In this case, that would be Las Vegas terrorist Jerad Miller, who now joins Aurora shooter James Eagan Holmes in giving Heath Ledger’s parents one more thing to be sad about. Apparently, at some point in his wretched personal history, Miller had duded himself out as the Clown Prince of Crime – complete with his murdering swine of a wife, Amanda, by his side as Harley Quinn. He had also shot a YouTube “campaign” video in which he, as the Joker, announced he was running for president.
Why, oh why, do people who get off on ruining things have to ruin everything? Now I have to spend the immediate future listening to the gun nuts on social media rail that Time Warner should take the blame for what happened in Vegas, not FOX News. Even before the Joker stuff surfaced, I had seen said nuts argue that, even though Miller had been drawn to the Cliven Bundy compound like a psychopathic moth to a flame, the deadbeat rancher and his militia buddies deserve praise for having banished him as an undesirable extremist.
Why so specious?
As if. As the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Mark Potok pointed out this morning to MSNBC’s Chris Jansing, Miller had actually gotten the heave-ho from the ranch because his felony conviction for drug possession had precluded him from carrying the weapon he insisted on retaining. He had attained pariah status at the ranch because he was a P.R. risk, not because of his personal philosophy. That philosophy was fully in line with the one embraced by Bundy and propagated by Sean Hannity: Our society’s armed protectors are the enemy, and you gotta take them out. (And anyway, how could Bundy claim credit for enforcing the laws of a government he doesn’t even recognize?)
Yet any suggestion that the Hannitys of the world share in the responsibility for the Vegas massacre is being met with that reliable right-wing dodge, “But video games and violent movies get a pass?” Which is a weird counterargument, since we liberals have a pretty long record of calling out media product that strikes us as antisocial. Heck, in the wake of the Newtown shooting, I wrote that President Obama should have put more heat on the entertainment business, since “You can’t blame X for the actions of crazy people” is too simplistic a defense that to apply to guns or “art.”
Which brings me back to the Joker, and just how much he really figures into the Vegas story. Do I think Batman movies deserve the blame for Miller’s actions? Not per se (and not just because I happen to like Batman movies a lot more than I like Sean Hannity; I like most things more than I like Sean Hannity). There’s a wide berth of difference between emulating a fictional character who exists purely for entertainment purposes and taking your cues from a real-life talking head who is self-avowedly intent on influencing public behavior. Yet a media product can be a contributing factor to a tragic situation without having been the sole cause of it (a distinction that was lost on some readers who accused me of “blaming” Seth Rogen for the Isla Vista shootings). And in that respect, I do think artists and media moguls need to consider the potential their work has to influence the actions of the unhinged, and to tailor that work accordingly.
A few years ago, I attended a talk by Jerry Robinson, the self-professed creator of the Joker. He said he didn’t like the modern depiction of the character as a “serial killer.” I think he meant “mass murderer,” since the Joker has from the very first been presented as a serial killer in the most literal sense: somebody who kills more than one person on separate occasions. But I understood the point. Robinson wanted the character to remain a thief who commits murder as part of the job, not someone whose raison d’etre is offing as many innocents as possible.
Robinson had been named a consultant on 2008’s The Dark Knight, but I never heard what he thought of the finished product. (He died in 2011.) He might have had some trouble with Ledger’s Joker, who attempts mass murder on a level that few previous incarnations of the character had come close to. But I didn’t have trouble with it – at least not at the time -- because the point of the movie wasn’t to glamorize or even exploit that behavior: It was to sing the praises of the common man and woman who, faced with that sort of nonstop barbarism, refuse to become a part of it.
We need more of this.
Context and intent really are important things; unfortunately, we can’t count on them being universally understood. Nobody likes the idea of censoring art just because it could be misinterpreted by undesirables; that said, couldn’t we all be a bit more circumspect about how deeply we need to poke the bear? As far as I can see, violence in entertainment has two legitimate purposes: to show how bad the world really is, or to depict how bad it could get if we don’t change our ways. That, sadly, leaves a wide category in between, which is violence that’s designed to come across as alluring in its novelty. And that category doesn’t just appeal to the tetched. Let’s be honest – is the movie Seven so popular because it’s a taut, well-made thriller that says something valid about human nature, or because a large portion of its audience is simply titillated by the idea that Kevin Spacey cut off a woman’s head and put it in a box?
Even when pornography isn’t their purpose, creative people should consider how their work could be interpreted in a society that seems to be unraveling rather rapidly. Because if care, concern and responsibility aren’t shown on the front end, you can be darn sure they aren’t going to come up at the promotion stage. The Dark Knight’s massive marketing success didn’t make an inordinate amount of hay from the Joker’s unsavoriness -- but mostly because Ledger’s untimely death took such exploitation largely off the table. In the years since, however, we’ve seen a cottage industry of Joker-philia spring up that receives the character as somehow romantic – not a fun character to root against, but a role model of charismatic anarchy.
How many James Holmeses and Jerad Millers is it going to take before we question the roots of that identification, and of our own role in advancing it? Maybe it’s time to cut back on the sadistic extravagances of the Jokers in our media deck -- to give them their mustache back, if you will. It’s fun to order your 1/6 scale collectible Joker figurine (complete with gun and three realistic knives!), but the fun kinda stops when a cop gets shot in the back of the head while gulping down fast food. It wipes the smile right off your face. If something like that is going to continue to happen, the only grinning ghoul I want associated with it is Sean Hannity.
Days without a response from the publication that plagiarized from me and won’t come clean: 355.
Follow me on Twitter: @Schneider_Stv