"Smile": The Joker as a new protest figure?

Moustache masks of the British conspirator Guy Fawkes are worn by demonstrators all over the world. Now, inspired by the new feature film, the comic book villain Joker is to be found among protesters in Lebanon and elsewhere. Psychogram of a green-haired anti-hero with a clown face. By Johannes Schmitt-Tegge

There is a key scene in the new "Joker" movie when the humiliated and marginalized comedian Arthur Fleck finally declares war on the ruling class. Dressed as a clown, his hair dyed green, Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) dances down a flight of stairs in a bright red suit to a driving beat. Fleck's desperation about the conditions in Gotham City has turned into anger, delusion and violent fantasies; the paralysed turns arsonist. Soon afterwards, chaos breaks out in Gotham.

Now the familiar comic book villain seems to have made it from the big screen to streets in the Middle East and South America. In Lebanon, where the government wavers after weeks of mass protests, demonstrators are making themselves up as The Joker.

Activists in Iraq showed The Joker as a photomontage between burning barricades and national flags. Even during the recent protests in Bolivia and Chile, demonstrators sporting The Joker look appeared again and again. They are isolated cases, there can be no talk of a trend or even a movement - at least not yet. The grinning moustache masks of the British conspirator Guy Fawkes are much more widespread in protests worldwide. Nevertheless for some The Joker seems to fit into the picture as a new protest figure.

"Beirut is 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. They worked on their new mural in the centre of Beirut until late Friday evening. It shows The Joker, with green hair and burning Molotov cocktail in his hand. "We are all The Joker," says Omar. "In a way, everyone has something in common with him."

That is no doubt true for those whose patience has run out in the face of the grievances in their countries - too few jobs, too much social inequality or the squandering of state money by the political elite. "Hong Kong Needs a Joker" was posted on Twitter in October with reference to protests against the Hong Kong government and the growing influence of Beijing's leadership.

"The Joker stands for ultimate freedom," explains Rob Weiner of Texas Tech University in the USA. Weiner has written or co-authored more than a dozen books on graphic novels, comics and superheroes. "The Joker is not restricted by any sense of morality, honour or social morality," says Weiner. "He is the Nietzsche superhuman because he stands above morality and beyond good and evil. As in card games, the Joker can be used at will - you never know what he will do next.

As a result the threshold to criminal violence, as with the Catholic extremist Guy Fawkes, who in 1605 wanted to blow up the British King James I. with gunpowder, is quickly crossed. Criminals have repeatedly disguised themselves as The Joker or been inspired by the character and earlier Joker films - from the teenager who stabbed his classmate with a kitchen knife in Berlin in 2018 to the assassin who shot two policemen and another person with his partner in Las Vegas in 2014.

Artist Omar says they have no intention of instigating chaos and anarchy in Lebanon. "We're not asking people to destroy buildings and throw Molotov cocktails.

The film company Warner Bros. emphasised before "The Joker" premiere: "Neither the fictional figure of "The Joker" nor the film are an endorsement of real violence of any kind". It is quite possible that the clown villain will disappear when the hype about the film subsides. Ultimately, he is not really a symbol for political protests, says Weiner, after all a "dangerous psychopath" is at work here. "The Joker is just a comic book character. You're still responsible for your own actions." (dpa)

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