Setting the box office record for an October release, the new film Joker is a worldwide phenomenon. Before its release and since, discussion of the film has been obsessed with the debate over whether the portrayal of a disaffected white man violently lashing out at society might bleed over into real life by breeding copycats or if such suggestions are the overreach of woke culture. Major reviewers have judged the film to be “empty,” “foggy,” and a “bad movie,” that “leaves you numb.” But critics have missed what seems to me a central message of the story: the descent into madness begins with the breakdown of the family.
Joker stars Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck, a clown-for-hire and aspiring standup comic, and Robert De Niro as Murray Franklin, a late-night talk show host. Buoyed by Phoenix’s Academy-Award-meriting performance, the setting of the story is early 1980s Gotham. Dingy living spaces, trash-strewn, rat-infested streets, and random muggings call to mind the New York City of the 1970s—memorialized in films like Taxi Driver—and provide a general sense of dread. “Is it just me, or is it getting crazier out there?” Arthur asks his therapist.
Arthur undergoes a series of unfortunate events, including loss of his job, failure to find a new career, romantic cowardice and unfulfillment, multiple physical attacks, declining mental health, and the loss of city-funded counseling. Arthur’s ultimate loss of sanity and turn to violence can thus be seen as the story of a man lashing out at a society whose uncaring indifference created the villain. Still, while a range of causes are certainly present, Arthur’s descent into madness is fundamentally a story about the breakdown of the family.
(Spoiler alert: discussion of plot details follows.)
Gotham as a Funhouse Mirror of our Society
Early in the film it is established that the middle-aged Arthur lives with and cares for his mother, Penny. Money is tight and Arthur’s clown job hangs by a precarious thread. Penny pesters Arthur daily about whether any letters have come in the mail from Thomas Wayne. A former employee at Wayne Enterprises, she insists Wayne is a noble man who will respond to her letters pleading for financial help. But no such letter ever comes. So Arthur spends his nights watching The Murray Franklin show with his mom. He fantasizes about being invited on the show and Murray embracing him as a son.
The Gotham of Joker is a veritable physical and social wasteland that looks familiar, a sort of twisted funhouse mirror of our own society. It is a place where social capital is so low that passersby barely bat an eye as people are mugged and beaten by punk teenagers in broad daylight, where people don’t even know the names of their neighbors, where they stay holed up in their apartment day and night, with no actual friends, family, or even acquaintances to call upon for help in hard times. Gotham is a place where the decline in marriage is moving apace. As in our time, it seems that in Gotham single moms make up the overwhelming majority of single parents. Elite families like the Waynes are married and stay married and working-class people like Arthur and the single mother he fantasizes about down the hall are unmarried or divorced, with the children as the victims.
As Scott Yenor has pointed out, it is the great accomplishment of social science to establish “beyond a reasonable doubt” that the decline in marriage is connected to a wide range of social ills. We know that children from intact, married homes fare better than children from single-parent and cohabiting homes on a wide range of outcomes, including GPA, negative and delinquent behaviors like lying and cheating, rates of incarceration, economic earning power and mobility, the likelihood of being victimized by domestic abuse, and physical and psychological health. The film explores the latter three outcomes of Arthur’s fatherlessness in particular.
Of course, this film is a work of fiction, and funhouse mirrors exaggerate negative qualities. Hence, I do not suggest that Arthur’s extremely bad outcomes are typical of children in single parent homes, that civil divorce and separation are never justifiable, or that there cannot be good outcomes in such homes. The point is rather that it is very likely that Arthur’s story would have been radically different had he grown up in an intact married home, and there are lessons to be drawn.
The Human Carnage of Fatherlessness
Arthur is emaciated and struggles with mental illness. One of his symptoms is his inability to control random outbursts of laughter, which confuse, frighten, and disgust his coworkers and fellow bus passengers. One such outburst leads to a trio of rapacious men in suits attacking him on the subway, and Arthur’s first killings in self-defense and the need to cover his tracks. The killings become a catalyst for a series of events in which Arthur discovers his mother’s letters imploring Thomas Wayne for assistance—letters in which she refers to Arthur as the product of their illicit affair.
Naturally, Arthur sneaks into a charity event and confronts Wayne in the bathroom. He insists that he is his son, that he doesn’t want a handout, but just wants a hug. Wayne turns out to lack noblesse oblige. He brusquely denies being his father, claims that Penny was a delusional psychotic who had to be committed to Arkham Asylum, and ends the interview by punching Arthur in the face. This leads Arthur to steal his mother’s file from Arkham and discover the truth for himself: he was adopted, his mentally ill mother was neglectful, permitted him to be tied to a radiator for days at a time, and to be abused by live-in boyfriends to the point of damaging his brain.
But the truth of Arthur’s parentage is left in doubt when Arthur later finds a photo of his mother when she was young, with a note written on the back “Love your smile, –TW.” Whether the billionaire Wayne used his resources to cover up his affair with an adoption cover story or whether the mentally sick Penny dreamt up a fantasy world in which she was Wayne’s secret lover is left ambiguous.
Still, the evidence perhaps leans in favor of Wayne’s fatherhood, which may have occurred before his marriage to Martha. If correct, the film underscores the point that Janet Yellen and George Akerloff made about the effects of technological shock to marriage and decline of shotgun marriages since the ’60s. Contraception and abortion liberated women like Penny by enabling them to sever sex from procreation. Men like Wayne reasoned that if women have these options, then why should they sacrifice and get married? Marriage and child support seemed to become the “social choice of the father,” which is only exacerbated in cases of asymmetrical socioeconomic background.
The intriguing suggestion is that, if virtuous men exercised their social choice with honor and sacrifice, there would be far fewer Jokers in the world.
As David Blankenhorn argued, fathers provide four key pillars for child development: physical security, material resources, a distinctive contribution in forming the identity of the child, and the day-to-day nurture and care children need from their parents. Arthur Fleck’s story is one in which the lack of a father led directly to his physical abuse and brain damage, diminished ability to earn a living wage, and a severely damaged psyche, such that he believed for years that he didn’t really exist—an exaggerated form of the human carnage of fatherlessness that David Popenoe documented.
It is true that Gotham is a place with greatly diminished social capital. It could be said that this failure is the real problem. Where are the neighbors, friends, extended family, and fellow church or club members to step in to help Arthur? Besides his mother and a couple fellow rent-a-clown acquaintances, all Arthur had were his fantasies about Murray and Wayne being his father. Still, the decline of social capital is an accompaniment of the breakdown of the family, because familial cells constitute the nodes of a vibrant social network. As Tim Carney has recently shown, cities in America with the most robust social capital, like Chevy Chase or Salt Lake City, are those places with higher rates of intact marriages.
It is also true that the city of Gotham failed Arthur. Due to the city’s financial problems, funding for Arthur’s therapy is cut off. But this failure was secondary to the failure of the family and the social fabric. First, because (for better or worse) the practicalities of democratic equality and majority rule mean that budgets are subject to the give and take and trade-off of negotiation and compromise. Second, because even in the best fiscal circumstances, democratic government—whether local, state, or federal—cannot play more than a supportive role to families in a well-ordered society.
Arthur’s loss of his job and ability to fill his medications coincides with Murray Franklin airing a videotape of Arthur’s failed attempt at standup comedy, replete with awkward fits of laughter and terrible jokes. Franklin’s mockery of Arthur finally pushes him over the edge into violent madness.
In short, even accounting for the other factors, it is principally the disintegration of the family and fatherlessness that generates the Joker. Arthur realizes that the last remaining father figure (in his delusional psyche) has rejected him even as Murray invites him on the show for more mockery. The fine line between horror and comedy—symbolized in the Joker’s clown mask and apparent inasmuch as both genres explore the incongruous—is brought to the fore.
In the final act, there is a reckoning between the fantasy father figure and the wannabe son that centers on the incongruity of Joker’s killings, and whether it is comedic or tragic, hilarious or horrifying. The ensuing violence brings the final curtain down on the funhouse mirror, leaving us to reckon with the effects of the breakdown of the family on society. The suggestion seems to be that the decline of intact, married homes is a horrifying incongruity—and if we don’t address it, the joke will be on us.