Everything Must Go: A Peek into the Symbolic Structure of the Joker Movie
The Joker overturns everything. “Everything Must Go” was what the spinner sign said that Aurthur Fleck flipped around for a dying store, bankrupt and out of business in the new blockbuster, JOKER. Gotham was nearing a breaking point of dissatisfaction among the poor and weary people who were desperate in the moral degradation and the economic tragedy of their time. “Everything Must Go”. The film and genius creation of Todd Phillips is not merely a cruel story regarding the slow turn of a crazy man, Arthur Fleck, into the monstrous villain we know as the Joker of DC Comics. There is within this movie the innate patterns that happen to a community or body, in this case Gotham City, when corruption goes unchecked, when the unsavory problems of moral sickness are ignored, and when uncomfortable ideas are not brought into the light. From the beginning of the film when the streets of Gotham are filled with stinking garbage, apathetic people rudely walking on their way, and young hooligans running the streets beneath signs of pornographic theaters, the Joker does what a joker has always done for society. He signaled to the rotting city that “everything must go”.
Jokers, jesters, and clowns (I will refer to them all interchangeably given their extreme similarity) are similar in nature in that they can point out to society an issue as the jesters did when they mocked the king to keep him humble. Clowns have a symbolic structure used throughout our literary lineage which enables us to see a pattern that manifests itself in the world. In King Lear the jester serves this very role and plays as a check to the folly of the monarchy when it goes astray. The roles are inverted when the lowliest creature of the court, the jester, is the greatest advisor to the king, and, in times of need, a figure that overshadows the king. In desperate times they also play a role as a harbinger of chaos. It is no wonder that we associate these sometimes very happy, silly entertainers with killer clowns like IT and murderous villains like DC’s Joker. In prosperous times when there is justice prevailing, clowns and jesters brought laughter in their shows of excess and little chaotic displays of humor and hilarious faces with honking red noses.
In my opinion, it is crucial to know what a clown (or joker) is. In a scholarly work by Marianna Keilalo-Galvan titled “Clowns in Anthropology: A Review of the Literature”, Keilalo-Galvan says “The clown is grotesque, inappropriate, funny even before he speaks. He is contradictory and marginal” (5). It is interesting to note, as the aforementioned article states that there is very little scholarly work done on clowns and their social, religious, and psychological relevance. The reason seems to be directly linked to what they are, that is, marginal. They are crude, odd, funny, frightening, happy, sad, disturbed, playful, sexual, and ritualistic, yes, but they are most clearly exaggerations and inversions of man’s desperate nature. They exaggerate the highest and lowest peaks of human feeling and psyche, and in their ritualistic manner, they dress and perform in astonishingly ridiculous ways. Their outward appearance represents what their role is in society’s “in-between”. Keilalo-Galvan goes on to say in her article, referencing Zucker, a clown is “the lord of disorder”, and also “The clown is set against the cosmic order, yet ultimately affirms it” (5). In Geometry we sometimes affirm something by stating what it is not. We understand the truth of something by contrasting it against something which is absurd. The clown is the contrast and the inversion. The Joker inverts all the things we find normal, acceptable, and satisfying into a monster of excess. If hair should be blonde, brown, or black the clown will dye his hair blue, green, or purple. If shoes should fit, then a clown’s shoes will be enormous. If it is typical to walk forward, then a clown will run backwards. Every behavior or common presentation is inverted and then blown out of proportion. Hence a king like Lear becomes ridiculed by the lowly jester.
What does this inversion and exaggeration do? It is a sign. It is a sign that says something is wrong in the world. It is a sign that says something must go. Clowns “burst the bubble”. How do they do this? They relieve society through laughter and comic irony. They provide an outlet for the inevitable excess that we as humans naturally tend towards. It is a way to experience the excess of folly and inversion without being totally overcome by it. Keilalo-Galvan goes on in her article that “The clowns’ seeming disrespect or lack of propriety brings about a freedom from accepted norms and ways of behavior which is also freedom from conventional ways of thinking, fears and tensions. This release is healing”. A joker can relieve that tension by pointing out the faults in society/culture in a humorous way. In the case of JOKER the movie, it not only said that something is wrong with the society and that something must go, but that the society is wrong. The corruption is too great and therefore “Everything Must Go”.
The terrible illness of Arthur Fleck was not properly treated. The unsettling nature of his sickness was ignored and dismissed both by the society in which he lived and by himself as he states repeatedly the discomfort he has at being called crazy. Arthur, the Clown, was fired because his boss could no longer stand his antics. He was raised in a dysfunctional, and as we learn later, severely mentally unstable family without a father. The one thing which seemed most stable and normal in his life, his mother, was in reality the greatest lie of his life. He thought he was loved, but he could find no love even in his most intimate relations. And when he could find no love, he envisioned and imagined a false intimacy. He could not deal with the tragedy that is the life of man, and even with all his hope, he turned against that life.
It should be noted that twice in the movie, not prominently displayed by any means, there are two separate photos of the Madonna and Child. They are both in the home of Arthur and his mother depicting the perfect bond of mother and son that is human and divine. Between the Divine Child and the Holy Mother there is understanding and consent. There is a willingness to take responsibility for suffering in the world, a fiat in the face of tragedy. They are willing to take and share in the suffering and joys of others and the most intimate sufferings and joys they each had together. If ever there was a perfect inversion of the Madonna and Child, it was Arthur and his mother. Neither understood the other. The mother never wanted to know the true suffering of her son, which is why she only was concerned with how much he ate or by telling him to put on a happy face. She also wished to throw the responsibility of their sad lives at Thomas Wayne in her delusion. The Madonna and Child depicted understanding and true identity. Arthur and his mother depicted confusion. In their relationship was also a microcosm of Gotham. The people no longer trusted a hierarchy that promised cleanliness and safety, but produced only corruption and filth. The happy promises of Penny Fleck were met with daily tragic occurrences for Arthur. There was garbage in the streets. The devastated times of the movie were not merely a bubble to be burst and relieved of the tension growing in society. It was time for the social structure as a whole to be burst and to relieve like a deluge what had been building and festering in the moral rot.
The joker and clown are marginal beings. The YouTube sensation and creator of The Symbolic World channel, Jonathan Pageau, spoke of clowns and the way in which they belong on the edges where they can serve their rare but much needed purpose to expose flaws. He said in his recent video on the symbolism of Kanye West and his new album Jesus is King that in times when the world is upside down we should watch the fools because they have something interesting to point out. But in the JOKER movie the edge has overcome the center. This is the problem in Gotham, and perhaps even our politically correct and morally confused culture, and this problem occurs when identity is fragmented and there is a loss of meaning. Identity is the appropriate hierarchy of who we are in relation to other things such as our family, our country, our church, and our environment. It allows us to assign value, to recognize innate value, and to reject things which are despicable. There is no more center, and it is from the center that order in the world flows out. The center is established and we can understand where the rest of the pieces in the puzzle fit it, like where the margins should be and where the fringe should be.
In speaking of people and their relation to others, a joker mitigates the tendency of this balance of identity to break down. They do this from the fringe, the margins of society. But when there is no proper center there is confusion and chaos; not even the joker has his place to stand. There is no more hierarchy as the ordering of things disintegrates, and what was once marginal, is now everywhere. Thomas Wayne in the JOKER film said of the people of Gotham that they were all “clowns”. The margin had become the center. Chaos was the norm. Excess was virtue. The entire populace had become the inverted clown-world.The disturbed, the disenfranchised, and the immoral were the majority and corruption was eating the city from the inside. The bubble needed to be burst. When the time had come and the disease of Gotham had reached it's feverish apex, Joker himself danced amidst the burning flames of firebombed cars and impassioned violence while the crowd cheered his upside-down version of resurrection. The people in the crowd all wore clown masks because they had become the agents of total overturning. Distortion had reached its heights and the crowd cheered because “Everything Must Go.”
Movies such as the JOKER are not arbitrary works of art to merely entertain. Their value is much more than entertainment because it can show us symbolic structures that we find manifest in our culture, throughout history, and even in our own lives. That is what makes them powerful.
I am not attempting to prove that the JOKER movie is good, or even that jokers and clowns are good per se, though I would argue that the movie was phenomenal and that jokers and clowns are necessary for a well functioning society. The movie was an abomination. It was a scandal. Christ says in the Gospels "For it must needs be that scandals come, but woe to the man by whom scandal does comes" (Matt.18:7). This article is merely desires that the reader acknowledge the social and internal patterns that movies like the JOKER manifest.
These patterns play themselves out in the world, and they are reflected in the art of the society in which they occur. I would invite the reader to cast their attention on times when tragic irony happens in their lives or when it appears in their culture. Perhaps something can be learned from the joker that laughs at us or the joker inside us that sometimes makes us laugh at ourselves. There may be something to learn from the perceived irony. The similarities of Gotham to our culture in the United States in 2019 are profoundly useful and more apparent when we do a little digging, but the similarities are Gotham to ourselves, our microcosm of mind, body, and soul are also worth entertaining. It would be truly sad if we never laughed inanely at the times we see our faults and stupidities. We could be our own clown or allow a friend to be a joker for us, lest we end up more like Gotham with garbage in our streets, revolution on the horizon, and a crowd like a beast with many heads awoken shouting “Everything Must Go”.