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Running Head: THE JOKER 1

The Joker- A Psychoanalytic Perspective

Rajshree R. Faria

S.N.D.T University

Pooja Nair
Theories of Personality
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The Joker- A Psychoanalytic Perspective

Intriguing heroes are plenty, villains, not so many. However, the ‘Batman’ universe gave

the world a menacing yet fascinating super villain with a chalk white face, green hair, and a fear

inducing Glasgow smile. Unlike the many other fictional villains who petrified the world with

super powers and super weapons, this man was able to instil gut wrenching fear by virtue of his

“strange” personality. It is for this very reason that the “Joker” is such a captivating and

interesting character to study.

One way to understand the ‘what’ and ‘why’ of the Joker’s personality is through the

Psychoanalytic approach. Developed by Sigmund Freud, the psychoanalytic theory of

personality focuses on the unconscious. This school of thought believes that all behaviour stems

from one’s unconscious as well instinctual and biological drives. He described the personality as

encompassing three structures- id, ego, and superego. These three elements work in different

combination of intensity to produce behaviour. Present at birth, the Id operates on the ‘pleasure’

principle, and is governed by impulses. It is irrational, amoral and chaotic. The ego develops out

of the Id at the age of around eight months and functions on the ‘reality’ principle, drawing a

balance between the demands of the Id and the moral diktats of the superego. The superego

develops out of the ego at the age of about three to five years and operates on the ‘morality’

principle. If the Id or the superego is too powerful or too weak, it may result in psychopathology.

Therefore, stronger the ego, healthier is the personality. The ego balances the id, the superego

and reality in order to maintain a healthy state of consciousness.

While balancing the ego and the superego, the ego reacts to protect the individual from

any stressors and anxiety by distorting reality. This prevents threatening unconscious thoughts
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and material from entering the consciousness. These techniques that the ego uses are called

defence mechanisms.

Another concept associated with the psychoanalytic approach concerns ‘instincts’.

Instincts are the basic elements of the personality, the motivating forces that drive behaviour and

determine its direction. The aim of an instinct is to satisfy the need and thereby reduce the

tension. Freud hypothesised two types of instincts- the life instinct (Eros) and the death instinct

(Thanatos). The life instincts are oriented toward growth and development whereas the death

instinct proposes that people have an unconscious wish to die. One component of the death

instincts is the aggressive drive, described as the wish to die turned against objects other than the

self.

This paper will attempt to decipher the Joker’s personality and its manifested behaviour

using the Psychoanalytic perspective by integrating the concepts with what has been depicted in

Christopher Nolan’s ‘The Dark Knight’.

Analysing the character of the Joker from Freud’s psychoanalytic perspective, we can

infer that the Joker has an undeveloped superego. That is, he fails to grasp how his actions of

threatening people, robbing the bank, and killing people amongst others are immoral. Partial

understanding of how the Joker came to be this way is got when he, assuming he is telling the

truth, says, “My father was… a drinker. And a fiend. And one night he goes off crazier than

usual. Mommy gets the kitchen knife to defend herself. He doesn’t like that...” This account of

his father shows that the Joker did not have a moralistic role- model that he could identify with.

Since the superego develops through introjections of parental standards, it may be inferenced that

the Joker’s lack of regard for societal values and morals stems from this parental void.
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In terms of ego protection, the Joker may be considered as engaging in Rationalisation- a

defence mechanism that involves explaining an unacceptable behaviour or feeling in a rational or

logical manner, avoiding the true reasons for the behaviour. The Joker makes the following

argument to Batman in the film, “...to them (citizens of Gotham), you’re just a freak, like me!

They need you right now, but when they don’t, they’ll cast you out, like a leper! You see, their

morals, their code, it’s a bad joke. Dropped at the first sign of trouble. They’re only as good as

the world allows them to be. I’ll show you. When the chips are down, these… these civilized

people, they’ll eat each other. See, I’m not a monster. I’m just ahead of the curve.” This

statement may be considered as his rationalisation for his antisocial behaviour; his belief that it is

but human nature that one would turn to evil or let go of their moral high ground when they

pushed hard enough. It is the human nature, and not his choices, that has made him what he is.

The Joker displays high-risk, reckless, and potentially fatal behaviour throughout the

film, showing his intense death instincts at work. These aggressive drives are what put his

psychic energy –the libido- to work.

The psychoanalytic theory has certain limitations though. To explain the personality of

the Joker using this perspective, we need to know more about his childhood. In spite of the

character being created seventy four years ago, there is not much known about his childhood or

how he came to be the “Joker”. Borrowing from psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus’ statement

about Psychology, it can be said that “the Joker has a long past but a short history”. The lack of

childhood history makes it difficult to fully understand and acknowledge the genesis of the

character’s many faults and traits.


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However, we may just empathise with Alfred the Butler and show our agreement when

he says, “Some men aren't looking for anything logical, like money. They can't be bought,

bullied, reasoned or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn.”
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References

Burger, J. M. (2011). Personality (8th ed.). Australia: Wadsworth Cengage Learning.

Friedman, H.W., & Schustack, M.W. (2011). Personality: Classics theories and modern

research. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Common Defense Mechanisms People Use to Cope with Anxiety. (n.d.). About. Retrieved

September 26, 2014, from

http://psychology.about.com/od/theoriesofpersonality/ss/defensemech_9.htm#

Sigmund Freud & Freudian Psychoanalysis. (n.d.). Sigmund Freud & Freudian Psychoanalysis.

Retrieved September 24, 2014, from http://www.mind-development.eu/freud.html