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What “Malcolm In The Middle” And “Joker” Can Teach Us About Deviance

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What makes someone deviant? What turns otherwise normal human beings into the kind of deviants who go onto commit crimes, foster discord, or lash out at the rest of society? These questions are often contemplated by psychologists, police, politicians, and people who just want to live in peace.

The answers aren’t easy, but they often make for compelling movies and TV shows. Some dare to offer answers that are as revealing as they are distressing. That’s part of what made “Joker” such an impactful movie. It’s also what triggered the controversy surrounding its subversive message. I tried to explore that message my review of the movie, but in doing so, I uncovered something surprising.

The themes in “Joker” are more relevant today than they’ve been in years. It makes the case that when people denigrate, marginalize, or ignore those in the lowest rungs of society, they’re going to create the kinds of monsters and supervillains that undermine the current order. Moreover, they deserve the chaos and deviance that these individuals cause.

In “Joker,” Arthur Fleck was a perfect storm of unfortunate circumstances and societal denigration. While Gotham City didn’t turn him into the Joker, they put him in a position to make those fateful choices. Nobody tried to help him or give him other options. If anything, the help and options he needed were taken away. It was part of what made his deviance both compelling and understandable.

It reminded me of a famous TV show that made a similar point, albeit one from a very different genre and medium. It dared to make that point decade earlier, long before the current controversies surrounding mass shooters in movie theaters and so-called “incel culture.” That show is “Malcolm In The Middle.”

The two narratives couldn’t be more different. One is an R-rated movie that defies the conventions of the superhero genre and explores the twisted mind of an iconic villain. The other is a prime-time sitcom full of funny, cartoonish antics from a dysfunctional working-class family. One is dark and serious. The other is funny and light-hearted.

Despite those vast differences, they convey very similar messages. They both make the case that a callous, negligent society will create deviant individuals within its most disadvantaged. They also highlight how efforts to push them aside or suppress their deviance will only make things worse.

In “Joker,” it turned Arthur Fleck into an agent of chaos who went onto inspire more chaos in others. The circumstances in “Malcolm In The Middle” were very different and a lot more subtle, but the underlying message was still there.

It’s subtle, but it’s there.

From the first episode of the show to its finale, Malcolm and his family are depicted as both dysfunctional and disadvantaged. In some instances, they’re downright destitute. On many occasions, they deal with crippling debt, dead-end jobs, and arrogant upper-class types who look down on them with disgust. More often than not, Malcolm and his brothers get back at them in their own creative way.

Whatever form the antics take, the show never uses the lower-class status of Malcolm’s family to justify their behavior. Much like “Joker,” it establishes that the characters have agency. They’re dealt a lousy hand, but they still have opportunities to make non-deviant choices. They’re rarely forced into deviant acts. Opportunities arise and they exercise poor judgement, to say the least.

The very least.

Malcolm and his brothers didn’t have to lie about what happened to Dewey’s bike in Season 1, Episode 15. They did it anyways and things only escalated from there when the consequences caught up with them.

Malcom and his brother didn’t have to buy their mother a terrible birthday gift in Season 2, Episode 3. They still did and the end result led to them fighting an army of clowns in one of the show’s most memorable moments.

It’s not just the kids, either. Hal didn’t have to resort to unorthodox tactics when coaching Dewey’s soccer team in Season 3, Episode 16. He still did and things only got messier from there.

Lois didn’t have to force Malcolm to getting a job as terrible as hers in order to teach him a lesson in Season 5, Episode 6. She still did and, in doing so, taught him an entirely different lesson about just how screwed people like them are. It’s a message that even found its way into her memorable speech in the series finale.

It’s an important component of the show’s brilliance and humor. Malcolm and his family are a mess. They’re constantly getting screwed over by circumstances, bad choices, and other people who look down on them. However, they never come off as victims, nor do they carry themselves as such. They have opportunities to become less dysfunction, but often squander them.

Arthur Fleck had chances to become something other than a killer clown. There were a number of instances in “Joker” in which he could’ve gone a different path. He simply chose not to and society didn’t lift a finger to help him. If anything, they took away what little help he got.

Throughout seven seasons in “Malcolm In The Middle,” Malcolm’s family finds themselves in similar situations. One of the best examples is in Season 4, Episode 17, which happened to be the second clip show episode. In that episode, Hal and Lois recount the births of their kids as they prepare for the arrival of another.

In every instance, the births are subject to strange and hilarious circumstances. In one of them, Lois goes into labor in the driveway of their house because Francis locked her out of the car. Then, while she’s writhing in pain from the labor, a jogger passes by. She yells out she’s having a baby, but the jogger just ignores her and congratulates her.

It’s funny, but symptomatic of the family’s lot in life. Nobody goes out of their way for them. Nobody offers to help them. It even happens again a few episodes later in Season 4, Episode 21 when Lois goes into labor with Jamie. Even though someone calls 9-1-1 and an ambulance arrives, they don’t get there until after she gives birth. The EMTs even joke about how they stopped for coffee.

Like Arthur Fleck, the society around Malcolm’s family doesn’t care about them. They even go out of their way to avoid or neglect them. In “Joker,” Arthur is repeatedly victimized by both the system and individuals who go out of their way to harass him. His situation is already bad, but these ordeals only make it worse.

Early in the movie, Arthur does show signs that he’s capable of being a decent person. He tried to make a kid on the bus laugh. He entertained sick children at a hospital. He could’ve been a productive, positive force in society. Then, society started screwing him over and bad choices on his part led him to become a dangerous deviant.

While Malcolm and his family didn’t become as deviant as the Joker, they still did plenty of damage with their antics. At the same time, there were plenty of instances that showed that, as dysfunctional as they were, they could still be good and decent to others when given the chance. They just rarely got those changes and society rarely provided the incentives.

It’s a powerful message with respect to what makes people deviant. Some people are at the mercy of bad circumstances, be they poverty, mental illness, or having an overbearing mother like Lois. They’re still capable of being good, but it’s easier for them to become deviant when society neglects them. That deviance only compounds as a result of poor judgement and bad choices.

Yes, they compound a LOT.

There are plenty of differences between “Joker” and “Malcolm In The Middle.” Whereas “Joker” takes things to the worst possible outcome in the descent towards deviance, “Malcolm In The Middle” manages to maintain a more hopeful outlook. People can still be deviant and dysfunctional, but they can rise above it. The events of the series finale affirm that.

Those differences aside, this movie and this TV show offer lessons and insight into something that all societies must deal with. There will always be a certain level of deviance. There will also be those more inclined to pursue it. It’s just a matter of how to confront it. More than anything else, “Joker” and “Malcolm In The Middle” shows the consequences of confronting it the wrong way.

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Love, Intimacy, And The Making Of Mass Murderers

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Every now and then, I feel compelled to comment on an ongoing story that I know is still raw in the minds of many people. Usually, I try to wait for the worst of the storm to pass. When it comes to school shootings and spree killers, though, I think the recent events in Parkland have shown that time can only do so much to temper the horror.

Before I go any further, I want to make one thing clear. I am very hesitant to talk about this topic. Whenever it comes up, and it comes up way too often, my first instinct is to keep my mouth shut and not add to the noise, outrage, and anguish that it evokes in people.  The last thing I want to do is add to the pain of such losses or encourage those who would use it to further an agenda.

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However, there is one part of this issue that I feel is worth talking about, even when the memories of such a terrible event are still raw. In fact, I think it should be discussed while we’re all more aware of the terror caused by such heinous crimes. No, I’m not talking about guns, although that is a discussion worth having. I’m talking about the forces that turn people into mass murderers in the first place.

This is one of those issues where everyone has an opinion, but nobody has any answers. Whenever there’s a mass shooting, any attempt to explain it is basically a media Rorschach test where if you want to blame a certain thing for mass shootings, you can. The fact that it fits with someone’s beliefs, politics, and agenda is not a coincidence.

With the Parkland shooting, the results of this test are already playing out. We’ve got people blaming everything from bad parenting to video games to mental health. Some are already forming conspiracy theories about it, which are sure to embolden the professional trolls of the world. Agenda or not, there’s an inherent need to point fingers and seize upon an simple explanation to make sense of such horror.

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While I understand the desire to make sense of something so terrible, I also think the search for a simple, easy-to-identify explanation is inherently misguided. I also think there’s no such thing as an easy explanation when it comes to deviant human behavior. Human beings are complex creatures. The sheer breadth of thought and personalities makes it next to impossible to predict what goes on in the mind of a mass killer.

That said, there is one aspect that I feel is worth touching on, if only because it rarely comes up when everyone begins the finger-pointing after a mass killing. It’s not related certain forms of media. It’s not some weapon or product that can be regulated or banned either. It’s not even some sort of mental illness that can be treated with overpriced medication.

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This factor in the minds of such deranged individuals, which I believe is a factor worth considering, doesn’t have an easy label to slap onto it. However, it does consist of three simple components that are fundamental to the human experience.

  • Love
  • Intimacy
  • Belonging

I know those all sound like things you’d expect an aspiring erotica/romance writer to cite, but I’m dead serious when I say these are factors we should consider when contemplating the mentality of a spree killer. Specifically, it’s the absence of these factors that needs greater scrutiny when studying a deviant mind.

When it comes to mass killers, there are all sorts of stereotypes, some of which are more common than others. They’re often angry, lonely, isolated, self-centered, emotionally muted, and impulsive. Some even have real medical issues. The infamous shooter of the University of Texas in 1966 had a brain tumor and prescription drugs in his system.

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Like most stereotypes, though, the profile of mass killers is not universal. Even if you take all the scientific data we have on the twisted minds of these people, it doesn’t create a clear or predictable picture. That’s why predicting these horrific events is impossible. We never truly know when someone is just going to snap.

It’s for that reason that, rather than focus on the traits these mass killers have, we should take time focus on the traits of those who don’t become violent or deviant. Rather than agonize over what went wrong, we should also note what goes right when someone becomes a healthy, productive member of a society.

Since society, as a whole, is so complex and our modern civilization is so diverse, it helps to narrow in on the more basic units of society. From a biological and evolutionary standpoint, a hunter/gatherer society provides the simplest approach. I’ve used this example before when discussing our pre-modern sex lives, but it’s just as useful when assessing the raw basics of human experience.

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Within that society, those three factors I mentioned aren’t just present. The society doesn’t work without them. In a hunter/gatherer society, everyone has a role to play and a purpose to contribute. You hunt, you gather, and you share those resources within a close-knit community.

That close-knit component is where the love comes in. On top of having a clear role and a defined purpose, members of a hunter/gatherer society are surrounded by family, friends, and community that loves and supports one another. It’s not just out of charity either. That love and support keeps the society strong, providing emotional fulfillment in addition to the physical fulfillment from sharing resources.

From that love and fulfillment, a sense of intimacy naturally follows. I’m not just talking about sexual intimacy either, although the behavior of the notoriously non-violent Bonobo chimps does strongly hint at its value. In a close-knit community, being able to open up and embrace others is part of what binds that community. It helps make each individual within that community stronger, mentally and physically.

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That’s not to say those communities never have a deviant or a psychopath every now and then. Within this simple template, though, it’s easier to understand the core needs of the human psyche. It’s not just food and water that a person needs to survive. They also need love, intimacy, and a sense of belonging to give their lives a sense of purpose.

As a result, there is a growing body of evidence that those hunter/gatherer societies were exceedingly peaceful. Sure, there were a few tribal conflicts here and there, but there’s little evidence that someone who grew up in such a close-knit community went onto become a spree killer.

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With that basic understanding in mind, look back at the long list of spree killers. Look at their personal stories, which vary from tragic to affluent. Now, look at how much or how little love, intimacy, and belonging they had in their lives. To some, it may seem like they had everything they needed. However, that doesn’t mean that’s how they felt as they went down that dark path that led them to commit such atrocities.

To some extent, it’s a lot easier to feel isolated, alone, and unloved in our modern civilization. We don’t function in small, close-knit tribes anymore. We regularly find ourselves surrounded by all these people that we don’t know, don’t understand, and have no intimate connection with.

On top of that, seeking love and intimacy beyond family is much harder, especially for men. Some have even pointed out that many of these mass killers lack any semblance of a satisfying sex life and growing sentiments that demonize men’s sexual expression isn’t helping. While I don’t think a lack of sex is as big a factor as some claim, I think it does contribute to a certain extent.

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In a world where these men don’t need to hunt or gather, have no sense of purpose or role, and have limited outlets for intimacy and sex, what does this do to their minds? I’ve mentioned before why I believe solitary confinement is one of the worst forms of torture, but its effects need not be confined to a cell.

Human beings are complex and adaptive, but they’re also vulnerable. Strain them in any number of directions and there’s sure to be damage. I know people who have endured such damage. I, personally, have had my own struggles. However, I’m lucky to have a very supportive, very loving family that has always been there for me. I believe that love is a big part of what has helped me live, love, and function.

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We may never know what goes on in the mind of a mass murderer or someone who just up and snaps. Until we can actually read the thoughts of someone, which we are working on, we can’t know whether a mass murderer just didn’t get a lot of love in life or if he just played too many violent video games as a kid.

That still won’t stop people from pointing fingers and pursuing agendas. It’s only natural to want to blame something in wake of such a terrible tragedy. Atrocities, like mass shootings, are the result of something that went horribly wrong within a person and a society. It’s certainly worth scrutinizing those flaws, but it’s also worth remembering what happens when it goes into making it right.

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Human beings are capable of unspeakable atrocities, but they are also capable of wonderful acts of kindness. Understanding what goes into forging these kind, loving souls will be the most potent recourse in preventing these terrible tragedies. There’s a lot that goes into creating such souls, but love, intimacy, and belonging will likely be the core ingredients.

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