The Joker: A semiotic Analysis – By @elisaczerwenka
By Elisa Czerwenka
The Joker: A semiotic Analysis
Two weeks ago Marc Lewis gave us a brilliant lecture on how to decode signs and symbols around us. It was a lecture introducing us to the concept of Semiotics. Since I am a huge fan of applying new learnings to recent events in my life, this SCAB will try to make use of what we have learned and apply it to a movie I have just watched.
This is a short semiotic analysis of The Joker.
I am very aware of the fact that a movie depicting a man going from mentally ill to criminally insane is not just full of semiotic gems, I could probably write a book about it and still only touch the surface of its meaning. This is why in this SCAB I will focus on four elementary parts of semiotic analysis and name one or two examples from The Joker for each. I have watched the movie twice: once for pleasure and a second time to find potential hidden gems of semiotics and its cinematography. I hope that this way I was able to discover symbols that might have escaped the eye on first watch.
Spoiler Alert: Now I do have to warn anyone who hasn’t seen the movie yet that the following paragraphs might and most definitely will spoil some parts of the movie. If you haven’t seen it yet you might want to stop reading – and go straight to booking a ticket now because this movie is worth a watch.
Before I name my findings, let’s talk about semiotics in the context of film. A Semiotic Analysis is the study of signs codes and conventions on films. It describes a way of explaining what meaning the audience can take from codes. Important to note here is that no object or word is without meaning. The way we grow up we have been taught to analyse the word around us constantly and see meaning in symbols and signs. It’s how we make sense of the world. The decided meaning we get, however, has not been created by us in a vacuum. The meaning already existed. It’s our pre-existing knowledge that leads us to the final interpretation. It is important to remember that culture plays a huge role in this, and how someone from a western culture sees signs and symbols might vary greatly from someone who comes from an eastern culture. Knowing that, let’s remember that any meaning that we get is not our own idea, it comes from someone else.
This goes for movies as well as any other type of media we consume.
There is four types of signs and codes that exist in the semiotic analysis of film.
- This is one of the most straightforward ways to create meaning. Indexical signs act as cues to existing knowledge and a good example of that is smoke as a sign for fire or a phone ringing for the action of someone calling. This type of sign is very common and is used constantly in the media. A beautiful, quite small symbolic gesture of this notion happens in the first couple of minutes of the movie. The Joker gets jumped, teenagers steal his sign and brutally beat him up when he tries to get it back. Afterwards we see Arthur lying on the floor, deeply in pain. Just when the camera is about to pan off, Arthur reaches into his jacket and presses a button to release water from his flower prop. After what just happened to him, he is still a Joker. He wants to make people laugh with a prop. The fake flower, leaking of water symbolises this attempt of trying to be funny beautifully.
- Symbolic codes only work when a society uses them widely. By themselves they might fail to convey meaning but because they have been used in popular culture many times, they turn into something meaningful. An example for this would be a red heart for love or the colour yellow for happiness. In The Joker we see this in Arthur Fleck’s clothes and make up. The Joker is trying to make people laugh, as a clown, he pursues a job as a comic. The more his identity gets rejected the more he transforms his outer appearance into the Identity he failed to become. He transforms into the “clown” that society saw in him all along, but darker. They have been laughing at him and not at his jokes. But clowns are not just seen as funny in our society. They are seen as creepy. Clowns are meant to portray happiness, yet their illusion of an identity, the hiding behind a mask creates an uncomfortable position for the viewer.
- This type of code used in films creates a question in which the film makes potential viewers wonder what will happen. Often used in its trailers it draws viewers in to seeing the movie. This is very apparent in the final trailer, released by Warner Brothers Pictures: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zAGVQLHvwOY
- In the trailer we quickly get introduced to the fact that someone is giving the main protagonist “bad news”, we later hear that all he has are negative thoughts. This makes us expect the protagonist to most likely act on these thoughts, combined with the visual cues that we get. But how exactly does he turn bad? This is the question we are left with. The ending of the trailer with the text “bring in the clowns” creates great anticipation.
- One more thing I would like to touch upon is the conventions used in this movie. It is a superhero movie, yet it creates an over detailed character study of a villain. As many critics have noted, this could just be a movie about a man going insane. Considering that The Joker is a villain in Batman’s universe and therefore occupies a side part rather than a main one, do we even need to know the full story of Joker?
Another important aspect of recent discussions is the role of mental health in the movie. Arthur Fleck portrays more or less realistic behaviour to a society that rejects him over and over. He has a neurological disorder, is a result of environmental impacts like abuse in his childhood, the lies of his mother, starvation and a complicated relationship with his own identity. He has a laughing disorder which creates not only incredibly humiliating moments for him. It also puts him in dangerous situations because the world around him does not understand his condition.
While we can certainly discuss the authenticity of his reactions to what happens to him, one is for sure: His actions are emotionally reactive and throughout the movie the viewer is captured between feeling empathy and disgust for the behaviour of Arthur. The Joker forces the viewer to ask themselves if Joker is truly the bad guy in the movie or if he is just a result of the world he was brought up in. The mental health discussion that has ensued after release of the movie is one, which I hope, can only benefit the stigma and obstacles people with mental illnesses face.
Finally I want to leave you with an important question that I believe is not only worth asking, but necessary in further discussing the meaning of this movie. A question that requires an even more complex answer that the movie might have portrayed.
Is there anything we should not joke about?
Sources and Further Reading: