The Joker and the Downfall of Psychology

In this psychology column, I am going to do something different than I usually do, and write an opinion piece in the light of the recently released movie “The Joker”, in which I observed the perfect illustration of what I see as the major downfall of the psychology field. It might be odd to see such criticism in a psychology column, but how else would any field show improvement, if inside-sources won’t reveal what they observe to be awry?

To start off, I have to say that I was greatly moved by `The Joker`, as I rarely am by movies. I would never have thought that I would be writing a piece on a movie in this column, but here I am. The reason behind my fascination with this movie is mainly this: it is as far away from a super-hero movie as possible. I have never been one to like such movies, in which the main protagonist(s) are purely good (i.e. superman, a man who is literally super, or above humanity), and the antagonist(s) are purely evil, for no other reason than simply being so. This “simply being so” is wherein lies the problem. The assumption is that there is something wrong psychologically with those characters on an individual level, and the angelic protagonist must protect the status quo, which is intrinsically good. At the end of the day, the insane, psychologically broken antagonist is dealt with, the society is back in full-order, and the protagonist gets to look proudly off into the sunset. Everything is perfect now, until, of course, the next psychologically insane villain comes around.

But this is obviously a fantasy, and a very childish one, indeed. But why do we as people want to believe in this fantasy, I always wondered. I believe I have come to several connected answers: 1) we believe that the status quo is above our capacity to alter, therefore 2) we want to believe that the status quo good, and thus 3) we believe that those who don’t fit in with the status quo are problematic on an individual level. These assumptions make sure that as creatures of habit we can get comfortable in our routines and the way things are, because there is nothing to be done about them. This is why the field of psychology is booming in the West world: from the point of view of individuals, we take interest in psychology because our own psyche is one of the few places over which we can exercise control in the face of the seeming immutability of the outside world, and from the point of view of the status quo, it is quite useful to be able to deem divergent behaviours or thought patterns as “insane”, and to make it sound more legitimate, make a science out of it, and call it “Psychology”.

In The Joker these free floating ideas of mine are explored marvellously. We are presented with a real man, Arthur Fleck, not a hero or evil-genius, who lives in a sociologically ill society. Indeed, in one of the first scenes of the movie we are told by a news-anchor that as a result of the ongoing strikes by the city cleaners, trash is getting piled up on the streets, and that the rich are avoiding the streets entirely. Funnily enough, the anchor remarks that “super rats” are being spotted among the trash. This is an important instance of foreshadowing: just as these super-rats grew from regular rats as a result of a sociological problem, so will the social inequality and lack of social support faced by Arthur Fleck produce a super-man or super-hero, the Joker. It might seem strange to be calling him a super-hero, but what is he if not a super-hero to the masses who will come to his aid by the end of his journey?

But let us first examine Arthur Fleck, well before he is given the nickname Joker. One of the defining conundrums sitting at the centre of his personality is whether he exists or not. He is obviously aware that he physically exists, but because of his disability which causes him to spontaneously burst into laughter at times, and his low status in society, people have ignored or mocked him all his life. The society in which he lives sees him as a nobody and doesn’t want to give him any room to exist as a social being. This would be disastrous for any one of us, because as social beings we come alive through our interactions with others, through perceiving and being perceived, through influencing and being influenced. Do we really exist if we can’t find a proper role or status, if we are not recognised to be anything by anyone, if we can’t influence anyone to any extent? In one of the scenes of the movie, in which Arthur and his mother are watching the talk show of Murray Franklin, his idol as a comedian, he doses into a childishly pure fantasy: he imagines himself as one of the audience, with whom Murray Franklin chooses to converse. Arthur talks about how he lives with his mother, that he does everything he can to make sure she is well looked after, and how his mother tells him that his duty on Earth is to make others happy. This draws a hearty reaction from the audience, and Murray Franklin invites Arthur on stage, and says “You know, I’d give up everything I have to have a kid just like you”. Then we suddenly return to reality, and see Arthur staring into the TV set. All this man wants is to be treated as a human being and to be appreciated for the hard work he does. He doesn’t have big ambitions, does not want to run for president or change the world, merely needs someone to recognise his existence. One’s fantasies reveal one’s true self, I believe, and Arthur is on an individual basis a good character. It is the society which will drive him insane.

This is because in the capitalistic economy that he lives in (and that we do), everything is numbers, and golden hearts are not quantifiable. They may not be put in an equation to maximise the revenues of a company, or be used to hold on to political power. He just does not fit in anywhere, and so as an “insane” individual, attends a government-supported program at the beginning of the movie, going to a social worker from time to time, and taking about 9 different pills each day to stay “sane”. But even this is too much for the government, and the program is abruptly defunded. When Arthur asks the social worker what is going to happen to him, she replies “They don’t give a shit about people like you. They don’t give a shit about people like me, either”. Being classified as “insane” and receiving “help” was at least a form of recognised existence, but even this is taken away from Arthur Fleck.

And this is one of the breaking points of the movie. When the world around Arthur makes him feel the most that he is a nobody, he gets to be gradually reborn as someone who indeed exists and who can influence the outside world. It is at this point that he shoots dead three rich men who first try to abuse a woman, and then Arthur. The way in which this spreads as breaking news throughout the city, and inspires the proletariat to protest the unjust status quo, wearing clown masks, is what makes Arthur feel that he exists, that his problems are legitimate, and that he can take and inspire action. At this point, Bruce Wayne’s father, Thomas Wayne, who is an exceptionally wealthy man, is running for governor and calls these clown mask wearing protestors “mentally deranged” and a menace, yet another attempt by the status quo to use psychological terms and “diagnoses” to their own end.

I do not want to delve into the latter parts of the movie too much, and what I have described is going to be enough to make my point. I believe that most “psychological” problems that we see around us today are not psychological, but rather sociological. How can depression, for example, be a psychological problem, when 7% of the US population is diagnosed with it? And considering 20% of the US population has been diagnosed with one mental disorder or another, how can this hope to be treated only on an individual basis, by a handful of psychotherapists? And perhaps it is the normal thing to be feeling depressed too, considering all the awful things that do happen to people on a daily basis. Perhaps trying to ignore it all through psychological interventions, be it drugs or cognitive therapy, is actually the insane thing to do. Isn’t this just an attempt of the status quo to keep individuals under control? And besides mental disorders we have many issues which we are used to thinking about on an individual basis, such as murder, theft, and suicide. We like to think that the murderers have something wrong with their minds, or that their hearts are twisted, and that thieves are dishonest scum who are looking to selfishly steal what others gained through hard work, and that those who attempt suicide have something wrong with their mental faculties. But what if we were to think about these problems sociologically? What I believe is that the right approach is not to focus on the individual, but on the society, for our individual behaviours (or our psychological make-up) are most often reflections of and responses to the external world which shaped us and keeps on doing so. The question we ought to ask is “what is it that’s going wrong with a given society which is producing a fixed amount of murders and thefts each year?”. Why are a certain amount of people choosing to end their lives every year, consistently? Emile Durkheim, who is one of the founding fathers of sociology, has a book titled “On Suicide” which is one of the best books to read in order to adopt this sociological perspective on issues which seem to be psychological on the surface. And “The Joker”, of course, is a great movie to watch to adopt this outlook as well, as it gives an in-depth sociocultural background to a character who is usually regarded as a mere madman. As Joseph Campbell remarks, heroes are born precisely when they are needed, and so, in my opinion, are "villains"; heroes and villains likewise are merely extreme embodiments of the contemporary ethos. Though they may not be wanted by all, they are because they are needed. And thus, instead of viewing “villains” of movies as inherently broken men, the movie invites us to consider that sometimes the real villain might be the broken societies which in turn break men.