The Joker and the Media’s Obsession With Never Being Wrong

At what point does well-intentioned cultural criticism lapse into conservative moral panic?

On August 31st, Todd Phillips’s The Joker premiered for critics at the Venice Film Festival. In the time since that screening the film has generated wildly different reactions. David Ehrlich of Indiewire said the film is “going to turn the world upside down,” while Stephanie Zacharek of Time countered that its “possibly irresponsible idiocy.” The audience at the screening gave the film an eight-minute standing ovation, but critics and cultural commentators on social media have been less forgiving and attacked the film as an incel fantasy. Notably, Mother Jones editor Clara Jeffrey made a tenuous connection between the film and the 2012 mass shooting at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, implying that critics who didn’t reference the shooting were being negligent in some way (although, the extent to which is unclear because she didn’t elaborate on her initial tweet).

Jeffrey wasn’t the only person to connect The Joker to the Aurora shooting:

Others expressed similar concerns about its “message,” both before and after the premiere:

The response thus far, particularly as it relates to the responsibility of filmmaker Todd Phillips to respond to the Aura shooting, has been instructive and maddening in equal measure. Instructive because it shows how little has changed in society in regard to cultural critics who believe they know better, and maddening because it lays bare how closely many alleged liberals resemble cultural conservatives.

MEDIA PANIC AND AURORA, COLORADO

To be clear: there is no link between The Joker, the movie, The Joker, the character, and The Joker, the mass shooter, because only two of these things exist. While pundits like Clara Jeffrey might repeat with unquestioned certainty that the comic book character the Joker inspired the mass shooting that occurred in Aurora, the truth is that the representation of the Aurora shooter as the Joker is an invention of the American media. Media reports immediately following the shooting depicted the shooter, James Holmes, as yelling “I am The Joker!” during or immediately after the shooting. In the weeks that followed, the media repeated these statements again and again, but as more time progressed new information appeared which contradicted earlier reports. Information that was then ignored.

In July 2012, CBS news correspondent John Miller attempted to correct media misrepresentations. On an episode of Face the Nation, Miller responded to an assertion that Holmes was acting out a fantasy. “Police did have an early report that he said ‘I am The Joker,’” Miller stated, “but as they’ve run that backward, that report has turned out not to be true. So yes on the hair, no on the utterance. And there’s also a conflict there, which is every single witness that they’ve spoken to and that we’ve spoken to has said he did not say a word. He just opened fire.”

A 2018 book on Holmes by forensic psychologist William H. Reid, A Dark Night in Aurora: Inside James Holmes and the Colorado Theater Shooting, also disputed reports that Holmes had any connection to the Joker character. Chapter 10, titled “Jail,” includes portions of interviews Reid conducted with Holmes. In their first exchange, Reid asks Holmes directly about The Joker, and Holmes states definitively that he was not inspired by any one figure. Reid concludes that neither the Joker nor Batman influenced Holmes and that reporting on the subject was “all hype, used to sell a sensational image in a case that had plenty of tragic sensationalism.”

Media organizations changed their presentation of Holmes as it became clear they could no longer tie him to the Joker character, although reporting lacked self-reflection and refused to acknowledge the media’s complicity in spreading the rumors. Organizations quietly dropped references to the Joker or pivoted to new ones. A 2017 profile by the BBC rebranded Holmes “The Batman Killer.” It made no reference to the Joker and omitted any mention of prior reporting on the subject. Other media outlets jumped on the BBC’s nickname and began referring to Holmes as The Batman Killer. Holmes himself was aware of the phenomenon. In 2015, prosecutors played portions of his psychiatric evaluation with Dr. Reid for jurors at his trial. In the clips, Holmes confirmed that both the hair dye and choice of venue may have led some to think of the Joker, but he felt it was a media interpretation and went on to state it was not something he himself believed. He also confirmed that he had considered attacking an airport and only settled on the theater because of the high levels of airport security, dispelling the notion that we targeted the theater because of the screening.

Depictions of Holmes as the Joker unfortunately persist in spite of this information being readily available. Someone like Jeffrey could Google it. But doing so would require those people to acknowledge their ideas on media effects are fundamentally wrong. It would make them consider that the world is more complex than they believe. It would force them to confront the fact that their beliefs on issues like censorship and art are actually much closer to cultural conservatives than their mastheads indicate.

SAVING YOU FROM YOURSELF

The notion that audiences are automatically influenced by media messages isn’t new. In 1927, Harold Lasswell first proposed a theory known alternately as the hypodermic needle and the magic bullet. The theory is simple: you can inject/shoot ideas into passive audiences through mass media and they will uncritically accept them. The theory was first used to study propaganda in World War I, then later expanded upon to include pre-code Hollywood films. Between 1929 and 1932, the Payne Fund funded research using the model to better understand the effect Hollywood was having on America’s youth. The studies — Motion Pictures and the Social Attitudes of Children, The Effect of Motion Pictures on the Social Attitudes of High School Children, and Movies and Conduct, among others — were pessimistic, at best, and downright hostile, at worst. Movies and Conduct, for example, argued motion pictures inspired direct imitation by children, so any form of representation will influence them. Its writer, Herbert Blumer, felt that depiction was tantamount to endorsement because audiences weren’t sophisticated enough to understand the difference. The study concludes:

We recognize two other conspicuous ways in which motion pictures confound discrimination and dissolve moral judgment into a maze of ambiguous definitions. One is the sanctioning of questionable or unexpected conduct by running a moral through it. Although the general tenor of a movie, or even its leitmotif, may be of an “idealistic” sort, so much often has to be taken into the bargain in the way of trimmings that discrimination becomes confused and the effect is lost. The ideal of the theme may stamp its character on the details of the setting which are meant to be kept apart.

We conclude by directing attention to the other source of confused discrimination and judgment — the possible divergence between the standards of the directors of the pictures and the perspective of movie-goers. What may be intended by the producer and the director as art, may be accepted by the movie public, or significant portions of it, as pornography. The difference, if it exist, is obviously a matter of interpretation. But the standards and codes of art which transform things into aesthetic objects may be limited to a select number. Other people with different standards can scarcely be expected to view these things in the same light. To justify the depiction on the ground of aesthetic character, or “art for art’s sake,” seems to overlook the major premise of the situation. It circumscribes the area of judgment to the perspective of the director and those whose attitudes he represents. What may evoke aesthetic satisfaction on their part may stimulate others in an unmistakenly contrary fashion. Unless the aesthetic values and interpretation of the movie public are changed to conform to those of the directing personnel, it is anomalous to defend commercial depictions on the basis of their art value, and to charge unfortunate effects to the basemindedness of people.

The Payne Fund Studies were one of a number of examples used to justify a need for self-censorship. The Motion Picture Association of America established the Hays Code in 1930 to achieve that goal, and the code helped “clean up” Hollywood by cracking down on depictions of crime and sex. For a time it was successful but content from foreign markets and legal challenges forced the MPAA to loosen rules in the 1950s and then abandon them entirely in the late 1960s. However, that wouldn’t be the end of well-intentioned saviors rising up to protect the unwashed masses from their own worst tendencies.

Over in the United Kingdom, things weren’t any less confusing. The encroachment of social liberalism in the 1960s meant old ideas about what was and wasn’t acceptable in art were changing, but unlike in the United States, there was a stronger pushback on the fringes. Anti-pornography movements in the United States tended to fail in their infancy because of strong First Amendment protections. As a result, America experienced a renaissance of filth in the 1970s and 1980s thanks to the twin birth of independent film and home video. The UK shared in some of this but, because it had stronger laws regulating obscenity, critics were able to crack down on morally questionable films in ways their American counterparts could not. And, of course, their arguments involved a public incapable of grasping concepts like themes or being able to separate art from reality.

At the forefront of this movement was a crank named Mary Whitehouse. Whitehouse had a long career of anti-obscenity activism dating back to the early 1960s and used her standing in conservative circles to form the National Viewers’ and Listeners’ Association (now Mediawatch) in 1965. Her goal was clear: eliminate filth in all its forms. Even art embraced by mainstream Christian and Catholic groups, like The Exorcist, was too extreme. Ignoring the film’s message, a member of the group wrote of its depiction of character Regan:

Moreover, although one is aware that the foul language was superimposed over the child, neither this fact nor the strong possibility that other trick effects were used elsewhere in the film exonerates those who have involved her in a depraved and extremely morally harmful role. It is clear that a dangerous precedent has been established by this film with respect to what children may be seen to do and heard, apparently, to say and for this reason alone, it is to be deeply deplored.

Whitehouse’s singled-minded devotion to destroying filth grew more passionate as time went on. As already noted, the emergence of home video in the United States brought on a glut of low-budget films which trafficked in sex and violence, and Whitehouse was not interested in allowing those types of movies to influence young British children. In 1982, UK distributor Vipco took out a full-page ad in trade magazines for the punk rock proto-slasher Driller Killer depicting the film’s cover art of a man getting drilled through his forehead. The ad campaign set off a media firestorm. A few months later, another distributor, looking to capitalize on the press of Driller Killer, wrote an anonymous letter to Whitehouse attacking their own release, Cannibal Holocaust. The move backfired. Whitehouse whipped up a media circus surrounding films she and the NVLA dubbed “video nasties.” Conservative tabloids latched onto the campaign and helped to keep it in the public eye by pushing lurid stories about children corrupted by the nasties. One of the more notorious examples appeared in the Daily Mail on August 4, 1983, under the title “‘Taken over’ by something evil from the TV set.” Eventually, the video nasty campaign was successful, and in 1985, Parliament created the Video Recordings Act 1984 to regulate home video classifications.

Whitehouse is notable as a media activist for two reasons. First, her commitment to protecting the British public from itself resembles the work undertaken in America by researchers involved in the Payne Fund Studies. Whitehouse, like Herbet Blumer, worried media representations might directly influence those exposed to them. So, like all media critics with a Messiah complex, her fanaticism was born of a misguided sense of moral duty. But more important, Whitehouse wasn’t actually concerned with the truth. She watched only a handful of the films she sought to ban. The most remarkable moment of the video nasty era came not in its rise or its fall but instead, unintentionally, when Whitehouse went on British television and revealed the intellectual paucity of her movement in one quote: “I actually don’t need to see, visually, what I know is in that film.”

WHY SO SERIOUS?

The most frustrating thing about social media depictions of potential Joker fans as incels who see the movie as an endorsement for violence isn’t just that they rely on outdated theories of media effects. As with the Payne Fund Studies and the Video Nasty moral panic, hand-wringing over The Joker inspiring mass shootings is simply intellectual laziness on the part of would-be moral custodians. The worst part is that these people are unwilling to even consider they might be wrong. Not that they are wrong, which is true in this one instance, but that they might be. Might be.

Jeffrey followed up on her initial tweet with another that rivaled Whitehouse in both its cowardice and laziness:

That she never saw the movie she’s saying may have caused a mass shooting (which it didn’t) isn’t significant. That she refuses to see the movie she’s now condemning is maybe a little confusing. She’s not obligated to watch them. But that she can pull any kind of meaning from either of those films in spite of that is indicative of a larger problem in online discourse.

“I actually don’t need to see, visually, what I know is in that film,” is the message of the commentariat in the 21st-century. Art. Politics. Culture. It doesn’t matter the subject. We don’t need to see the thing, to experience the thing, to interact with the thing, to know it. We already know what’s there. We know it’s filth, degrading and morally repugnant, a sickness that will corrupt others less intelligent. We know because we are never wrong. We know because we are Mary Whitehouse.

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