MAJOR SPOILERS FOR JOKER AHEAD
While Zazie Beetz’s character, Sophie Dumond, is certainly real in Todd Philips’ Joker, the filmmakers still try to pull a Fight Club-esque turn two thirds of the way into the film, “revealing” to the audience that, aside from Arthur’s (Joaquin Phoenix) encounter with Sophie on the elevator, all the scenes of romance between Arthur and Sophie have been figments of his imagination.
If this build up and reveal was supposed to have a powerful payoff (and I believe that was what was intended) I wonder how many of us believed it? And for those who were genuinely surprised by the “twist,” because we bought the notion that a woman like Sophie would see something in budding supervillain like Arthur, what does that say about the filmmakers’ and our perceptions of black women?
I can hear readers raising objections that I’m even bringing race into it, especially because Sophie is the film’s love interest and that, in turn, elevates her character. But I think as writers and storytellers we need to push ourselves beyond a surface-level reading of these roles. We need to analyze their function in the overall story. We need to consider how the plots and characters we present align with positive and negative trends throughout society and the entertainment industry.
I say this because I know I left Joker unsettled by what Zazie Beetz’s character has in common with the two other women-of-color characters in the film and my further observation that all of them do little more than serve as plot devices. Their characters essentially cater to the emotional needs of a white man (in this case a despicable man) only then to be dispatched by the story when they have served their purpose.
Alone, this might not be terribly significant. But it’s not unique to Joker, and that is a problem.
For the Sophie “turn” to work in Joker, we have to believe that this warm, intelligent, strikingly attractive single mother (with a job and plenty of social capital) would see Arthur as a viable partner with something to offer. Does he? The film tells us “No,” portraying him as an unattractive, creepy older man. He is struggling with a chronic mental illness and is living with his mentally ill mother. If that is not enough baggage, Arthur is failing at his job, his side hustle, and life in general. Yet, the narrative invites us—at least a little—to suspend our disbelief that a “10” like Sophie would consider dating a “2” like Arthur.
Unless Sophie is not a 10. But given her personal warmth, her physical attractiveness, and her employment status, what is left that would make us consider her anything other than a 10? She already has a kid? Well, for many, that’s not a problem at all. You already know she is a good mother.
And come on, can Arthur really afford to be choosy?
So what is left? Which one of Sophie’s attributes as a woman are left that might, in some people’s view, bring down her social capital enough that we might entertain, even for just a few beats, that this relationship is a viable possibility?
What leaves me so uncomfortable is that, intentionally or not, I feel that the undervaluing of Sophie rests on her status as a black woman and the overvaluing of Arthur essentially relies on the fact that he is a white man.
I’m not saying that the filmmakers did this purposefully. That is actually the deeper problem. Skin color doing the “work” of undervaluing Sophie and signaling her diminished social capital makes intuitive sense—to all of us. That is the nature of implicit bias. We don’t even consciously think about it because the associations are so deeply ingrained. And we don’t like to admit why.
A defense I already can hear in my mind is this: “You liberals are impossible to please. If the part was given to a white woman, you would complain that the casting wasn’t diverse enough.” That is possible! But let’s consider if the role was played by a white actress. If Sophie’s character was identical in all ways but skin color (perhaps played by Gal Gadot or Brie Larson—who like Beetz have also recently played formidable superheroines), might viewers pause a bit sooner in the story? Might they wonder, “What is a woman like Sophie doing with a guy like Arthur . . . what is she doing in a rundown apartment building at all?” thus jeopardizing the payoff of the reveal?
I think we owe it to women of color, and to our own growth as individuals and society, to ask ourselves: why is it that placing a black woman in such an impoverished setting and using her skin color as shorthand for desperation seem so . . . natural . . . automatic . . . even authentic? What does that say about us viewers? Our society?
I’m not even necessarily saying the casting was a mistake . . . but if we storytellers are going to write stories with characters different from ourselves and if we are going to put these images out into the world, then we have an obligation to go deeper in our analysis. We have to ask what pre-existing and harmful narratives we are leaning into for our stories to work? What toxic tropes, stereotypes, and trends are we perpetuating? Do we recognize our responsibility to question and challenge them?
Sophie’s casting could be dismissed as a one off, if not for the other roles for women of color in Joker (or Hollywood more broadly). The two other significant women of color in the film are both Arthur’s counselors. The first is his social worker. The second is his psychiatrist. Like Sophie, these women serve Arthur’s emotional needs. In as visual a medium as film, I imagine the choice on the part of the producers to make the counselors resemble one another had to be intentional. The visual call back to the first counselor when we meet the second is obvious. We meet this psychiatrist in the penultimate scene of the film, in Arkham Asylum, just before Arthur brutally murders her.
As we watch Arthur saunter down the hall in the closing image of the film, his feet leaving footprints in shocking red on the white floor, I was left wondering: while the studio execs who produced Joker were congratulating themselves on the diverse cast, did anyone stop to consider the overall optics of these roles?
I suspect the answer is no and that is problematic because diversity placeholders and tokens, when it’s almost 2020, are insufficient. And they can get us into dangerous waters.
Like I said, this isn’t isolated to Joker.
The 2017 film, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, is a recent (and painful) example. Rhianna is plopped into this story playing a shape-shifting alien, Bubble. Bubble is held captive at a sort of futuristic cabaret/bordello. She is charmed by the eponymous lead, Major Valerian, played by a smirking Dane DeHaan, who needs her talents for his own quest. The major is portrayed as a selfish chauvinist who unabashedly sexually harasses his female subordinate, Sergeant Laureline, played by Cara Delevinge. One could argue that in the film’s opening scene, Valerian comes close to sexually assaulting Laureline. Considering the power dynamics (he is her commanding officer), it’s all very Harvey Weinstein. The film’s treatment of these interactions is uncomfortably light and playful. The characters eventually marry so . . . this is ok? (It’s all based on a French comic book from the seventies, so the mores are obviously terribly dated).
While there is some, limited growth on Major Valerian’s part, when his blond-haired, blue-eyed Laureline is kidnapped, we the audience are asked to believe that his charm is able to convince Rhianna’s Bubble to risk her life to help him save Laureline. Bubble does and ends up sacrificing herself in the effort. As an isolated character arc and casting choice (as in Joker), this is not a big deal. Yes, maybe Bubble’s death raises the stakes for the story. And yes, Arthur’s murder of his psychiatrist cements his devolution into a monster/villain. But I’d venture, as socially responsible writers, we’re obligated to consider how these things read. Here is a take on the subplot in Valerian:
Woman of color character risks life in service to white male so he can rescue his white female love interest.
Woman of color character dies helping unabashed chauvinist. Sad beat.
Woman of color character never mentioned in script again (forsaken) as white male hero continues (cue soaring march) in his pursuit of GOAL (cue ethereal ballad): the blond-haired, blue-eyed princess, I mean, sergeant.
The good news is that the corrective to these unfortunate subtexts isn’t rocket science. The biggest obstacle is our own willingness or unwillingness to humbly self-examine and admit our implicit biases. Granted, Bubble is a shape-shifting alien. But do young kids of color appreciate that nuance? I’d argue no. They see another woman-of-color character castoff by the story as irrelevant (Rhianna no less!) after she has fulfilled the purpose of serving the “entitled” white male protagonist. It’s a shame and a loss. I would argue that Bubble’s character was a more interesting one than Valerian or Sergeant Laureline, but I’m not the one calling the shots in Hollywood (I’m a heterosexual, cis-gendered white guy working at his writing desk in his pajamas . . . so clearly not studio executive material).
I’d argue that the course correction comes in two parts. First, it’s a matter of pausing for a moment, asking ourselves a few incisive questions and seeking feedback from others. A lot of these conversations are enriched by having more diversity in front and behind the camera. These issues won’t be solved by an individual white guy at his writing desk in his pjs, but rather, by teams of diverse creatives. That means writers’ rooms, studios, and publishing houses where intellectual property is crafted, marketed, and sold should better reflect the majority-minority country and world we are living in.
The questions I’m suggesting we ask are simple and would do a lot to get us beyond tokenism. They would help us to break out of some of the toxic and harmful patterns we keep repeating for our kids to see and internalize. Questions like, what ARE the roles we’re writing for characters of color? Who is writing them? Whose stories are we telling? Who is sitting around the writers’ table, at the studios, in the publishing houses? Do the characters of color we present in film, TV, books reflect our own implicit biases in unseemly ways? How are those characters treated in the story? Are they plot devices, clichés, stereotypes? Are they given meaningful inner lives or are we substituting the questionably accurate shorthand society has already given us? What images do these characters offer to younger viewers looking for representations they can relate to? Are we even the best people to answer these questions? Whom should we consult for a perspective other than our own? Does our team of creatives and decision makers reflect the society we’re writing about/for?
The second suggestion is to enhance our understanding (and curricula) around media literacy. We do this with literature. We know better than to read The Merchant of Venice or Othello innocently. Classes at the secondary and tertiary levels discuss the problematic nature of characters like Shylock and Othello. Just because it hasn’t been considered high art, doesn’t mean we should give what we see on our screens a pass. And that assignment is for everyone, not just creatives who manage IP, but fans who consume it.
But speaking as a writer (because that is my vocation and profession) we have an artistic imperative to do better. As humans, we have a moral one. We can and we should. It will produce better writing and—this is not hyperbole—a better world. After all, if anything is to be brought into existence, it has to be imagined first.
 I intend no shame in pointing this out. I live with a chronic mental illness. And really, who doesn’t have some ongoing health issues, especially as we age. I think taking into account a potential partner’s ongoing health challenges—and more importantly how they are managing them—is a reasonable and even necessary consideration during courtship.