"We are all the jokers": A comic villain becomes a protest figure

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Protests around the world include Guy Fawkes grinning mustache masks. In the Middle East and South America, a new, green-haired anti-hero manages to make it to the demonstrators: the Joker. But why do people identify with the comic villain?
There is a key scene in the new "Joker" movie, as humbled and outcast comedian Arthur Fleck finally declares war on the ruling class. As a clown make-up, his hair dyed green, Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) dances down a flight of stairs in a bright red suit to drifting drums. Fleck's despair over the conditions in Gotham City are transformed into rage, delusion and violent fantasies, from the paralyzed he becomes an arsonist. Soon after, chaos breaks out in Gotham.

Now the villain, known from comics, seems to have made it from the big screen on streets in the Middle East and South America. In Lebanon, where the government wavers after weeks of mass protests, protesters made up a joker. Activists in Iraq showed the Joker as a photomontage between burning barricades and country flags. Also in the recent protests in Bolivia and Chile, protesters repeatedly appeared in the joker look.

"Joker stands for ultimate freedom"

There are isolated cases of a trend or even a movement can – at least not – be no question. The grinning mustache masks of the British conspirator Guy Fawkes, which go back to the comic "V for Vendetta" are much more widespread in protests worldwide and also in Germany. Nevertheless, the Joker seems to fit into the picture as a new protest figure for some. "Beirut is turning into the new Gotham, full of corruption and people stealing money," says artist Omar, who forms the Lebanese street art duo Ashekman with his twin brother Mohamed.

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(Photo: picture alliance / dpa)

Until late Friday evening, they worked on their new mural in downtown Beirut. It shows: Joker, with green hair and in a red suit, a Lebanese flag on the lapel. In his hand he holds a burning Molotov cocktail. "We are all jokers," says Omar. "In a way, everyone has something in common with him."

At least, that may be true of those who are slowly but surely breaking their necks in view of the abuses in their countries – because of too few jobs, too much social inequality, or a blatant waste of public money by the political elite. "Hong Kong Needs a Joker" was read in October with reference to protests against the Hong Kong government and the growing influence of leadership in Beijing on Twitter.

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(Photo: picture alliance / dpa)

"The Joker stands for ultimate freedom," explains Rob Weiner of Texas Tech University in the US. Weiner has written or contributed to over a dozen books on graphic novels, comics, and superheroes. "The Joker is not limited by any sense of morality, honor or social morals," Weiner says about the most popular comic villain in his estimation. "He is the Nietzsche superman because he is above morality and beyond good and evil." As in the card game, the joker can be used anywhere – you never know what he will do next.

"No approval of real violence"

Thus, the threshold for criminal violence as the Catholic extremist Guy Fawkes, who wanted to 1605 British King James I blown up with gunpowder, quickly exceeded. Again and again, criminals dressed as Joker or inspired by the figure and earlier Joker movies – from the teenager who stabbed his classmate 2018 in Berlin with a kitchen knife to the gunman, the 2014 with his partner in Las Vegas two policemen and one shot another man.

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The protests in Hong Kong show many Guy Fawkes masks.

(Photo: picture alliance / dpa)

They did not want to incite to chaos and anarchy in Lebanon, says artist Omar. "We do not ask people to destroy buildings and throw Molotov cocktails." In Chile, the masquerade – whether Joker, Guy Fawkes, Pikachu or Puh the Bear – is to be prevented with a series of legislative initiatives for safety's sake. The ban is designed to prevent demonstrators with disguises or other means hide their faces. In Hong Kong, the government had already imposed a cover-up ban in early October.

Warner Bros. had made it clear before the "Joker" premiere: "Neither the fictional character of the 'Joker' nor the film is an endorsement of any kind of real violence." It's quite possible that the clown villain will disappear when the hype surrounding the movie is gone. Ultimately, he is not even the symbol of political protests, says Weiner, after all, here is a "gemeingelfahrlicher psychopath" at work. "The Joker is just a comic book character, and you're still responsible for your actions."



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