This past weekend, I went to see Todd Phillips’ new movie Joker. I had high hopes for the film after watching the trailer, especially considering that Joaquin Phoenix is one of my favorite actors. While it’s hard for me to gather my thoughts on the film as a whole, there are a few things that I can say. For starters, it was unlike any superhero universe movie I have ever seen before. It was dark, gritty, sad and creepy. There were scenes that made my skin crawl. It had an incredible commentary peering into the lives of marginalized people today. I can’t quite put my finger on what was so gripping about it, but I also can’t stop recommending it to people. The closest thing that I can compare it to, is a modern-day version of Taxi Driver.
But this is not a movie review. This movie provided me with an opportunity to consolidate many of my recurring thoughts into a cohesive framework, using Arthur Fleck’s story as a backdrop.
Joker is a film about Arthur Fleck, a man who is completely alone and suffering from mental illness. He was raised by a single mother, abused as a child, and has never had a steady career. Consequently, he has not developed any serious relationships and has no real direction in the world. Throughout the movie, you watch as every aspect of his life falls apart, while his internal pressures build and build.
As I sat in the theater in awe of Joaquin’s portrayal of this miserable soul, there was a quote that kept echoing through my head. It was a quote that I had heard Dr. Jordan B. Peterson say in an interview a year or two ago. The gist of the quote was essentially, “if you think that strong men are dangerous, wait until you see what weak men are capable of.” This quote could not be more fitting for the character of Arthur Fleck: a weak man in every sense of the term: physically, emotionally, mentally and morally. His character was a perfect depiction of a weak and dangerous man.
Like many weak men who become dangerous, Fleck was downtrodden. He had been dealt an unlucky hand in life, and he could not catch a break. Some of his situation may have been the result of his own actions, but the film also really emphasized a horrible truth: life is a not fair and the world is unforgiving.
While that may be true, strong men are able to push through hardships and find purpose, truth, beauty and direction in the world despite how horrible it can be. However, Arthur Fleck is not a strong man. He shares the same mentality as most high-profile serial killers and school shooters: weakness. People like this may agree with me that the world is horrible and unfair, but they crumble under the pressure of these thoughts. They get lost in the despair and hopelessness of this notion. For some reason, all of these people one day decide that they should take on the role of God, casting judgment and sentencing. They should deliver justice with their own hands. They are responsible for punishing those that caused their despair. They decide that you get what you deserve. What a terrifying thought.
Many of these weak people lack the self-awareness to realize that they have no ground to stand on and judge others, much less to stand on and act on their judgments. They are driven by revenge and blind to themselves, two critical factors that make them so dangerous.
Perhaps the scariest part of this entire movie is the fact that we all know someone that is like Arthur Fleck. Maybe it’s someone who was going through a dark time and came out of it. Maybe it was someone who you had to separate yourself from because of how far down the hole they went. I had one person in my mind during this movie, and most people that I have spoken to about the film did too. Someone who is beat down emotionally, whether from the world or from their own actions, and can’t deal with it anymore. Someone, I think, that is struggling with their masculinity.
The aforementioned quote from Dr Peterson rings truth into the culture of today’s men. I see posts daily about “toxic masculinity” and would like to challenge that concept. Obviously, I would never argue that there are men who do unspeakable and horrible things to others. However, what I would offer is that these men are simply not masculine. They are weak. They are pathetic. They are gross. They are an embarrassment to strong men.
I believe that masculinity is good. I believe that femininity is good. I believe that they complement each other perfectly and can work together to create a more perfect world. Each has their own special and equally important virtues.
The virtues of masculinity are regularly debated, and many of them are also applicable to femininity as well; The point of this isn’t to compare and contrast those qualities though. Masculine men are physically strong. They are mentally sharp and morally sound. They are in control of their emotions when they need to be. They are open and honest when the need to be. They value hard work. They protect those that are weaker than themselves. They treat others with respect. They are in pursuit of becoming better men.
That is a masculine man. When you are not aligned with those traits, you are not a masculine man. You are a weak man. Therefore, the term “toxic masculinity” is inaccurate and nonsensical. Many of the acts described by that term are not guided by masculine virtues at all. They are guided by the selfish traits of weak, pathetic people. Just because someone is a man, doesn’t mean that their actions are masculine. In the same sense as this, horrible acts committed by woman are not “toxic femininity.” They are merely horrible acts.
I believe that young men need to be encouraged to be strong men. They need to be encouraged to be masculine. They need to know the virtues of masculinity. Someone needs to show them what they can offer to this unforgiving world. They need to understand that they can’t be toxic and masculine. They can either be toxic or masculine.
A Way Forward.
Personally, I have always believed that anybody with two eyes and half of a brain can point out problems. Celebrities do it all the time to “raise awareness.” But strong leaders are actually able to present a viable solution. Weak men like Arthur Fleck, or a mass shooter, are unable to offer tenable solutions, so instead they force death and destruction upon the world.
It’s easy to feel hopeless about the world and its future once you identify large-scale problems. There’s so much out there that you are unable to affect. I have spent many nights thinking about this. It can be a bleak thought to resonate on. You can think until your head hurts, but eventually you need to realize that rather than worrying about the world as a whole, each person should worry about two things: themselves and their sphere of influence.
By allowing yourself to be honest and self-reflective, you permit yourself to identify shortfalls within yourself that can be fixed and addressed. This is good for two reasons. The first is that it enables you to seek self-improvement and continue to become a better person than you already are. It shows that you believe in the potential of the person that you could be. And no journey can begin without a starting point. The second point is once you realize how many shortfalls you have, you become much more forgiving of the shortfalls of others. Nobody is perfect. Nobody ever will be. But if you aren’t perfect, you certainly can’t be the one to sentence and deliver mortal justice for someone else’s shortfalls. This lack of self-awareness is something that is lacking in the Arthur Fleck characters of the world. To them, all that matters is that they have been wronged and someone needs to pay.
An interesting historical example of someone who was self-reflective is the 1970 winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in Literature, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. As an officer in the Red Army in 1945, Solzhenitsyn was arrested by his own government for writing letters that were critical of the Communist Party’s recent actions. For his crimes, he was imprisoned in the gulag system for 10 years. During his time in prison, his wife divorced him, and he was diagnosed with cancer. Rather than spending his 10 years devastated by the absurd unfairness of his situation, he spent time writing and reflecting on every single thing he had done in his life that led him to that exact moment in time and what he could have done better or differently to change his situation. Even in the most unimaginably unfair state of affairs, Solzhenitsyn was finding some way to take responsibility for his actions.
Similarly, in TS Eliot’s play, The Cocktail Party, a character is speaking with her psychologist and tells him that she hopes that her suffering is all her own fault, and not the world’s. When the baffled psychologist asks why she feels this way, she informs him that if it is a result of her own actions, then there is something she can do about it. But if it is the world’s fault, then she is hopeless.
It takes a strong person to take responsibility for their life and their actions. This first step can be the difference of becoming someone horrible on the front page of the newspaper or becoming someone amazing that you never thought you could become. After this, every step you take moves you in a direction, whether that means forward, backward or in a new direction. Unfortunately, many people believe that they are remaining the same, and this is simply not the case. Because of this, individuals need to adopt thought patterns of responsibility and conscious decision-making.
This new train of thought also enables growth, maturity and forgiveness. Many of us have had people in the past who have wronged us. Some of us look back on old relationships and friendships with anger and bitterness. Once you begin to rethink your past with this new mentality, you will start to realize that the old saying “it takes two to tango” has some truth to it. Maybe you were wronged by someone you cared about. However, you may be able to recognize small signs that you ignored, or even opportunities where you could have put your foot down and stood up for yourself, reconciling or even preventing the whole situation. You may be able to identify times that you wrong them too and played a part in the cycle of mutual mistreatment. Once you realize that there was probably something you could have done differently, you can take a deep breath and let go of your anger toward the other person. You have learned from your mistake, grown as a person, and won’t make the same mistake again. After this, there is only one direction to move: forward.
From here, you can start to think about your sphere of influence. This is the piece of the world that you can affect. It might mean encouraging one person who needs it, picking up a piece of trash on the street or making a deliberate effort to not be negative in your daily speech. While this seems small in the grand scheme of the world, it allows for the opportunity of exponential growth as you inspire and encourage others. You don’t have to worry about changing the entire planet because frankly… you never will. But you might be able to change one or two other people’s worlds. And they may be able to do the same for two or four more people and so on, and so on, all because you decided to change yourself.
We need to encourage the next generation of men to be masculine and strong. The world is full of weak people who need help. They need to understand how they can use their virility to help others, rather than believing that their masculinity is toxic. By taking responsibility for your life and your actions, you are showing that you are strong and you are starting a great journey.
In the final scenes of the movie, Arthur takes full form as the Joker. During his triumphant breaking point, he exclaims, “You get what you fucking deserve!” as the punchline to a joke, before shooting someone in the head on live TV. This was his way of playing out what he thought justice should be, from the perspective of a weak and broken man.
While his actions were clearly wrong, his punchline might not have been. The Bible tells us that you reap what you sow. The Buddhists believe in the concept of Karma. There are many books on the law of attraction. We all know that what goes around comes around. The message is the same. By being strong and embodying the masculine virtues, men are able to make the world a better place. More times than not, you get what you deserve. Make sure you deserve something good. Sometimes, unfortunately, you get what you don’t deserve. But you are better now, and you have the strength and virtue to persevere through. Besides… That’s Life!
About the Author
Daniel Rogers is a native of the South Shore of Massachusetts. He attended Norwich University in Vermont and received a Bachelor’s Degree in Financial Economics. After graduating, he commissioned into the Marine Corps and became an Infantry Officer. As a platoon commander, he deployed to Europe and Southeast Asia. He then deployed to Helmand Province, Afghanistan, where he worked as an advisor with Officers in the Afghan National Army. He spends his free time practicing Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and exploring the vast catalogs of the Grateful Dead. As a writer, he is interested in discussing the topics of self-development and personal responsibility, while also encouraging conversation about the current and future states of the modern man.