That an online subculture is misogynist, racist and promotes violence is, unfortunately, not much of a surprise. But even by the standards of the internet, “incels” present a disturbing trend. A group of largely white men, their complaint is that they are “involuntarily celibate”, and that society (read women) owes them sex, love, admiration. These garbled articulations of misogyny and entitlement have had grave consequences: Many recent mass murders in the US have been committed by men identifying as, or repeating the tropes of, the incels. Yet, can a film be blamed for their actions or for being appealing to the “incel community”?
Both before and after its commercial release last week, Joker, starring Joaquin Phoenix, was owned by incels. A lonely, white male, driven to insanity and wanton violence by a society that rejects him (this much is apparent from the trailers) — there is certainly an argument to be made that Phoenix’s depiction of Batman’s most iconic adversary sympathises with those who murder and maim because they feel let down. However, to expect a movie — even one that tries to subvert the superhero genre — to adhere to so severe a moral compass, both exaggerates and undermines the power of art.
From A Clockwork Orange to Taxi Driver and American Psycho, a host of films have been accused of glorifying violence, rape, vigilantism and murder. To call them a cause of violence would be an exaggeration. Each of these films did indeed try to get into the mind of a killer, to go where most people are unable or unwilling to go. Cinema — any art form, really — that examines the disturbing side of humanity, of putrefying loneliness, requires empathy. The Joker is, after all, a villain. And maybe he is an incel. A film that tries to understand the worst in us can be criticised on many counts — narrative structure, artistic and technical finesse, acting. But is it immoral?