What does the word conjure to the mind? Is it a circus character with a red nose and giant shoes? Is it a monstrous villain from a movie, like "It" or the Joker? Is it your friend who’s acting like a total fool and needs to quit whatever they're doing? Or does it call to mind people slinging insults, trying to demean others for wearing what they deem *cringe* “too much makeup?” This insult seems to hold a special place in the trolls’ hearts.
As Artsy puts it, “Although clowns have a really dark history, as well as being historically problematic, I feel like the word is now thrown everywhere and used to describe pretty much anything that stands out of the norm.”
Basically it’s a social policing tool, trying to shame people for being expressive, standing out, and expressing in a traditionally feminine way. Coded as materialistic and shallow, people use the term clown to make us feel foolish (literal jesterfools). Although it does hurt when people say this about cis women, it is far more sinister when this slur is thrown at trans folx/enbies and men who wear makeup.
Trolling others for being expressive is nothing new. But if you pay attention – closely follow the waves of hashtags and the painted shapes around people's eyes – you will see something magnificent. A turning of the tables, an artistic and fierce reclamation: we are taking back the term clown.
Makeup creatives are rocking chic, camp or goth clownery. Triangle perch under eyes, cheeks are blushed to a flaming red, ruffs flare out from collar lines.
Iconic drag performer Crystal Methyd (photograph by Adam Ouahmane) has given herself over to the clown look, and her take on this is to try to have whimsy about her art, herself and the world.
“I take pride in the term clown because I try not to take myself too seriously. Adhering to gender norms isn't something I consider when doing drag.”
She points out that this comment is often tied to people who are not cis women using makeup, and can be heavily linked to diverse gender expression or “gender-bending.”
“I always found it humorous when people would try to insult me when I was in drag by saying I didn't look like a woman. "Passing" has really never been what my drag is about.
I feel like clowns also don't consider [gender norms] when getting ready. I'm always down to clown.”
When I asked makeup artist and iconic Instagram creative Artsy about their experience with the word, they said that the word clown truly makes them feel powerful, but as with most insults and cut-downs, it didn’t start that way.
“When I first started makeup, I didn’t consider myself a ‘clown’ to say the least. But peopleimmediately started calling me by that word… I understood what they meant by it: I looked weird and different. And to them, that’s what a clown was: a fool.”
As time went on Artsy did what so many of us do… they began to grow into the names people called them, morphing to fit the box built around them.
"For some reason, the more people called me by that word, the more I started unconsciously showing it in my bigger makeup looks. It became pretty much my whole entire aesthetic because it felt like that’s what people wanted… They wanted a character that made them laugh, and so I complied.
But for me, clowns were never funny."
They learned more about what clowns are, and where they came from. The cases where they have been used to dehumanize in the past, and the cases were they were held in reverence.
"As I learned more about the historical side of these clowns, both good and bad, I started to realize that they are not always supposed to be funny. They can be powerful, if you make them be. I learned about the clowns that were used to mock black people, the court jesters that had an important role in the social and religious life at the time and the clowns that could apparently cure diseases.
I started being more careful when doing my looks, and not copy features meant to mock races or ethnicities.
The more I learned, the more I was able to create my own ‘clown’, a clown that was just me.
And that’s when I started to really reclaim the word."
Makeup is a beautiful tool. We can try on and cast off faces, exploring identity and expression. But makeup doesn’t have to be a beautifier.
Just like any art form, it can express pain, trauma, loss and anxiety. The best art is more than just “pretty.” It strikes a chord, speaks in poetry, channels emotion, and sometimes, this is far from “pretty.”
Sia Klowne explores this concept, saying “Everyone has something inside themselves that’s broken. How they choose to process it is a different story. Personally, I like dressing up like my persona: Sia Klowne.
I already feel like a fool in my day to day, so being a clown just fits. Using silliness and extreme makeup to either mask or exaggerate the sadness works perfectly as a depressed queer radical feminist. My character, Sia Klowne, is someone who calls people out on their stupidity and clown-like behavior. That’s why the name is 'See ya, clown!' "
Sia has a different take on “reclamation,” saying to them, the term clown doesn’t fit with the extremity of the slurs usually taken back, like “queer.” To them, it feels more like “reinventing the word along with many others to establish a new wave of the performance art within the queer community."
I think it's worth saying that, as with any reclaimed slur (some far more severe and offensive than this) some are not ok with using this word for themselves. And this article is not permission to use that word on someone and say “but I read this article that says it’s not offensive anymore.” We still need to be respectful of what language people use for themselves and what language they want others to use!
Maybe, by painting our faces as clowns, we can acknowledge that sometimes, we are fools. That we sometimes make mistakes, have flaws, and that we have been slandered. It’s not about making fun of ourselves, but releasing ourselves from that pressure to be perfect, to be a caricature of our stereotype, to be perpetually happy.
When you are part of a marginalized community –being femme, LGBTQIA+, BIPOC, having disabilities or any intersection of silenced or marginalized identities – being strong, perpetually happy and unflappable is part of the expectation. Finding ways to make room for ourselves to be fallible, anxious, imperfect and just plain weird is important. For some, rocking clownery can be a part of that. We are taking what the world has slung at us, because we can’t escape it, and using it to create space for ourselves to feel and express joy, sadness, and anything in between.
Written by Madeline Dintino, pictured above