Blockbuster movie Joker may have made film-goers more prejudiced

‘No laughing matter’: Blockbuster movie Joker may have made film-goers more prejudiced towards people with mental health problems, study shows

  • Experts asked people questions about mental health before and after the film 
  • Authors say people were 14 per cent more prejudice after watching the movie 
  • The movie was released in 2019 and was the first R film to make a billion dollars 

Oscar-winning comic book movie the Joker, starring Joaquin Phoenix, may have led to film-goers developing prejudices towards people with mental health problems.

A study by researchers at the University of Otago in New Zeland found that animosity towards people with troubled minds increased when people watched the movie.

It was a global hit and the world’s first R-rated ‘billion dollar blockbuster’, but the 2019 movie caused controversy for its portrayal of violence and insanity.   

The Warner Bros movie fuelled a rise in bigotry against people with mental illness, according to new research – with a rise of 14 per cent in animosity towards people with troubled minds after someone watched the movie.

The authors say the film – and people’s reaction to it – could affect the level of help and support patients get – both professionally and socially.

Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck – aka the Joker – in the film of the same name. A new study suggests people who watch the movie develop a negative opinion of people with mental health issues

An estimated nine in 10 people with mental health issues in the UK have suffered stigma and discrimination – although not specifically as a result of the Joker film.

People were asked for their views on mental health before and after watching the movie 

Researchers took people over the age of 18 to watch either the Joker or Terminator.

They were each asked to complete a survey to place their views on the PPMI scale – that is Prejudice Toward People with Mental Illness – used by experts.

There were 84 people at the Joker movie and 80 at the Terminator film.

They were asked their views on a series of statements to measure fear, authoritarianism and unpredictability.

  • ‘I would feel unsafe being around someone who is mentally ill’. 
  • ‘People who are mentally ill should be forced to have treatment’. 
  • ‘In general, you cannot predict how people with mental illness will behave.’

They were asked the questions before and after watching the movie.

For the Joker the average score went from 2.99 to 3.2 in the 9 point scale.

For the Terminator film it went from 2.91 to 2.88 after the film. 

Corresponding author Dr Damian Scarf said Joker was clearly associated with higher levels of prejudice toward those with mental illness. 

‘Beyond prejudice, associating mental illness with violence may erode support for policies that we know to be beneficial for those with mental illness – such as integration into communities,’ Scarf said.

‘Additionally, Joker may exacerbate self-stigma for those with a mental illness, leading to delays in help seeking.’

The movie charts the descent into madness of Batman’s arch enemy from his beginnings as a failed comedian – and earned Joaquin Phoenix an Oscar.

‘We were not surprised to see the movie increase prejudice toward people with mental illness,’ Scarf said.

‘It plays on common stereotypes about people with mental illness being unpredictable and violent.’  

Dr Scarf’s team measured whether watching the 2019 film changed cinemagoers’ level of prejudice toward mental illness sufferers using a common survey.

They found that in a study of 84 volunteers, the level of prejudice rose dramatically on a scale used by psychiatrists called PPMI (Prejudice Toward People With Mental Illness).

Before seeing it, the average score was 2.99. Afterwards, it was 3.2 – that is a 14 per cent increase in the level of animosity.

On the other hand there was no such effect found in people who watched a different R rated movie – Terminator: Dark Fate. 

In fact, average PPMI fell slightly from 2.91 to 2.88. Both films had been rated R for their violence – the same as Joker.

This requires under 17s in the US to be accompanied by an adult. The ages of the 164 participants across both movies ranged from 18 to over 60.

The PPMI test is based on 28 questions – such as how you feel talking to someone with mental illness, inviting them to your home or becoming romantically involved.  

In the film, Phoenix’s character Arthur visits Arkham State Hospital to receive medication for a mental illness. But this is stopped due to budget cuts – and he turns into a deranged serial killer.

In November, it became the first R-rated movie to pass the $1bn (£772m) mark in global ticket sales. More than 100 million people have seen it worldwide. 

‘Because Joker continues the tradition of movies depicting individuals with mental illness as violent, it has reignited discussion about the role of media in-perpetuating prejudice toward those with a mental illness,’ said Scarf.

‘We hypothesised that, compared with viewing Terminator: Dark Fate, viewing Joker would be associated with higher levels of prejudice toward individuals with mental illness.’

US actor Joaquin Phoenix, winner of the Oscar for Best Actor in a Leading Role for his portrayal of the Joker in the movie. He once walked out of an interview where violence was raised

His team took the participants to a movie theatre in Dunedin, New Zealand, where they were randomly assigned to watch either film. 

They completed the PPMI scale before and after watching their movie.

Dr Scarf pointed out the study published in JAMA Network Open did not assess whether viewing Joker was associated with actual behaviour – just thouths.

But he added: ‘In The Dark Knight, Joker asks, ‘Why so serious?’ One might level that question at us, arguing that Joker is nothing to be concerned with.

‘However, what this view ignores is the profound consequences prejudice has on those with a mental illness.’

James Holmes, dressed head to toe in tactical gear, gunned down twelve people during a screening of the sequel The Dark Knight Rises in Colorado.

They included Jessica Ghawi, 24, whose mother Sandy Phillips told BBC News she was ‘horrified’ by the Joker trailers.

Warner Bros said the film was not an endorsement of real-world violence. Phoenix walked out of an interview when asked about the issue.

Dr Scarf still thinks movies like Joker can be made – but Hollywood needs to ‘reduce the negative impact’, including making information available on screen before and after the movie to make it clear the mental health depiction is fictional.

‘Another possibility is a brief video of someone with a mental illness conveying impact mental illness prejudice has had on their life.

‘The former is more of an educational/fact-based approach, while the aim of the latter would be to increase empathy.’

Research by statistics body NHS Digital has found at any one time one in six 16 to 64 year olds in England has a mental health problem.

The study has been published in the journal JAMA Network Open. 

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