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A Dark Night for the Portrayals of Mental Illness 201258769 - COMM2126 Digital Media and the Senses


ABOUT THE PROJECT Since the beginning of cinema, media portrayals of those with mental illness often skew toward either stigmatization or trivialization. Consequently, film and television have been roundly criticized for disseminating negative stereotypes and inaccurate descriptions of those with mental illness. Particularly, movies tend to link mental illness with violence, or portray people with mental health problems as dangerous, criminal, evil, or very disabled and unable to live normal, fulfilled lives. The way mental illness is portrayed and reported in the media is incredibly powerful in educating and influencing the public. This zine aims to shed light unto the misrepresentation of mental illness in the cinema, particularly by looking at the Joker movie due to it being newly released, it would provide a somewhat accurate depiction of how people today view mental health through mass media.


THE ISSUE WITH MENTAL ILLNESS Mental illness is a significant and growing public health concern. The World Health Organization reported that an estimated 25 percent of the worldwide population is affected by a mental or behavioral disorder at some time during their lives. This issue is believed to contribute to 12 percent of the worldwide burden of disease and is projected to increase to 15 percent by the year 2020 . In the United Kingdom alone, 1 in 4 people in the UK will experience a mental health problem each year, with 1 in 6 people report experiencing a common mental health problem (such as anxiety and depression) in any given week.


Mental illness cut across all groups of people, with 50% of lifetime mental illness presenting by mid- teens and 75% in the early 20’s, affecting people of all genders, races/ethnicities, and geographical and socioeconomic populations . The effects of having mental illness include functional impairments and disruptions in the individual’s school, work, and social life, and directly impact families and loved ones of those affected. Not only does mental illness imposes much difficulty to those suffering, they still face social discrimination and prejudicial behaviours from their own families and communities. Until today, mental illnesses are perceived to be so disruptive to society that those with such conditions must be isolated from society altogether. This adverse perception leads people to neglect their condition and refuse to seek help, consequently delaying their path to recovery and traps them in a cycle of illness.


MADNESS IN THE MOVIES One way to help improve the lives of affected individuals is to deal with the societal perceptions of mental health. An important avenue that influences public opinion and culture related to mental health is mass media, particularly film and cinema. As one of the most potent and substantial form of mass communication, film exercises a very significant influence upon the perceptions of the audience, especially in relation to mental illness issues. Despite being valuable in an artistic sense, most films tend to paint a skewed portrait of mental illness, relying on distortion and stereotype to generate public interest over more true-to-life representations . To popularise these types of movies, films tend to largely focus on unipolar conflicts rather than taking an overall view. As a result, mental health conditions are often dehumanised in favour of engaging storytelling . It becomes a handy stereotype to establish a motive, especially if the story requires exposition to develop a character’s background. A study done by USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative reveal that nearly half (47%) of the characters with a mental health condition were disparaged by other characters in film, where


it manifests itself in the form of name calling, dehumanizing phrases, and stigmatizing behaviour. Mentally ill characters are frequently portrayed as disenfranchised with no family connections, no occupation and no social identity . They almost never indicate signs of recovery nor hope for future improvement, and they rarely make any sort of productive contribution to their communities. Derogatory terms and verbal references are also often mentioned in movies used to describe those characters, where they denigrate,those characters, where they denigrate, segregate, alienate and denote another character’s inferior status. Phrases like ‘crazy’, ‘psychotic’ and ‘monster’ reflect the fear and overwhelmingly negative perception of viewers when thinking about mental health problems and the people

affected by them. This is made even worse as the character with a mental health condition was not required to be present for the phrase to be mentioned. Additionally, there is an erroneous belief that individuals with mental health conditions are largely “dangerous” to society, a inaccurate image that is consistently being reinforced by films. Specifically, they portray mentally ill characters as criminous individuals who perpetuate violence and are unable to live normal, fulfilled lives. Recent reports state that one in four mentally-ill characters kill someone, and half of them inflict harm on another person . While the majority of these characters are used as plot devices or as background roles, those who are given speaking roles become ten times more likely to violently lash out.


CONSEQUENCES OF INACCURATE PORTRAYALS Unfortunately, a film’s influence can be so powerful that the negative attitudes they impart override positive movie portrayals and other people’s personal experience. As people have little real-life experience with mental illness, they draw more of their knowledge from films, resulting in more inaccurate and negative perceptions. Audiences often identify with the responses they see on the screen and carry those attitudes into real life. Evidence shows that people who draw their knowledge from the media are generally more intolerant towards people with mental illnesses, advocating more socially restrictive attitudes and policies and being less supportive of community treatment. As a result, the stigma persists and discrimination continues, and people become less likely to interact with others who suffer from mental illness, leaving fewer opportunities for personal experiences to contribute to how mental illness is perceived.


As film directors and scriptwriters continue to navigate storytelling on the topic of mental health, several recommendations could be made to shed positive light on those affected and help promote a more accurate portrayal. To utilise the cinema platform appropriately, films could benefit from the collaboration with experts- both clinical and lived experience experts- to portray mental health conditions and related experience in a way that represents the illness experience and prevalence, but can serve the viewing public by presenting stories that destigmatize those experiences. This can include: - Creating stories and characters with authen ticity and relatability - Portraying the challenges, victories and strengths of people with mental health struggles - Highlight both the struggles and healing, resilience, treatment and support seeking of characters


MOVIE ANALYSIS Joker (2019), directed by Todd Phillips, is a dramatic film that rethinks the iconic Batman villain in terms of a darkly realistic origin story. The movie aims to explain the backstory behind the Joker, arguable the most popular villain in pop culture, one of which involves child abuse, an unstable family life, antisocial behaviour, and various neuroses. Upon its release to theatres worldwide, Joker has received massive appraisal from both viewers and movie critics. Many praised the film’s cinematography, story and performance, citing it as “a bravura piece of filmmaking that speaks to the world we are actually living in today in ways that few movies do.” In its opening weekend, the film managed to earn $96.2 million


million, the fourth-largest debut for an R-rated film of all time. As of December 23, 2019, Joker has grossed $333.5 million in the United States and Canada, and $729.5 million in other territories, for a worldwide total of $1.063 billion, making it the highest-grossing R-rated film of all time. Despite the Joker’s rave reviews and massive box office earnings, his ultimate descent into violence raises questions on how the movie decides to portray mental illness on the big screen. Like everything else about the polarizing character, feelings around the film’s depiction of mental health struggles are complex.

Every aspect of Arthur Fleck’s neuroatypicality is stigmatized, coded as a reason to be suspicious of him, and used as pretext for his descent into violence. 11


Joker has received massive appraisal from both viewers and movie critics, where many applauded the film’s cinematography, story and performance.



The biggest problem in the Joker’s portrayal of mental illness is that it paints Fleck’s violent actions as inevitable because of his deteriorating mental health, futher stigmatizing the issue. The notion that mental deterioration necessarily leads to violence against others – implied by how Fleck decides to stop taking his medication (and claiming he feels much better without them) while committing an increasing amount of violent acts – is not only misinformed but further amplifies stigma and fear that all mentally ill people are violent and dangerous to society. Initially, Fleck violent outbursts start out as self-defense; he commits his first slew of murders because three Wall Street-type men take offense to his Tourettic laughter. As the story progresses, he learns more about the truth about his upbringing and diagnosis, further pushing him into his violent spiral and embarks on a killing spree as revenge against those who ridiculed and humiliated him.

Upon learning about the truth about his mother and his childhood send Arthur completely over the edge. He kills his mother, suffocating her with a pillow, then fully descends into madness, no longer tethered to any friends or family. Additionally, he explicitly mentions his mental illness as a specific motivation for violence at the end of his climactic monologue. “What do you get when you cross a mentally ill loner with a society that abandons him and treats him like trash?” Joker asks before killing Murray, his childhood idol, on live television. As a result of giving the character such a backstory, it becomes difficult for the audience to not to have sympathy for somebody who experienced that level of childhood trauma, something that could trigger someone to looks for and perceives


danger everywhere. However, it questions whether the Joker’s actions are justified just because of his trauma. it’s never clear when he crosses the line between coping and lashing out. Especially when his violence side is only triggered when someone hurts him or crosses him, making his horrific acts seem almost justifiable. In the end, the movie seems to suffer greatly from a movie cliché: using Fleck’s trauma from childhood as well as his struggle with mental illness as a means to earn sympathy from the audience, rather than disgust from his actions.


The movie could have better portrayed the relationship between violence and mental illness, particularly by explaining why horrific violence perpetrated and received by individuals with mental illness, such as that of Joker and other clowns in the film, could be prevented with better societal leadership and competent mental healthcare. If people with mental illness do receive such care and concern, they will reduce their risk to become violent and to be the object of harm and violence from others.

JOKER: A MULTI SENSORY EXPERIENCE To understand how the movie depicts mental illness, I looked at how the producers aim to convey its portrayal, looking at how the film’s shot selections, music, lighting, and editing shape how that information is presented to viewers. CINEMATOGRAPHY The first half of the movie slow, deliberate and very meditative camerawork. In the majority of Fleck’s shots, he is usually filmed alone with close-up or extreme shots, reinforcing their isolation and dislocation from the other characters and from the community. Lawrence Sher, cinematographer for the movie, explains that they purposely shot the film in large format to draw in the audience psychologically to the character, to feel empathy and understand Fleck’s transition to descent into madness and chaos. Upon his first act of violence, Fleck kill three Wall street guys after mocking his laughter on the subway. The camera work for this scene is portrayed to be a visual reminiscent of a ‘fever dream’, where sights, sounds, and lighting, build up to a crescendo of confusion. As the guys approach, the lighting throughout the scene shuts off and have flashes of different coloured lights around the subway to build the downward pressure of feeling surrounded, weak and confused. This was to help create the storm of energy inside his mind, eventually leads up to an act of violence that changes his life forever.

In a pivotal scene of the movie, dancing down the steps and embracing his new identity. The scene is a celebration of him accepting his truest self. The cinematography is very upbeat and dynamic, largely in part due to the rock background music, and contrasts greatly to slow, isolating camerawork in the beginning of the movie. In the early scenes on the stairs, the camera pans upward to reveal the stairs Fleck takes to get to his place. the camerawork follows him fluidity and gives him energy as he makes his way down the steps. The whole scene takes place on a bright sunny day, the first in the movie, reflecting the first time where Fleck is in control of his own life. Towards the end of the movie, we see Fleck standing on top of a cab, surrounded by a city on fire and people rioting against authority, which he caused through his violence. The scene shows Fleck’s power over his environment, which is in complete contrast to his tiny, insignificant self, earlier in the movie; from his isolation and loneliness to his joy, and the reflection of the world he sees dancing on his face.



BACKGROUND MUSIC AND EFFECTS Joker includes a number of popular songs on its soundtrack, using them as the musical accompaniment to Arthur Fleck’s descent into madness and mayhem. Joker’s score is composed by Hildur Guðnadóttir, where her score for Joker are described as somber and chilling, fitting the bleakness of Arthur’s world. It occasionally ramps up to follow the pace of the movie. The songs featured in the movie, however, are largely upbeat tunes (with a few exceptions) that disguise the sad and at times wistful meaning behind their lyrics. Together, the music helps to emphasize Fleck’s misery as well as his broken dreams and provide an interesting accompaniment to his strange yet defining transformation. The majority of the songs used in the film seem to be chosen due to their reference to clowns, happiness and smiles. A prominent song that played is “Send in the Clowns” by Stephen Sonheim who originally wrote for his musical, A Little Night Music. The song makes two appearances in the movie, first as its sung by the three Wall Street guys in the subway before attacking Fleck for laughing at their singing. Towards the end of the movie, Frank Sinatra’s rendition plays as Fleck is seen to be running around in an asylum covered in blood with guards chasing him and continues to play over the movie’s end credits. While the song itself is mostly about regret, the sorrowful mood the song brings reflects Fleck’s despair and hopelessness.

Other songs that directly reference smiling and clowns include: “If You’re Happy And You Know It”, played when Fleck performs at a children’s hospital, and Jackson C. Frank’s “My Name is Carnival”, which Arthur hears on the radio right before he gets fired from the Clown agency. As the movie progresses, the music starts to reflect Fleck’s transformation to become the joker. Sinatra’s song “That’s Life” plays while Fleck dyes his hair green, initaitng the start of his transformation. Then, Gary Glitters’ “Rock N Roll” accompanies Fleck dancing down the steps as he starts to embrace his new identity as the Joker. Finally, White Room” by Cream is heard in the final act, as Fleck manages to flee the cops from arresting him and stands on cab, awe at the view of the burning city and chaos that he caused. All three songs are distinctly different from those heard earlier in the film. They are darker and defiant, perfectly matching the change in Fleck’s character since becoming Joker. LANGUAGE: Throughout the film, the other characters referred to the Joker in derogatory and dehumanising terms: “clown” (four times), “freak” (three times), “crazy” (three times), “weird” (once), “f*ck up” (once), “garbage” (once), “delusional” (once), and “a**hole” (once). There were also times where Fleck refers to himself as “mentally ill loner” (once) and a “a paranoid schizophrenic” (once). The phrases used throughout the film sensationalises mental illness and reinforces stigma, as it’s based on descrip-


tions of behaviour that imply existence of mental illness or are inaccurate. APPEARANCE: Arthur Fleck has a thin frame, usually dressed in somewhat baggy clothes. Upon his transformation as the vengeful Joker, Fleck consistently appears dishevelled, with unkempt, long green hair and messy clown makeup from his previous job at the Clown agency. His mouth is outlined in red that extends to cover scars at both corners, and he makes abnormal mouth and tongue movements (fly catcher’s tongue). His apparel is a red outlandish suit; costume designer Mark Bridges described the use of red to be “more expressive” and “more emotion”. As the movie progresses, his appearance becomes more unconventional; his hair seems greener and his makeup is smudged and messier. The changes in appearance mirror his increasingly violent and unpredictable behaviour, and the rising tensions in Gotham city.


CHARACTER BEHAVIOUR: When viewers are first introduced to Arthur, he seems to be withdrawn and anti-social, but remains well-meaning toward others, especially children and his mother, Penny, whom he cares about deeply. In the opening moments of the movie, it is implied that he struggles with severe depression personally but finds some form of optimism in performing for others and trying to make people laugh. However, as the story progresses, it is revealed in the film that Arthur was physically abused as a child, where he experienced neglect, malnutrition, and a significant violent assault that caused head trauma. While the movie never explicitly diagnoses Fleck with a specific mental condition, it repeatedly shows him attending multiple therapy sessions with a social worker, supposedly as someone who has spent some time in the hospital.


When discussing the Joker character, authors, critics, comic fans, and the general public often refer to him as a psychopath. However, his behaviour and symptoms shown throughout the movie lean more toward schizophrenia rather than psychopathy. Particularly, Fleck’s feelings of persecution and his delusions are consistent with the mental disorder of paranoid schizophrenia. Schizophrenia is a severe and chronic mental disorder characterized by disturbances in thought, perception, and behaviour. The diagnosis of schizophrenia involves the recognition of an array of symptoms that negatively impact one’s social or occupational functioning. Such symptoms include hallucinations and delusions, disorganized speech, grossly disorganized or catatonic behaviour, and diminished emotional expression. Only about 0.7 percent of the UK population suffer from schizophrenia.

The paranoia in paranoid schizophrenia comes from delusions—firmly held beliefs that persist despite evidence to the contrary—and hallucinations—seeing or hearing that which others do not. Throughout the movie, Fleck continuously deludes and hallucinates things about his life: he deludes a relationship with his neighbour, a successful career in comedy, and his persecution against society. His gradual descent into madness in the film is fraught with delusions that are nearly impossible to separate from reality.



In the film, Fleck is diagnosed with Pseudobulbar Affect, where it causes him to uncontrollably laugh at inappropriate times. It is implied that his episodes occur often, leading him to carry an informational card that explains the condition to people who may be near him during an episode. Upon learning more about Fleck, the audience learn that his PBA could be a result of a major head trauma from his childhood. According to Mayo Clinic, Pseudobulbar affect (PBA) is a neurological condition that is characterized by episodes of sudden uncontrollable and inappropriate laughing or crying. PBA typically occurs in people with certain neurological conditions or injuries, which might affect the way the brain controls emotion. The primary symptoms are frequent, involuntary and uncontrollable outbursts of crying or laughing that are exaggerated and/or disconnected from the individual’s emotional state. These episodes can happen sporadically, with no specific triggers. While the two are considered effects of PBA, crying appears to be a more common sign of PBA than laughing. It is important to note that PBA is typically considered to be a neurological impairment, rather than a mental disorder.


Severe symptoms of pseudobulbar affect (PBA) can cause embarrassment, social isolation, anxiety and depression. It may also interfere with an individual’s ability to do everyday tasks. Prevalence rates of PBA vary widely, anywhere from 9.4 percent to 37.5 percent, depending upon the underlying neurological disease. For the most part, the film does portray a somewhat accurate portrayal of the condition. However, Fleck’s outbursts were triggered when he became angry, shocked or nervous, especially in public situations. Additionally, it was in a middle of a PBA episode did Fleck transformed into the Joker and triggers his descent into villainy. This poses a significant problem, as while the movie attempts to differentiate mental illness and a medical disorder, it results in painting a stigmatising and problematic image of insanity. Joker seems to frame Arthur’s pseudobulbar affect as a giddy, comic response to violence rather than a disorder of the nervous system. Consequently, Arthur comes across as a hysterically laughing supervillain rather than one with a neurological condition.

JOKER’S OVERALL PORTRAYAL OF MENTAL HEALTH The psychopathology Arthur inhabits is foggy at best: his apparent lack of disordered thinking means the attempt to illustrate psychosis is half formed. While he seems to show symptoms and behaviours of schizophrenia, he also displays traits of narcissism and depression. This diagnostic vagueness may create a more relatable character that reflects the pain of any psychiatric illness; but it gives the impression that many disorders have been squashed into a plot device. In the end, it undermines the movie’s sincere attempts to explore the interaction between poverty, inequality and social isolation.



Profile for Corina Gunawidjaja

The Joker: A Review on its Representation of Mental Illness  

COMM2126: Digital Media and the Senses

The Joker: A Review on its Representation of Mental Illness  

COMM2126: Digital Media and the Senses