Joker: A Psychoanalytic Perspective

By Aishani Ghosh

Joaquin Phoenix as the Joker
Joaquin Phoenix as the Joker

“I used to think my life is a tragedy, but now I realize that it is a comedy”.

This quote exquisitely captures the essence of the film ‘Joker’ directed by Todd Philip.

The Setting

The film is set in the fictional city of Gotham which is in a state of anarchy resulting in poor living conditions and unrest. The central character Arthur Fleck played by Joaquin Phoenix is a professional clown who suffers from a neurological condition in which he laughs uncontrollably while feeling anxious. His bones are protruding due to malnourishment and his face has vestiges of harsh experiences. He lives with his aged mother who ironically calls him ‘Happy’. One of the few sources of his happiness is the anchor of a reality show, Murray played by Robert De Niro. The Joker is in a perpetual state of conflict resulting from his quest for a ‘self’ and an understanding of power.

Arthur attends state-funded therapy because of his condition. He maintains a journal in the form of a joke diary in which he writes ‘I just hope my death makes more sense than my life’.

According to Freudian psychoanalysis, his anxieties are compensated for by the defense mechanism of Humour and manifests itself in such dark jokes.

The city of Gotham is in duress and there is a massive imbalance of power between the haves and have-nots. The first move Arthur makes in order to bridge this gap is when he acquires a gun which can be interpreted as a metonymy for power. This gives him a sense of authority in the backdrop of a society that assumes that the poor equates to the weak. Arthur’s libidinal drive is satisfied as he kills those who treat him insensitively and mock his condition. In this way, Arthur’s mental suffering is transferred to the physical suffering of others.

Arthur is also shown to be in an everlasting state of conflict as he has multiple displacements of his identity. He discovers/concords a narrative that his mother had hidden his true identity. He was the son of the would-be Mayor of Gotham, Thomas Wayne. Upon confronting Wayne, he is served another narrative where he is told that his mother was suffering from a mental illness herself and that he was adopted. He reconfirms this after visiting the mental asylum where he finds his mother’s file and also learns that he was tormented as a child.

According to Freudian psychoanalysis, this childhood trauma would be the major source of his suffering. His need for a father-figure was filled by the TV host Murray. Later, he finds out that his mother who was the only source of support in his life was not his biological mother further confounding his misery. During the film, he is shown to engage in a relationship with his next-door neighbor, only for the viewer to later see, that this was a hallucination that had developed since his medications had been stopped by the city. This relationship could be seen as a shift his object of dependence, from his mother to a love interest.

Balancing the id, ego, and superego is almost impossible for Arthur which causes his neurosis. Arthur finds his true identity only in the Joker. It is a voluntary displacement of identity for him as he finds an empty shell in Arthur. According to Freud, this would be an ego defense mechanism as Arthur is masking behind the attire of the Joker. He is escaping from being Arthur as he is unable to resolve conflicts of that identity.

Criticism

A criticism for Freudian theory in this context may be that the interpretations of id, ego, and superego are fixed and unchanging. If someone is unable to balance this then they suffer from neurosis. Antithetical to what the theory claims, the Joker’s unconscious develops when he goes against taming the desires which society claims inappropriate to act upon. Being the Joker is his form of vengeance as he says, “If it was me dying on a sidewalk, you would walk over me.”

He is more complacent with this state as he finds meaning in this identity. He is reformulating the concept of the superego as he rebels against a wider interpretation of the term and makes it subjective. The critic may then inquire what is the superego? What is normal and what is abnormal? Freud believed that there is a possibility to restore the self but the Joker does not have a cure. His cure lies in his defense mechanism. An insensitive social setting acted as a hindrance for this superego to develop. According to Freud the therapist always has more power than the client because they have the key to the unconscious. The Joker defies all sorts of external power including the therapist and finds self-empowerment in this. The Joker says, “You decide what is right and wrong, just like you decide what is funny and not funny.” So, he emerges as the antihero for the oppressed when he kills some of the oppressors. The audience is left with a dilemma wondering if this is the Joker’s cure or destruction.

“The worst part about mental illness is that people expect you to behave as if you don’t”. This movie makes such extremely powerful statements about mental health. It emphasizes external factors as a cause of mental illness which Freudian psychoanalysis undermines. As Joaquin Phoenix mentions in his speech at the Oscars, ‘This movie is a voice for the voiceless’. The movie also gives power to the powerless. However, it also blurs lines between self-empowerment and self-destruction, two forces that Freud valued greatly, that of the Eros and Thanatos.

It shows that the Joker gets glory from killing, which may convey a wrong message to viewers. Ironically the song ‘It’s life’ plays in the background when the Joker kills. Even though the movie gives us a different perspective, according to psychoanalytic theory, the Joker is suffering. Has the Joker actually reached the top of the staircase which acts as a metaphor in the movie, or is he still at the bottom? The viewer gets to decide.

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