The Stories We Tell

Why narratives matter, and don’t, and matter, and don’t…

As a cute nerd girl in middle school and high school, I was subjected to more than my share of attention from desperate nerd boys. It became a routine, and a humiliating one for everyone involved. First I would become friends with a boy, based on our shared interests in fantasy novels, scifi shows, anime, graphic novels, etc. He would immediately take our shared interests and my cuteness for evidence that I was not just a girl, but The Girl: that is to say, the girl in the story, which was of course his story. Confessions inevitably followed, protestations of undying adoration on long bus rides during school trips or in empty back rooms at friends’ parties. I managed, somehow, to be shocked every time by this nice boy, who’d lent me his comic books and had enjoyed my company for its own sake (so I’d thought), suddenly overcome with tragic passion for me. It was my fault. I’d made him die with longing. “I guess I just do that to people,” I told one distraught boy during freshman year of high school. It never occurred to either of us to ask what had led us to think of ourselves this way: him as the distraught, denied, alienated protagonist, and me as the unconscious catalyst for his misery.

Blaming women for male attraction is a story as old as Helen, as is the story of men’s entitlement to that beauty simply by the strength of their wanting. The woman is the passive object, and/or the villain who denies; the hero of the story is the man, the one who wants, who acts, who often kills. Here I intend “hero” in the ancient Greek sense, not its modern usage. The “hero” of an ancient Greek hero cult doesn’t have to be a good person, simply a powerful person. They are the center of the story. The story, whatever else it’s about, is always about them.

Todd Phillips’ Joker launched last week to a warning issued by the FBI and the U.S. military that the movie might encourage mass shootings by incels. Military servicemen were told to be on the alert; undercover cops were posted in New York theaters. Director Todd Phillips, most famous for the Hangover franchise, in which drunken manchildren lurch from one increasingly dull hijink to another, complained publicly about “the far left” whom he held responsible for the panic (as we all know, the FBI, the U.S. military, and the police are famously “far left”). “I think it’s because outrage is a commodity, I think it’s something that has been a commodity for a while,” Phillips said. “What’s outstanding to me in this discourse in this movie is how easily the far left can sound like the far right when it suits their agenda. It’s really been eye opening for me.” In another interview, Phillips complained about the online wokerati who have ruined comedy. “Go try to be funny nowadays with this woke culture,” he said. Perhaps by yawning at Hangover Part 3, we, the uncaring masses, forced poor Todd Phillips to make Joker, just as the cruelty of Gotham drove innocent working clown Arthur Fleck to become a mass-murdering supervillain. “There were articles written about why comedies don’t work anymore,” Phillips continued. “I’ll tell you why, because all the fucking funny guys are like, ‘Fuck this shit, because I don’t want to offend you.’ It’s hard to argue with 30 million people on Twitter.”

Well, the outrage mob of humorless “cancellers” has struck again: And as usual, far from being anathematized into cultural oblivion, the target of their ire is doing just fine. Joker opened to $96 million, the best opening weekend for an October film ever. It won the prestigious Golden Lion award for Best Film at the Venice Film Festival, earning an eight-minute standing ovation. Joaquin Phoenix will almost certainly be nominated for an Oscar.

Is Joker good? That’s the question everyone seems to want answered. The argument seems to be that if the movie is good, then its bad politics can be forgiven; conversely if the movie is bad, and yet its politics are actually good despite the controversy generated by the incel-bait marketing strategy, then its artistic inadequacies can be forgiven. How are we supposed to feel? Which opinion on Joker will either impress or trigger the maximum number of people, depending on the form of emotional validation we happen to crave the most?

I regret to inform you that I can’t validate or invalidate your subjective experience. I thought Joker was okay. Joaquin Phoenix is certainly Acting, that is to say he is a famous white male actor playing a character who has a significant mental disability. Having lost 52 pounds for the role, Phoenix repeatedly undulates his chest, ribcage, and shoulder blades in a dance of death that is inexplicable, birdlike, demonic. Beyond his extraordinary performance, the rest of the movie is little more than a self-conscious, flattering homage to better films, particularly Scorsese’s work. If you like imitation Scorsese, then you will probably like Joker. Some of the shots are gorgeously framed; I thought the music cues were overly dramatic, though I know some people liked them a lot. When the title text “JOKER” splatted over the screen in flat, yellow, arthouse-movie font, I laughed; I laughed harder when the same font appeared in a flourishingly curly “THE END.” In between, the script alternates between the somewhat obvious and the eyerollingly-ridiculous: “What do you get when you cross a mentally ill loner with a society that abandons him?” is a real line Joaquin Phoenix has to deliver (with considerable aplomb; he earned his coming Oscar nomination for that line alone). In general, Joker is pretentious, unsubtle, gritty, violent, overlong, and feverishly referential—but so are many white male auteur movies, let’s be honest (Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, anyone?) 

Maybe it’s me. Maybe it’s my fault, once again, for not being interested. This kind of movie just doesn’t do it for me these days. In Joker, a troubled and genuinely tragic white man recovers his sense of masculinity and agency through violence, which would probably have been interesting if I hadn’t seen it depicted in a thousand other movies before. Violence! It sure is bad, the great white male directors keep telling us, but it’s just what men do. Now let’s watch them do it again, and again, and again, and again, and again. This is it. This is the story we tell.

Okay fine, but what about Joker’s politics? Is it right-wing, is it secretly left, is it a celebration of incels, is it a decisive condemnation of austerity? Despite the collective freakout over the trailer, I don’t think the film openly celebrates incels. Even if you accept the questionable premise that art is supposed to be socially responsible, Joker actually fits the bill. Arthur Fleck certainly belongs to a long tradition of alienated white male characters who are like incels, and he does develop a completely unrequited crush on a friendly neighbor (as part of a relatively minor plot thread), but it’s never presented as her fault, or her responsibility. Nothing in the film suggests that she “just does that to people.” Fleck does it to himself, in his loneliness and madness. 

Okay, so maybe the concern over emboldened incels was misguided and it’s not alt-right propaganda. But is the movie leftist, then? Is it woke? Is it moral to consume DC’s movies (owned by Warner Bros., itself owned by AT&T), or at least more moral than consuming Marvel’s movies (owned by the Walt Disney Company)? Is Mastercard a queer ally? Is this TV show my friend?

The political interpretations of Joker have been all over the place, probably because the film’s ideas themselves are all over the place. In one of Phillips’ least compelling choices, Gotham is presented as a carbon-copy of Scorsese’s gritty Taxi Driver-era New York. But Gotham—as Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan understood quite well in their cinematic adaptations—isn’t supposed to literally be New York. DC’s Gotham is a fever dream, an artists’ rendering, a character in its own right; not New York but the feeling of it, the ultimate metropolis of soaring inequality and filthy despair. But in Phillips’ Gotham, the only genuinely fantastical element is that roving gangs of young men just fucking hate clowns and love to beat them up for no particularly good reason. The rest is, for the most part, pure New York realism: Social services are being cut, and the severely mentally ill Fleck is left adrift, without even his inadequate social worker and his ineffective medications. I had dinner the other night with some friends who are social workers: They loved this part of Joker precisely for its realism, because they, in their real lives, are currently struggling very hard to find housing and adequate care for mentally ill loners in a society that has abandoned them. “They don’t give a shit about people like you, Arthur,” says Fleck’s social worker. “And they don’t give a shit about people like me, either.”

But the movie ultimately skitters away from real politics, never sure if it’s set in the real New York, or unreal Gotham, or how to develop its themes. Fleck’s murder of three finance bros on the subway sparks increasingly violent protests against inequality. Thomas Wayne—billionaire, mayoral candidate, Bruce Wayne’s father, and a satisfyingly shitty person—further stokes tensions by calling poor people “clowns.” Protest signs read, with zero subtlety: “Kill the Rich” and “Wayne = Fascist.” It’s clear that the protestors are populists, but not if they’re left wing or right wing; they could easily be read as either, or both. (After all, we’ve seen both left and right wingers show up at populist revolts recently). By the end of the movie, Joker will claim on live television that he’s just apolitical, and then a nihilist, with the film offering zero support for either claim, other than our meta-knowledge that the Joker character is supposed to be nihilistic. “He’s crazy, and that’s why he said those things!” you could argue. Sure, maybe. You know, you can read your politics into just about every movie, if you squint.

I think the politics of Joker “really” boil down to the same thing that comic book movies (and superhero comics) almost always boil down to: the maintenance of the status quo above all else. In the penultimate scene, Fleck, rescued from a crashed police van, stands dizzy on top of the car while anti-inequality rioters in clown masks cheer for him. Overwhelmed by the joy of violence and the excitement of public recognition, the new Joker draws a smile on his face in his own blood, reborn in that moment as a living god of chaos. It’s an extraordinary scene, immediately undercut by Thomas and Martha Wayne getting murdered in an alley in front of young Bruce (an event completely stripped of pathos because we’ve seen it so many times on film already). The movie concludes with a totally unnecessary scene where the Joker, imprisoned in Arkham Asylum, murders a nameless social worker and walks away, possibly toward escape but always to be imprisoned again. The Joker can’t really win, not even in his own movie, no matter how obvious Gotham’s inequality or how brutal this iteration of the Wayne empire. Having committed violence, the Joker can only commit more violence, and therefore he must always be suppressed in the asylum. At the end, the Joker isn’t even really the center of his own story. The baby-faced Bruce, inheritor of billions, is and will always remain the heart of Gotham.

The future Batman’s job will be to play whack-a-mole with the evils created by his wealth and privilege, which constantly rise up against him because he’ll never address the root cause (himself, and people like him). Just about all the villains in Batman’s rogues gallery are “insane,” alternating between being imprisoned in Arkham, escaping, and getting committed again. These villains are and have always been reflections of Bruce and Gotham’s own madness, which can’t be accepted or tolerated, but only locked away. So Joker remains a psycho killer, Poison Ivy a sexy eco-terrorist, and Catwoman a sexy thief. They are, with certain minor exceptions, pretty much always portrayed as villains and anti-heroes. They need to stay villains and anti-heroes. It’s very important that nothing in Gotham ever really changes. This is the story that keeps getting told.

But I claimed earlier that superhero stories were pretty much all alike with respect to their status-quo politics. Maybe, you’d like to argue, Marvel is different. The Disney-owned company has been praised lately for telling different kinds of stories, starring people who are not always white men. But does Marvel genuinely center marginalized people, or does it instead weaponize them to sell corporate, neoliberal, military-industrial complex-worshipping fake-woke fluff? I might be able to answer this, since a fun story about me is that I used to work for Marvel in their corporate offices. I was a fairly low-level cog in the machine, but once I had the privilege of hearing an executive scream at a bunch of publishing employees. They were all sitting in a closed conference room several yards from my desk, but I could clearly hear the executive berating them: “THIS ISN’T THE ACLU! IF YOU WANT TO WORK FOR THE ACLU, GO WORK FOR THE ACLU!” The employees replied, but in a normal human tone of voice, so I couldn’t make out what they said. The executive just screamed at them again. I never did find out the full context for the incident, but it doesn’t really matter. It’s easy enough to guess what happened. The employees had probably been pushing a character or a storyline that, in their minds, embodied something socially just, but it had either resulted in or was likely to trigger an unmanageable amount of online backlash; in response, the executive was brutally—and truthfully—reminding them that Marvel exists to make money, because capitalists simply can’t and don’t give an actual shit about social justice.

Marvel has carefully leveraged wokeness as a marketing tool in the same way that DC, struggling to find its own box office formula, has recently realized it can leverage right-wing reaction. These cycles of outrage arise from the same online weather system, the countervailing forces of triggering or being triggered, or being in triggered in advance by imagining triggering scenarios, or trying to trigger people in order to prove how totally untriggered you are. Regardless of which particular forces are unleashed, they usually result in considerable corporate profit. In the end, however, it doesn’t make much difference. The politics of Black Panther aren’t really that different from those of the Joker. In both, the bad guy, whether as protagonist or antagonist, makes some really great points about societies that have abandoned, mistreated, and oppressed vulnerable people; the movie concedes that the bad guy has indeed made some excellent points but, unfortunately, he’s committed violence and intends to commit even more, and therefore he has to be killed or locked up. In the meantime, the noble prince-turned-king, the inheritor, will remain the hero. But if you’re lucky, he might, like, open a community center or something.

That being said, there are certain things I still like about Black Panther, though when it comes to me and Marvel movies I’m aware that I’m probably still experiencing Stockholm Syndrome. Does Black Panther praise the CIA and American imperialism? Yes, but also no. There’s a heroic CIA agent, to be sure, but then there’s an obvious critique of American empire as embodied by the villainous Killmonger, whose rough upbringing under institutionalized racism and later military training by American special forces are largely why murderous solutions are all he can imagine. In Captain Marvel, a classic story of conflict between two groups of aliens is turned entirely on its head, as the seemingly evil, shape-shifting terrorist Skrulls are revealed to be sympathetic, even heroic refugees, while the imperialist Kree end up being the true villains. But then, Captain Marvel was produced in open partnership with the U.S. Air Force, in order to convince more women to join up and do some imperialist violence of their very own, and also to cover up the Air Force’s own sexual assault scandals. Is it morally good or morally bad to like these movies? I’m not sure that’s relevant to the way most human beings appreciate art. It’s possible to have a sincere human reaction to something while knowing that it’s corporate-made, or politically reactionary, or problematic, or shamelessly pandering. I am not arguing any species of “let people enjoy things” but rather “it is true that people enjoy things, even when maybe they shouldn’t.”

Much of the discourse around representation has been corporatized and weaponized for clicks and profit, and yet the truth is that representation is still really bad. Marvel has won cinematic praise for making literally one Black movie and one woman-centered movie (with sequels and a few other firsts and seconds on the horizon). But the vast majority of their stories have still been about bumbling immature white men, basically the Hangover guys with superpowers. The trigger/outrage cycle has engendered some truly interesting takes: I’ve seen people on both left and right claiming it’s better politics to prefer DC, or white male auteur art, to Marvel’s cautious corporate confections. Scorsese claimed recently that Marvel’s movies are “not cinema” and compared them to “theme parks.” (Weird that Scorsese only mentioned Marvel, and didn’t extend his critique to the recent rival corporate comic book franchise movie that flattered him by slavishly imitating his films, and to which he was initially attached as a producer! I’m sure it was just an oversight.) The weirdest take of this whole cycle may have come from the American Conservative, where the third-rate right-wing grifter Art Tavana talks about how he laughed through his screening of Joker, even though nobody else did so:

Some people simply don’t get it. Can they laugh at an origin story by a “bro humor” connoisseur about a white incel who belly-laughs when he kills? Unlikely. This simply isn’t entertaining to people who view the cinema as progressive propaganda tool…Joker’s only agenda is to tell a story that is extremely unfashionable in 2019: the story of alienation from the perspective of a white male who likes to kill people. Rachel Maddow didn’t like this film.

No one laughed at my screening either (except me and my friend, at some of the terrible dialogue and text choices). As imitation Scorsese would demand, Joker is quite serious, and Fleck’s choking laughter is a miserably uncontrollable medical condition. Nothing about Fleck’s brutal, suicidal depression is remotely played for laughs, either by Phoenix’s acting or Phillips’ direction. But it’s so important to win one for the embattled white male that Tavana ignores the actual movie he’s watching in order to laugh and trigger the libs (the image of him awkwardly force-laughing in the theater is genuinely pretty funny.) But none of this matters one bit, of course. At the end of the day, no one involved here—from the white male-run DC to the white male run-Marvel to famous white male auteurs to, uh, Rachel Maddow—is threatened by any of this discourse.

What kinds of stories get told? Stories like the Joker, which is a movie like two other kinds of movies that get watched by lots of people and talked about a lot, that is to say comic book movies and Serious White Male Auteur Films. For this unoriginality, it has been billed as “bordering on genius.” It says what The Powerful Internet Outrage Mob (always imagined as women and people of color) don’t want you to hear. Joker qualifies as “cinema” because of its moody lighting and its references, and because art is when a white male auteur (or a shameless imitator) makes a movie starring a white male actor who plays an alienated white male character who hurts people. In Once Upon a Time In Hollywood, Brad Pitt’s character is said to have murdered his wife, but it’s cool because she was a nagging bitch lol. At the end of the movie, Pitt’s character smashes in the heads of several murderous hippies, which actually was played for laughs and some people in my theater did indeed laugh. This is art. This is humor. This is depth. The story of the anti-hero, who is the center, who is violence. Maybe sometimes the story is about a hero instead, maybe even a superhero; it really doesn’t matter, because either way he is also going to be violence, only like, the good kind, because he’ll smash the bad guys down. Maybe some of it’s “cinema” and some of it isn’t, but it doesn’t really matter. The depiction of violence might be intended as critique, or maybe celebration, or the one masquerading as the other—again, it doesn’t matter. Either way, it’s a story that gets told. It’s one of the only stories that’s considered real, and really worth telling. At the heart of all existence you find only a dick, and chaos.

* * * *

As of the time of this writing, there have been no Joker-related killings. It was clear all along that the Joker movie was never, by itself, going to cause a mass murder. Watching sad Arthur Fleck fantasize about his pretty neighbor was never going to cause nerdy boys to declare their undying love for The Girl in their immediate vicinity. No single story has that kind of power. It takes a lot of stories to do that: a preponderance of stories that are basically all the same.

Yes, there are other kinds of narratives out there: you don’t need to tell me about Ladybird, or Booksmart, or Hustlers, or Moonlight, or whatever. I am well aware that there are female-starring hero franchises: A new Terminator is scheduled to repeat its scanty plot for the 84th time next year, starring a grizzled Sarah Connor and a girl who needs to be rescued. But at the end of the day, women—who I may remind you are 51 percent of the population, and 51 percent of movie-goers—make up about 6-8 percent of directors. POC make up only about 12.6 percent. This obviously has a cumulative effect. It obviously makes a difference. It matters who gets to tell stories, who the stories are about, and what will happen when young white men, accustomed to a thousand narratives where they get the girl just by wanting her, are faced with the painful reality that the girls in their lives have their own agencies and desires, and are not, in fact, characters in male stories at all. Will these young white men fall back on the endless narratives that tell them their masculinity can be recovered through violence and in fact only exists in relation to violence? The majority won’t. Some will. Most male violence doesn’t occur in the form of relatively rare incel shooters; domestic violence and stalking, however, remains extremely common, increasing always in times of social instability, where some people (not just men) will fall back on interpersonal violence to improve their diminishing sense of personal worth, while the movies tell them that’s exactly how it’s done.

What kind of stories get told? How much do stories even matter? If we had better Latinx representation in cinema, would we still have baby jails at the border for people fleeing economic, environmental, and political devastation (and domestic violence resulting partly from all of the above) in Central America? If we had more lovingly sympathetic portrayals of Middle Eastern families on American TV, would we constantly be invading the Middle East? Our media depictions don’t arise out of a vacuum. They’re feedback loops, frequently funded directly or indirectly by the Pentagon and the CIA. It’s in the vested interest of Disney and Warner Brothers and Amazon and the other corporate monopolies that generate the vast majority of our media to take this deep state money. That is the actual story of how movies are made, and what they are about. The “counting the bodies” approach to representation, or trigger-the-libs trailers and “fuck cancel culture” interview answers, or panic over wicked versus excessively virtuous narratives is just skillfully directed marketing, which we fall for every time. Everyone is talking about the movies, but not really about the movies: The movies are just vehicles for the culture war, which you might be forgiven for mistaking as the most serious war on earth.

The truth is that yelling about movies online is very easy. The stakes are much lower than an actual war—and yet, there are still stakes, because people derive much of their identities and their values from the overwhelming avalanche of the media they consume. People are affected by the narratives they absorb and admire, even if we feel like they shouldn’t be. You are too, even if you think you’re not.

That being said, I don’t think, as many liberals seem to, that changing the gender and complexion of the narrative is the only way—or even the best way—to bring about social change. The narratives we consume affect us, and yet they aren’t everything; representation in front of and behind the camera matters, and yet it isn’t everything. I will perform penance for writing this many words about comic book movies by editing another of Brianna Rennix’s immigration updates. The situation at the border, while much less sexy than a dancing suicidal murder clown, is one of those stories we actually need to be talking about all the time. But since I am a fairly useless person and I learned about superheroes instead of immigration law, I will say one last thing about comic book movies, which may seem obvious: There is always going to be a hard limit on how good comic book movies can be, and what stories they are permitted to tell. We shouldn’t be shocked that the politics of these movies are incomplete, or imagine completeness where it doesn’t and can’t exist. This is because of corporate power, and because we live in an empire, but also because these movies don’t know how to depict meaningful change. In their defense, most contemporary media doesn’t know how to depict change, either. Much (though certainly not all) of our popular art these days tends toward the centrist or the reactionary or both. There’s a weird tension right now, where just about everything seems to be on the verge of saying something interesting but falls back, maybe because the old is dying and the new cannot be born. In the meantime, we birth monsters: Joaquin Phoenix’s birdlike body undulates across the screen, gorgeously lit in a shitty film, and in a medium where everyone can talk to everyone we yell for days in defense or condemnation of a multimillionaire auteur or a corporate monopoly, whichever suits us best, or we scream at some random white liberal feminist for a stupid take, jokingly “pretending” to harass her by harassing her (defending our actions by claiming she brought her own harassment on herself, it’s her fault, she just does that to people), while meanwhile the planet burns, the minerals that made the device that you are reading this on were mined under unspeakable conditions, and horrific violence is meted out on innocent people worldwide, in public squares, on borders, and behind closed doors. These are the stories we have created. These are the real stories we are afraid to tell, that we need to learn how to tell. Not with violent alienated men at the center, ad nauseum, but with space enough for everyone else.

More In: Entertainment

Cover of latest issue of print magazine

Announcing Our Newest Issue


A superb summer issue containing our "defense of graffiti," a dive into British imperialism, a look at the politics of privacy, the life of Lula, and a review of "the Capitalist Manifesto." Plus: see the Police Cruiser of the Future, read our list of the summer's top songs, and find out what to fill your water balloons with. It's packed with delights!

The Latest From Current Affairs