‘Joker’ through the lens of violence against women


October is Domestic Violence Awareness month. This month also saw the release of Joker, a film which had a controversial release due to fears that it would incite violence. The film is the story of how Arthur Fleck, a solitary, impoverished man with mental illness, becomes the infamous Batman villain.

Joker centers on the experiences of the titular character, whose perceptions and narrative are unreliable. The movie focuses on the perspective of a violent male and one that the sidelines experiences of the women around him. The violence against several female characters in the film as well as Arthur’s own experience of domestic violence warrants attention because the film, like the character, is politically neutral on this violence.

Even the concerns that the film would inspire violence were gender neutral, as the type of violence feared was mass shootings rather than the everyday violence that occurs in households and in relationships. There was no mass panic that a film would inspire this sort of violence, as it is beyond the cognitive horizon of most people to care. Of course, mass shootings are themselves often carried out by men with a history of domestic violence and misogynistic attitudes. In this way, the film offers some lessons about the ways in which violence against women continues to be normal, invisible, and misunderstood, as well as its place in capitalist patriarchy.

Domestic violence includes such things as physical, emotional, verbal, sexual, and financial abuse, along with stalking and coercion. The word generally applies to violence that occurs between intimate partners, but can also include violence in familial relationships, such as against children, parents, siblings, and elderly family members.

While the factors that cause this violence are complicated, a popular feminist theory is Power-Control theory, which originated with the Domestic Abuse Intervention Program in Duluth, Minn., during the 1980s. Through discussions with survivors of domestic violence, the Power and Control Wheel was developed based on patterns and themes in their experiences. This is a widely used tool for identifying the ways that power and control are exerted by abusers.

Power-Control Theory posits that abuse is the outcome of the abuser’s desire to maintain power and control in their relationship(s). While this began by examining the dynamics between individuals, it has been expanded to examine the ways that male power and control are maintained within patriarchy as a whole (Evolution of Theories of Violence, 2015). Within patriarchy, men have had the lion’s share of power and control in society. Control over women is expected and violence enforces their subservience. Women and children are particularly vulnerable to violence because of their inequality in economic, political, and social status.

From a socialist perspective, violence against women can be understood as a means to enforce patriarchy, which historically hinged on the transmission of property from father to son and the fact that women themselves have been treated as property. Violence enforces gender roles and a gendered division of labor. Within capitalism, the lesser status of women and their economic dependence upon men, helps to extract their unpaid labor. As such, prior to the efforts of the feminist movement, domestic violence was viewed as private problem within individual families rather than a social problem symptomatic of women’s place within patriarchy. Today, one in three women have experienced some form of intimate partner violence in their lifetime and 95% of the victims of domestic violence are women.

The film is set in Gotham, a fictional city torn apart by class tensions, an infestation of rats, cuts to social programs, and crime. It is against this backdrop that Arthur Fleck, a white male in his 30s, tries to eke out a living for himself and his mother, who exist on the edge of the working class. Along the way, Arthur becomes increasingly violent and through violence, becomes self-actualized as the vengeful, confident, smiling, and dancing Joker.

Arthur Fleck is immediately depicted as having little power and control in his life. Early in the film, he is attacked by youth while working as a clown. His employment itself lacks control as is based on the tenuous availability of clowning gigs and as his coworkers and employer are unaccepting of him. He lives with his mother, Penny, who is the dominant figure in his socially isolated life, and dependent upon him for income and care. To make matters worse, the medications that Arthur uses to try to control the symptoms of his mental illness become unavailable to him after social services are cut in the city. Rats and the amassing garbage left uncollected due to a sanitation worker strike, create an atmosphere wherein the entire city seems out of control of patriarchal capitalist power.

As a malnourished, eccentric, mentally unstable, outsider living with his mother and barely getting by, Arthur isn’t privy to much of the power and control that other white males enjoy. After sustaining a beating, Arthur’s coworker lends him a gun, which he is at first reluctant to take, but quickly becomes the key to accessing the power he has been exiled from.

A turning point in the film is when Arthur uses his gun against a group of young, wealthy white men who attack him on the subway. Prior to the murder, the young investors are shown talking about a woman, then go on to harass a woman who is riding alone on the subway. When she ignores them, food is thrown at her and she is verbally accosted. She is called a bitch when she gets up and leaves. This is a relatable scene, as 81% of women have experienced sexual harassment in their lifetime (Chatterjee, 2018). The trio of men themselves are a patriarchal trope. They are Brock Turner, Jacob Walter Anderson, or young Brett Kavanagh. They are the kind of guys that wear black face at Halloween parties, bullied kids in high school, rape women in college, excel at sports, and probably get called Chads by Incels. They are smug masters of the universe.

The woman’s escape is made possible by Arthur, who has a condition which causes uncontrolled laughing. This draws attention away from the woman, but in turn, causes him to be beaten for laughing at them and then defending himself. He kills two of the men as they beat him, but pursues the third after he flees.

The trio of murdered men work for Thomas Wayne, the father of Bruce Wayne. Thomas Wayne represents the pinnacle of patriarchal capitalist power in the film. He is a wealthy, robust, white, heterosexual father, who is running for mayor because only he can take control of the city. When Wayne decries the murders of such bright, talented young men and calls the poor of the city “clowns,” his insult launches a movement of clown-masked demonstrators who protest the wealth gap in the city.

Arthur becomes emboldened by the murders and the movement it sparked, but remains on his individualistic, anti-social path of violence rather than joining the movement. This path culminates in the Joker’s live TV murder of Murray Franklin, a popular talk show host and icon of patriarchal power in the form of celebrity, self-assurance, wealth, and bullying. Both Thomas Wayne and Murray Franklin are fallen father figures to Arthur Fleck, who lose their esteem in his mind as he loses his mind and violently take control of his life. Along the way, several female characters are casualties in his brutal metamorphosis.

The first casualty is his mother, Penny. Arthur’s relationship with his mother has unhealthy elements. Although she is mobile, he bathes her, and although she is capable of dancing, he cuts her food for her. They also share the same bed. The nature of her health needs are not specified, but the depiction of their relationship is strongly suggested to be codependent. Penny is portrayed as incapable of meeting her own needs and those of her son’s. She is verbally and emotionally abusive, as she shoots down Arthur’s idea of becoming a comedian by telling him that he isn’t funny and shows complete indifference to him when he says he went on a date. His experiences and needs are secondary to her obsession with Thomas Wayne, who she believes will lift them out of poverty.

When Arthur discovers that Thomas Wayne may be his father, Penny fears he will kill her because she kept this secret. He eventually kills her after discovering that he is not Thomas Wayne’s son and that she spent time at Arkham Asylum because of her role in the abuse he experienced as a child. In searching for the truth of his parentage, Arthur learns from an asylum employee that his mother’s boyfriend chained him to radiator, beat him, and starved him when he was a child. Upon learning this, he smothers her in her hospital bed.

Throughout the film, Arthur suffers from uncontrollable laughter, which is attributed to a brain injury. This history of abuse is used to explain where this condition originated, as well as to give insight to some of his other behaviors. In 60-75 percent of families where a woman is battered, children are also battered. Children are 15 times more likely than the national average to be neglected and physically abused in families experiencing domestic violence. Exposure to domestic violence can impact children in a number of ways, including increased aggression, depression, lowered independence, social withdrawal, reduced social competence (Rakovec-Felser, 2014). All of these are characteristics that Arthur displays throughout the movie.

When confronted with her son’s abuse, Penny says she didn’t know he was hurt. She is charged with criminal neglect and sent to Arkham Asylum. It is not known what happened to her abuser. Although the film is not clearly focused on this matter, Penny is a victim of domestic violence. The narrative focuses more on her failure as a mother to protect her son from abuse, but both characters are victims. The blaming narrative of the film implies that Penny is at fault for failure to protect her son, which begs the question, “why did she stay?” Why did she stay if her boyfriend was abusing her son? Why did she allow it to happen?

This blaming narrative is very real. For instance, Ingrid Archie is a real life example of a California woman who fled domestic violence, but had her children taken away and was charged with failure to protect, even though she obtained a restraining order and went to a shelter (Albaladejo, 2019). Arlena Lindley, was sentenced to 45 years in prison after her boyfriend killed her three-year-old son. A witness testified that her boyfriend had threatened to kill her if she intervened and that when she tried to escape with her son, she was dragged back inside the home. In another case, Robert Braxton Jr. was sentenced to two years for breaking the ribs and femur of a three-month-old infant. Tondalo Hall, the infant’s mother, for whom there was no evidence that she had abused the child, was sentenced to 30 years in prison for failure to protect her baby (Banner, 2015).

There are many reasons why women remain in abusive relationships, even when their children are abused. Fictional Gotham, like the real world, has substandard housing and a lack of social services, making it likely that if she left, she would have been homeless with her son. The setting of the film is the late 1970s or early 1980s, which was before domestic violence shelters and community responses to domestic violence were well established. The most dangerous time in an abusive relationship is when the victim leaves, so leaving might have further endangered them both. Statistically, women have a 75% higher chance of being killed if they leave than if they stay (Banner, 2015).

Some women fear that their abuser will report them to social services and they will lose their children, which also causes them to stay. Since failure to protect laws have punished women who have fled domestic violence, this is not an unfounded fear. Abusive relationships are based on power and control, she may have felt powerless to leave or incapable of living independent of her abuser. It is possible that she was prevented from leaving. Whatever the case, Arthur clearly blames her for the abuse, which is not an uncommon response for children to have. The blame took on its own fatally abusive character when he murdered her. In the arc of the story, this was done for revenge over the abuse but also as part of his letting go of his life as someone controlled by his mother’s needs. Rather than remain the caregiving, weak, traumatized, and abused son, the murder ushers him deeper into a toxic masculinity wherein he has the power to inflict abuse.

As a final observation about Penny, the character may also have been abused by Thomas Wayne while she was employed by him. Although there is no direct evidence of abuse, he could have certainly abused his power to silence her, and as her employer, would have had immense power over her very livelihood. Her mental health struggles and dependence upon him for her livelihood renders the relationship far from equal and consensual. Wayne denies that they had an affair, though Penny tells her son that he made her sign paperwork to cover up the truth. Arthur discovers his adoption certificate, which seems to support Wayne’s claim that she is delusional. But in a flashback, Penny again claims that it was drawn up by Wayne.

Both Wayne and Alfred, the butler, insist that she is mentally ill. While all evidence seems to indicate that this is true, Arthur later discovers a photograph with a message from Wayne on it. Although he may not have physically abused her, he is able to exert patriarchal power over her without having to resort to violence. Penny does not need to be beaten or killed to keep quiet, she only needs to be delegitimized. By calling her crazy, her claims to reality are called into question. It is an attempt to gaslight her memories and beliefs about the relationship, even though she retains the claim that they were together. It is clear in the film that she experiences mental illness, but this could be either an outcome of abuse she experienced, a factor that made her more vulnerable to abuse, or both. Women who experience domestic violence are three times more likely to develop serious mental illness. Survivors of domestic violence are also three times as likely to have a history of mental illness such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia (Dyson, 2019).

The second victim of domestic violence is Sophie Dumond, Arthur’s neighbor and imagined love interest. Even before he murders anyone, Arthur begins stalking Sophie and imagines that they are in a relationship. In this imagined relationship, he has perfect control over her, as she laughs at his jokes, is never threatened by his eccentricities, supports the murders of the men on the subway, and offers comfort when his mother is hospitalized. After the murders on the subway, he kisses her, as his sexual confidence was bolstered by violence. The kiss never happened, along with the many other scenes. This is revealed when he enters her apartment, begins touching her belongings, and sits on her sofa.

She is terrified that he has entered the apartment. The outcome of this encounter is never depicted on screen, but her character is never seen or mentioned again. It is easy to read this omission as she was murdered or sexually assaulted. Certainly, by stalking her, entering her apartment, handling her belongings, and creating a fictional romance with her, Arthur behaves in a way that shows entitlement to her personal space, privacy, safety, and body. Glimpses at his journal reveal disembodied and altered images of naked women and sexual scenes. Again, this points to an unhealthy, sexual, and violent imagining of women.

Another woman in the film who is murdered by Arthur is an unnamed therapist. At the end of the film, he is seen walking out of her office with blood on his shoes. The fate of both Black characters is left up to the imagination, but statistically, Black women experience a higher risk of sexual assault and domestic violence. In the United States, 20% of Black women have been raped and 40% have experienced domestic violence. Black women are also two and a half times more likely than white women to be murdered by a man and 9 out 10 victims knew their murderer (Green, 2017). It is also important to point out the racial dynamics of a white male perpetrator murdering at least one Black woman and perhaps murdering or sexually assaulting another. Arthur attempts to exert control over Black women several times in the film, such as when he tries to verbally defend himself against a Black mother when he talks to her child, when he chides his Black social worker for not listening to him, through his imagined romance with Sophie, and through the murder of his therapist.

Angela Davis argued that violence by white men, especially sexual violence, was used to control Black women during slavery. Their bodies were the property of white men. Sexual assault was used by the KKK as a weapon of terror against Black women. During the Civil Rights Movement, white police officers raped Black activists they had arrested (Davis, 1990). Black women are killed at higher rates than any other group of women. Yet, Black women are seldom viewed as victims. Violence against Black women continues to be ignored and Black women blamed because they are viewed as violent, sexual, less innocent, their lives less valuable, or somehow deserving of their victimization. When they defend themselves against violence, they find themselves punished by the criminal justice system, such as CeCe McDonald, Cyntoia Brown, and Alexis Martin (Finoh and Sankofa, 2019).

The violence inflicted upon women in the film goes without police or community response, though police response is often met with blaming, disbelief, or threats of violence and incarceration from the state itself. Police themselves are often abusers, as 40% of police families report domestic violence, which is four times more than the general population (Police Family Violence Fact Sheet, n.d.). Two incidents of violence against women occur off screen, whereas violence against men in the film is used to shock the viewer and drive the narrative. As a whole, women are ancillary to the film. They are not prominently depicted among the protesters, the violence against them goes unnoticed, several of their roles are unnamed characters, one role primarily exists in Arthur’s mind, and none of them are shown making it out of the movie alive.

Violence against women is part of the Joker / Batman canon; in other iterations of the films, the character has raped Barbara Gordon and has an abusive relationship with Harley Quinn (Dockterman, 2019). Gotham is a world of men and Joker is story of a beaten down male, beating down powerful men. But it is also a story of violence against Black women, domestic violence, narratives that blame mothers for their abuser’s actions, the intersections of mental health and victimization, and the continued normalcy of violent masculinity.

The universe of Batman is always a story about capitalism. The hero, Bruce Wayne, is a capitalist who fights bad guys in the form of villains with mental illness. He does this with the help of the militarized Gotham police force. To side with the hero is to side with the ruling class and its enforcers against the dangerous elements of the lumpenproletariat. Joker takes place before the advent of the central hero or the militarization of the police. If there is a central message of the film, it is that capitalism creates villains. If there is an argument, it is that austerity and trauma beget violence.

Through the narrative of the film, Arthur Fleck’s violence can be attributed to childhood trauma, unmet mental health needs, social instability, isolation, and unchallenged misogyny. But the film says little about how this impacts women. This part of the narrative is truncated.

Capitalism may indeed create some villains, but it also creates its own grave diggers. The power of workers and social movements against capitalism is depicted in the form of a sanitation strike and masked protest movement. These mobilizations must ultimately fail for Batman to rise as the capitalist vigilante who keeps the order of capitalism and patriarchy.

As for the women in the movie, they too fade into Gotham’s eternal night. The dark city swallows their stories. In this way, art mirrors the life of many women. If there is a feminist message to be drawn from the film, it is the need to Take Back the Night. Rising above the erasure of capitalists, vigilantes, police, and misogynist villains means doing things that these female characters were unable to do: uniting together, being heard and seen, demanding social provisioning, fighting oppressive narratives of abuse, holding abusers accountable, and creating safety that doesn’t rely on punishing the mentally ill.


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