Joker - Adam Lau

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There Is No Punchline: the sociological perspective of 'Joker'

In DC comics, the Joker is portrayed as a sadistic, warped serial killer who is infamous as the ‘Clown Prince of Crime’. Being a criminal mastermind armed with guns and chemical weapons who toys with his victims' sanity; he is portrayed as pure evil and unidentifiable to the common man. However, the 2019 adaption ‘Joker’ captures a fresh perspective of the supervillain, providing an insight of the man he once was: a victim of society who had no way out. A tortured soul, he defies the popular idiom that ‘there’s a rainbow in every cloud’ and the tragic story of Arthur Fleck as a result of oppressive socio-economic forces acting in Gotham which consequently precipitate in the birth of his persona Joker.

One of the key motifs ‘Joker’ brings forward to the audience is the problem of the capitalist system. The city of Gotham portrays the darkest sides of capitalism, with the impoverished and weak being neglected and bullied by bourgeoisie. The whole story of ‘Joker’ revolves around his tragic life as Arthur Fleck being mistreated and unaided by the system. He’s a frail, malnourished man who suffers from Pesudobulbar affect (PBA): a condition that causes episodes of uncontrollable laughter that often puts him in socially awkward and unfortunate situations. His pain is further antagonised due to funding cuts that includes social services, leaving him helpless to deal with all his ‘negative thoughts’ while trying to earn scraps in order to take care of his mother. Arthur was a genuinely kind man, who aimed to genuinely make people happy by working as a party clown while concurrently aspiring to become a stand-up comedian, even dreaming on appearing at a guest show to encourage laughter and happiness. Yet in all aspects he fails, with his appearance at the Franklin show intended to be a mockery. This highlights the essence of inequality: the weak are given absolutely no help whatsoever, with the system actually taking away any form of therapy and support to those who need it: instead they are condemned and laughed at. Even the enforcers of the law who are commissioned to protect and safeguard citizens fail to, with most of the working-class citizens ultimately being left defenseless and treated like filth. In fact, the Gotham City Police Department (GCPD) is first introduced for the sole purpose of questioning Arthur and his ex-co-workers once the deaths of the three young men from the upper echelons of society is publicly revealed on the news. Not only are the poor forgotten but the fact that the first line of defence against crime doesn’t fulfill their function unless the bourgeoisie are involved suggests the different and therefore unequal privileges prevalent in this sick city and the director Todd Philips makes this incredibly clear. The other few times the police are involved is when they combat the rising anarchical movement started by Arthur Fleck, who is seen amongst the proletariat as a hero for the murder of those men. Gotham’s capitalism has corrupted the values and morals of the people, but more importantly has encouraged and glorified crime, and this echoes Karl Marx’s theory. The Marxism theory states that the class struggle between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie would result in a large revolt, with the latter finding it difficult to manage the intensifying alienation of the labour force and this is seen by the end of the film. Ultimately, Todd Philips’ work portrays society of Gotham as broken, completely enshrouded by inequality. The self-proclaimed saviour of the city Thomas Wayne reflects this sentiment, stating “those of us who’ve made something of our lives, will always look at those who haven’t, as nothing but clowns.”

Other than the inequality prevalent in Gotham, Arthur Fleck’s own identity and sanity is pushed to the limit as a result of his tragic and mysterious childhood. For most of the film, he reveals his cynical and nihilistic tendencies expressed in his journal of jokes. He clearly struggles with who he is due to the lack of friends and family, though he clings on to the hope that his purpose (as claimed by his mother) is to “spread joy and laughter”. His past is tightly concealed, where only in several moments does he discover his own history. Originally, his relationship with his mother is portrayed as rather wholesome with his care and love for his mother being genuine and heartfelt. He works mainly to look after his mother, preparing the little food he could afford for his mother rather than himself, often not eating and becomes considerably thin as a result. In his world of hurt and loneliness, being a Fleck and son gave him a home and a sense of identity. As the well-regarded Neurocriminologist Adrian Raine states: “the mother-infant bonding process in a critical period that we know affects personality development down the road.” This suggests that how an individual lives their life and the decisions they make are fundamentally affected by their nurturing and upbringing. However, the story of Arthur Fleck spirals after discovering Penny’s letter to Thomas Wayne alleging Arthur was his illegitimate son. His later unsavoury meeting with Thomas Wayne reveals her own delusions and madness as well as his adoption, which creates a discrepancy of truth and this becomes, understandably, overwhelmingly difficult for Arthur to bear. The further discovery of Penny Fleck’s files that reveal the true nature of his relationship with his mother, being an adopted child who lived in poverty and the allowance of her abusive boyfriend to harm them both changes everything. He was left malnourished by Penny as a child and all the love he once he knew loses its value. All his life, he was misled with one massive lie and in turn all his efforts and hardwork to make anything in his life is undermined in one fell swoop. With a complete loss of identity, loss of a job and disintegrated trust, this finally shatters his sanity beyond repair and creates the space for Arthur to grow into something completely new, with the asphyxiation of his mother signifying this change. James Baldwin, a writer and activist who explored the intricacies of racial, sexual and class distinctions in western society, stated “The most dangerous man of any society is a man who has nothing to lose”, and this idea is incarnated through Arthur’s transformation into a man who seeks violent retribution to all those who have oppressed him and made his whole life a living hell. It inadvertently results in his iconization as the representative of the dissatisfied and rebellious proletariats, vindicating his statement that ‘people have started to notice’. With the identity of ‘Joker’, he is loved and respected by many and in effect has created his own army. A man who had craved someone to care and heed his existence, this experience creates a completely new reality for him and thus embraces his new identity.

The execution of the film therefore explicitly explores in great depth the experience and treatment of the mentally ill, despite its exaggerated circumstances and how the combination of socio-economic forces could produce criminals. Arthur Fleck is man who wanted to be accepted and seen by others, but his continuous negative treatment results in murderous actions that are spontaneous and emotionally driven. In the end, the life that Arthur lives is so incredibly unfortunate that it is instead seen as a comedy rather than a tragedy, as if almost fate wishes him to become ‘Joker’, the hero of Gotham’s underworld.

Adam Lau

Love sociology and studying society. Enjoy bouldering and playing musical instruments. Avid gamer. I have worked for St. Luke's hospice charity for a year in 2018.


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