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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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The When, How, And Why Of People Who “Snap”

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Have you ever been so upset and so distressed that you felt like you were going to just lose it? Your ability to process emotions, as well as your grip on reality, is hanging by a thread and that thread just gives way. You don’t know what’s going to happen, but something inside you just shatters and there’s no going back.

There’s no scientific term for that sort of state, but it’s something many in the scientific and non-scientific fields love to analyze. Chances are many of us feel like we approach that precarious state at some point in our lives. Only a handful of people ever cross that line from just feeling like they’re going to lose it to actually losing it.

We often say those people just “snap.” It’s not a very scientific description, but I’ve yet to find one more fitting. I won’t try to invent some fancy term for it, as I’ve attempted before. It’s just something I want to talk about because it reflects a dangerous extreme of the human condition.

It’s a scary, but fascinating phenomenon, understanding what happens to people who snap and how they got to that point. When I was in college, one of my favorite classes was a course called “Abnormal Psychology.” Only a small part of it dealt with those who snapped, but that part often generated the most discussions in and out of class.

I say it’s worth discussing outside a classroom. I would go so far to say that it’s more pressing now than it has been in recent years, if only because it’s easier for people who snap to make the news. Thanks to the rise of smartphones and social media, it’s possible for someone who snaps to make the news before they’re even done snapping.

The Columbine shooting was a terrible story involving two very disturbed teenagers, but it happened in 1999. Unless you were near a TV, chances are you didn’t hear about it until it was over. Compare that to the shootings of Sandy Hook and Parkland. Within an hour of the shooting, it began trending on social media. We can basically live-tweet the act of someone snapping violently.

While I’m sure that will generate some frustrating discussions about the role social media plays in our lives, I want to focus on the people who experience these mental breakdowns. The act of someone snapping has been going on long before social media. Even when it doesn’t happen all at once, mental illness is well-documented in various historical figures.

Seeing as how there are over 7.6 billion people on this planet and growing, the confluence of numbers and time ensure that someone will snap again at some point. Whether or not it trends on social media depends on a whole host of factors that aren’t relevant to the discussion.

Given that inevitability, it’s worth assessing and even speculating a bit on what leads someone to that point. That’s more difficult than most insights into the human mind. There is some science into what happens to someone when they have a “nervous breakdown.” I consider that similar to snapping, but I think those kinds of breakdowns are the next to last step in a much more damaging process.

You can recover from a nervous breakdown. There are even recovery programs for it. Once someone snaps, something fundamentally shatters within their psyche from which there is no full recovery. For someone to carry out a mass shooting or a horrific crime, someone’s mind crosses a proverbial point of no return. What that point is varies from person to person, but the effects are just as devastating.

With respect to what pushes someone to that point also varies and is almost impossible to study in a scientific context. Until we can actually map and interpret the trillions of signals operating in someone’s brain, which we are working on, we can’t know for sure. Since we are all human, though, we all have some insight.

Now, I’m not a scientist, but I am an avid user of Reddit. In the interest of compiling insight, I asked for input on what other people thought made someone snap. As usual, Reddit provided a wealth of responses thanks to subs like this one, this one, and this one.

Many offered plenty of ideas, theories, and anecdotes. I won’t say there was an underlying consensus, but there were plenty of common themes. They included factors such as mental illness, alienation, isolation, depression, despair, and overwhelming anger. Some posters made especially insightful posts. Here are just a few.

You snap when the weight you carry is heavier than you can bear, and you see no better alternative.

Duty is heavier than a mountain. Death is lighter than a feather.

It is calculated response. Some people look ahead in their lives and see 60+ years of quiet desperation, insignificance, loneliness, banality, and suffering ahead of them. They are willing to give up all of those years for 15 minutes of being the MOST IMPORTANT PERSON in the room. The gun means they can’t be ignored, the attention they have been starved of is showered on them. And they will get talked about for months, maybe years to come. Something they don’t see as possible by any other action.

Disconnection, alienation, circumstance, depression, hatred. We’ve all felt like outsiders at some time, or put upon, deprived, taken from or taken advantage of, hopeless, in emotional pain so bad it hurts physically. We’ve all had those thoughts of, “I wish that person were dead,” or “fuck everyone,” or “I’ll get them back,” or “life isn’t fair.” But 99.9999% of us don’t ever act on that and as we mature through adolescence we learn to deal with these emotions and problems. We learn to work on ourselves, we learn perspective and that these things pass, we learn not to let others affect us to such a degree – or hopefully we do. Now imagine someone is dealing with this as a vulnerable teen, but 10x as bad as what any of us has dealt with, with maybe some greater tendencies towards mental illness, or narcissism, or anger management.

I think there’s a kernel of truth within these responses, as well as a few oversights. Someone who snaps is someone on a very specific path. Sometimes it’s one they choose, not knowing where it will lead. Some choose that path on purpose because they have sadistic tendencies that they seek to push. Eventually, they cross or are pushed beyond a threshold that just breaks them.

To some extent, we can think of the human psyche as one of our bones. Bones can and do break, but nature has made them pretty strong out of necessity. Some peoples’ bones are stronger than others and some get weaker over time. Put them under sufficient stress, though, and they fracture. Put too much stress on them all at once and they snap.

The human brain is more complex than a bone, but the principle is the same. It has a system for regulating stress, emotions, and pain. The system is more robust in certain people than it is for others. Those with mental illness are like those with osteoporosis in that their systems are weaker than others.

Just straining that system can be damaging. While the human brain is uniquely adaptable, too much strain too quickly can overwhelm that system. Once in that broken state, everything that usually keeps someone in check goes out the window. That’s how you get someone who has eruptions of violence, descends into self-destruction, and endures irreparable mental scars.

To complicate matters even more, which is saying a lot for such a sensitive subject, there were a few other factors that my Reddit posts brought up that may compound this process. A few posters brought up the effects of kids being over-prescribed drugs like Ritalin to fix behavioral problems.

Now, I was never on these drugs, but I did know a few kids who took them and I can attest that they have some pretty potent effects. While studies on this issue are inconclusive, it’s not unreasonable to suspect that tweaking a kid’s brain chemistry may incur some pretty lasting impacts.

Another complication that may end up being more powerful than drugs is the way our hyper-connected world just amplifies the stress that leads people to snap. While I won’t go so far as to say social media is causing people to snap, I think it can accelerate the process for those already on that path.

People already in a precarious state go online every day and see a world in which they feel left out or lost. They see others succeeding and feel it’s too late for them. They see others suffering and feel powerless to help them. They find themselves in hate-filled digital environments that only reinforce their sentiments. It makes the notion of snapping seem cathartic.

It’s impossible to know for sure just how big a factor drugs or media may be for those who end up snapping, but I suspect there are more than a few instances where it plays at least some part. Given the breadth and complexity of every individual person, I believe everyone who snaps does so only after a confluence of many factors.

When it does happen, it’s tragic for the person and their loved ones. It can subsequently manifest in some pretty horrific acts. Our current media landscape is sure to document such acts, sometimes to the point of being counterproductive. As bad as those acts can be, I do think there are reasons for hope.

That may seem outrageous after talking about such a sensitive issue, but I genuinely believe the potential for good outweighs the bad. Say what you will about the media, but by documenting those who snap, it brings attention to issues involving mental health care and how we confront hate.

I’m not saying more awareness will stop people from snapping, but it may help improve efforts to get to people before that moment comes. It is something we, as a functioning society, would be wise to work towards. Not everyone who eventually snaps can be saved, but if we can help those who can, I think it’s in their interest and that of their loved ones to help them.

Again, thank you Reddit for helping me write this article. I really appreciate it.

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