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Books & Culture

The Joke’s on Those Demanding a Female ‘Joker’

Apparently, the desire to appropriate instead of create is more important to contemporary social justice warriors. Or maybe they’re just unimaginative and creatively lazy.


- November 3rd, 2019
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It’s amazing what a difference success makes. Within a mere few weeks of its release we’ve gone from revulsion at the idea of the new “Joker” movie to calls for it to be reinterpreted as a female empowerment film.

Before it was released, there was tremendous chatter among the scolderati and news personalities (but I repeat myself) about how Todd Phillips’ “Joker” would incite violence. We were treated to photos and musings on the motivations of monsters such as the 2012 Aurora, Colorado “Dark Knight” shooter. We were told that the upcoming movie might spur similar horrors; that somehow, a cinematic meditation on the origins of one of the most iconic and complicated villains in pop culture would corrupt viewers and lead to violence.

At the same time, woke critics mocked the apparent subject matter of the film. The real issues it raises of alienation and rage were derided and snarked away as “incel revenge porn.” (“Incel” is short for “involuntarily celibate.”) Numerous articles, tweetstorms, and Facebook logorrheas—all snide and dismissive—criticized the yet-to-be released movie as a paean to male fragility. They charged that the movie spoke in overly romantic terms to the weak whimpers and “woe is me” issues of the overly powerful⁠—issues that obviously don’t deserve a hearing. After all, no one cares about the suffering of any group deemed “the powerful.” When they suffer, it’s never justified or seen as human pain; it’s just a spoiled kid upset that he doesn’t have everything he wants.

“Joker,” in essence, was treated similarly to its protagonist Arthur Fleck—a laughingstock, an object of derision that somehow also posed a threat of becoming a dangerous vehicle for extreme violence. Joker indeed.

Then something amazing happened. The film was successful.

Not only that. After “Joker” premiered, it was obvious to all but the most obtuse that the movie, a box office success, would become not only a classic but a cultural touchstone.

Despite scathing pre-reviews by the pearl clutching neo-Victorians and an attempted media-generated moral panic, “Joker” opened huge and continues to enjoy an extremely strong run. Moreover, there were no incidents of violence which, to be sure, disappointed the rage profiteers and panic prognosticators, but the film, which cost $55 million to produce, raked in $93 million in its opening weekend. By every fiscal metric it is a success.

In the month since its release, it has spent three of those weeks in the top box office spot, being supplanted for one week by “Maleficent” (another “understanding the villain” movie, but from a female perspective—oddly enough, not reviled by critics), before reclaiming the top spot. It is, to date, the highest grossing R-rated film in history.

It’s story and imagery resonated so powerfully that almost immediately after its release the “Joker stairs” became a cultural icon. The image is so powerful that scores of enthusiastic fans and Instagrammers continue making the pilgrimage to the location in the Bronx, where, at the movie’s apotheosis, party clown and comedian Arthur Fleck fully transforms into the absurdist nihilist anti-hero, Joker.

Almost as if on cue, in light of the film’s success, there rose a steady chorus of calls for the movie to be “rebooted” with a focus on women’s issues. Obviously. Because any successful franchise that features a man in the lead and deals with ostensibly male perspectives and issues (and white male, at that!), even if the movie is initially reviled, must be remade with a woman awkwardly crammed into the role.

In a stunning critical reversal, then, we are now being treated to public calls to “reboot” the Joker, but this time as a female . . . you know, give it the “Ghostbusters” treatment:

First, these calls seem to ignore that this has actually already happened.

Instead of trying to merely shoehorn a woman into the Joker’s oversized shoes, there have been subtle “female Jokers” and Joker type female characters, storylines, and properties in the DC universe for some time, most notably Harley Quinn and Martha Kane.

Harley Quinn began life as the Joker’s assistant and has, over the years, become so important to the DC universe that she has been named “The Fourth Pillar” of DC (joining Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman) by DC’s chief creative officer Jim Lee.

Similarly, Martha Kane was a central character in DC’s massive “Flashpoint” storyline, which presented an alternate world where young Bruce Wayne is murdered and his father becomes the Batman while his mother, Martha, in her grief over the murder and resentment of constantly being told to “smile more” transforms into the Joker.

Regardless, the call for a “female Joker” movie, suggests a broader, more important question. Namely whether our cultural understanding of nihilism, meaninglessness, and a paralyzing preoccupation with purpose and futility have been framed in inherently male ways and whether or not it is possible that women experience Nihilism and questions of meaning in differents ways from men that demand expression. What are the points of contact and divergence in the experiences of women and men with regard to the search for meaning and purpose in a broken world?

It stands to reason that in many ways women’s existential concerns and expressions might differ from those of men. Beyond the differences in biology, society has always, for better or worse, had different expectations of each sex. By definition womens’ existential questions would speak to those concerns, often distinct yet related and intertwined with the existential issues faced by men—whether it be to smile more, be agreeable, find meaning only in bearing children, being the keepers of sexual propriety and other social expectations—the creative landscape for feminine existentialism isn’t just fertile, its teeming with subject matter for good artists to plumb.

Sylvia Plath and Virginia Woolf were pioneers in this feminine search for meaning in the examination and unraveling of social expectations as well the internal search for meaning in light of suspicion of those expectations.

What happens to a woman who is completely free? How does she choose between traditional family and career? Does she sit under the fig tree of possibility and, paralysed by those possibilities, watch her life wither and pass because of the indecision? Such is the beauty of Sylvia Plath’s poem “The Fig Tree” which examines serious existential questions from a decidedly feminine perspective. Likewise, Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway plumbs the depths of anxiety from a female viewpoint:

She had a perpetual sense, as she watched the taxi cabs, of being out, out, far out to sea and alone; she always had the feeling that it was very, very dangerous to live even one day.

Movies such as “Thelma and Louise,” “Girl Interrupted,” and others provide tremendous insight into specifically feminine approaches to searching for meaning in a broken and changing world that are at once unmooring from some traditions while simultaneously clinging to others in seemingly arbitrary and power hungry ways.

But, alas, this fertile soil evidently isn’t enough. Apparently, the desire to appropriate instead of create is more important to contemporary social justice advocates. Or maybe they’re just unimaginative and creatively lazy. Instead of trying to invent intellectual properties that highlight the feminine experiences and perspective, they are happier merely to feminize masculine experiences.

It’s almost as if the “you can be anything you want to be” mantra, repeated ad nauseum to our girls over a generation or two, was corrupted to mean “Anything a boy does, you have to make your own and then scream ‘Girl Power!’” This makes culture itself into a zero-sum game of perspective and power, where one point of view is possible only at the expense of all others, instead of what culture truly is: a simultaneous projection of, and mirror for the society within which it is produced and whose values and outlooks it reflects, criticizes, and seeks to advance.

As social pressure mounted to value women’s unique perspectives, those perspectives began to flower. But as little girls increasingly were made to feel that their primary path to meaning and value was in somehow donning a man’s cultural skin, and, ironically, having to become just like a man, those valued feminine perspectives became denuded of the feminine and thus less valued. They became bad white-clown makeup caked-on to men’s issues and stories.

The ultimate irony then, is that calls for “women’s versions” of these cultural touchstones add to the hegemony of the male perspective by making the false case that these stories and concerns are the only ones worth hearing, because they are the only ones that matter and resonate.

It isn’t a surprise then, that so many of the strongest and most subtle and decidedly female characters in recent cinema—“Thelma and Louise,” the Bride from “Kill Bill,” Clarice Starling from “Silence of the Lambs,” Ellen Ripley in the original “Alien” series—appeared decades ago, when a woman’s perspective was actually seen as unique. The desire to see things from a woman’s perspective then was on the rise.

Artists responded to the cultural tension created by the social revolutions of the 1960s with subtlety and vision. At the time, “feminine perspective” attempted to speak to the womens’ unique perspectives and responses to the brokenness of the world and did not merely attempt to appropriate a male one, fill it with estrogen, surgically remove the manhood, and pretend it has two X chromosomes.

There’s more than enough room in the cultural imagination for complex women and complex men. The human experience might be different for everyone but there are also many points of intersection. That’s where good art comes in, it can act as a translator for perspective. A movie that honestly plumbs the depths of human experience, regardless of whether it is from a male or female perspective can resonate with either sex. But any attempt to shoehorn identitarian issues into such meditations, or merely flip the sexes of the protagonists, is obvious and rings false—making the film both bad faith art and box office poison.

So as we move forward, I welcome the idea of a cinematic examination of a woman’s descent into madness, of her gestating disquiet and birthing a rage against a society and existence that she views as irredeemably broken and with which she can’t reconcile. But if that movie is merely a lazy reimagining of “Joker,” a movie whose value comes precisely from its decidedly male perspective, I’m pretty sure the audience will stay home.

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