Understanding "Joker" through the Lens of a Trauma Therapist
By Dr. Michele Kerulis, Trauma Therapist and Counseling@Northwestern Faculty, and Savannah Couch, Counseling@Northwestern Graduate Student and Drama Therapy Practitioner
Like many people, I enjoy watching movies to escape into new worlds. When I watched Joker, I couldn’t help but view the movie through the lens of a trauma therapist. The movie opens with Arthur Fleck applying clown makeup and the character’s mood seems sad and almost tearful. We see Arthur fluctuate between what appears to be sadness and laughter throughout the movie, which can be confusing for viewers. Some identify his condition as Pseudobulbar affect (PBA). PBA has been associated with traumatic brain injuries (TBIs) and the viewer might conclude that Arthur received TBIs through excessive childhood abuse and additional physical attacks throughout his life.
It is important to point out that many people who experience trauma do not commit violent acts and have not been admitted to psychiatric hospitals. Having a life full of trauma does not excuse Arthur’s behaviors. His story helps viewers understand how an individual fictional character was impacted by and reacted to ongoing childhood trauma, bullying, and perceived parental abandonment.
Ethics codes prohibit mental health professionals from diagnosing people we have not personally assessed, so we will not be commenting on an assumed diagnosis of Arthur.
At one point in the film, Arthur is told he cannot continue receiving mental health care due to funding cuts, meaning he also will not receive his medication. He was on seven medications and had enough insight to ask for medication adjustment when he felt like he would benefit from it. He asked where he was supposed to go for medication because the current agency was closing. Arthur appeared to try to implement coping skills including journaling, dancing, comedy, and attempts to relate to others, to manage his symptoms.
Performing, or more specifically clowning, may have been therapeutic for Arthur. Carl Jung’s (1980) concept of active imagination is quite broad, encompassing all potential creative endeavors that enable an individual to connect with parts of their unconscious. Arthur’s journaling would be considered active imagination because it is a creative activity that is assisting Arthur’s exploration of his psyche. While not as direct, the act of clowning may be helping Arthur connect with a part of his psyche.
Throughout the film, Arthur expressed his desire to connect with others through his actions, words, and fantasies. Clowning may have provided an activity and a space that facilitated that desired connection. Even in his fantasized relationship with Sophie, his neighbor, comedy was the initial vehicle for connection. During his interview with Murray Franklin, a fictional talk show host, Arthur stated that comedy is subjective. He might have fantasized a shared comedic sense in a relationship because it would imply a level of shared subjectivity with another person.
During the film, it appeared that Arthur was searching for a sense of belonging. He was frequently called a freak and weirdo. At one point, the audience sees Arthur’s well used journal with the phrase: “The worst part of mental illness is that people expect you to behave like you don’t have a mental illness.” Arthur was apparently following the advice of his mother when he attempted to smile through difficulty as he stated, “Mom told me to smile and put on a happy face.” He has fantasies and wants acceptance.
Sometimes people who have experienced trauma might have a variety of symptoms that can be confusing to others. Arthur’s head injury in childhood is assumed after the description of ongoing childhood abuse. The audience sees Arthur mugged and beat up by a group of young men at the beginning of the movie, which might have further impacted his existing TBI.
The clown mask is a metaphor for putting on a happy face and trying to blend in with society. Nobody understands him even though he tries to fit in and reduce his symptoms. This is a metaphor for people not feeling comfortable expressing themselves in safe ways and for people not taking care of each other.
In drama and drama therapy, masks are viewed as incredibly powerful because masks can quickly connect clients to repressed or unconscious thoughts and feelings. Masks allow people to express things that either their conscious or society would generally view as unacceptable (Pearson, 1996). Throughout his life, Arthur’s mother reinforced the idea that he should “smile and put on a happy face.” However, Arthur says he was never happy. Additionally, his mother may have labeled some feelings as negative or inappropriate throughout Arthur’s life. For example, she locks herself in the bathroom and refuses to talk to him until he is not angry. The first shot of the film shows Arthur painting his face—putting on his clown mask. He was crying and pulling his face into a smile. Sadness was an emotion that Arthur may have been suppressing, but however difficult, he was able to express that emotion on some level while wearing his mask.
Jacques Lecoq used a neutral mask in actor training to help actors connect to their intuition, allowing deeper freedom of expression (Bala, 2010). In Joker, Arthur Fleck’s body was almost always tense, both in stillness and in movement. But when Arthur transformed into Joker, and in the moments when he was more Joker than Arthur, he was able to dance with more freedom of motion and fluidity. From a drama therapy or dance therapy perspective, Arthur’s increased ability would be viewed as progress if it were not for the fact that this freedom of movement was solely associated with Arthur being over-identified with the Clown archetype.
Another concept that is integral both to Jungian theory and to many drama therapy approaches is archetypes. Archetypes are images or roles that are universally shared in the collective unconscious (Pearson, 1996). For Arthur, clowning could be a way for him to connect to the archetype of the Clown. The Clown is a combination of two archetypes: the Fool and the Trickster (Bala, 2010). The Fool is often seen as naïve and childlike, striving to feel complete. The ways Arthur interacts with children and his mother demonstrate this childlike naivety. Tricksters are mischievous, not evil, but their actions can have negative consequences for others. When Arthur first gets a gun, he shoots a hole in the wall. This demonstrated his mischievous, Trickster energy. The dark side of the Trickster is associated with “vanishing level[s] of consciousness” (Jung, 1980, p. 246). As Arthur becomes increasingly impulsive, as he transitions from being Arthur to being Joker, the Trickster elements of the Clown seem dominant. Being unable to access his medications could have made it difficult for Arthur to control his impulses, for his conscious to stay in control.
Since Jung (1980) believed that archetypes are universal, all individuals can connect with any archetype. Many drama therapy approaches help clients find positive change in their psyches and lives through strengthening connections to different archetypes or qualities of different archetypes within the client. Identification, or deep connection, with a particular archetype is psychologically healthy. For example, Arthur choosing to work as a clown could be seen as him identifying with this archetype. Possession by an archetype is psychologically unhealthy and is frequently associated with psychosis. Possession is when an individual’s psyche is dominated by a single archetype. By the end of the film, Arthur is no longer Arthur, he is Joker. He has become the archetype, the character, at the cost of being himself.
Arthur’s portrayal of the Clown archetype might have so easily become a symbol for some of the people of Gotham because of the universal nature of archetypes (Jung, 1980). Additionally, clowns are mirrors for their witnesses. Typically, an audience member is able to connect with their vulnerability through watching a clown display their own vulnerability. However, Joker’s Clown archetype portrayed more chaos than vulnerability. So, the witnesses who connected with Arthur’s performance connected with their internal chaos. By the end of the film, Arthur Fleck’s external reality is, possibly for the first time, congruent with his internal reality—he is viewed by many as a hero; he is noticed and adored by some, and the chaos in Gotham might mirror the chaos in Arthur’s unmedicated mind.
Bala, M. (2010). The Clown: An Archetypal Self-Journey. Jung Journal: Culture & Psyche, 4(1), 50-71. doi: 10.1525/jung.2010.4.1.50
Jung, C., & Hull, R. (1980). Collected Works of C.G. Jung, Volume 9 (6th ed.). Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Pearson, J. (1996). Discovering the Self Through Drama and Movement: The Sesame Approach. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers Inc.
Citation for this content: Northwestern University's online Master of Arts in Counseling program.