Educational Psychology Professor Aaron B. Rochlen shares how the Joker movie connects to the Joker archetype and the shadow. Rochlen is licensed psychologist and a professor of counseling psychology and counselor education in the College of Education at The University of Texas at Austin.
Joker continues to crush box office records. Reasons for the success and Oscar buzz have been frequently discussed. As a psychology professor I believe that the Joker provides a creative opportunity to take look within our own psychology and challenges our rigid views of good and evil.
Carl Jung, the famous psychologist who split from his mentor Sigmund Freud, would have loved this movie. Jung wrote about the collective unconscious, a practical part of our genetic makeup we share with others across cultures and continents. At the core of the collective unconscious, are archetypes, with the “Joker” being one of the more interesting examples.
For Arthur Fleck, the main character, Joker is not only his name, but represents to the viewers a psychological significance worthy of reflection.
“The Joker” archetype lives in all of us, but may lie dormant in our minds. When activated, the “Joker” uses humor as a defense, covering up pain, and perceived injustices. Jokers resolve conflicts by bringing joy or a smile to others – momentarily deflecting their own pain. Seeing others entertained brings relief to feelings of profound sadness or unresolved wounds.
As viewers, we may relate to Fleck. Questions to ask yourself may include: Where do you use humor to deflect pain or sadness? When has comedy been a part of covering up tragedy or pain? And where can this style be healthy or unhealthy in your life and relationships?
The Joker also challenges our tendency to categorize others into “good” or “bad” – “hero” or “villain.” We don’t want to acknowledge how people who commit atrocious crimes can have positive traits. Conversely, it’s hard to acknowledge that “good” people have destructive impulses.
Interestingly, this part of the movie is also the most controversial. Some have frowned on how the movie creates an empathic audience response for the lead character. It can be disturbing to feel empathy toward those who commit heinous acts. And the Joker definitely does just that, evolving into one of the most legendary antagonists in motion picture history.
However, he is not all bad. None of us are. Bad people have good traits just as good people have dark edges. Fleck cared for his mother, entertained kids in a cancer ward, tried to make an honest living, and longed to love.
It’s natural to feel compassion or sympathy for Fleck for the abuse, bullying and humiliation he endured. This doesn’t mean we endorse his behaviors or murderous coping tragedies.
Having these feelings for the “bad guy” doesn’t cause anyone to head down a disturbing path. Doing so may even allow us to acknowledge our own “bad guy,” avoiding trouble, protecting us from harm to others and ourselves. For Jung, this inner bad guy was part of our Shadow, the parts of ourselves that are harder to recognize or acknowledge.
This movie is a psychological primer for that lesson and others. And that’s a lesson for all of us.