So Below: An Analysis of Class Representation in Parasite, Joker, and Fight Club

Paper by aija Schoeld.

Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite (2019), Todd Phillip’s Joker (2019), and David Fincher’s Fight Club (1999), though strikingly different films all accentuate issues in class structure and class representation through use of mise-en-scene, theme, and the rebellious nature of a forgotten lower class. These films use these elements to rebel against and call for an upheaval of the oppressive socioeconomic forces that control class structure. Class consciousness and false consciousness become central issues within these films as they violently search for representation of the lower class while making an effort to critique upper-class capitalistic values.

Class in each of these films is represented in a rather patterned way. It’s interesting that within three very different films, that such patterns would arise to portray difference in class. The lower class, in particular, is depicted in such a way that the viewer feels as if to look down upon these characters just as the capitalist system does. The way that these films do this speaks to the way that these film work to make a statement about class representation. The most prominent pattern that arises in these films is that of basements, the underground, and stairs. “Stairs provide important transitions between the two extremes of spaces and relationships” (Desowitz, 2019) which is used in film to make a visual example of the two extremes of upper and lower class. The lower class seems to be, more often than not, portrayed in relation to being hidden and “lower” than the rest of society. Making their label of “lower class” literal and visual. In
Parasite, “we meet a poor family of four eating a modest dinner and drinking beer in their cramped basement apartment” (Robinson, 2019) which in turn makes the viewer immediately associate this family with the underground and the poor. It is obvious in these opening scenes with the Kims that they are set lower than the rest of society. “Parasite is split between a favored above-ground world and a brutal subterranean realm” (Syme, 2019) which is laid out in an extremely visual way. Upon meeting the wealthy Park family, Kim Ki-woo has to walk up a number of stairs before actually entering the beautiful, intricate home of the Parks. This sets the visual distinction of “the above-ground world” of wealth and the “subterranean realm” of poverty and struggle.
This same distinction is drawn in Fight Club. The main character, and narrator, of the film is introduced in a sad monotonous world. Unlike Parasite, he isn’t presented immediately as below society, but rather a part of it. He has a nice apartment and nice “things,” but these things “define” him and in a sense control him, but these “things” don’t make him happy. It isn’t until his apartment blows up, along with all of his belongings that the nature of his character changes. He isn’t able to connect to his material possessions anymore. Here, the narrator is lost and then finds himself separated from society. This “ends his domestic life in an instant” and leads to the Narrator moving in “with Tyler [Durden] in a run-down, wild house far from civilization” (Christoffersen, 2016). It is in this house that the line between wealth and poverty comes in to play. The house is visually unattractive, in complete opposition to the narrator’s apartment. It’s dilapidated and disgusting but serves this character and his counterpart well. Along with this division from society, the basement also comes into play in this film. As the members of the fight club grow, they begin to meet in a basement. In this way, these former law-abiding members of society choose a life underground opposite of a world of wealth.

Joker, in the same way as Parasite, introduces the main character of Arthur Fleck in the position of poverty and struggle. To start he is beat up in a back alley full of trash by teens that look down on him for his job and his appearance. He lies, hurt, with the garbage below these cruel teens. In this same way, Arthur’s character is set up in a way that puts him below society and pairs him with this the same “subterranean realm” that is present in Parasite and the basements of Fight Club. All of Arthur’s pivotal moments seem to be in relation to the underground, pushing him lower and lower into this bottom class and separating him even more from wealth and society. The first time Arthur murders someone, he is in the subway below Gotham. This scene below the city, sets in motion Arthur’s inevitable spiral and sets him forever apart from a life of riches. “Lines are drawn in the movie between the rich and the poor. The story is shown parallel to a growing movement of disgruntled working citizens demanding something different, along with an elite wealthy class that looks down upon the poor as a burden to society.” (Robinson, 2019) These lines drawn between the very separate classes in this film make Arthur’s “downfall” even more apparent. As Arthur loses everything that connects him to society and the world that he lives below, he in turn loses his will to try to gain wealth and work his way up from the bottom. It is made clear fairly quickly in each film from these patterns of how the lower class is meant to be depicted. This goes further into each film with a particular similarity in the mise-en- scene of these films. A certain focus on staircases is prevalent and makes a statement about the lower class as well. In Parasite, staircases are present in almost every scene. This intentional focus on stairs “become[s] a delicate metaphor for the separation of class” (Nulf, 2019) within this film.

“Almost every scene is packed with rising and descending steps, from the ones throughout the home of the affluent Park family, to the incredibly long staircases out and around Seoul – at the very bottom of which live the down-on-their-luck Kims” (Nulf, 2019) It is in this way that the director, Bong Joon-ho, makes the visual distinction of class through this device. Staircases within this film become a way to show the Kims physically moving up to the Parks and down to their home. Even in the Park residence, underneath their home lives the old caretaker’s husband who is evading tax collectors. Under the home, separated by multiple staircases is this man who is so poor and separated from the world that he must forever live below the rest of the world. In another scene, The Kims are endlessly walking down the staircases around Seoul back to their apartment that is flooded and destroyed from the rain. The mise-en-scene in this scene takes them from the Parks residence, safe from the rain, down to their home that is overrun by rain water and they are unable to enjoy the comfort of home like the Parks. This same aspect is seen in Joker, as Arthur Fleck walks up the same staircase throughout the film. It isn’t until the end of the film, that instead of walking up he is dancing down the stairs. This use of the mise-en-scene solidifies Arthur’s place in the lower class. His dancing after his consistent struggle to be happy shows that he has chosen to this path, his freedom comes from a life forever separate from the rest of society. In Fight Club, a scene with the narrator shows him talking to Marla while Tyler Durden is at the bottom of a staircase making side comments to him. This scene uses the staircase to put Tyler, the narrator’s fantasy, at the bottom. In this way, his counterpart that he desires to be like and looks “up” to is set below him. To enter the world that Tyler lives, the narrator must walk down the stair cases into basements and fight. These “staircase” films make a visual statement about class representation

in these films. The lower class is both physically and monetarily lower than the rest of society. In respect to the capitalistic worlds that each of these characters live in, they are unable to live a life in the world above so they are pushed below to choose or settle in below. These films use the mise-en-scene of the world below to make a visual distinction between the two classes, making a statement against the capitalist and seemingly exclusive world that these characters choose to counter.
Within each of these films becomes a strong sense of class consciousness. Because of the physical separation and the way that the lower class is represented, the characters of these films are well aware of the way that they fit within the society that they are oppressed by. Arthur Fleck’s character is well aware of the way that the world that he lives in has forgotten him and left him behind. This becomes the guiding light for his anger towards the wealthy. His
“madness is fueled by cuts to the public health system so he can no longer keep his mental health problems in check, but also by the contempt of mainstream society…he understands that he is the object of disdain.” (Linkon & Russo, 2020)

Arthur Fleck is entirely aware of how the world looks at him and refuses to let the rich get away with it. While he is forced to notice the difference and live his life too aware of his poverty, he pushed back against the capitalist society that seems to be unaware of the sheer class divide.

“American popular culture has continued its obsession with wealth and materialism. Rather than discussing lack of access to health care, the loss of worker pension programs, or the still-sizeable unemployment figures, American citizens have increasingly focused on the comings and goings of the ultrarich.” (Benshoff & Griffin, 2009)

Joker exemplifies this care only for the rich, but uses its central character to fight back against the capitalistic scheme. The “Joker character rejects that order of things… he rejects the entire regime of training and discipline demanded by neoliberalism” (DeVega, 2019) and does so by ensuring that the upper class finally recognizes the reality of the detrimental regime they’ve created. This is apparent as well in Parasite. This film “revealed how oblivious the ultrarich are about the struggles of the working class” (Linkon & Russo, 2020) and showed how class consciousness can allow the lower class to manipulate the rich. The Kim family knows where they stand in relation to society, it is apparent in their everyday lives as they are forced to see how they live in contrast to the immaculate lives of the Parks. “Both films make clear that the elite have no idea what workers’ lives are like. Instead, they view the working class as inferior, unpleasant, and problematic” (Linkon & Russo, 2020). The Parks are so reliant on the work that the Kims do for them, yet they still look smugly at the way they smell and live. The Kims use the Parks’ anxiety related to that of the lower class to essentially take from them and sneak their way into the lives of the upper class. This is only doable because of class consciousness. Knowing one’s place in society allows for manipulation of the system.

While this is extremely apparent in both Joker and Parasite, Fight Club makes its jab at the system with the same manipulation. Tyler Durden creates a whole “army” of the working class by forcing class consciousness. By inviting these working-class individuals to join this underground fight club, he pushes his members to be aware of the “social mores that mold us as pawns of capitalism: following authority, emulating models, buying useless shit” (Christoffersen, 2016). By doing this he then forces the question of whether they are “comfortable with the repressive forces that act to domesticate [them] and if [their] lives improve through the acknowledgment of these forces” (Christoffersen, 2016) and in turn spreads class consciousness.

It’s the recognition of the place that the working class holds in society that pushes these individuals to stand up against the system that oppresses them. “Fight Club frequently suggests that the domestication of individuals in society prohibits a meaningful existence” (Christoffersen, 2016) in the same way that Arthur Fleck’s character can’t live a “meaningful life” until he rejects the society that rejects him. Even so in Parasite, the Kims are rejected by the Parks once the truth of their class status comes to light and the harsh cruelty of the wealthy is inflicted upon the Kims as they are cast out again. It is in this way that each of these films, though drastically different in story, are the same in their call for class consciousness and rebellion against capitalism.
The most prominent pattern in each of these films is the absolute violent way that the lower-class rebels against the rich and dissipate the fantasies that this world instills. In order to rebel against class structure and the injustice of capitalism, violence must ensue. For Fight Club it’s even in the name. Its characters call for the lower-class to rebel against the morals that society teaches them and get violent. In this way, “Fight Club’s answer to materialism is the destruction of capitalism” (Christoffersen, 2016) and in the quite literal sense. The only way for the narrator to become his desired form is to shoot himself and become one with his fantasy of Tyler, he then watches the city as “Tyler’s” plan to destroy capitalism follows through.
“Self-violence turns to outwards violence… [as] the film concludes with outward violence levied upon the buildings [of credit card companies] and Project Mayhem at last reaches fruition” (Ta, 2006).

It is through violent means that the main character seeks to rebel against consumer driven society, making a statement that a consumer driven, capitalist society will create an unhappy and angry lower-class that will seek rebellion – and praises the violent rebellion. Joker finds itself with a similar resolution. “Joker is ultimately an in-your-face examination of a broken system that creates its own monsters” (Robinson, 2019) as the film follows the character of Arthur Fleck and his spiral into becoming a monster and overall villain. Fleck, being rejected by society, turns to his dark side and shoots a famous talk show host on live TV to finally show the world what the dangers are of oppressing the lower class. Arthur ends the film finally happy as Gotham City becomes a crowd masked clowns joining in the rebellion of the system. With chaos and destruction comes happiness for this character than until the end of the film was depressed and abandoned. The way that the film depicts this same violence in Parasite is done a bit differently. The message isn’t as black and white and is hidden in an oppositional reading.

“In their attempts to get ahead, the Kims end up replicating the abuses of the wealthy— fraud, conspiracy, blackmail, and assault—against the poor, whose ranks they desperately wish to leave.” (Seo, 2020)

In this way, the Kims have let themselves become what they hate about society and lead to inevitable violence. They cast out the husband of the housekeeper and in turn, he finally comes up from below the house with an intent to kill. It is through his character that the dangers of what the upper class can do becomes clear. The Kims becomes obsessed with this idea of wealth and it is ultimately what destroys them. As Ki-woo’s sister is killed and his father takes the place of the housekeeper’s husband below, they end up just as unhappy and stuck in the system they are both oppressed by and obsessed with conquering.

These three films accentuate the issues in class structure and class representation, it is apparent that these films denounce oppressive socioeconomic forces through their use mise-en- scene, theme, and the rebellious nature of a forgotten lower class. Class consciousness is used to highlight a central issue within these films as they struggle with an overbearing, ignorant upper
class. Through violence and call for class consciousness, these films rebel against the capitalist system and call for an upheaval of this system that creates false consciousness and inequality.

Works Cited
Benshoff, H. M., & Griffin, S. (2009). American on film: representing race, class, gender, and sexuality at the movies. Malden, MA: Blackwell.
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Prolongation of Work, 18 Mar. 2016, sites.williams.edu/engl117s16/uncategorized/81/. Desowitz, Bill. “’Parasite’: Shooting Bong Joon Ho’s Social Thriller Through the Lens of Class
Divide.” IndieWire, IndieWire, 15 Nov. 2019, 6:41 pm,
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Salon, Salon.com, 9 Oct. 2019, www.salon.com/2019/10/09/joker-todd-phillips-
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Robinson, Chauncey K. “’Joker’ Exposes the Broken Class System That Creates Its Own Monsters.” People’s World, 15 Oct. 2019, www.peoplesworld.org/article/joker-exposes- the-broken-class-system-that-creates-its-own-monsters/.
Seo, Bo. “’Parasite’ and the Curse of Closeness.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 11 Feb. 2020, www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2019/10/parasite-and-curse- closeness/600385/.
Syme, Rachel. “The Gripping Class Horror of Parasite.” The New Republic, 10 Oct. 2019, newrepublic.com/article/155269/parasite-movie-bong-joon-ho-review-horror-thriller-class- inequality.
Ta, Lynn M. “Hurt So Good: Fight Club, Masculine Violence, and the Crisis of Capitalism.” The Journal of American Culture, vol. 29, no. 3, Sept. 2006, pp. 265–277., doi:10.1111/j.1542- 734x.2006.00370.x.

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