. Later, Jack, now Joker, pursues Batman's love interest, Vicki Vale. In Suicide Squad films, the Joker is more sensually involved with Harley Quinn, and, while he makes uncomfortable passes at men, there is no evidence given that he's anything but straight. And in the upcoming film Joker, Arthur Fleck has a one-sided attraction to Zazie Beetz's Sophie.
The only exception is Heath Ledger's Joker from The Dark Knight. Ledger's Joker says that Batman "completes him," which is an obvious reference to Tom Cruise's iconic line from Jerry Maguire. The line is charged with a romantic subtext that is further reinforced by the Joker's desire to fight Batman forever, spoken in an almost romantic manner. But this is just subtext. In the film, Joker never makes any sexual pass at anyone.
Why Would Someone Make Joker Gay?
The question remains as to why anyone would want to see a gay Joker. There are a few reasons, all of which are misguided. The most obvious reason would be that a writer wants to increase diversity in the film. This reasoning sounds good at first, but the question remains: "Why the Joker?"
The Joker remains an iconic villain. Queer coded villains are a staple of genre entertainment. Ever since the days of The Maltese Falcon, writers and directors have coded villains as queer. Making another villain gay for the sake of it would not be progressive. In actuality, it would be regressive.
This is not to say villains can't be gay, of course, but if the only reason for making the Joker gay is to be progressive, it's a misguided reason. This is especially true since the Joker has a history of being a toxic, terrible person. To a queer audience, seeing toxic and unhealthy relationships on screen would not be the progressive rallying cry a writer might believe it to be.
When a character like Harley Quinn is presented as bisexual, it is an organic aspect of her character. She finds solace in Poison Ivy, forming a romantic, healthy bond with another person.
But there remains another reason why a writer might make Joker sexually fluid and gay. Arguably, this reason is even worse.
Fear of Being Loved
One of the most effective aspects of the Academy-Award Winning horror film The Silence of the Lambs is that Hannibal Lecter is attracted to the main character Clarice. Knowing someone wants to kill you is threatening, but knowing someone is in love with you is unsettling. Since then, many horror films have featured villains who have an obsessive desire to be with the main character. Audition, for example, features a villain who loves the protagonist so much she'll carve his feet, fingers, and tongue out to keep him from running away.
It is conceivable that a writer might think the Joker is a far more threatening villain when he loves Batman than when he wants to kill him. They wouldn't be wrong. This probably had something to do with Frank Miller's homoerotic overtones when writing the Joker in The Dark Knight Returns.
But writing a gay Joker such as Miller's would bring with it several dangerous homophobic stereotypes. Dick Grayson, when the Joker, is presented as a lesser man for being queer. The Joker's queerness is presented as a threat in and of itself as if being queer is the thing to be afraid of. This is further reinforced by Miller's staunch conservative social values throughout his body of work.In this story, the Joker's queerness would become an object of fear. This would alienate LGBTQA audiences, while reinforcing pre-existing beliefs in homophobic audiences. This is dangerous.
But writing a gay Joker like Miller's would bring with it several dangerous homophobic stereotypes. Dick Grayson, when the Joker, is presented as a lesser man for being queer. The Joker's queerness is presented as a threat in and of itself, as if being queer is the thing to be afraid of. This is further reinforced by Miller's staunch conservative social values throughout his body of work.
A gay Joker would play into the harmful stereotype that queer people are inherently predatory, especially toward straight people. This real-world stereotype has led to widespread homophobic action taken against gay people, including the infamous "Gay Panic Defense."
The Gay Panic Defense is a legal term referring to when a defendant blames their crimes of violence on the victim's sexual orientation or gender identity. It presents the victim's queerness as something that either triggered temporary insanity or provocation for violence. In some extreme cases, the perpetrator of violence might argue that he felt the need to defend himself from the victim's homosexuality, feeling threatened by its presence. This defense was most famously used in the murder of Matthew Shepard.
A sexually fluid Joker might bolster the stereotype that queer people are predatory. While it probably will not be the direct motivation of any crime, it will serve as a cultural reinforcement of a stereotype that does motivate actual crime and prevent real criminals from facing the consequences of their actions.
Any writer thinking about making the Joker gay should consider the real-world pain they'd be exploiting.