People wear masks, consciously or otherwise. They help us dissemble, aiding us as we move through a changing world with shifting demands. To some extent, the masks we wear are optional. But what happens when we’re unable to separate our “authentic selves” from our personas? The Joker is a testament to the perniciousness of a mask we can’t remove.
Our cultural experience exposes the incongruence between public image and lived reality. The famed “Curse of Saturday Night Live” sheds light upon the essences of this issue. The Joker’s protagonist, Arthur Fleck, inhabits the category of the funny man who woke up one day and had enough.
As a longstanding member of the 12 step fellowships, I’ve seen the damage that adopting a persona can exact. Countless times I’ve heard seemingly “together” men and women share about how good things are, how their lives have been resuscitated by the power of the program. And then, the next week, those same people disappear. Time passes, concerns are raised, and before long it’s revealed that those “together” people relapsed, or worse, killed themselves. How does this happen? The quick answer is obligation. The joy of the devotee is a testament to the strength of the system they submit to. By this point, the façade that they’ve fashioned is a prison. Humans revolt when they’re locked inside cages.
The same dynamic takes hold in the life of Arthur Fleck. It’s without a hint of irony that his mother nicknames him “happy”. Fleck’s life is an ever-moving assembly line of humiliations. Yet his mother, prey to her own illness and delusion, openly expects real happiness of her son. This pet name should be read as an injunction. It tells Arthur to accept the constraints of his mask, to smother the truth of his experience and give the world what they want. A happy face. A forced grin aimed towards the impersonal void. Fleck accepts his mask, and in this acceptance, he does smother out his truths, Mother and all.
This trend plays out repeatedly in our culture. Whether through drug overdoses, suicide, or murder, we watch the people whom make us smile turn to self-destruction of violence for release. Like narcissus, they lose themselves in their own reflections. A reflection is the shallowest dimension of our ‘personhood’, which is often all that most will let the world train its eyes on. Those who perform a role for long enough inexorably lose themselves in the performance. The theory holds that actor Heath Ledger succumbed to a character. The fact this character was Joker is hardly coincidental.
We can interpret Fleck’s descent into nihilism a symptom; an outgrowth of a phenomenon referred to as the “society of strangers”. The great paradox of human relationships is that for some, isolation is at its deepest when surrounded by other people. City living has been found to amplify that isolation. Fleck’s continued refrain is that people don’t listen, that he doesn’t feel real. They only start to pay attention when he lashes out. And the outbursts follow his acceptance of his mask. His trademark red and white rictus set him apart from the crowd. Invulnerability only compounds this isolation.
Fleck writes in his journal, “that the worst part about mental illness is that people expect you to act like you don’t have one.” This insight can be flipped on its head, repurposed. The worst thing about mental illness is that the people expect you to act like you have one. The assertion that we’ll “never really know anyone” is true.
What we see are Masks, either crude or beautiful, avatars of how what we’d like to be, or how we think others would like us to act. The doffing of the mask is what alienates and shocks. Fleck is another “clown prince” at the mercy of persona. The Joker is neither a celebration of victimhood nor some nebulous ode to the homicidal incel, but an analysis. A reconciliation with the way we internalize veneers and allow those veneers to predetermine our behaviours. Joker’s violence isn’t ideological, but cathartic.
Critics argue that in the analysis of the pariah and his acquisition of status, we are in some way valorizing his climb up the ladder, broken rungs and all. This is a shallow interpretation. Flecks only exultant moment comes at the film’s penultimate scene. In a moment reminiscent of Milton’s Pandemonium in “Paradise Lost”, Joker stands atop a car wreck thronged by a riotous mob in clown masks as the unwitting King of The Clowns. But his coronation is cut short. The film ends with his return to the asylum, an inference of violence, and Fleck in shackles, wildly evading hospital security. This is not a glorification or indictment, but a meditation on the Mask. Joker is imprisoned by an inescapable persona.
Over a decade ago, I checked into rehab. The trip entailed a mandatory pre-assessment with a counsellor. I was in a good a condition as one can be before they enter rehab, shattered ego and all. The counsellor ran me through his list of questions, banalities, the typical back-and-forth pablum that transpires in these spaces. The only thing that stuck with me from this visit were his closing remarks. He said I didn’t smile, not once. That my face was “stone”, and that in his years of doing the job, this had almost never happened. This was the Mask I’d learned to acquire. It was only when it slipped from my face that I got better.
Masks are transactional. We undermine our truths in moments that require proper camouflage. It’s not possible or advisable to be “authentic” all the time. The danger lies when we forget where the masks ends, and we begin. We all need reprieves from the Masks that we wear. Some wait too long before accepting this reality.