Welcome to Part 1 of our 4 part series on the portrayal of disabilities in entertainment. We will be reviewing films from 12 Monkeys to Power Rangers and how they spread stigma instead of awareness. This series is not meant to criticize but critique the content based on our personal experiences and the research we conducted.
The following TRIGGER WARNINGS apply to this series: mentions of abuse, physical trauma, emotional trauma, eating disorders, bullying, microaggressions, discrimination based on disability status.
Personal bias alert! To be direct this film insults our Nerdom!
We did not enjoy watching The Joker for various reasons. We are not fans of taking classic villains and creating a non-canonical representation of that character. Fictional characters are not meant to be “birthed” into the real world. They belong in imagination.
That being said, the primary reason we did not enjoy or support this film is their stigmatized presentation of trauma-based conditions.
Spoiler Alert! Don’t read on if you have not seen the film. Instead check out our review of the Medito Meditation App
The opening scenes paint the Joker as an unacceptable outcast that is abused by society. He is accosted by teenagers, robbed, and slapped. He faces inhuman behavior by strangers and “friends” alike. By making him this outcast, they insult his intelligence and take advantage of his desire to be liked by everyone. The abandonment issues he experiences are highlighted throughout the film in the form of delusions of being a guest on a talk show, being popular, and even being Bruce Wayne's brother. They make it clear that his mother suffers from a debilitating mental state and he is her caretaker. She has delusionally believed that she had a relationship with the Wayne patriarch, but in truth, she was a housekeeper fired for her obsession.
A notable scene is a burst of hysterical laughter on the bus. A little boy stares at him sitting in the seat in front. He tries to make him smile and the mother scalds him. His response is hysterical laughter which incites anger in the mother. So he presents a card that explains he laughs at the wrong time due to a disability, specifically having a traumatic brain injury (TBI).
They set the stage for the assumption that the Joker has post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and a TBI. Later on, the damage to his brain is confirmed by recollections of his abusive mother.
Let's stop there for a moment. There is nothing wrong with establishing a fictional drama with elements of real-life experiences. The open discussion of mental health is valuable, and if this movie wasn’t based on a well-established character with a bad reputation for villainous acts, it would be fine.
But, that didn’t happen. Instead, the film uses his disabilities to justify his violence and disregard for human life.
What can be the consequences of physical and emotional trauma?
Experiencing traumatic events under the age of 5 will negatively impact your development immensely! Memory, cognitive function, and your identity start forming during this time period and sudden interactions take their toll. When you experience emotional trauma, it changes your perception. Dialogues in Neuroscience stated in an article " Although the bulk of brain development occurs in utero, the brain continues to develop after birth. In the first 5 years of life, there is an overall expansion of brain volume." Read the whole article here: Traumatic Stress Effects on the Brain
External trauma when imposed on a child will prevent proper development of their emotional, cognitive processing, and memory circuits.
The Mayo Clinic defines traumatic brain injury as [something that] usually results from a violent blow or jolt to the head or body.” These injuries can be mild or severe. Repetitive physical trauma will also increase the intensity of the injury. Your cognitive function, memory, and mood will be unstable and change drastically. There may be a time when you are not in control of your actions or reactions to the world around you.
Emotional and physical trauma will cause difficulties with processing, mood regulation, and comprehension. Do these sound like the Joker? Well, yes. But there is ONE distinct difference.
The Problem with The Joker is he comprehends his actions, but he is choosing his life path and INTENTIONALLY harming others. During his rampages, he doesn’t take accountability for anything. In fact, the most stigmatizing moment occurred at the end of the film when he looks at the camera before murdering a talk show host and says: "What do you get when you cross a mentally ill loner with a society that abandons him and treats him like trash? You get what you f**kin' deserve!"
The Joker made a choice to be a calculated criminal and not take accountability for his choices.
Was his brain changed by physical and emotional trauma endured throughout his life? YES. Was it changed beyond his ability to understand right and wrong? NO. Was he in control of his choices? YES.
The stigma is that mental health disorders cause you to harm others, be unaccountable for your choices, and be uncontrollable and dangerous. The Joker frames the protagonist as an EPIC villain created by trauma"
In reality, trauma doesn't make you evil, choices do.
We conclude that this film stigmatizes and creates fear of those with mental health diagnoses.
What do you think about our review? Leave a comment, we would love to hear your perspective!
Want to Read MORE! Check out these source materials!
Mayo Clinic Traumatic brain injury https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/traumatic-brain-injury/symptoms-causes/syc-20378557
Film quotes from ScreenRant
Movie Information found on IMDB
(Disclaimer: we are not medical professionals. The conclusion in this article is based on our personal experiences, diagnosis, and knowledge of mental health.)