Monday, September 16, 2019

I Like Clowns

Clowns.  A surprisingly polarizing subject.

If you ask someone about clowns, they tend to have one of two opinions: a neutral one or a very strong anti-clown stance.

Rarely is anyone pro-clown (unless you count the niche of macabre people who specifically like creepy clowns).  But I'm a trend-setter, so I'll go ahead and say it.  I like clowns.  I am decidedly pro-clown.

100% my aesthetic.

I don't know how long I've been pro-clown, though I can definitely say it's been for at least ten years, because I remember back in high school, I made a self-portrait that involved clowns.  I don't recall the project but it was some senior thing meant to be "meaningful" and help pad the yearbook.  It involved a self-portrait. I can't draw for shit so instead I decided to do a collage of myself. I just printed out a picture of myself and then matched up colors. Super easy.


I suspect the teachers were as burnt out as the student,
since they were having us do artwork that involved gluesticks.

So, the thing is, I felt like collages needs a unified theme. I collected pictures of clowns on my computer and they were really colorful with a lot of diversity, so, perfect for a collage!

The whole portrait ended up being made of tiny printed clown pictures. I titled it "I'm Not Laughing" because I was trying to be ironic or something.

Turns out the teacher had a rather deep fear of clowns.  Calls to the school counselor were made. The hardest part was trying to explain why I collected pictures of clowns in the first place.  There was no reason. I just like clowns.

 Stories like this bring a tear to my eye.

The fear of clowns is so pervasive that it has a name (coulrophobia) and a website (coulrophobiafacts.com).  I can name a friend with a fear of clowns (one bad enough that she unfollows everyone during the month of October to avoid seeing "scary" clowns), celebrities with a fear of clowns (one of my morning jock shock hosts, and P. Diddy), and fictional characters with fear of clowns (Chuckie from Rugrats).  

So what gives?  Why do people dislike clowns so much?

"Why do you hate fun?" - Weary Willie, probably

...in part, I think we can blame the creepy clown trope on a handful of bad clowns.  There's the Joker, who hails from the 1940s but has recently gained cultural importance among psychopaths who think he's woke and edgy.  There's famous "clown killer" John Wayne Gacy, a serial killer who also happened to be a clown.  And there's Stephen King's It clown, Pennywise, the homicidal clown who was probably inspired in no small part by Gacy.

But psychologists say there's also an inherent dislike of clowns, that people don't like them because the face paint and exaggerated features make their expressions difficult to interpret, and the always-smiling, happy, cheerful attitude seems disingenuous and therefore untrustworthy.  Another psychologist weighed in and suggested that people find clowns "otherworldly," pointing out that many of their physics-defying feats (getting packed into tight cars, producing seemingly impossibly long scarves) makes people uneasy.

According to a poll of 2,000 people performed by Vox, one-third of Americans are made scared or uneasy by clowns, making clowns more of a sore subject than climate change or terrorism.  


This poll might be a little biased, though; it was conducted during the height of the 2016 "clown sighting" phenomenon, in which people were reporting seeing "creepy" clowns wandering about.  The 2016 clown panic was nothing new; in 1981 there was a similar surge of what you might call hoaxes, though there's nothing really clever about them.  It's not that shocking or weird if you think about it, though.  The 1981 clown panic was coming on the heels of a major news story involving a scary clown; John Wayne Gacy has just been executed after a long and gruesome trial.  And in 2016, the movie It was in development and being actively advertised.  Who's to say the clown sightings didn't begin with a push from advertisers?

The sad thing is that clowns don't deserve the guff they get, nor do most professional clowns appreciate the "evil clown" stereotype.  People actually study the "bad clown" phenomenon and have come to the conclusion that "bad clowns" are a small, niche group among clowns.  The detractors of clowns say that, while they may or may not be scary, they're definitely not funny.  But that's not the fault of clowns.  They lost their way sometime in the 1950s, with TV clowns like Bozo and Clarabel, whose main audience was children.  The thing is, kids don't like clowns.  Back when clowning was serious business, clowns were for adults, and their antics were performed in theaters, not at birthday parties.  If you think that's weird, don't.  Clowns are a natural evolution of the court jester, a professional buffoon who dressed silly and entertained adult royalty.  Jesters as we think of them were popular in medieval times, and later in the Renaissance, but actually date back to both ancient Egypt and ancient Rome, where they were called balatrones (singular: balatro).
 
The modern scary clown might also get some of its bad rap from the historical stereotype of clowns as vagabonds or addicts.  Two of the most well-known clowns of our time, Grimaldi and Pierrot, were arguably both sad clowns.  Both suffered from alcoholism and terribly abusive childhoods.  Grimaldi died alone and penniless, and his memoirs were later written by Charles Dickens.  Grimaldi was the first of the colorful, loud clowns that we know today. But let's not forget Pierrot, the more traditional white-faced, red-lipped, Pennywise-esque French clown, who famously accidentally killed a child for mocking him by smacking him on the head with a walking stick.  Then you've got Charlie Chaplin's clownish "Tramp" figure, and boom.  Suddenly you have a whole generation of people with ill-fitted clothes, red noses, and bindles, and of course no one likes clowns, because suddenly they're sad and potentially dangerous drifters.

 Who do cocaine.

Ironically, professional clowns are actually super wholesome.  Like, Mr.-Rogers-level wholesome.  They have a code of conduct called the "Eight Clown Commandments," and the third one is not to drink, smoke, or do drugs while in costume. 


The worst part is that, as a result of all the recent bad press clowns have been getting, clown numbers are declining.  Yes, that's right; clowns are a dying breed.  According to the World Clown Association, clown membership is down by a third in the last decade, and the average age of membership is over 40, well past its prime.  Part of this can be attributed to the closing of one of the world's biggest clown colleges; Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College shuttered its doors in 1997.


But perhaps there's more to it than that.  While discussing clowns with my colleges (I'm very popular at work), the subject of what constitutes a clown came up.  One of my coworkers stated that he doesn't like "traditional" clowns but is fine with Cirque du Soleil clowns.  I responded that those aren't clowns.  (I am a clown traditionalist, which is one of many reasons I'm so popular at work.)  But later, when talking with Andy about clowns, he too brought up Cirque do Soleil.  Apparently they do, in fact, have clowns, and those clowns aren't just tumblers or aerialists or acrobats, as I was led to believe.  They include the traditional white-faced pantomime clowns and the colorful, bumbling slapstick clowns.  (Also, they're paid, on average, a little over $50,000, with full benefits.  Not a bad gig!)  This got me thinking: what even constitutes a clown?

Clowns of yore were pranksters, storytellers, tumblers, magicians, actors, musicians... a performer-of-all-trades, if you will.  Nowadays, when we say "clown," we're usually talking about someone in a red nose.  But this eliminates people who probably fall into the class of clowns, such as comedy magicians.  And without traditional clown signalling (like a red rose or a floppy bow tie), people rarely have as strong opinions as they claim to regarding their discomfort over clowns. The same public that claims to loathe clowns so much, for example, loved Tape-Face on America's Got Talent, even though he occupies the intersection of two universally hated professions: clown, and mime.



So perhaps there are enough clowns, but they're being called by other names: acrobat, magician, comedian, or even simply "performer."  And perhaps this odd rebranding was exactly what they needed all along, to answer for the accidental rebranding that happened over the last century thanks to a handful of bad clowns.

So, to reinerate my stance on clowns: I like them and think they are a delight.  And I think that the issue was never the clowns themselves, but the narrow definition of the world "clown."  A clown can encompass many things, from Auguste to Rodeo to Harlequin, but isn't confined to merely buffoonery or pantomime, and it's doing a disservice to the long-standing history of clowning to suggest clowns only fit into a handful of categories.  Considering how many of them can fit into a single car, it would behoove us to consider more performers as clowns and to work to break the stigma that follows traditional clowns around.  Clowns are fun; they're designed to make us laugh.  The only thing bigger than their shoes are their hearts.  What's not to love?  I am proudly pro-clown, and you should be, too.

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