Outcast to Protest Symbol: Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker

By Isobel Chambers


Like the rest of the world, I went to see ‘Joker’ when it was in theatres in 2019. Back in an unfathomable pre-coronavirus and socially quiet world, the movie was impactfully eye-opening. When restrictions lifted in June, I decided to drag my immediate family to attend a screening of ‘Joker’ at the Blacktown Drive-in. It was their first viewing and upon so, they instantly saw parallels between Todd Phillip’s Gotham and the world around us – it seemed like Joker predicted 2020.


Unbeknown to me, it was around the time of release that residents of Hong Kong began integrating the Joker mask into public, political protests. An online protest website LIHKG user declared it,

"the symbol of the resistance and the spiritual leader of the rebels."

Furthermore, citizens of Hong Kong deemed leader Carrie Lam to be equally as out of touch with struggling people as Thomas Wayne – further incorporating the film into protest society. The film clearly inspired a sense of ‘freedom fighting’ in retaliation to an “unresponsive government”.


But it didn’t end there. The Joker iconography, being fluid among political ideologies, has been spread throughout countries globally. Lebanese government protestor, Muhammad Kabani said,

The Joker is us, full of underdogs, full of oppressed people that are extremely frustrated.”

And has been known to graffiti images of Phoenix around Lebanese streets. At this time, the Joker as a symbol of political protest was seen in Beirut, Hong Kong, Chile and Iraq.


But there’s more. Early in June at a Chicago Black Live’s Matter protest, Timothy O’Donnell was arrested for placing a lit object in the gas tank of a police car. He was wearing a mask resembling the makeup of Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker, perpetuating how the imagery can be fluid to represent a symbol of protest for many political causes.

At the time of the release of Joker, it faced backlash.


Controversy regarding the promotion of gun violence and glorification of mental illness has since been responded to by Warner Brothers. However, what may not have been considered or even disputed by the creators, was an intentional use of imagery in public protest. It does call into question – Does the subversion of ‘outcast’ to protest hero blur lines of justifying violence in society, or, is the Joker fundamentally an ideological symbol whose prominence inspires equality?

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