Recently, both the Joker and Harley Quinn have starred in their own films. They both presumably suffer from some sort of mental illness—both were residents of Arkham Asylum for the Criminally Insane.
One might ask: Is it sensitive to depict these torturers and murderers as insane? Do the characters stigmatize people with mental disorders? And are the Joker and Harley Quinn actually insane?
The DC Wiki entry for the Joker gets right to the point: He's described as a "homicidal maniac" and a "madman." Yet he's also called a "brilliant criminal mastermind." When we talk about a link between genius and madness, we usually mean artists like Vincent Van Gogh, not someone who paralyzes people (Commissioner Gordon's daughter, for one) and kills heroes (such as the second Robin). The entry also says the Joker "is constantly adapting his personality and his psychosis to respond to the world around him." Can someone "adapt" their own psychosis?
Mental health expert Dr. H. Eric Bender actually hosted a Comic-Con panel aimed at diagnosing the villains of Gotham. His opinion was that the Joker may not be insane at all.
"The Joker is much more akin to a psychopath and is not psychotic,” he told the Huffington Post. But psychopathy isn't an actual medical condition; it's a term used in criminal justice and is centered on a lack of empathy for others. Thus, "psychopaths are not prescribed medications to treat their psychopathic personality traits." So Bender wouldn't recommend any medication for his fictional patient.
The distinction between psychopathy and psychosis is probably not clear to most of the public, and even some medical professionals disagree with Bender. After The Dark Knight came out in 2008, a British mental-health advocacy group called Time to Change issued a report that criticized Heath Ledger's Oscar-winning portrayal of the Joker.
The report's author, psychiatrist Dr. Peter Byrne, wrote, "Batman describes the Joker as a schizophrenic clown, and when the film’s second hero Harvey Dent becomes Two-Face and embraces evil, the familiar stereotype of schizophrenia is activated. The incorrect stereotype in both cases...is that schizophrenics have multiple personality disorder, and that that second personality is always evil."
Even if the Joker has multiple personality disorder (also called dissociative identity disorder), he still may not qualify for medication. WebMD says MPD's treatments include talk therapy, psychotherapy, and hypnotherapy, but "there are no established medication treatments" for the condition.
So, to some doctors, the Joker may not be "officially" mentally ill. But what does his portrayal say about those who are?
In 2013, the UK's Thorpe Park was the subject of a petition to change or remove its "Asylum" Halloween maze, which featured insane criminal characters chasing visitors. Paul Jenkins, the head of the Rethink Mental Illness charity, said that "explicit references to patients crosses a line and reinforces damaging stereotypes about mental illness." He went on to say that such a stigma isn't just offensive to those who suffer from mental illness, or those whose loved ones do, but also means that "people with mental health problems are afraid to be open about it. This means they are less likely to get support both from friends and professionals."
And what about Harley Quinn? The current (New 52) version of her character, which includes the Suicide Squad comics, is described as "insane" and "mad" by the DC Wiki. She may have been unstable to begin with—she was a psychiatrist treating the Joker and then fell in love with him—but once she helped him escape, her brain was chemically altered when the Joker pushed her into a vat of chemicals, a fate he shared years earlier. Thus, when the subject came up on Quora, one doctor theorized Harley and the Joker may actually suffer from a traumatic brain injury like frontal lobe disorder—which most would agree shouldn't be the subject of ridicule.
A thorough analysis of the character by the blog Girl On Comic Book World calls Harley Quinn "crazy" three times, but also quotes Harley as saying "I was finally free. Free to forget. To play for fun. To play crazy." Is she just playing? Perhaps she has a lesser version of the Joker's anarchic spirit and love of mayhem, but not an actual mental disorder. After all, the DC Wiki lists her alignment as "Neutral," while the Joker is marked "Bad." Her strange, mutually abusive relationship with the Joker also defies explanation. She certainly doesn't seem like a cowering victim of abuse, but at times appears to be completely under her lover's spell.
Obviously, these characters' mental states can never be conclusively diagnosed. But how they're portrayed definitely has an impact on the mental health community, from doctors to patients to supporters and caregivers. As the psychiatrist Dr. Bender points out, "Just because a behavior is aberrant or considered 'crazy,' it does not mean that the behavior is the result of mental illness."
Jason Ginsburg writes about science, science fiction, and film. He studied cinema and theatre at USC and is a digital producer at Discovery Channel. Follow him on Twitter @Ginsburg.