Mustaali Raj/the Gauntlet

Playing around with loneliness

What Heath Ledger's Joker says about the absurdity of outsider culture

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It's pretty unbelievable what people will do to look different from one another. With the recent release of The Dark Knight, there's a whole legion of people donning the cracked white makeup of Heath Ledger's Joker in an attempt to differentiate from their other, partying peers. At first blush, it's beyond ridiculous-- a bunch of kids trying to be unique by dressing up as the villain of the highest-grossing, most mainstream film of the past 10 years. Yet what the character himself represents is incredibly sexy because our society values the individual and the inimitable over everything else.

Western counterculture is based on standing out from the crowd. For youths this is even more urgent. There's this disgusting, paradoxical social obsession with being both unique and different from the normal culture, but also managing to fit into a special group of like-minded peers.

Outsiderism and alternative culture are inextricably linked. No one wants to be a conformist. No one wants to be a sheep-- they care about being the shepherd. Within these non-mainstream cliques, the desire to have some kind of outsider credibility is ever-present. Past historical examples include the no-wave and hardcore scenes of the '80s, which were opposed to mainstream music like Falco and Flock of Seagulls and the lifestyle found in Ronald Reagan's yuppie utopia. They chose to live their lives in the filth and squalor of their dirty, disgusting squats rather than act like the pricks in their fluorescent suits and condos. They did heroin instead of the more fashionable cocaine. Then the mainstream came calling and destroyed these scenes by creating infighting between new fans and the older stalwarts.

Even in more mainstream circles, everyone wants to be an outsider-- they just want it on their own terms. They look at easily accessible, seemingly-nouveau pop sensations and flock to them-- indie rock flavours of the week or Tim Burton films are especially beloved. Burton's entire career is based on the same archetypical shtick that can appeal to everyone's desire to be different. Hence why his derivative pap is so popular in the sad-sack 14-25 demographic, as well as in the more mainstream movie-viewing audience.

Almost every Burton film is a representation of pseudo-outsiderism and the kids lap it up. Sweeney Todd is rejected by London society and locked away in prison, so he kills them in repayment for their loathing. Even though Ed Wood is reviled and despised by the greater creative class in Hollywood, he keeps fighting the good fight at home to be recognized for his-- in his mind-- unique filmic talents. Edward Scissorhands was so uniquely different from the crowd in suburbia, he could never fit into their strict white-bread mores. Edward then ran away, forming his own little world where he could be happy, but alone.

Unlike Burton's films portray, being different from the norm is incredibly lonely and a horrible experience. Society offers little in the way of social acceptance. Hence why these communities devoted to alternative culture form within the normal social sphere. It's easier to be "different" when you have a group of like-minded peers around you to further reinforce that choice. Unfortunately, those types of groups end up causing huge problems-- everyone becomes more polarized in their thinking, leading to elitism based on choices in pop culture consumption. These groups end up railing against what they see as the stodgy conventional way of life, figuring that their lifestyle is somehow more meaningful than those who aren't part of their group. Like the goth kids in South Park, hanging out in the smoke pit on lunch break, they rail against the conformists-- never realizing that they're just conforming to a slightly different set of social norms.

True outsiderism is a lonely experience. Musicians like Daniel Johnston and Wesley Willis, men who did everything to the beat of their own drum, with or without social reinforcement, were constantly mocked for their performances. Only later did more people realize how genius-- or in Willis' case, how incredibly honest-- these two men's works were. That's the kind of fate that befalls someone truly on the fringe. True outsiders are viewed as insane, pretentious or weird. Like the Joker.

Heath Ledger's Joker in The Dark Knight is the ultimate outsider. He's never concerned about others or their feelings. He only cares for himself and his fun. He's the most pure example of anarchic hedonism. There's no one like him-- he's a force of nature. Which is what alternative culture is posing as more and more every day: a bunch of wannabe outsiders espousing faux-anarchic beliefs in the name of their more carnal indulgences.