Still Processing: Psychobros, From the Best of the Archives

jenna wortham

Hey, Wesley.

wesley morris

Yes, Jenna?

jenna wortham

Guess what treasure I found in my inbox not too long ago?

wesley morris

Oh, uh, I don’t know. You might just have to tell me what it is.

jenna wortham

OK, a listener named Salome (sp) sent a really nice message. Can I read it to you?

wesley morris

Oh — yes, as long as it’s good, I’ll take it.

jenna wortham

Yeah, it’s really good. “Dear, Jenna” — ooh, I love this. Like the formality. Ugh, I love it! “Please excuse my having slid into your DMs to ask you about this.” You are excused! Thank you for the politeness! “If this is not OK, please let me know.” Again, Wesley, we love consent in this household.

wesley morris

Consent!

jenna wortham

“I was late to finding you and Wesley’s podcast. It is such a balm to the confusion with which I would previously traverse the world. Do you ever both go back to your previous podcasts in new light? I’ve just finished listening to “Pyschobros,” and it is so timely that it’s after Harry Styles’s Vogue cover blew open that conversation with my friends. I’d be so interested to hear your thoughts on how his expression of masculinity feeds into your previous conversation. Thanks in advance, and again, for articulating the things that discomfit so many people.”

wesley morris

Thank you. Thank you very much, Salome. I mean, the first thing I’ll say is, I’m for the Vogue cover. I’m for all Harry Styles’s looks.

He can serve it.

jenna wortham

And I love the image of Harry in that field, shot by Tyler Mitchell, playing with balloons. Just, to me, it feels like releasing of the farcicle ideas of the gender binary and the roles that we get really boxed into as life goes on. It feels like reverting to something more playful. And I just needed that. When that cover came out, it felt so like a breath of fresh air.

wesley morris

You just don’t expect it. That video for “Walk Through Fire,” or whatever that song is called, where he’s running around that fishing village —

jenna wortham

“Adore You.”

[music – harry styles, “adore you”]
archived recording (harry styles)

(SINGING) Honey, ah-ah-ah, I’d walk through fire for you, just let me adore you.

wesley morris

He’s just running around this fishing village in just Gucci glamor, but having all these —

jenna wortham

Head to toe.

wesley morris

— sexy longshoreman just be like, what is going on here? And he’s like, it’s normal, guys. Don’t worry about it. We’re going to get this fish back into the ocean.

archived recording (harry styles)

(SINGING) It’s the only thing I’d ever do.

wesley morris

I love that video, and I love Harry Styles.

jenna wortham

Yes, yes, yes.

wesley morris

Does it seem like he’s pretending or putting it on?

jenna wortham

No! Oh my God, no. It feels soft and expansive and invigorating in this way where — I mean, do I wish that the face of gender fluidity was not a cis male white pop star? Yes. If it has to be and we’re talking the cover of Vogue, am I mad that it’s Harry Styles? No. Harry Styles is definitely very soft in this way, where he can allow us to think more expansively and more softly about what it means to be a man in 2020 to 2021, which is clearly a conversation the entire world needs to be having, and to stop holding on so tightly to whatever those expectations and ideas are.

wesley morris

And the occasion for this conversation is that we’re in the middle of making some new episodes. They’re coming in March. And we just don’t like the idea of a dry-ass feed. And while we’re making some new episodes, we figure we’d repopulate our stream with some oldies, but goodies. You know, massage some Aquaphor on what we got going. So what we’ve got are some of your favorite episodes and a couple of our favorite episodes. And now, without further ado, Pyschobros.

[theme music]

20 years ago, I was just out of college, and I was getting mail to my house.

jenna wortham

It’s the most adult feeling in the world.

wesley morris

And I got a copy of this Rolling Stone from October of 1999. And it is ostensibly a profile of Brad Pitt conducted by the great profile writer Chris Heath. He’s just following Brad around Europe, asking him a bunch of annoying questions, like whether he’s smart, his relationship with Jennifer Aniston, how he feels about fame, trying to get to the heart and the soul of who Brad Pitt is. That interview in Rolling Stone came with some very appealing packaging.

And what I’m talking about is in the cover photography by Mark Seliger. And it is essentially Brad Pitt reclining on one of those in-the-middle-of-the-house fireplaces.

And he’s just reclining there and looking up at the camera.

jenna wortham

Sensual.

wesley morris

AKA, you and me. His hair is shorn. He’s got one hand up near his mouth, holding a cigarette. And the other, it’s just sort of by his side. His legs are apart. And the reason to bring that up is because Brad Pitt isn’t wearing a pair of shorts or pants. The man is in a mini dress!

jenna wortham

Stop.

wesley morris

Yes!

jenna wortham

I love it. I’m very into this pose. I’m very into these thighs, this arm. I’m very into this dress. He’s got one orange rubber glove on. And then next to him, there’s this papaya-shaped ashtray. Very, very vaginal, very Georgia O’Keeffe. I mean, I have to imagine that’s a very unusual image of a man, let alone the man of America at that moment in time — Brad Pitt — to be out there in the world. I mean, how did it feel? How did the people respond?

wesley morris

Well, it wasn’t as though a picture of a man like this would be that rare. I mean, it was rare. But there’s other Black men who everybody had sort of written off as weird anyway, like Dennis Rodman. Or it was like a fractured weirdo, like Kurt Cobain. This was a seemingly stable, healthy, average cis male white guy, who was also, at that point, the apotheosis, or an apotheosis, of where masculinity seemed to be going. Brad Pitt had played a bunch of psychos at that point. He became famous for seducing Geena Davis on the run from the law in “Thelma and Louise,” giving her the best and possibly only orgasm of her life, then stealing her money. And now he’s on the cover of this magazine in this dress. And my mind was blown.

jenna wortham

Yeah, my mind is blown looking at it today. It’s amazing.

wesley morris

I felt real scrambled. And part of the scrambling was that I felt like that image and the person in it were trying to tell me something. Like, what else a man could be? There’s this other way. There’s this other way to express masculinity that is both incorporating all of the traditional ideas that we have, but also to turn it into something weird and fun and comical and slightly threatening.

jenna wortham

But the idea that someone like Brad Pitt would be comfortable skewering and filling out and adding to ideas of masculinity in this extraordinarily public form, and forum, while also being at the same time in a film that’s very much about the ways in which masculinity gets twisted and warped and is up for analyzing as well, is so — I mean, even now, 20 years later, sitting here, it feels very radical.

wesley morris

Yeah, and from Brad Pitt, by the way, who, 20 years after this picture gets taken, is still near the center of American culture, messing with our ideas of masculinity and what a man is and who else a man could be.

jenna wortham

What was so exciting to me about re-encountering this image, Brad Pitt represents an idealized version of American masculinity. So for him to feel so stable in that identity that he can totally play around with it, queer it, we didn’t have the language around his hacking, I guess, that we do now. And so it’s really exciting to think about this conversation that he started 20 some years ago that we’re still having today.

wesley morris

I would say that we are finally ready to be having.

jenna wortham

Well, we finally caught up to that image! [LAUGHTER] It took 20 years, but we finally caught up to that image.

[music]

I’m Jenna Wortham.

wesley morris

I’m Wesley Morris. We’re two culture writers at The New York Times.

jenna wortham

This is Still Processing.

wesley morris

Jenna, I need to tell you something.

jenna wortham

OK, I’m all ears.

wesley morris

I am a little concerned about our use of the term “toxic masculinity.”

jenna wortham

Mm.

wesley morris

I feel like it’s sort of misapplied to a lot of different things.

jenna wortham

As many things are, yes.

wesley morris

Conventionally, toxic masculinity is referring to, among other things, the suppression of vulnerability in boys and men. Their ability to express a range of emotions, and not just two or three, and those two or three emotions being sort of on the negative end of human self-expression. I don’t know. I feel like it now gets applied to any sort of male behavior that seems questionable.

jenna wortham

Right. I mean, I think traditionally, toxic masculinity, when people employ it correctly, is used to talk about the ways in which male privilege and male power is used to threaten, harm, oppress, extinguish any other form of self-expression. I think it’s also employed any time men behave badly. It’s kind of become a catchall term for any expression of maleness or masculinity.

wesley morris

Yeah, and so 20 years ago, I mean, the term existed, but we weren’t using it willy nilly the way we are now. But we had this conversation about this Brad Pitt picture from 1999. The picture was timed to the release of “Fight Club,” the movie in which he stars as this — I’m sorry if you didn’t know this already, but —

jenna wortham

Spoiler alert for a movie that’s been out 20 years.

wesley morris

— the manifestation of another character’s masculinity crisis, essentially.

jenna wortham

Ooh, yes.

wesley morris

And the movie is like a complete exploration into whatever that term actually means and is doing. So “Fight Club,” starring Brad Pitt and Edward Norton and Helena Bonham Carter, comes out in 1999 — in the fall of ‘99 and is the story of this sort of cubicle jockey sort of person, who works for a car company and does the recall evaluations, so that when there is an accident, he goes to the scene, evaluates the scene, sees how bad the accident is, and sort of does a bunch of algorithmic-like equations to determine whether or not this car, or this model needs to be recalled. And something about that job, which does involve violence, it does involve a kind of moral corruption —

jenna wortham

It does also involve a degree of dissociation from the trauma and death and destruction that you’re looking at every day. And so, as a result, he’s anesthetized. He’s completely numbed out.

wesley morris

And so, there’s this combination of things that happens between this job, where he’s required to compartmentalize his humanity in one sense, and his reaping the rewards of that compartmentalization as an American consumer. So, he’s buying all this stuff, and he’s filling his condo with all these wonderful things, which, in the mind of this movie — which David Fincher directed — is IKEA stuff.

archived recording (“fight club” narrator)

Like so many others, I had become a slave to the IKEA nesting instinct.

jenna wortham

Remember back then, though, IKEA was this rare, exciting thing.

archived recording (“fight club” narrator)

If I saw something clever like a little coffee table in the shape of a yin-yang, I had to have it.

jenna wortham

It wasn’t as broadly available as it is today. So that was exciting.

wesley morris

I treated that catalogue like a Bible.

jenna wortham

It’s like, ooh, IKEA, you know?

archived recording (“fight club” narrator)

— wire lamps of environmentally friendly unbleached paper.

wesley morris

So at some point, the movie is bringing IKEA catalogs to life.

archived recording (“fight club” narrator)

The [INAUDIBLE] track home exer-bike.

wesley morris

And you’re sort of moving through this David Fincher-produced showroom of —

jenna wortham

Yeah, human life —

wesley morris

Right.

jenna wortham

— idealized human existence.

archived recording (“fight club” narrator)

I had it all, even the glass dishes with tiny bubbles and imperfections — proof that they were crafted by the honest, simple, hard-working indigenous peoples of wherever.

wesley morris

There are many scenes in this movie in which the narrator, whose name we never learn, he is describing the perfectly normal way in which our relationship to capitalism begets this kind of spiritual numbness.

jenna wortham

Mm.

wesley morris

And during this sort of laying out of a consumerist world, something in him is snapping. And he is, in this period, going to all these self-help groups and touring other people’s trauma and damage, much the way that he does in his professional life. He’s sort of a tourist of accidents that he must assess the value of for his company, or the harm potentially being done to his company. And in his private life, he is touring the harms that other people are living through every day. But he’s kind of mocking it too, right? He’s kind of laughing at these people.

jenna wortham

You think so?

wesley morris

I mean, I think that the way he explains it to us is that I actually get something out of this, which is, I feel healthier being around all these unhealthy people.

jenna wortham

Interesting. See, I’ve always read it as he can’t access any suffering his own life. He doesn’t feel good. He doesn’t feel well. He doesn’t know why, and the only way to access any emotion on the human spectrum is to try on other people’s unhappiness and other people’s suffering.

wesley morris

Yes.

jenna wortham

It’s a cosplay for him.

wesley morris

But there is this interest in having some sow for this unspecified pain. And at some point, not too far into the movie, but whatever this pain is, this frustration that comes out of going to all these sort of self-help groups and group therapies, creates this alternative self that looks like Brad Pitt, dresses like — I don’t even know — like an L.A. hippie circa 1995. It’s like if Beck’s “Odelay” —

jenna wortham

Oh my God.

wesley morris

— could walk and talk, that’s what that guy’s dressed like.

jenna wortham

OK.

wesley morris

So he shows up. He says his name is Tyler Durden. And something about him, and how cool he seems, speaks to Edward Norton’s character. And he’s just automatically readable as this manifestation of an idealized man for this guy.

jenna wortham

Brad Pitt in his best role ever. I mean, I definitely think that Ed Norton’s character, who’s unnamed — the narrator — is going through, as you mentioned, a spiritual crisis. He is lacking a feeling of belonging. And it definitely feels indicative of a cultural moment of the time. That profile, which I re-read recently, they interviewed Ed Norton, and he talks a lot about how there was this perception that people of his generation were very much aligned with a reality bites type of ennui — just this kind of driftless, aimless generation that’s unhappy, but really depressed.

And then Norton was like, that was not exactly our story. For the rest of us, there was kind of this sort of disgust with American capitalism, this sort of discernment and worry about the future of society, and just feeling like things are really messed up. They’re really messed up, and we’re unhappy. And there is this kind of simmering discontentment. And Ed Norton’s character is someone who also doesn’t have a relationship to masculinity or the idea of manhood. And so, as he’s going through the motions of his life, and he experiences this mental break, and then Tyler Durden emerges, he’s infatuated with this man.

Because it seems, at first, Tyler Durden is a very interesting guy, obviously very handsome, has a very interesting moral core and ethos and knows himself — understands how he wants to be in space as a man, which is something that Ed Norton’s character has never figured out. And so when you encounter these two characters, you feel like, at first, Tyler Durden is going to be the sherpa into this new world and this new identity that Ed Norton doesn’t need these help groups anymore.

He doesn’t need to rely on this sort of depressing end of the spectrum of human experiences to feel whole — that now he has kind of this guide who’s going to teach him a bit about how to fill out his own skin for himself.

wesley morris

Right.

jenna wortham

And that’s where things get interesting.

archived recording (narrator)

Well, what do you want me to do? You just want me to hit you?

archived recording (tyler durden)

Come on, do me this one favor.

archived recording (narrator)

Why?

archived recording (tyler durden)

Why? I don’t know why. I’ve never been in a fight. You?

archived recording (narrator)

No, but that’s a good thing.

archived recording (tyler durden)

No, it is not. How much can you know about yourself if you’ve never been in a fight? I don’t want to die without any scars.

jenna wortham

And they fight.

archived recording (tyler durden)

Mother [EXPLETIVE]. You hit me in the ear!

archived recording (narrator)

Well, Jesus, I’m sorry!

archived recording (tyler durden)

Ow! Christ!

jenna wortham

I mean, I remember when I first saw this movie, I thought it was the coolest thing ever. I was definitely a kid who wore Jenkos and went on Warped Tours. So for me, I was just like, yeah. I was very into this idea of embracing a counterculture narrative, like rejecting capitalist norms. I was obsessed with that magazine, Adbusters. I was really into this idea that we don’t have to be fed ideas of how to live and just not buying into this idea of some pyramid of success. So back then, I was really seeing it as — I mean, we all were. We were seeing it as this critique of consumerism in our money-obsessed world. And now, when I watch it, I really see it more as a critique of masculinity. And I think I just didn’t have the vocabulary to understand it then.

wesley morris

None of the speeches necessarily are about men and masculinity. I mean, we don’t think about men sort of being made to be marriageable in the way that women have been socialized to be marriageable. But this is also a guy, who, at this point in his life, he would have been about 30. He’s got a good job. He’s attractive enough. He should have a girlfriend. He should be shopping for a ring somewhere.

jenna wortham

Yeah, exactly.

wesley morris

And I think that the split happens in a weird way that Tyler is the manifestation of a thing that would make him unmarriageable.

jenna wortham

Ooh.

wesley morris

At some point, the narrator loses his condo, has nowhere to live. He’s homeless. And so, Tyler invites him into his giant — if you had to draw a picture of what a cancer house would look like, it would be this place.

archived recording (narrator)

Most of the windows were boarded up. There was no lock on the front door from when the police or whoever kicked it in. Stairs were ready to collapse.

wesley morris

Where everybody that comes near it, goes in it seems sick. Everybody’s smoking all the time. The faucets are like, do you want to drink the water? Is anything in this house clean? Every inch of this house is filthy. It’s skuzzy. It’s dirty. It’s never been disinfected. And nothing about it is a place you’d want to bring anybody that you want to have a relationship with.

jenna wortham

It’s so true.

wesley morris

It is sort of a guarantee against being included in society. It’s only a place where you build some sort of counterculture.

jenna wortham

It’s totally a flophouse.

wesley morris

Right. I mean, it’s even worse than that. I mean, the house itself is toxic.

jenna wortham

The big reveal in “Fight Club,” of course, is that Tyler Durden and Ed Norton’s character, who’s unnamed, are the same person. And back then, you’re watching the movie, and it’s this big twist. It’s this reveal. It’s this very clever plot moment. But we’re also talking about someone that has a mental illness, right? We’re talking about someone who has maybe what we would call dissociative disorder, split personalities, borderline personalities — I don’t know.

He’s wrestling with himself in a very unhealthy and unhinged way. The movie kind of makes it seem like the alt personality, the alt ego is what allows him to come into himself more, and understand himself more, and embody a type of freedom that he hasn’t ever experienced before. But we’re also talking about a mental illness. And so it’s very interesting that the movie is embracing the expression, the hyper aggressive expression of masculinity as a mental illness.

wesley morris

Right, and that the manifestation of that mental illness is like what I can only describe as a pyschobro —

jenna wortham

Right. [LAUGHS] Yes.

wesley morris

— where the only healthy outlet of that masculinity is violence and rejection. And it’s funny because they established this Fight Club, and the club is men coming to beat each other senseless. And I was sort of struck by where that impulse comes from, right? They feel like this is what they deserve. There’s something about watching these guys beat each other up and be exhilarated by it. But there’s also nothing that feels good in it for you and me, as people watching this behavior.

jenna wortham

It’s completely fascinating that the alternate reality that they imagined for themselves that exists outside of heteronormativity — so marriage, kids, all those things — is just pure violence. They could have decided to can food. They could have decided to make quilts. They could have decided to start a farm. No, they decide to blow up buildings and wreak havoc on the world. But it’s really interesting that in rejecting kind of the ways in which men are expected to show up in society, they create this hyper violent version of selfhood.

That is their version of masculinity that, I guess, apparently, this movie thinks is inherent in all men, or at least these men.

wesley morris

Well, there’s also this other amazing moment that happens maybe a quarter of the way through the movie, where Edward Norton and Brad Pitt are in the bathroom together. And Brad Pitt’s in the tub, and Edward Norton’s facing away from Brad Pitt as he bathes. And Brad Pitt’s character has this rag over his face. And Tyler keeps asking the narrator, if you could fight anybody, who would you fight?

archived recording (narrator)

Fight my boss probably.

archived recording (tyler durden)

Really?

archived recording (narrator)

Yeah, why? Who would you fight?

archived recording (tyler durden)

I’d fight my dad.

archived recording (narrator)

I don’t know my dad.

archived recording (tyler durden)

My dad never went to college, so it was real important that I go.

archived recording (narrator)

That sounds familiar.

archived recording (tyler durden)

So I graduate. I call him up long distance. I said, dad, now what? He says, I don’t know. Get married.

archived recording (narrator)

I mean, I can’t get married. I’m a 30-year-old boy.

archived recording (tyler durden)

We’re a generation of men raised by women. I’m wondering if another woman is really the answer we need.

wesley morris

And so, you’re just kind of like, yeah, they are very aware that they’re a bunch of Adams who no longer need any Eves. And the idea that that mental illness also manifests this misogyny is also — like, what do you do with that? And I would say that that is a thing the culture is doing right now in general. When you get a depiction of maleness and masculinity now, you tend to see what I am just going to keep describing as a psychobro. And one of the biggest hits of the year is “Joker” — about the pycho-est bro.

archived recording (joker)

Ha-ha-ha.

jenna wortham

So fast forward 20 years to October 2019, a little old film called “Joker” comes out. It takes place in the Batman universe. It centers on the back story, the origin story of Joker, who everybody knows. If you’ve ever read a Batman comic or seen the cartoon or seen any of the “Dark Knight” movies, you know Joker looms large. And Joaquin Phoenix is cast as the central character. So there was this idea of getting a sense at sort of the psychology of someone who plays pranks and is this arch nemesis to one of the greatest comic book characters ever invented — Batman. And so trying to figure out what makes him tick started to really stir people up.

archived recording (joker)

My mother always tells me to smile and put on a happy face.

jenna wortham

But then the trailer comes out.

archived recording (joker)

She told me I had a purpose —

to bring laughter and joy to the world.

jenna wortham

And the trailer paints a picture of a very lonely, isolated, alienated white dude. And people kind of start being like, hmm —

wesley morris

Freaking out!

jenna wortham

— who is this movie for, and what exactly is this movie about? And so that entire cloud hangs over the film from the moment it’s announced to the first screenings into the success of the film. Because it does remarkably well in the theaters, right?

wesley morris

Yes, it is the biggest October opening ever.

jenna wortham

Wow.

wesley morris

And it’s also a comic book movie. Like those things, you just — all you got to do is say Joaquin Phoenix is going to put on some clown makeup and read the phone book —

jenna wortham

Totally.

wesley morris

— it makes $100 million the first weekend.

archived recording (joker)

I used to think that my life was a tragedy.

But now I realize it’s a comedy.

jenna wortham

But because we’re living in a moment where we’re trying to untangle this notion of white nationalism, we’re trying to understand the ways in which it’s manifesting in all of these shootings that are happening around the country — we’re trying to understand how it ties into these outbursts of violence as the direct result of feeling, quote unquote, left out of some bigger cultural narrative.

wesley morris

Right, yes.

jenna wortham

So “Joker” became emblematic of this sentiment.

wesley morris

Right.

jenna wortham

So all eyes are on this film, but what we really get is a movie about a very unwell individual.

wesley morris

I don’t like “Joker,” but one of the few things that are interesting about this movie is the way that it is explicit about all the things that are implicit in “Fight Club.” And this is a guy, his name is Arthur Fleck. The job that pays him money is being a clown on the street, handing out flyers, basically, and doing sandwich board style work, to try to get people to go to businesses in the Times Square area. But what he really aspires to do is stand-up comedy. And throughout the film, he is actively trying to do the things that the men, or particularly the narrator in “Fight Club,” is actively rejecting, which is being a good partner and trying to get stability, period.

jenna wortham

Yeah.

wesley morris

These are all things Joker is in pursuit of, like the attainment of all kinds of stability — class stability, mental stability, job security.

jenna wortham

I mean, everything that Tyler Durden rejects Joker wants for himself. He wants the steady girlfriend. He wants the income. And when he can’t get them, it sort of drives him to the breaking point, at which Joker starts to emerge.

wesley morris

Right. I’m trying to be the man society says I should be, and at every turn, you tell me I can’t!

jenna wortham

Exactly.

wesley morris

Snap!

jenna wortham

Right.

wesley morris

Society’s collapse affects him, and part of his illness is that he doesn’t think that anybody can see him, and that he doesn’t matter — which, for any non-white person in the audience, you just kind of want to have a little chuckle. Sir, the whole thing is set up to see you.

jenna wortham

Yeah.

wesley morris

But it does begin to collapse, and he’s seeing a social worker that he can’t see anymore. He loses his job, so therefore he loses his access to healthcare and therefore his access to pharmaceuticals. So he’s off his meds, he doesn’t have therapy anymore. And however stable he was begins to fracture.

jenna wortham

Right, right. I did like “Joker” because — I don’t know — as someone who really also struggles with a lot of anxiety and depression, I was really happy to see a portrayal of just the difficulties of day-to-day life when you are not feeling well. However, the entire movie sets you up for this transformation that’s about to happen from regular degular guy into supervillain. And I think the whole movie kind of uses the fact that he has this undisclosed mental unwellness — they sort of set it up as, well, he can’t help himself.

wesley morris

Right.

jenna wortham

That’s how they explain away the Joker laugh. That’s how they explain away some of his delusional behavior. And it felt like a really lazy shorthand for, like, he can’t help what he’s about to do. Like, none of these things are his fault because he’s mentally sick. But it’s also not an excuse for the violence that he’s about to descend to, the killing that he does, the way he treats people around him. It really enraged me, actually.

wesley morris

I hear you, but then there’s this other thing that the movie does, which is treat masculinity as a mental illness.

jenna wortham

Right.

wesley morris

Which, here, results in the creation of a relationship with the woman who lives down the hall, who’s played by Zazie Beetz. And she’s his girlfriend in his mind for the movie.

jenna wortham

Right.

wesley morris

And she does all the things that he thinks a girlfriend ought to do, which is basically sit around while you suffer and —

jenna wortham

Rub your back.

wesley morris

And rub your back, exactly.

jenna wortham

Right. It’s interesting because so many of his behaviors, his socially unacceptable behaviors, again, are explained away by his mental illness. After he has this interaction with Zazie Beetz’s character in the elevator, he stalks her. And he imagines that she’s amused by it or charmed by it or turned on by it. But in actuality, we don’t even know if that happens or how she feels about it.

But again, it just kind of allows all of this unacceptable social behavior to bloom under the disguise of, well, he can’t be helped. He can’t help himself because he is not well. In the same way that “Fight Club” seemed to speak to a type of malaise of a generation, if we’re thinking about “Joker” as potentially speaking to a sentiment shared by — I don’t know — young men in this country and the world, it kind of feels like an extension of boys will be boys logic.

wesley morris

Oh yeah, yeah.

jenna wortham

And anything’s OK because you’re unhappy.

wesley morris

It’s funny how Gotham City in this movie functions the way the house does in “Fight Club.” Gotham City is also this skuzzy, chaotic, dirty place, where the presiding patriarchal energy is basically Thomas Wayne, who’s the father of Bruce Wayne who’ll become Batman, and this idea that — in “Fight Club,” those guys are rejecting that.

The house is a haven away from all of this sort of billionaire, corporate, consumerist, capitalist corruption and pollution, whereas in Gotham, it’s still a thing that Arthur wants to ascribe himself within. He, at some point, gets in his mind that Thomas Wayne — Bruce Wayne’s father — is his dad, too. And the idea that the father is rejecting the son who isn’t really his son, all the sour notes you hit to create a person who’s going to explode in a fit of unwellness and psychobro behavior. But what are the trigger points that lead a person like this to madness? It is this narcissism that craves attention.

It’s the starvation for parental affection and approval. It’s the anger at not being taken seriously or believed. His masculinity is being affronted by all of this rejection and mockery and laughter and dismissal.

jenna wortham

And I think that the Joker represents a lot of men in our culture who feel that their interests are no longer represented, or that their ideas are no longer valuable, or that people are no longer interested in them — simply because they are white men.

wesley morris

Well, this Arthur Fleck Joker character is — I would say he’s at the bottom of society, in some ways. Or the movie would argue that he’s on the bottom.

jenna wortham

I mean, I think that’s why the movie has raised such a cultural alarm, is that, historically, I feel like Gotham has kind of functioned as a Petri dish for the worst case scenario of humanity. It’s a fictional version of New York City within which things have deteriorated so much. The city is in such decline. There’s such economic ruin that you get this generation of superheroes that have to emerge to deal with the problems because the state has failed the people so much.

wesley morris

Anyway, I would just say that there is unwellness at every price point at this particular cultural moment. It’s not just people on the bottom, or people who think they’re on the bottom — or people in the middle. It’s people all the way at the top!

jenna wortham

Yeah.

wesley morris

Oh, in “Succession,” HBO’s “Succession,” there’s a guy named Kendall Roy, who could be Bruce Wayne, but is really, really suffering way more than Bruce ever suffered.

jenna wortham

He could also be Joker. He could be on the cusp of becoming Joker.

wesley morris

Yeah, well, we’ll talk about that in a second. We’ll be right back.

[music]

The show HBO “Succession.” It is a drama, it is a satire. It’s a little bit of a thriller. And the show is basically about who’s going to run the company because daddy’s dying. Who’s going to succeed him? Logan Roy is the patriarch of this family and the C.E.O. of this mega company. And the three kids are — I mean, they’re basically useless, right? There’s a woman named Siobhan. Everybody calls Shiv, although she doesn’t do enough shivving for me, as far as I’m concerned.

jenna wortham

I know! It’s hilarious that her nickname is Shiv, and she hasn’t quite figured out how to be a Shiv.

wesley morris

How to use the knife, yeah.

jenna wortham

Yeah.

wesley morris

There’s Roman Roy, who’s the youngest kid and kind of feckless, but knows it, right? He knows he might be the most abused of the three kids because the father, Logan, not terribly affectionate, not terribly loving. It’s something that this show has in common with both “Fight Club” and with “Joker,” this disconnection among children and their parents. But “Succession” is really about the struggle of these grown-ass kids, by the way, to get their father to notice and acknowledge them — and to reward them, I think, in some ways, out of entitlement, but also kind of as reparation for the harm that he has caused them over their childhoods. The thing about “Succession” that fascinates me is Kendall, mostly because it seems like he’s passive, but in some other world, this guy would be running [INAUDIBLE]. But at some point, when Logan’s telling Kendall that he just can’t be C.E.O., the reason that he explains that he can’t run the company is because he’s not man enough to do it.

archived recording (logan)

I’m going to give it a couple of years.

archived recording (shobian)

As in —

archived recording (logan)

I’ll stay in situ as chairman, C.E.O., head of the firm.

archived recording (kendall)

Dad, wait — you, what?

archived recording (logan)

I just said, son, or were you not listening as usual?

archived recording (kendall)

But I’m — but you’re not — what?

archived recording (logan)

It’s no big deal. I’m staying on. We can discuss the details.

archived recording (kendall)

You didn’t tell me.

archived recording (logan)

We can announce you’re in pole position, pending events, and move up or whatever.

archived recording (kendall)

Pending events?

archived recording (logan)

OK, come on, let’s eat.

wesley morris

Kendall, of course, he goes through this cycle of entitlement to run the company, uncertainty that he will be chosen to run the company, and then determination to prove to his father that he is indeed worthy of running the company.

jenna wortham

Right.

wesley morris

The way he’s performed by Jeremy Strong, the actor who plays him, is like, he’s very sort of uptight. He’s battling drug addiction. But Kendall’s attempts to rehabilitate himself come in for mockery from Logan Roy, the patriarch of the family. Because these attempts to better himself are deemed soft. They’re deemed weak. His attempt to kick his substance abuse habits are unmanly. Because a real man, presumably, would just deal with it.

jenna wortham

Interesting.

wesley morris

He’d be able to function in the world without getting any outside help or having to confess anything —

jenna wortham

Right.

wesley morris

— or share in a group any of the problems that he’s dealing with. And a lifetime of that for Kendall has created this completely warped idea of what a man is and how a man is supposed to behave. In two seasons of TV, how many different kinds of men has he — how many different kind of bros has he been? He’s been a tech bro. He’s been a biz bro. He’s a guy that you can imagine being in Tyler Durden’s “Fight Club.”

jenna wortham

Oh, yeah, he would definitely start the New York chapter for sure. But I’m really fascinated by the role that Shiv occupies within the family. It’s really interesting to watch how, being around all of this masculinity, that is, I think, very toxic and very mentally unwell, influences her and shapes her as a woman and as a person. I mean, she has to be around all these men by just the sheer function of the work that she does and her wanting to be involved in the family business, but she doesn’t really know how to function.

archived recording (shobian)

Also management training program, Roman’s C.O.O. You have a toddler with a hard-on for chief operating officer, and I’m going through a management training program?

archived recording (logan)

You’re a young woman with no experience.

archived recording (shobian)

A woman? That’s a minus?

archived recording (logan)

Well, of course, it’s a [EXPLETIVE] minus. I didn’t make the world.

archived recording

Oh, Jesus Christ, dad.

jenna wortham

She feels like the product of growing up in a world tainted by a very unhealthy view of masculinity. I mean, she cannot figure out her identity because she’s entrenched in this family and because she wants to play the game, but also because the things that give her an advantage is that being a woman — being a well-spoken woman, being someone who has experience in the public realm as a political strategist, it’s like, she never wants to use her womanness to her advantage. It’s like she’s too busy sort of trying to figure out the most masculine version of herself to sort of be able to contend with her brothers and her father. And she thinks that maybe she has to be a little bit more like them in order to get ahead. It’s a meditation on the ways in which damaged men damage the world around them. And the casualty is just a woman like Shiv.

wesley morris

What we’re talking about with “Succession” and “Joker” and “Fight Club” is this belief that you kind of secretly don’t deserve what you have or that you shouldn’t have what you have, and that we’re only talking about white men. This combination of displacement and disenfranchisement and the fear that you might be irrelevant but also stuck in place, with this combination of some higher power that is aware of your wanting to be either where they are, or you’re wanting more for yourself, or you’re actually being lost — this higher power is aware of all that and kind of wants to exploit it and use it against you. And it creates this really interesting sort of psychological and moral high pressure system that — and just talking to you about it just reminded me of Cambridge Analytica, right?

There’s this new book out by this guy named Christopher Wylie. And it’s about his time at Cambridge Analytica. And it’s called “Mindfuck.” And one of the things that the book is doing is going through the ways in which this company mined people’s Facebook data courtesy of these personality quizzes. And the research being done with his data pointed out who among the participants was susceptible to certain ideas based on — I don’t know — whether they demonstrated signs of paranoid ideation or other kinds of mental unwellness. And Christopher Wylie actually talked to Terry Gross about this on her show Fresh Air not that long ago.

archived recording (christopher wylie)

Steve Bannon discovered that there’s nothing more powerful than a humiliated man. And that when you looked at a lot of the narratives that emerged, there were groups of typically heterosexual white men, who sort of felt that because they could no longer be, quote unquote, a real man, they couldn’t show who they, quote unquote, felt like they really were. They almost felt closeted. And when you have people who feel like they’re being oppressed, even if it’s a misperception of oppression, that’s a really powerful force.

jenna wortham

With that data, you had a demographic that could be marketed to, right? You could feed them disinformation. You could supply them with racist ideology, and it would fuel them. And they would be very receptive to it. But essentially, Cambridge Analytica was exploiting these vulnerabilities that, yeah, people didn’t even know that they had.

wesley morris

We should say, though, that Cambridge Analytica was basically purchased by the billionaire Republican donor, Robert Mercer, and Steve Bannon, who wound up being one of the — a senior adviser at the White House for President Trump. And they were using the data that they had to basically turn some of these men into soldiers for this social extremist ideology that taps into these ideas of white supremacy, white nationalism, white power.

But the idea that’s fueling it is this notion of endangerment, this notion of displacement — what Brad Pitt basically says some version of to Edward Norton in the bathtub, which is that we were all raised by these crazy feminists, and now they want to take over and displace us. And that is the sort of guiding ideology that we are now, in some ways, building guys who are sort of marching in lockstep into some sort of ideological Fight Club.

jenna wortham

Right.

wesley morris

Right? It also is nuts to think about — and this is going to be crazy, but it’s occurring to me as I’m talking to you — that part of Brad Pitt’s Brad Pittness, and the thing that’s fascinating about his being the manifestation of this other character’s psychological break with reality, in some ways, is that he is, in the minds of many people, a perfect specimen, right? This unattainable — I mean, whatever we mean by whatever incel is. It’s the person — they’re seeing Brad Pitt. The person they know that they can’t actually physically manifest themselves as being is this thing that is ultimately unattainable.

jenna wortham

The unattainability of idealness becomes the sickness itself, you know? And I mean, all of these cultural properties that we’re talking about employ a type of fantasy of masculinity as something to strive for and as something to try to achieve. And the reason that we’re obsessed with these cultural properties is because we’re living at a moment in time where we understand that men feel disenfranchised, specifically white men. We understand that there’s a particular type of predilection towards violence that we don’t understand. And we want to understand it because it’s kind of ruining our lives. It’s ruining the planet. It’s ruining the economy. It’s ruining the social fabric of our society.

And so we want to understand it, too, because we’re deeply invested in figuring out if there’s some way to course correct, if there’s some corrective poultice that we can apply as a society to try to heal. But I think the truth is that, in the same way very much that it makes women very sick — I mean I’m speaking in a very binary way — but I think it makes women very ill to try to achieve some sort of archetype of femininity that’s not about them or was not created with them in mind. It seems that men suffer from the same ailment as well. It’s just manifesting in these very different ways.

But it definitely seems like “Fight Club” is still the perfect analogy for our times, because in the process of trying to ideate or iterate yourself into a perfect man, AKA Tyler Durden/Brad Pitt, you lose yourself.

wesley morris

Yeah.

jenna wortham

And you get very sick in the process.

[music]
wesley morris

Still Processing is a product of The New York Times.

jenna wortham

It is produced by Neena Pathak.

wesley morris

Our editor is Sara Sarasohn, and we get editorial oversight from Lisa Tobin.

jenna wortham

Our engineer is Jake Gorski.

wesley morris

And our theme music is by Kindness. It’s called “World Restart,” from the album “Otherness.”

jenna wortham

You can find all of our episodes and various things at nytimes.com/stillprocessing.

wesley morris

And if you are so inclined, leave us a review on Apple Podcasts. Thank you.

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