Smile Though Your
Heart Is Breaking
& Hate In A Traumatized Boy

Arthur Fleck is Joker. That’s the name of Todd Phillips’s 2019 film and Joaquin Phoenix’s well-deserved Best Actor Oscar-winning character. Arthur must be a Joker, a self-made stand-up comedian. He must laugh, though his heart is breaking. And, being a comedian is the best way to keep laughing. Isn’t that right …? No, he’s not successful at it. But, laughing is a must, for complicated reasons that unfold as this disturbing film escalates to a confusing and shattering end. Confusion about what’s real and not, what’s funny and isn’t is where Arthur lives.

Joker says it clearly: “It’s enough to make anyone crazy … No one thinks what it’s like to be the other guy. They just think we’ll sit there and take it like good little boys.” Just like he did as a child; tied to a radiator, beaten, while his mother did nothing.

Arthur is a traumatized boy, a Joker broken by his past. By a mother who didn’t see or hear him because, for her and in her mind, “he’s always been such a happy little boy.”

Smile Though Your Heart Is Breaking

His name is Happy. Not because he is. Because he’s “supposed to be.” At least that’s what his mother expects – and she’s the one who nicknamed him. Yes, smile. No matter what. Even though his heart is breaking. And, it is. As much as he tries to fight it.

Beaten in an alley. Bullied constantly. He laughs. Uncontrollably. Incongruously. Can’t stop. And, he can’t help himself. This kind of laughter used to be called hebephrenia. That’s only a diagnostic term. There’s more to understand about why Arthur, AKA “Happy,” AKA Joker can’t stop laughing. And, that’s about what’s going on deep inside.

We watch. He’s on the subway. Laughing. Giving people a card that says: “I’m sorry, I have a medical condition. It just doesn’t match how I’m feeling.” No, it doesn’t.

But, what else can he do? He sees a therapist. With leg shaking uncontrollably, arms twitching, he wants so much to be understood; tells her death would be better, or maybe the psychiatrist could increase his medication. Yet, all she has to say is: “You’re on seven medications, surely it must be doing something.” She doesn’t hear him.

He tries again. Saying, more honestly than his laughter: “I just don’t want to feel so bad.” But, everywhere he turns, there is no help; only misunderstanding and hurt. What else is there to do, but try to feel make himself feel better by laughing it off?

What Happens When No One Hears You?

Trying to pretend he’s happy doesn’t work. Feelings don’t go away. They pile up. Turn into more and more rage. That no one listens.

When that begins with his mother and is repeated with his therapist – two people he needs to count on – things only get worse. Arthur tries so hard. For his mother’s love. To get his therapist to hear what he’s telling her. Yet, she doesn’t get it: “Does it help to come here and have someone to talk to?” Of course not.

Merely talking doesn’t help. If you’re talking to a wall. To someone who has nothing helpful to say. That’s defeating. Frustrating. And, rage-making. “I think I felt better when I was locked up in a hospital.” Safer. Less out of control.

What else does Arthur have but his fantasies? They give him hope. Until they don’t come true. He daydreams about Murray Franklin (Robert DeNiro), talk show host and comedian. In his fantasy, Murray invites him to the stage, tells him he’s special. Hugs him. Says he’d give it all up “to have a kid like you.” 

Arthur has no mother’s or father’s love. He’s verbally abused everywhere he turns. His boss (at Arthur’s job as a Clown) chews him out, then says: “I like you, even though other people think you’re a freak.”

People are insensitive. Tune out how he must feel. He tries to do the same. Laughing. Though his heart is breaking. But, still, he can’t get away from all the bad feelings.

After one especially painful incident, he goes into an alley; throws an angry fit, kicking the trash cans as hard as he can.  Not hurting – YET, that is – the people who hurt him.

Then, he’s washing his mother’s hair, while she sits naked in the bathtub. 

A Broken Mom Who Lives In Fantasy Too

What does a kid do with a troubled and unhappy mom? A mom who can’t cope with reality either? A mom who, it seems, has been cast aside, used, lied to, and gaslighted by Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullin) – leaving her broken, confused, and devastated.

That is, if her story is true – that her former employer, wealthy surgeon, philanthropist, married man, father to young Bruce Wayne (later Batman) was her lover and Arthur’s father. A man she must have believed loved her. Like Joker has to believe he’s funny and will make people smile. Trying to get what his mom can’t give him.

It’s hard to trust in love (or your own goodness) in the face of cruelty and denial. So, what can Peggy Fleck (Frances Conroy) offer her son? Not much of what he needs, that’s all too clear. Never could. Not even as a baby or a small boy. She needs him.

Arthur who lives with his mother washes her hair, tends to her fragility, is a very different Arthur. With her, he fluctuates between sounding infantile; the longing for a mom he doesn’t have. And, also pseudo-grown-up, trying to reassure her worries.

Yes, with no stable or strong mother, what’s left but fantasy? The fantasy of being a good stand-up comedian. Just like he must be a good, smiling, stand-up son.

Plus, where did he learn about reality? Not from his mom, who can’t face it either. Especially if her reality too has been shattered and denied by a cruel man, driving her to retreat and insanity? Like her son, who isn’t really “Happy” either.

When Love Is Only A Fantasy, Feelings Get Frozen

Children need love. From a mom who hears and understands all their feelings. That’s not Arthur’s mom. When he goes for her mental health records, he discovers he was abused and beaten by one of her boyfriends as she stood by. It’s when he learns she told her psychiatrist: “I never heard him cry. He’s always been such a happy little boy.”

How could Arthur feel anything? He’s been forced to be happy when he’s not. Yet, when he hears this story, Joker runs out into the rain. Laughing. And, crying so hard that snot oozes from his nose. The feelings he’s had to bury behind his smile.

No question, Arthur was a traumatized little boy; still a traumatized man. He needs something he gets only in fantasy. Like his “relationship” with Sophie (Zazie Beetz,) who lives down the hall. Not being loved incites rage.

At a hostile“father” who rejects his existence. While he watches his (it seems) half-brother Bruce Wayne have it all; is loved; doesn’t have to paint a smile on his face.

Yes, Arthur laughs through his pain. But, hiding in the refrigerator when the detective calls (after the subway murders) is telling. No one will find his real feelings. They’re encased in the icy veneer of his un-real laughter.

But, how do people end up in Arkham State Hospital? “Some are crazy, some have nowhere else to go; some don’t know what to do. Yeah, sometimes I don’t know what to do. I ended up taking it out on some people. Thought it was going to bother me, but it doesn’t.” Is this, for Joker, the perverse “benefit” of learning so well not to feel?

“I did some bad shit. It’s so hard to be happy all the time.” No kidding.

Power Of Playing With A Gun

It is impossible to be happy when he’s not. On the surface, this Joker wants to look “happy.” That’s what he’s told he’s supposed to be. And, his uncontrollable laughing condition is because of how he’s been forced to control his anger and sadness; to “stuff it” deep down inside. Frozen there. This can bring anyone to a boiling point.

To play with a gun. Pointing it at an empty chair. He cocks the trigger. Starts to dance. Imagines someone on TV looking at him, saying: “Hey, you’re a really good dancer.” In his fantasies, people admire him. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

The gun goes off. His mother yells. Arthur lies: “I’m watching a war movie, sorry mom.” Yet, maybe this isn’t so far from the truth. He’s in a war, in his mind, every minute of every day.  He watches mothers with children. What he never had.

He’s a clown at the Children’s Hospital cancer ward. He loves the job, tries to make children happy – just like he does with the sad little boy hiding inside his mind. A sad and angry little boy. He dances in his clown suit, singing: “If you’re happy and you know it clap your hands.” But, suddenly, the gun falls out of his pocket to the floor.

A gun, of course, doesn’t belong in a Children’s Hospital. He’s fired, though he begs his boss; to no avail. Making an unhappy man even sadder. And, angrier.

“The worst part about having a mental illness is people expect you to be as if you don’t.” So we watch Arthur playing with and toting a gun. Makes him feel powerful. Sort of. Really, that is the last thing he feels in a world full of cruelty and bullies.

Living In A World Of Bullies

Guns might seem like power.  They can kill. Kill off all those enemies. All the hurt and meanness that keeps coming at him. Like when he’s on the subway, in his clown make-up, sad already underneath the sham. He rides. Frequently. Yes, a very sad clown with a big red painted-on smile disfiguring his face. Laughing his uncontrollable laugh.

Now, he’s been fired. Riding home, minding his own business, hiding behind that painted-on smile. Defeated? Arthur can’t let that happen. Not now. Not anymore. And, then what happens? Four bullies start singing: “Where are the clowns?” Torturing him.

Before he can say he has an illness; before he can do the least little thing to protect himself,  the bullies kick him. Beat him. And, Arthur can’t take it anymore. He’s had enough. Enough smiling. And, too much torment.

Laughing off his fear is one thing. Now, he’ll make others scared. They will suffer; not him. He takes out his gun. Shoots them down. They cower, No, not him. Not anymore.

One bully isn’t dead and tries to run away. Terrified. But, Arthur doesn’t feel terror now; he chases him down and finishes him off. He has the power. At least, that’s how it seems to him. The power of making other people feel what he’s felt for much too long.

When Reality Is Too Much

He dances. Reality has never been kind to Arthur Fleck. Not from the beginning. A troubled, depressed, and needy mom who couldn’t stand her own feelings, let alone give him space and understanding for his. No father. Told to smile anyway. Even though he’s sad. Even though his heart has been breaking his entire life.

No, reality isn’t kind. And it is unwanted. When you’re different; bullied; laughed at; misunderstood. Even a therapist that you think just might give you what you’ve longed for: doesn’t. And, should.  If should is ever a word to use, this is the time.

Being insane – living in fantasy – especially one of great power – pulls Arthur farther in. So, Arthur dances. He dances after he’s committed his first murders. He celebrates.

Because someone else has felt the pain; the hate; that he’s endured for as long as he’s lived. And, not only that – had to hide. The dance is one of newfound power. Of surrender to insanity; to the strange power of hate; of not having to smile anymore.

And, to those in Gotham City – those less fortunate – those who know what it means to be the underdog – Arthur becomes an unexpected hero. At least in his mind. Just as he feels in the megalomania that hate offers. More power over heartbreak than that smile.

As he literally punches out of his clown job for the last time, he crosses out the “forget to” on the sign: “Don’t forget to smile.” “Don’t smile” fits Arthur’s reality much better.

How Hate Becomes Joker’s Super-Power

“Some people get their kicks stomping on a dream, but I won’t let it get me down.” No, by the end of Joker, Arthur doesn’t. But, it’s hate that serves that purpose. And, murder.

At the very least, the fantasy of murder. To annihilate the EYES that follow him everywhere. Stare; judge, and nastily demean. Those eyes that he can never escape. They are everywhere he turns; even in his own head. Because what else can happen when people bully you? You hate yourself. Live in shame.

Doesn’t it make sense that it’s Randall’s (Glenn Fleshler) eyes he stabs as he kills him? Murray Franklin’s too? How can he not hate those people – his mother, Murray Franklin, his therapist – people he’s needed to love him; appealed to unsuccessfully until it HURTS? 

Those people who used him for laughs; made him feel worthless. Except for Gary (Leigh Gill). Who knows what it’s like to be different. The only one who’s ever been kind.

Those other people fail to understand. Don’t have empathy for his pain. Can’t see past his smile, or even hear. Well, it makes him angry. And, it makes him hate.

Hate the helpless little boy living inside him that only wants love. To feel special to someone and never can. Smiling his painted-on smile. Until he can’t do that anymore.

“I’ve Haven’t Been Happy One Minute …”

“I haven’t been happy one minute of my entire fu ***ing life.” Now, that’s the real truth. No fantasy. A sad truth. So, Arthur needs hate to be his super-power. Uses hate to triumph over and kill (not only his feelings), but all those that miserably failed him.

His leg shakes uncontrollably. He laughs his defensive laugh. Loses his ineffective therapist because Gotham City cuts needed funding. But, he’s a hero for murder.

“It was as if no one even saw me, “he tries to tell her. “You don’t listen, do you? I don’t think you ever really hear me. (as earnestly as he tries to talk.) I just said I didn’t even know I existed, but I do – and people are starting to notice.”

What other choice does he have but fantasies of power? Taking things into his own hands when no one hears or cares? Not his mother. Or his therapist. Why should he care there’s no one to talk to? No way to get his medication? All she could say is: “I’m sorry, Arthur.”

Now mother and therapist are both dead at his own hands. No, he won’t be “Happy” anymore. He’ll be the epitome of the hate he feels. A more effective way, in his mind, of building a fortress against his sadness and his hurt.

No One Can Hurt Him Anymore

That’s when he becomes Joker. Goes off his medication. Embraces insanity. Dances wildly in his underwear. Dyes his hair green. Goes on a rampage against comedy. Killing The King of Comedy, Murray Franklin because it isn’t funny to make a laughing stock of him on his show. Never again will Joker use humor. He’ll use hate.

Hate is real. But, most of the time, feelings of hate aren’t played out with killing. Which is it in the case of Joker? Maybe even Arthur Fleck doesn’t know; the wish to murder is so strong in his mind. Just as strong as the fantasy of love. Does he kill? Or has he been locked up in Arkham State Hospital the whole film? The end of Joker leaves us wondering.

Is murder his fantasy of revenge over his mother, Thomas Wayne, his therapist, Raymond, Murray Franklin? All those he wanted to love him, but instead were cruel, and never did. Or is murder his reality, landing him back in the State Hospital, where he knew he needed to be, safer from the world and from his impulses? Maybe a mixture of both.

Without a doubt, Joker is a story of what can happen in the mind of a severely traumatized child. For Arthur Fleck, there certainly hasn’t been love. Only coldness; disregard; a life of covering up his tears. Hate, for Joker, triumphs over sadness. Over the need for love.

This is the saddest end to a very sad story. Of a man who tried, but was never helped. Living with a traumatized little boy hidden inside him. A boy who gave up hope; had no other choice but to barricade himself in walls of hate and fantasies of power.

Why? So that no one can hurt him anymore.

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Dr. Sandra E. Cohen

I’m Dr. Sandra Cohen, a psychologist and psychoanalyst in private practice in Beverly Hills, CA. I work with creatives in therapy, story/character development, and entertainment consulting. If you are a writer, actor, or director and want help with a character – or a chance to do some of your own personal work - call at 310.273.4827 or email me at to schedule a confidential discussion to explore working together.

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