By Aaron Pomerantz
Todd Phillips’ Joker has received a rather polarized response. Though the movie won best film at the Venice Film Festival, many reviewers have referred to the movie as “dangerous,” fearing it might inspire incels to identify the character as a hero and imitate him. Others have condemned the film’s “willful unpleasantness” and “rare, numbing emptiness.” Still others draw a connection between Joaquin Phoenix’s depiction of the character and the validation of “white male resentment” seen on the Right.
If I were a clinical psychologist, my focus might have been the psychoanalysis of Phoenix’s Oscar-worthy depiction of Arthur Fleck/Joker. However, as a social psychologist, I am far more interested in Joker’s commentary on society itself as it holds up a mirror to the phenomenon of deindividuation. What I saw was a film where the true evil worth fearing is a broken, frustrated society that latches onto random, almost purposeless acts of violence, imbues them with deeper meaning, and uses them as a jumping-off point for mass violence and brutality. Joker is not a political movie but a psychological one, showing the dangers of group action and the power of group narratives.
Society and Mass Violence in Joker
Gotham City in Joker is a fundamentally broken society. Interestingly, however, no one class or group can be shouldered with the blame. Arthur Fleck is failed by every level of society; he is mugged and beaten by a street gang, brutalized by rich young bankers, abandoned amid the defunding of the public mental health care system, and permanently scarred by his own family. However, every class in Joker seeks to shift the blame for society’s woes. The rich denigrate the working class, while the working class dehumanizes the wealthy. A TV host (played by Robert DeNiro) mercilessly teases Arthur, and all classes share the same glee at his televised failures.
On this bleak stage, in their desperate need to find someone to blame, the masses of Gotham condemn the “one percent” (although that phrase is not used), and when a desperate Arthur commits murder, society elevates this purposeless act of violence into an act of social rebellion. Despite knowing nothing about the killing, not even the motives, circumstances, or identity of the perpetrator, Gotham’s populace imbues it with a shared meaning, forcing a random event into their already-constructed narrative, and, wearing clown masks designed to imitate Fleck’s own clown costume, herald Joker as a hero.
By the movie’s climax, where Arthur appears as Joker for the first time and the hordes of protestors are already ready to revolt, it’s another essentially purposeless murder by Arthur that sparks the riots. Again, Arthur’s brutal actions possess little deeper purpose or meaning. In the film, Arthur intends to kill himself on live television. However, in a spur-of-the-moment decision, Arthur issues a rambling rant where he blames the elites for the state of Gotham, claims credit for the earlier killing, and decides to enjoy one last bit of senseless violence.
Deindividuation and Group Dynamics
From a psychological perspective, Joker is the most realistic and damning depiction of group dynamics I’ve seen in a long time. Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker is a far cry from the cunning anarchist portrayed by Heath Ledger in 2008’s The Dark Knight or Jack Nicholson’s scheming narcissist of 1989’s Batman. He has no plans, no real motives, no overarching point to make; he is as much a victim of circumstances as he is of his own rage and anger.
Unlike Ledger or Nicholson, Phoenix’s Joker doesn’t manipulate or use other people to achieve his ends, most likely because he himself has essentially no ends to achieve. It is society that makes him what he is, not in their treatment of him (because in this depiction of Gotham, everyone is awful to everyone) but in their mythologizing and romanticizing of his purposeless actions.
The depiction of this process is so in-line with psychological research that I found myself wondering if Todd Phillips had consulted the psychological literature on deindividuation when he was writing the film. While many (especially in an era where both sides of the political spectrum make appeals to populism) seem intent to assume that large groups of people innately occupy the moral high ground, the truth is that such situations often result in dangerous, even violent actions.
Deindividuation refers to the fact that crowds often assume a collective identity, diffuse individual responsibility among themselves, and become willing to commit even the most heinous acts. Deindividuation is linked to everything from mass riots to lynch mobs and warns of the dangers of assuming that simple numbers can equate to moral action. The collective identities of deindividuated groups can result in biased recollections and interpretations of events that, in turn, create horrifying violence.
This is exactly what happens in Joker. All Arthur Fleck does is commit relatively aimless murders and issue a relatively incoherent angry rant on television. The true villain of the movie is the broader society that latches onto these actions and words and imbues them with nonexistent meaning to justify their own crimes.
Seeing Joker in Today’s Political Sphere
The social-psychological forces depicted in Joker are as much in play today as in the film’s fictional 1981 setting. In the search for meaning amid an increasingly polarized and hostile political climate, groups come together and lionize monsters. Mass murderers like Che Guevara and Mao Zedong are praised by many on the Left, their self-aggrandizing brutality ignored in favor of the mythologized virtues of socialism and communism. Meanwhile, the same nationalist ideologies that have so often led to tragedy in the past are lauded by the Right. Feelings of disenfranchisement and resentment are producing violent mobs, from Antifa to the “Proud Boys.”
It is this phenomenon, so masterfully depicted in Joker, that I suspect lies behind so much of the discomfort felt by many of its viewers. We like simple, almost cartoonishly evil villains who we can “other” and who do not force us to do any self-reflection. We want villains whose evil can allow us to call out our ideological opponents rather than think about our own potential for immoral behavior. Like the hordes of Gotham, we seek to villainize those who disagree with us while excusing the behavior of our ingroups. Such circumstances make instances of mass violence and deindividuation all the more likely.
Joker is thus not a political movie but a psychological one. It’s not about Trump and the alt-right any more than it is about Antifa and the radical Left. It is about the apolitical dangers of group deindividuation. We need such examples outside the psychology classroom because otherwise, the examples will be on the news, from Antifa riots to instances similar to Charlottesville. By thinking critically about uncomfortable films like Joker, we can see the dangers not only of rhetoric we disagree with but also how apolitical psychological forces can cause all of us to turn clowns into Jokers.
Aaron Pomerantz is a social psychologist and doctoral candidate at the University of Oklahoma, where he studies culture, the legal system, and the psychology of religion. He is also one of the hosts of Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Snarkiness, a liberty-oriented interdisciplinary podcast.
This article is republished with permission from Fundation for Economic Education.