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The Joker paradox: how a mask can obscure the true face of a protest

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A counter protester wears a "Joker" mask after a rally by U.S. President Donald Trump in Minneapolis
A counter protester wears a "Joker" mask after a rally by U.S. President Donald Trump in Minneapolis -
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[Contains spoilers of the movie Joker by Todd Phillips, 2019]

Joker, Todd Phillips' blockbuster, was controversial before it even hit the screens.

The FBI reported an increase in online threats linked to the release. Many of the posts referred to a 2012 mass shooting that occurred at a showing of The Dark Knight Rises in Aurora, Colorado.

Joker focuses largely on how its title character, as his origin story reaches its climax, inspires a wave of riots, protests, and general mayhem in Gotham City, a classic battleground pitting the poor and oppressed against the rich.

This will not have escaped critics who say that the film could inspire copycat crimes in a country too used to mass killings.

All this negative attention forced Warner Bros. to respond, and the company issued a statement saying, "One of the functions of storytelling is to provoke difficult conversations around complex issues.”

While the film has quickly become one of the most profitable Hollywood releases in history, the timing is difficult to ignore.

Joker has been screened during an exceptional period of protests and demonstrations around the world, from Hong Kong, to Lebanon, Chile, Ecuador and Catalonia, and many of the protesters in all of these places have taken to wearing Joker masks or make-up inspired by the movie.

But, does that really make sense? Is wearing a Joker mask coherent with the demands of social justice, more democracy or independence? Should we be conflating the two concepts?

Some would argue that, if you examine the message behind the screenplay carefully, you might want to rethink using the Joker to support or symbolise your cause.

REUTERS/Rodrigo Garrido
A protester dressed as a joker rides a motocycle during a protest against Chile's government in Valparaiso, Chile. October 28, 2019REUTERS/Rodrigo Garrido

(KaPow! Here come the spoilers)

At the end of the day, director Todd Phillips and co-writer Scott Silver have told us the story of a violent mass social movement, that shoots to prominence, having been inspired by negative actions (a triple murder), and adopting a severely mentally-ill person as leader.

We have known of many leaders, over the centuries, whose fitness to lead has been questionable. But Joker is an extreme, and extremely simplistic, example of that.

The movie depicts protesters as full-of-rage, blind followers of a murderer. The Joker is happy to become their leader, not for the "cause" or to defend the oppressed, but because he is visible and appreciated for the first time in his life.

The Joker, or his alter ego Arthur Fleck (played by an impressive Joaquin Phoenix), doesn’t kill three Wall Streeters because they're rich, or even to defend a woman being harassed in the subway. It's just pure violence. Violence born of his deep grief for a life of social exclusion, a poor relationship with his mother, and a deep-rooted misogyny that makes the woman responsible by proxy.

Joker, then, is an "incel" (involuntary celibate), and his issues aren’t the issues that are the focus of real-life protests and civil unrest happening across the globe.

Conflating his story with, for example, a people wanting to protect themselves from a potentially dangerous extradition bill, would be to misunderstand both the protests and the film.

REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach
A protester dressed as a joker argues with police during a protest in La Paz, Bolivia, October 25, 2019REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach
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