Discussion: Hysteria and the Trope of the White, Angry Male

Prior to the release of Todd Phillip’s Joker, several media outlets, including Slate, The Guardian, and Salon, amongst others, have discussed the film’s potential to foment alt-right and incel-related violence. Associated with these conjectures is the image of white, angry males (WAMs) a cohort supposedly replete with abundant privilege, yet rife with some unenviable life circumstances. The question to ask with Joker is, in a world that attributes a significant amount of violence to WAMs, “who is really privileged here?”

Near the outset of Joker, we learn that Joaquin Phoenix’s character carries with him the burden of mental illness. He appears as an individual who seeks treatment and struggles to function in the everyday world of a place possibly sicker than him, '80s-ish Gotham. Joker, the character known to incite violence in the Batman canon, now has a narrative that more closely echoes the profiles of (domestic) terrorists, in the ilk of Timothy McVeigh, the Trenchcoat Mafia, and James Holmes Et al..

If the pattern of mass violence in America often imbues the following key terms: white, male, mental illness, the pattern further reified in Joker, why do keep thinking we’re punching up when we’re probably punching down?

If privilege is to be associated with some kind of advantage, why is mental illness so callously ignored when it comes to the sympathy calculus for WAMs? If we’re going to characterize riots as “the language of the unheard”, we should also characterize mass shootings or other forms of violence associated with mentally ill, WAMs with a commensurate level of sympathy.

The fear around Joker is that it will inspire a new wave of violence from WAMs. The critical pattern observed by the Left regarding WAM-related violence primarily focuses on the cycle of the Right blaming violence on mental illness, rather than gun ownership. The Left then cries foul when the Right refuses to support mental health initiatives, both in “peace time” and in times of crisis. What’s less discussed, however, is the phenomenon wherein the Left will assert, by omission of protest, the deranged condition of all of these perpetrators, yet label them as privileged, by virtue of their skin color, sex, and sexual orientation.

Why should mental illness be considered a disadvantage, on-par with not being born white or male? Because mental illness is often hereditary, like skin color or sex. Even in the cases where mental illness is “acquired”, ailments like Bipolar Disorder, Schizophrenia, Depression, and Personality Disorder, amongst others, can be brought on by environmental factors, which again, are largely outside of the control of WAMs (and others who have mental illness).

More intimately, the fear around Joker is that it will succeed in inspiring a new wave of violence from WAMs because it presents a villain sympathetically. Perhaps, however, before people start accusing a film of pouring gasoline over the flames of WAM-rage, they should consider why they’re keeping the spigot to the fire hose closed.

-Blake Pynnonen