Society’s Biggest Joke: Put on a Happy Face
Both heroes and anti-heroes share a common goal in life to find his or her form of happiness by conquering any problem he or she faces to achieve his or her goal. In Todd Phillips’ film, Joker (2019), the audience is challenged to perceive the protagonist Arthur Fleck, a party clown and failed comedian, as an example of an anti-hero. Arthur struggles to keep his job as a street advertiser who holds and flips signs on the sidewalk for local merchants while dressed as a clown. He works hard to keep his job and to maintain a positive mindset to afford to live in Gotham City with his mother, Penny Fleck. He lives with his mentally ill mother who is in her sixties and is clinically diagnosed with being delusional. Arthur also suffers from depression as a result of being ostracized by society because of his rare condition that makes him laugh uncontrollably. Despite the hardship he endures, Arthur has a naïve, innocent, and optimistic perception of the world, like having a “blank slate” that Victor Frankenstein’s Monster has from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Like the Monster, Arthur is deeply affected by his interactions with other people that shape his perspectives of society and of himself. Arthur’s character and story make audiences concerned about Arthur’s attitude towards using violence to solve his problems. But like the other citizens in the film, they disregard the events and interaction with the bullies of society who negatively influence individuals like Arthur and the Monster to develop aggressive behaviours toward others to prevent themselves from suffering more emotional, physical, and mental abuse.
The first factor that leads Arthur to a dramatic change in behaviour is the absence of a parental figure. Penny Fleck does not protect young Arthur from domestic abuse by her past boyfriends. Phillips shows a flashback scene of Penny secured in a stray-jacket while being interrogated by an employee at Arkham Asylum for her negligence to protect young Arthur. The Arkham employee describes Arthur being found handcuffed to the radiator in Penny’s apartment with dark bruises on his arm and mild traumatic injury to his head. Penny, clinically diagnosed of being delusional, is seen lost in a trance as she rocks back and forth in her chair staring at the table adjacent to her, quietly denying the Arkham employee’s claims. Penny’s failure to provide any explanation or comment to the Arkham employee’s claims reflects her lack of urgency to be a supportive and caring mother to Arthur. He is deprived of a mother to protect him from danger, which leads him to suffer from the trauma of the physical abuse he endures and continues to live with from Penny’s former boyfriends. Penny also does not provide support to Arthur when he is a grown man. When Arthur shares with Penny about his dream of becoming a comedian and his progress in creating jokes to perform, Penny asks a rhetorical question to her son, “don’t you have to be funny to be a comedian?” Regardless of her delusional state of mind, Penny fails to be sympathetic and supportive of Arthur’s dream.
In a similar way, the Monster in Frankenstein is abandoned by his creator, or father, Victor Frankenstein and the villagers treat him as an outcast. When Monster breathes his first moments in the world, he is alone (Shelley 86). He feels “cold and half frightened… finding [himself] so desolate” in the dark searching for his creator and any other entity for guidance (86-87). He scrambles for clothes to keep himself warm but instead feels “pain invade [him] on all sides” leaving him crying in the dark (86). Monster must learn on his own through trial and error when he explores a forest and finds warmth from a fire. When he “thrust[s] [his] hand into the live embers, [he] quickly [draws] it out again with a cry of pain” and learns that heat can cause harm to him (88). Similar to Arthur, Monster could avoid any harm if his parental figure, Victor, is with him to guide and teach him potential dangers he may encounter. Having no parental figures in their lives, Arthur and Monster are vulnerable when they face society.
Both Arthur and Monster share a naïve, innocent, and optimistic perception of their worlds. Each character hopes to find happiness in their lives despite the negative treatments other people pose to them. Both Arthur and Monster are presented in their respective stories as naïve characters with “blank slates.” Arthur perceives his city with unrealistic optimism that contrasts with the corrupt and tainted personality of Gotham City. At the same time, Monster is brought to life by Victor Frankenstein with the colossal appearance with a few features that resemble a man but has the mind of a child. Monster, like Arthur, is curious and hopeful about the community he hopes to establish a niche with. In Joker, Arthur does not learn the importance of protecting himself at a young age. His deficiency of seeking healthy physical, mental, and emotional care for himself manifests into a greater concern for himself when he is bullied by other individuals in society. For instance, during one of Arthur’s shifts advertising for a local music shop at the beginning of the film, Arthur’s sign is taken from him by a group of adolescent children. Instead of accepting his fate of losing the sign, Arthur risks his life and his job by sprinting after the teenagers to recover the sign. Arthur fails to succeed when the audience watches the teenagers ambush Arthur when they smack the sign against Arthur’s face, making him unsteady and vulnerable to their continuous kicking against his frail body. Even at this point, Arthur does not fight back to protect himself because he does not want to cause harm to others. Arthur’s response to conflict and violence at this point in the story reflects Arthur’s true self of wanting to “make people smile” and to spread positivity despite the negativity he absorbs from society.
Another instance of Arthur’s “good” character is when Arthur returns from his visit with his social worker and tries to make a child laugh during the bus ride home. He makes peek-a-boo faces and the child begins to giggle. Unfortunately, the child’s mother feels uncomfortable with Arthur’s friendliness as a forty-year-old man playing with her son. She aggressively tells Arthur to “stop bothering [her] son.” Arthur feels rejected and mumbles under his breath that he wants to make the boy smile and feel happy but struggles to speak when his rare condition of uncontrollable laughter takes control of his physical actions. He begins to laugh hysterically and his behaviour makes everyone on the bus uncomfortable as they do not understand Arthur’s condition. From this scene, Arthur is emotionally and physical ostracized by the people in society because they do not understand nor appear to want to understand Arthur’s differences. Despite the rejection Arthur withstands, he continues to go to his party clown “gigs” and work to support himself and his clinically delusional mother.
In Frankenstein, the Monster experiences similar mistreatment when he has a conversation with the blind Old Man De Lacey. When Old Man De Lacey’s son Felix returns home, Felix is appalled by Monster’s colossal and disfigured body. Felix “dashe[s] [Monster] to the ground and str[ikes] Monster violently with a stick” (Shelley 117). Having a physical advantage to Felix, Monster “could have torn [Felix] limb from limb” but he refrains from attacking Felix. Like Arthur, Monster does not want to cause harm and simply wants to be and feel accepted by the other people in society. Monster’s “heart sink[s] within [him] with bitter sickness” when he realizes the evil in mankind and society (117, 119). As a result of his unexpectedly violent encounter with Felix, Monster “vow[s] eternal hatred and vengeance to all mankind [as] the agony of [Monster’s] wound over[comes] him” (123).
The absence of a parental figure and the toxicity of society’s treatment towards Arthur and Monster influence each character to mirror the violence and abuse they each experience toward others to protect themselves from further pain and danger. They learn from their past encounters that they can only protect themselves from further abuse by mimicking the same violence they have endured. This inadvertently makes Arthur and Monster equally, if not more, dangerous than their enemies as they have a specific motive to fight back against their bullies with their newfound courage to defend themselves. When Arthur learns that he is an adopted child, Arthur realizes the reality he has been living in all his life is a fraud. His identity of being a “Happy” Arthur who feels destined to make people smile is shattered and leaves him feeling lost. Arthur reinvents himself as “the Joker.” “The Joker” becomes a character that embodies the idea of being true to yourself despite society’s judgements on your appearance, behaviour, and lifestyle.
Aside from the aggressively excited reactions to the Joker movement in Gotham City, Arthur liberates himself when he becomes the Joker. The Joker character, marked by the features of clown makeup, green hair, and a brightly coloured suit, empowers Arthur to become the protective person that he needs to fend himself from the bullies of society. His turning point takes place during his subway ride home after losing his job. Three young Wall Street men mock Arthur for his rare laughing condition and begin to punch and kick him for being different. While Arthur lays on the filthy subway floor, he becomes overwhelmed by the injustice he feels from society and decides to take a stand for himself. Arthur pulls a handgun from his pocket and, for the first time, defends himself against another beating. This scene marks the moment Arthur learns the feeling of having the courage to take control of his own actions to defend himself. Arthur learns that he should defend himself even if his mother, Penny, does not and will not ever protect him.
Arthur takes action to seek further justice for himself when he shoots Murray Franklin from the Murray Frankling show for mocking Arthur’s ambition for a career in stand-up comedy on live television. When Arthur shares his joke, “as a kid, my mother would say, “You should enjoy [going to school]. One day you’ll have to work for a living.” No, I won’t, ma. I’m going to be a comedian,” Murray responds to Arthur, “You should have listened to your mother.” Although Arthur is naïve, he is not unintelligent. He feels attacked once again similar to the feeling he feels when he is physically bullied. Arthur decides to act on his decision to reclaim control of the bullies in his life and shoots Murray in the head.
Monster takes a similar independent stance as Arthur when he becomes motivated to search for his creator Victor Frankenstein. Monster visits Victor’s family home and encounters Victor’s younger brother, William. Monster wants to rekindle a connection with Victor but feels conflicted about Victor’s abandonment. When Monster approaches Victor’s family home, he mistakes Victor’s younger brother, William, to be Victor’s son. Sadden by the idea that he is replaced by an organic human boy, Monster becomes filled with rage. William provokes Monster’s fury when he screams at Monster’s disfigured appearance “as soon as [William] beheld [Monster’s] form” (Shelley 124). Monster shares that he “do[es] not intend to hurt [William]” but is overwhelmed by “these feelings [of disgust and affright]” when he kills William (125). Like Arthur, Monster does not have any support from the people around him to teach and encourage him to develop healthy habits to cope with conflicts in his life.
From text to pictures, society continues to neglect proper support and positivity towards individuals like Arthur and Monster. Society’s growing fear, skepticism, and greediness to survive in a decaying community, like Gotham City, creates a toxic environment for any person or creature to grow and develop a niche with his or her community. Arthur struggles to pursue his dream career of making people happy because he is unfairly judged for his rare laughing condition. He is marked as an outcast despite his character development of finding courage and confidence to protect himself after a lifetime of abuse and neglect from his mother, Penny, and from society when people bully Arthur. Monster also faces difficulties in connecting with villagers and establishing any relationship with his creator, Victor Frankenstein, because of his disfigured body. Victor’s abandonment forces Monster to learn ways to survive and protect himself from environmental dangers and hostile behaviour from villagers he encounters. Arthur’s and Monster’s traumatic experiences shape them into being perceived as threatening beings to others. The Joker’s character and story is an awakening to audiences in the fictional and real-world to think about the necessity of one’s mental and physical health as a key component to strengthen individuals’ from within to find happiness instead of supporting politicians, like Thomas Wayne, who do not care about the foundation of any society – the people.
Janaraghi, Parissa. Joker Best Movie Quotes – ‘Is it just me, or is it getting crazier out there?’ Movie Quotes and More. October 2019, https://www.moviequotesandmore.com/joker-best-movie-quotes/. Accessed on 24 October 2019.
Joker. Directed by Todd Phillips, performances by Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, and Frances Conroy, Warner Brothers, 2019.
Shelley, Mary W., Inc E. C. NetLibrary, and University of Virginia. Library. Electronic Text Center. Frankenstein. University of Virginia Library, Boulder, Colo; Charlottesville, Va; 1996.
1. “Put On A Happy Face” via The Atlantic; https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2019/10/joker-movie-controversy/599326/. License: Niko Tavernise, Warner Brothers Entertainment; https://universalpictures.ca/#/en/home.
2. “Uncontrollable Laugh” via Inverse; https://www.inverse.com/article/59907-joker-spoilers-dceu-theory-todd-phillips. License: Niko Tavernise, Warner Brothers Entertainment; https://universalpictures.ca/#/en/home.
3. “Wall Street Harassment” via Gript; https://gript.ie/review-joker/. License: Niko Tavernise, Warner Brothers Entertainment; https://universalpictures.ca/#/en/home
This is a fascinating comparison! I hadn’t considered the similarities between Arthur and the Creature in this a way before (funny coincidence – I’m actually reading ‘Frankenstein’ in class this week….) I loved the way you compare origins of these two characters, the environments that shaped them, and the ways they have been deprived of connection, compassion, and parental guidance. I liked how you linked their stories to the real world as well, and to awareness of mental and physical health. “From text to pictures, society continues to neglect proper support and positivity towards individuals like Arthur and Monster. “Society’s growing fear, skepticism, and greediness to survive in a decaying community, like Gotham City, creates a toxic environment for any person or creature to grow and develop a niche with his or her community…The Joker’s character and story is an awakening to audiences in the fictional and real-world to think about the necessity of one’s mental and physical health as a key component to strengthen individuals’ from within to find happiness instead of supporting politicians, like Thomas Wayne, who do not care about the foundation of any society – the people” – brilliantly put 🙂
Thank you for taking the time to read my post, Jaslyn! I am glad you enjoyed the comparisons drawn from both stories. 🙂