Body Talk:
The People’s Joker
By Caden Mark Gardner and Willow Catelyn Maclay

Over the last six years, Body Talk has been a series of published correspondences between trans critics Caden Mark Gardner and Willow Catelyn Maclay focused on the depiction of trans people in film and diving into the possibilities of trans codification in cinema. Their upcoming book Corpses, Fools, and Monsters: The History and Future of Transness in Cinema will be published July 9 by Repeater Books. In this edition of Body Talk for Reverse Shot we will discuss major plot elements of The People’s Joker, starring, co-written, and directed by Vera Drew.

Willow Catelyn Maclay: The People’s Joker is a twisted coming-of-trans-age fable that follows a young trans woman named Vera. She becomes aware of her gender identity through small moments of revelation as a child. The process of accepting and living out her true identity comes to fruition years later, with her performing the role of Joker the Harlequin (a combination of the Joker and Harley Quinn characters) at an illegal avant-garde comedy club in the cartoonishly dystopic and fascist Gotham City.

In an interview with Collider discussing the genesis of the film, director and star Vera Drew stated that she missed "dangerous" comedy and films that went beyond taking cheap shots, and her film fulfills that. The People’s Joker debuted as part of Midnight Madness at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2022. Word quickly spread, but then, suddenly, all subsequent screenings were pulled from the festival due to copyright issues. It was later revealed that Warner Bros. Discovery apparently pressured Drew herself to pull the film. This film is incendiary, but it should be discussed not just for its controversy. What makes this film significant is how it engages with the iconography of IP superhero blockbuster cinema and with the trans film image.

The People’s Joker’s radical proposition is that a film can take pre-existing, mainstream images and filter them through the specificity of lived trans experiences. The trans film image is born of compromise, and the modern incarnation of trans mise-en-scène reacts to the paucity of diverse mainstream depictions of transness and the lack of a widely available trans film archive. The People’s Joker is one among other notable trans-directed releases this year (including Jane Schoenbrun’s I Saw the TV Glow and Alice Maio Mackay’s T Blockers) whose visual language is rooted in the way trans filmmakers came to identify themselves through images not intentionally significant to trans viewers. These images then take on the personalized effects of influence, identification, and fantasy, rather than the blunt politics of what representation should or could accomplish. The result is a more liberated depiction of transness onscreen and an unusually exciting moment for queer cinema, calling to mind the formation of the New Queer Cinema of the ’90s. It feels as though we are on the cusp of a trans-authored cinema coming to define itself.

Caden Mark Gardner: The People’s Joker’s sudden entrance into the film landscape, only to be yanked off-stage with a vaudeville hook, was unexpected, and the myth of the film immediately took off in exciting ways. It wasn’t just notorious because of its trans authorship but also because this was outsider art made by an artist thumbing their nose at one of the most mainstream totemic behemoths in popular culture. It became a badge of honor to have seen it at the Midnight Madness program or some other festival or secret screening that occurred prior to its theatrical release.

The People’s Joker is an anarchic, punk, profane work that invigorates the trans memoir/essayistic mode. It’s a genre that tends to get stale once you encounter the first dozen trans memoirs, and even those that center autotheory rather than talking about birth, transition, and staying alive have themselves become more bromide than novel. The People’s Joker is a coming-of-age narrative, but it's also about trying to find your voice and connection while maintaining your sanity amidst society’s expectations for how to present yourself. All that said, The People’s Joker feels not like a work strictly for trans people to feel “seen,” but instead articulates its themes to a potentially broad audience who often see trans people as ciphers for a brand of respectability politics—which most of us neither signed up for nor want. For that alone it feels like a major work, and a film that I both related to and felt called out by as a trans person. (Truly, I have not felt this so much since Torrey Peters’s novel Detransition, Baby.)

WCM: Let’s talk about the moment of epiphany within the film. It feels important to note the elements that bear an aesthetic resemblance to Joel Schumacher’s Batman Forever and Batman and Robin. Joker the Harlequin’s pre-transition self (played by Griffin Kramer) experiences an egg-cracking moment [trans slang for a personal realization of trans identity] upon seeing Nicole Kidman as Dr. Chase Meridian in Batman Forever, falling in love with Kidman’s screen image. As a child, Joker (who also goes by Vera, entangling the memoir element even further) wants to look like Kidman when she grows up. It is common among trans cinephiles and trans people in general to have a similar experience of fantasy with a screen image, and perhaps this is why so many of us are cinephiles. Eerily, mine was also Nicole Kidman in Batman Forever. These Gen-X era Batman films ranging from Burton’s Batman (1989) through Schumacher’s entrieshave obvious notes of queer-coding and kink. Schumacher was a gay man, and his superheroes are filtered through a lens of fetish imagery, including close-ups of tight, hard bodies trapped in spandex and the eroticizing of Chris O’Donnell’s Robin. Watching these films as children introduced numerous viewers to concepts and images of queer cinema, even if they perhaps didn’t have the words for it yet.

Among these significant images is Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman in Burton’s Batman Returns. She licks Batman’s face, wears skintight leather, and erotically purrs, getting off on the persona that had freed her from her normal nine-to-five secretary life. In Pfeiffer’s famous transformation scene, she destroys her cozy apartment and remakes it in her new image of chaos and eroticism, bashing the neon sign in her bedroom and changing its words from “Hello There” to “Hell Here”—the same sign seen in the background of the shot in The People’s Joker, when Joker begins living her trans identity. Jane Schoenbrun has also noted the vivid quality of the Schumacher Batman films as an influence on I Saw the TV Glow. Drew uses these elements as well, but in a way that is directly confronted within the narrative as the film gorges on neon greens and pinks and Vera’s Joker becomes a cult of personality. Drew also pulls from Todd Phillips’s Joker (a film which is also a remix, directly pulling from Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy) and parodies numerous elements from that film, including Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker bombing at a comedy club. The People’s Joker was originally conceived as a found-footage experience for which Drew was going to cut together a new Joker film out of existing footage from other sources. That approach gave Drew a foundation to take those elements and funnel them through the lens of transness as if all the Jokers of the past fell into a giant vat of estradiol. It feels like a prank until it slowly reveals itself as a genuine story of Joker coming to welcome their transness and their community in an inconceivable world.

CMG: I think it is notable how both of us, like Drew, connected at a very young age to the Schumacher Batman films. Trans people can find strains of their identity anywhere. I think that fact is going to be a galling prospect for cis film critics to reckon with as trans cultural production receives more attention. This is also why I was particularly flummoxed by B. Ruby Rich’s praise for academic Paul Preciado’s Orlando: My Political Biography as “the first trans masterpiece.” This tendency to venerate certain trans art for being “first” comes from a well-intentioned place but is so factually untrue that it trivializes the art in question and risks erasing what preceded it. Sure, it is on the opposite end of the ideological spectrum to how TERFs like the disgraced Graham Linehan—who most recently made the laughable quip that trans people have never made great art—approach trans authorship and cultural production. But one should not spotlight marginalized identities within the cinematic space by making them a novelty. These examples of Rich and others preferring to champion trans work on a “first” basis are a bigger side effect of institutional biases across film culture in what types of films get selected and seen. Of course, our research and writing collaborations over the years counter claims that trans film images on screen were strictly disposable, unmemorable, or harmful images, when, in fact, there are films that we both would consider masterpieces. I thought of The People’s Joker when running into that Rich quote. I am thankful I saw The People’s Joker prior to Orlando: My Political Biography, and I have a lot more affinity for the former over the latter as a work of cinema and provocation. Ultimately, what type of art trans people attach their identity to or a film’s status as a monocultural object, whether Batman Forever or The Matrix series, does not mean it can’t offer a moment of epiphany equal to Virginia Woolf’s great novel.

I think contextualizing this is crucial to The People’s Joker because its embattled release history may lead people to think of it as some kind of a prank on existing IP. In our current film landscape, major studios are either obsessed with remakes or reboots or are just willing to blow off honoring their identity and history, such as Warner Bros. shelving a completed Batwoman film and a Wile E. Coyote film for tax write-off purposes. This film is a remix and to a certain extent a bootleg. It is irreverent outsider art that features transness as an essential component. There are many reasons why this film speaks specifically to our community that makes it so adventurous. It’s worth noting that Drew’s Joker is not the film’s only trans character. While we have seen trans friendships and camaraderie occur in trans movies, I have never seen one as toxic as the one between Vera and Mr. J. Drew daringly throws a grenade at the romanticism of t4t (trans for trans) relationships.

WCM: It’s refreshing that The People’s Joker is not only a satire on the superhero phenomenon and the internal world of comedy clubs and organizations but also of the interpersonal dynamics between trans people. This film takes the notion of “feeling seen” to absurd places, and Drew’s Joker is not the only Joker in this picture. Kane Distler plays Mr. J as a composite of Jared Leto’s edgelord Joker from The Suicide Squad and the canonical Jason Todd character who succeeded Dick Grayson as Robin in the comics. Mr. J is a trans man who uses his Traumatic History to position himself as a victim—in the style of the "Oppression Olympics." His pain is valid, but he also uses that to get whatever he wants from his relationship with Vera, and what initially started out as a romance built upon shared understanding of identity quickly transforms into something exploitative and gross.

There is such a strong tendency among trans viewers to ask for better representation. The problem with this is that it can sometimes put trans people in the equally dehumanizing position of never being at fault as characters. The People’s Joker proudly waves the banner that trans people can be egocentric, narcissistic fuck-ups, just like anyone else. This might result in more trans people seeing this film and responding to it than they would a perfect GLAAD-approved representation—every trans person knows a disaster trans person, and most trans people have been a disaster at one time or another. Changing your sex is messy business, after all. Mr. J is one such character, and I think he’s great. As a trans man, what did you think of this character, Caden?

CMG: I thought Mr. J was one of the film’s most audacious elements. However, I can envision other trans men who might react unkindly to the film because Mr. J is a certain type of trans person who is difficult to see centered: a traumatized, abused victim and not even necessarily a sympathetic one. I think back to trans journalist Evan Urquhart’s unfair bashing of Detransition, Baby on social media for how it portrayed trans masculinity (or rather, did not). Urquhart and other readers seemed to think it was the responsibility of Peters to deliver a GLAAD media guide–informed notion of what trans art should serve. Mr. J is a messy character by design, and I admire so much of this film because it actually goes there in its satirical elements, and in Mr. J’s case gets extremely dark.

It feels intentional that Mr. J resembles the near universally reviled Jared Leto version of Joker. Even the action of making Leto’s most notorious role a form of drag itself feels like a sly commentary about the fact he used trans women as a costume to win an Oscar for Dallas Buyers Club; this time, trans people make him into a costume. But he also shares the DNA of the Robin sidekick. We have alluded to the homoerotic elements of Batman and Robin, in which a rich man "adopts" an orphaned teenage boy to live with him and both know each other’s secret….However, Drew takes that situation and reframes it into the story of a major power imbalance that becomes exploitative, coercive, and illegal. Basically, the film turns Batman into a “groomer.” Is this what freaked WB out? It is an incredibly subversive choice. In public life, the “groomer” term gets liberally used to slander LGBTQ people, while Drew here reroutes the whole concept back to Bruce Wayne, who also fits the “trans chaser” stereotype of a discreet rich cis white man.

We have seen these (at best) transactional relationship dynamics, as in the TV show Pose, where the rich male “chaser” puts a trans woman in a gilded cage as a “kept woman.” The former trans adult film director and magazine editor known as Kim Christy, in a 2015 interview with The Advocate, referenced men who would "sponsor" their trans girlfriends and mistresses through largesse, including paying their for surgeries, until they lost interest in them, because achieved trans bodily autonomy meant those men no longer had that predatory power over those women. I have never quite seen a trans masculine version take on this prior to The People’s Joker. Yes, Mr. J plays the Oppression Olympics and comes across as insolent to others, including weaponizing his mental health as if that could be a reparation for what happened to him. However, Drew’s Joker can only offer so much emotional labor in empathizing with Mr. J, and their volatile dynamic feels extremely realistic in a film whose crude DIY artifice otherwise lends a Brechtian element to the central premise.

WCM: It was a tantalizing idea for Drew to directly address transness through images of Batman’s rogues’ gallery, because these villains usually have their own backstory of identity and perceived mental illness. Here, Drew’s Joker is told as an adolescent to smile more frequently by her mother (Lynn Downey), and suffers a montage of psychiatrists who do not adequately address her issues relating to gender. Joker is dragged off to seek a mental health professional after she asks her mother, “Was I born in the wrong body?” The character is immediately given a prescription for Smylex, a drug that artificially stretches the user’s mouth into a big grin. It’s superficial, and doesn’t address the problems of anxiety, depression, or gender dysphoria. The smiling, happy, but numb child is an absurdist take on the antidepressant as an image for the trans adolescent, and it becomes a prominent part of Vera’s avant-garde comedy act as an adult. When she intentionally bombs with her observational humor, she uses Smylex on stage until she cannot stop laughing. Within this fascist version of Gotham City, performing comedy has been made illegal, and it is no coincidence that her comedy is about transness—making her a dangerous figure to the status quo and turning her into a folk hero for other weary trans people who watch her act and feel seen.

Films about us are usually so beholden to the realism of the situation, rather than the fantastical wants and desires we might have, and this comes together in the resolution Vera has with her mother. The parental dynamics of the film offer a twist on the usual narratives that follow trans women. Typically trans women are thought to have problems with our fathers. I wanted to ask if you thought of the recent Monica while watching this film, because it’s also about a trans woman who has a complex relationship with her mother, but they are wildly different. Monica is more in line with the standard image-making and stories of modern independent film, including the reserved emotional state of the lead character, forgoing the messier dynamics of melodrama, and utilizing the Academy ratio to make a point about the gilded cage of the prodigal trans daughter’s return home.

CMG: I liked Monica a lot and related to the character’s reservedness. In some ways that reflects an internalization we often have to put up a shield in public to counter the idea that we are all emotionally unstable and vulnerable. The two of us, at least, have a certain level of resignation that the scars of the past are part of our identities. Some of these scars can be mended through a compromise, but that is a two-way street with other parties that still may leave things unaddressed and unspoken, which also happens for the character of Monica. Drew’s Joker is obviously way more extroverted—part of her life as an aspiring stand-up comedian is being a monologist and storyteller, so she naturally presents her “origin story” with the self-reflection that she can finally give a name to what was happening to her and explain why her mother and the "help" she sought were so insufficient. There are certain levels of misgivings we all have about the lack of real care and attention we got growing up where gender identity did not even enter the topic of discussion, as transness was not in our vocabulary. While I was not put on meds like the film's Smylex, I was a pretty moody kid and often told I had to smile to be more inviting, engaging, and less introverted. Even at after-school jobs customers would goad me and my female coworkers to “put on a smile,” which was of course tied to a certain gendered expectation. I think most women detest that unsolicited advice, but in my case I was being told to fulfill a silly, stupid role of the female gender while my body was betraying me, and I could not talk to anybody about it.

The physical act of “smiling” as a metaphor for inadequate trans care is one of my favorite remixes in the film. In the comics, the Joker’s victims are often left in a state of hysteria with cartoonish, devilish smiles due to chemical poisons. Drew’s Joker experiences the “smiling effect” in another chemical way that I think underscores a major issue of the trans experience, which is that, despite our rights and existence becoming an unending topic of debate and exclusionary legislation, there are cis allies that expect us to radiate trans joy at all times. Bullshit. Let me be the Assigned Oscar the Grouch at Birth that I am. These expectations are driven by social media and the way organizations like GLAAD, however well-intentioned, engage in seeking to “uplift” trans people and our stories. “Trans joy” and “queer joy” are phrases I find deeply insidious. Even when framed as the standard for new trans stories, I find it pretty limiting and insulting as a critic that organizations and their initiatives think that is what we as trans people only want from art. It is a PR-speak version of “put a smile on that face.”

While The People’s Joker is extremely funny, it does dive into the ways we as trans people can feel isolated, from a society-level to a familial-level. It is not necessarily an uplifting story, and it is certainly not some activist, prescriptive story about tolerance or acceptance. But to me The People’s Joker is a truthful, sincere trans narrative, much like T-Blockers and, to a certain extent, I Saw the TV Glow. They are each different in how they show and tell their stories and characters, but they are in conversation with the trans experience and their particular filmmakers’ trans experiences. Each of these films presents its own points of cinematic inspiration, which is why I find the fact that they are going to be available to see now in the same calendar year something to celebrate. This feels like the trans cinema that we have wanted to see be available to not just us but also the lay person when we started Body Talk, and I think it’s a credit to these filmmakers that we could never have possibly imagined these films in our wildest dreams a decade ago.