The Joker film officially opens tomorrow, with some theaters showing screenings tonight, but the complex drama surrounding the film has already set an unusual and divisive tone.
Joker is going to put a lot of people between a rock and a hard place in regards to discussing media inciting real-world violence. Academic studies on this topic are already somewhat mixed, with many stating that they do have a general effect on violence (1,2), but others saying that the issue is too complex to pin down on this one thing alone (1,2). I’m firmly in the latter camp, believing that it’s a complex mixture of influences in our culture that’s created our current epidemic of violence. I feel that outright halting this material from being made or released will not be the ultimate solution for the problem.
However, Joker has moved beyond just its content, making the potential for an effect on viewers in and of itself a main story in the media. In my view, this only increases the chances that people will react to it in the way so many are fearing. It adds another layer to an already delicate situation. Before the film even opened, creator Todd Phillips blamed ‘woke’ culture for leading him to create the film and stated that the ‘far left’ is to blame for the controversy. This drew a line in the sand over the issue. The implication here is that Joker is push back against those who critique media content or discuss the nuance of media’s effect on society, so you are either for the film or against it.
That type of rhetoric is just as dangerous, if not more dangerous than the content of the film itself. It creates an ‘Us vs. Them’ type situation where both sides grow increasingly defensive and more likely to react strongly. Even those of us who are against censorship and find ourselves in the more nuanced middle are being placed in an uncomfortable situation due to the escalation of such type of rhetoric. It’s not just a film anymore. It’s framed as a divisive cultural moment.
I have to wonder if those comments were an intentional play to rally a fanbase that sees these discussions as an attack on their freedoms or just a careless off-handed comment. If that wasn’t an intentional move on his part, I hope he’s at least aware of how inflammatory his comments are in retrospect. Any warning about dangerous rhetoric, however, would likely lead to even more push back against us, which is both ironic and extremely depressing. Even just wanting to talk about the complexity of the issue is viewed as a cry for censorship. And that kind of black and white thinking is a huge part of the problem to begin with.
This type of language regarding criticism of film content is especially egregious in this situation considering a film in the same franchise is associated with one of the worst mass shootings in the United States. I don’t blame that film for the attack. It’s been debunked that it had anything to do with the shooter’s motivation, but the association is still there and our conversation needs to be treated much more delicately than this.
Even if you are against censorship (which, again, I am), you still need to acknowledge the power of words and understand we are currently living in a powder keg. Implying that this is a push back on ‘woke’ culture and the ‘left’ is like lighting a match and throwing it into that powder keg.
It is important to note that at this time there have been no specific or credible threats associated with the Joker film. Thank God for that. But the fear is still there and it’s worth taking note of the larger picture in this situation. The potential for this association to inspire a copycat crime is so strong the FBI has had to release a warning and theaters have had to adjust their rules for safety. Some theaters have even added extra security. This is absolutely the right call by the FBI and theaters.
Again, we’re in a powder keg, so this is analogous to grabbing a fire extinguisher to have on standby just in case. With Phillips lighting matches all over the place, it’s a good precaution to have.
Before I get accused of being pro-censorship (despite stating repeatedly where I stand on that issue), I want to point out that back when theaters censored The Interview I sided with the film, even when I found the concept pretty distasteful and potentially dangerous. It had the potential to piss off an unstable dictator with an ever-growing array of weapons. For context, that dictator just happens to have missiles that are within striking distance of my home, so I have even more reason to be cautious about this. And yet I still stand by their right to make and distribute the film, just as much as I stand by the right of people to discuss the ethics on their decision to make it or for theaters to show it. I’m not pro-censorship in the slightest, but I’m bracing to be accused of it.
It’s another line in the sand. It’s another lit match in a powder keg. It’s another chance to create an ‘Us vs. Them’ scenario. I stress caution, so I’m part of ‘Them.’
Will there be a violent incident sparked by this film? I simply don’t know. I hope not. I hope all these precautions are a complete overreaction and there’s nothing to fear in the end. I hope I don’t have to write a follow-up article detailing another tragic incident. I want to be wrong here.
But regardless of whether or not something happens, I hope most of all that we can take a step back from divisive language and have a conversation about this like the adults that we are. We need to acknowledge the value of art while still taking precautions and cooling down our rhetoric, especially with the increasingly tense cultural shift that’s happened around us the past few years. I hope we can understand why we have to take precautions to keep people safe and that taking precautions is not an outright call for censorship.
Most of all, I hope for understanding and respect around this discussion. But maybe that’s too much to hope for. Maybe the line in the sand is far too deep at this point and we won’t be able to bridge the gap. Once again, I hope I’m wrong. Please let me be wrong here.
Stay tuned for a review of the Joker and an analysis of the content itself soon. We’ll link to that piece here once it’s published.
Author: Angel Wilson
Angel is the admin of The Geekiary and a geek culture commentator. They earned a BA in Film & Digital Media from UC Santa Cruz. They have contributed to various podcasts and webcasts including An Englishman in San Diego, Free to Be Radio, and Genre TV for All. They’ve also written for Friends of Comic Con and is a 2019 Hugo Award winner for contributing fanfic on AO3. They identify as queer.
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