Spoilers. I recommend watching the film first. It’s worth seeing.
Joker (2019) is a film about our collective inability to acknowledge the pain social outcasts and lower class people feel. It’s thematically appropriate that the films protagonist, Arthur Fleck, also cannot acknowledge his own pain.
The Psychology of Arthur Fleck
Arthur Fleck has a deep psychological split between the part of him that can acknowledge his pain, and the part that has to “put a happy face on.” A psychological split occurs when a person has to deny or disown an aspect of themselves. In Arthur’s case, the part of him that feels unsafe is unacknowledged and denied by his mother.
Arthur experiences deep trauma growing up. Depending on whose story you believe, Arthur is either an orphan whose crazy mother allowed to be tied to a radiator and abused by one of her boyfriends, or the secret love-child of Thomas Wayne, who used his power and wealth to gaslight and institutionalize his mother.
Regardless of which story you believes, Arthur’s mother’s response is the same. She encourages him to always “put on a happy face” and ignore the deep trauma he faces. As a consequence, no one is ever present with Arthur’s pain, or teaches him how to be present with it. He is entirely alone in his pain.
This pattern continues throughout his life, with even Arthur’s social worker not listening to him until services are cut, leaving him with even less than he had before. Before losing her job, the social worker tells him that no one cares about people like him. She is right.
Because Arthur has to deny and disown all parts of him that acknowledge just how bad his situation is, the only way he can respond to pain is laughter. When he sees or experiences pain, like the rejection he feels when a black mother asks him to stop entertaining her child, the discomfort he feels when Wall Street types are harassing a woman on the subway, or even the stage fright of being a comic performing for the first time, he begins laughing uncontrollably.
Arthur is told this is laughter is the result of a neurological condition, but later realizes it’s the “real him.” When he does, he smothers his mother, as a retaliation for all the pain she made him repress. Afterwards, he feels catharsis, because the woman who told him he could not acknowledge his pain is gone.
Believe it or not, all of Joker’s actions are reaching for healing in the only way he knows how. Arthur wants his pain to be seen. He isn’t allowed to acknowledge pain, so he finds humor and laughter in violence. The only way he is allowed to express himself is smiling and laughter, so he shows others his pain through “humor.” Everything he does comes from an unconscious desire to force others to be present with the hurt aspects of himself he had to deny or disown.
By the end, everyone sees him. He kills a famous TV host on live TV. His coping strategy of putting on a happy face and laughing through the pain is rewarded. Here is the social commentary – what does it say about our society that mass violence is the only way for someone in pain to get their pain acknowledged?
The Psychology of Gotham
The rest of Gotham is a spiritual match to Joker’s violence because they collectively experience the same split. Gotham has a deep class divide. Elites and wealthy one-percenters like Thomas Wayne do not acknowledge the pain of lower classes. Thomas Wayne dismisses their problems by calling them “clowns” which sparks Occupy Wall Street style protests featuring clown masks.
This class divide is so great is causes some people from the class Gotham has denied and disowned to embrace Joker. At the end of the film, a man wearing a clown mask shoots Thomas Wayne and his wife Martha in front of their young son Bruce while quoting Joker: “You get what you deserve.”
Thomas Wayne is killed because he refuses to acknowledge the pain of Gotham. A murderer forces him to be present with it.
Often, children will seek the unmet desires of their parents. Penny, Arthur’s mother, had her pain repressed and unacknowledged by Thomas Wayne. She taught this pattern to her son, which created a deep unconscious desire to be seen. Arthur pursued this through standup comedy, because he was only allowed to smile and laugh, but ended up finding a much darker way to have his pain seen.
Likewise, Thomas Wayne wanted to help Gotham, but refused to be present with the pain of the people he wanted to represent. His son, Bruce, will become so traumatized by his parents death that he seeks to confront the pain that caused his parent’s death as Batman. However, the implication of this film is that Batman is acting from unacknowledged trauma as much as his enemies, which is why they are a psychic match to one another.
Comics have often portrayed Batman and Joker as two sides of the same coin. In this version, they are also spiritual sides of the same split in Gotham’s collective consciousness. Christopher Nolan envisioned them as order and chaos, but here they are just different coping strategies to trauma. If this series were continued, I could see Joker being drawn to Batman because Batman is the only one willing to be present with his pain, albeit in a dark way.
The Psychology of The Media
The message of this film also explains why the media has had such a hysterical response to Joker (2019).
Multiple articles have appeared stoking fears of a mass shooting at Joker (2019). At the screening I attended, there was an armed guard outside, something I’ve never seen at a film screening before.
There has been so much media hysteria around this film that many have noted that it seems like the media wants there to be violence around this film. Why?
The narrative the mainstream media has perpetuated depends on psychological and social splits. Media narratives frame one group as good, and others as evil, bad, and entirely unsympathetic. Recently, the “other” has become some form of lower status white men.
To acknowledge that the people the media has relentlessly attacked might be in pain, or acting from their pain completely undermines the media narrative. Joker (2019) calls out this split, and tells social elites that the violence and social unrest they experience is their fault for refusing to acknowledge the pain of the groups they demonize.
Someone who is an incel – involuntary celibate, meaning a man who cannot get a romantic relationship – is in pain. It is painful not to experience love, affection, or physical touch for a long period of time. Rather than acknowledge this pain, the media has responded by suggesting these men might be dangerous or violent.
Some might be. However, if they are, they are acting from pain. Acknowledging that pain might mean questioning narratives the media isn’t willing to look at, so they seek to deny and disown the aspects of society they find painful to acknowledge. Ironically, the message of Joker (2019) is that doing this will result in more violence and social unrest, not less.
The reason so much of the media has not understood Joker (2019) is that they do not want to be present with others pain. They want to be able to dismiss the film and silence it on the basis that it inspires violence. In doing so, they’ve refused to acknowledge their own role in inspiring violence.
The Solution to Psychological Splits
The solution to psychological splits – both in the film and in life – is to acknowledge and be present with people’s pain. If Arthur had someone acknowledge his pain at some point, he might not have become Joker.
Likewise, a society that acknowledged the pain of young men and people with lower social status would not experience as many of them turning to violence to get their pain acknowledged.
You might say the pain of the young men who feel represented by this film is not as great as other groups. However, the pain of others is acknowledged. The pain of young men like Arthur is dismissed.
The reason I advocate healing work so strongly is that I want people to find a way to have their pain seen that does not result in abuse or violence.
People fear that if they acknowledge their pain or the pain of others it will result in violence. The opposite is true. Only when we acknowledge and are present with pain can it be healed. Pain unseen will become worse and worse until it is acknowledged.
Joker (2019) shows what happens when society refuses to acknowledge people’s pain.