Opinion | “Joker” controversy distracts from real issues

By Genna Edwards, Staff Columnist

Like many, I worried about “Joker.” As a huge fan of the character and his arc in comic and movie canon, I had high hopes for a movie solely devoted to the King of Chaos. With Joaquin Phoenix in the lead, it seemed an easy win for the Joker fandom. At the same time, as a feminist, the controversy regarding the film’s alleged “incel-friendly” tone scared me in a different way.

Incel stands for “involuntary celibate,” a man who blames women for not having sex with him and furthermore believes he should be allowed to rape and physically harm women as he pleases. These men have found a community with each other in online boards, and in recent years have left their basements to commit acts of violence in the real world including mass shootings and running over people with vans. Many claimed that the film glamorized the violence of an enraged lonely man, the Joker, and that such glamorization would serve as propaganda and inspiration for the enraged loners of the incel community.

The superhero fandom is seldom kind to those who identify as women, and the idea of yet another misogynistic parable being paraded around by young men soured my excitement for the movie.

Fortunately, I didn’t have to choose. I’m not going to argue whether the film was “good” or “bad,” as that’s not the point here. “Joker” is not “incel-friendly” and the fury around it is misguided and a distraction from the real issues at stake that the film drums up. Violent misogyny and loose gun control affects lives every day, and we need to focus on fixing these problems rather than arguing endlessly over a movie that touches these subjects, but doesn’t have anything of substance to say about them.

The entirety of film’s history contains multitudes of films that advocate for misogynistic characters, films that portray violence against women and imply that we as an audience shouldn’t care about their plight. The history of cinema is one of using women as set pieces, relegating them to background roles and using their pain and bodies to further men’s storylines. Rampant sexism isn’t new onscreen. The history of superheroes and villains, in particular, is rife with sexualized women that exist as fodder for men.

“Joker” does indeed portray misogyny — but unlike much of film’s history, it doesn’t advocate for it.

“Joker” is some miles away from advocating for predatory men, especially when placed next to the vast majority of the superhero canon. While the film does kill off two women onscreen, one murder lasts a mere second via gunshot and the other — when Joker kills his mother via smothering — focuses on his crazed face as he does so and not the spectacle of the female body dying. No female characters are majorly sexualized, and the film seems to acknowledge that Joker’s stalking of his neighbor — played by Zazie Beetz — is not admirable behavior. The film’s score and shooting angles paint the Joker’s actions towards Beetz’s character as one of a villain, not a hero. Moody, dark string music underscores his walk to her apartment. And when he kills his mother, the shot is definitely not glamorous. He sweats with exertion. He looks mad.

Joker has terrible relationships with the two main women in his life, and his treatment toward them displays an apathy toward women that goes hand-in-hand with misogyny, but that doesn’t make the film a fan of incel ideals. Joker’s mistreatment of women isn’t glamorized. Besides, he’s the Joker — these actions are all emblematic of the character. His comic book history of abuse against Harley Quinn aside, in this film the Joker isn’t out to hunt women in the same way that he’s out to hunt late night talk show hosts and rich white men.

What matters more is what we do with the film’s incel controversy that in itself is unfounded.

We are in a tense cultural moment in America regarding white supremacist patriarchal violence — really domestic terrorism — so viewers and critics attacking the film for being incel-friendly does make sense in this vacuum of worry we’re in. Movie theaters have increased security during “Joker” screenings due to threats online, with one man even tackling another during a screening. But no shootings have occurred.

Increased security, especially if it quells fear, is fantastic. However, if we had stricter gun laws these types of threats would be a non-issue. If we had a better handle on the nature of male violence in this country, we could go to the movies feeling safe.

Considering that “Joker” does not advocate for incels, our flurry of attention toward this lacking aspect of the film’s content rather than the real world problems behind it is confusing. In a larger sense, the public’s reaction could be seen as a boiling over due to lack of social change. We don’t feel that real gun control change is happening. We don’t see our schools and media systems adapting to fix misogyny embedded in our very learning systems. It can feel at times that there’s no way to stop the incels from rising up, that our government and media systems are apathetic to the growing national problem.

Fighting about this film has become a proxy ground for the larger, real war we face. If gun control isn’t possible, if gender equality isn’t on the horizon, at least we can destroy a pretty innocuous, one-note film that touches upon both issues.

Even if “Joker” were largely misogynistic — which it isn’t — it would only be a drop in the bucket of our culture’s film catalogue. While I’m glad we’re upset about anti-woman implications here, it feels a bit late, as these ideas have been on the screen for decades now. Film culture as a whole needs to be criticized, not just “Joker.” There are films from the past few years that commit more sins than this — “The Hateful Eight,” “Suicide Squad,” Deadpool 2” and “The Wolf of Wall Street,” to name a few.

Arguing about “Joker” accomplishes nothing. We need to put our focus back on the changes that can be made on the ground. We have a whole culture that supports violent misogyny and we can all do our part, however small, to dismantle it. We need to fix our educational and societal systems that exacerbate potential incels in the first place. We need to tighten gun access so the fear about these men acting out is lessened. We need to vote. We need to have a larger conversation as a whole, not just about this movie. This movie isn’t the problem — media and film culture as a whole is. Our school system, dripping with patriarchy, is. Our gun laws that haven’t changed despite the evidence that changing them would stop this madness is.

The flurry around this film distracts from the real changes we need to make to stop white patriarchal mass violence. Go demonstrate, go vote, go teach others about empathy, call your representative. “Joker” isn’t “incel-friendly,” and regardless, we have more pressing problems.