I just read an article in GQ (?!) entitled "Look, Man, You're Not Actually Scared of Clowns," which has got me to again revisit this theme.
His theory is that the clown in "It" is a "clown" specifically designed to terrify a 6 year old, and that the only clown who has "actually done real, long-lasting damage to the American pe
ople" is ...yep... Ronald McDonald. He argues that applying this logic, "Pennywise is scary so therefore clowns are scary," is ridiculous, so, essentially, stop it.
I am delighted to hear people beginning to rally against coulrophobia, and I think there are a few other things going on with clowns that can deepen the argument, beyond the damage done to their reputation by "It" and Ronald.
First let's say that not all people who wear red noses are clowns in the same way that wearing a tutu does not make you a ballet dancer (pointed out by my friend Christine Lesiak).
Second, here are some classic things that I may do as a clown, or a human, that may be slightly unnerving:
Not listening: A clown, in theory, facilitates a present time, honest conversation. In clown, any conversation that turns from a dialogue to a monologue loses its charm and transformational ability fairly quickly. This goes beyond the verbal dialogue and into the "feeling" or "energy" exchange between clown and audience. As a clown on the stage (or a human in real life), it’s a truly terrifying experience to slow down and honestly take in and respond to the effect we are having on others; acknowledge if we're failing, or breathe it in and respond if people are enjoying us. It is a challenging thing for us humans to allow ourselves to see and be seen. It does, however, create a disconnect if we don't.
They pretend they're listening but they're not: This is a classic performer moment, you ask a question and then act as if you're listening to the answer even though you've already decided what it's going to be. It’s confusing/ unnerving for the other people and breaks trust. (This is especially true when one of the dialogue-ers is larger than life, wearing sweaty make-up and is possibly in your personal space bubble.)
Masks that hide rather than reveal: A clown can play with a mask, a body, or a character and use it to reveal or to hide behind. Hiding stops the listening and the conversation. The big makeup and extended costuming sometimes used in clowning can swing in either of these directions in a big way.
They get caught up in sharing the doing rather than sharing the being: This is easy to see especially when there's a talent involved such as juggling. This can create distance. Being impressed by something is different than feeling connection with it. Nachmanovitch says, “Play is always a matter of context. It is not what we do, but how we do it.“
They play with things not everyone considers play-able: Clowns play at the edges. They are bridge builders between “what is” and “more.” They create space for movement and shifts that can be uncomfortable. They can disrupt, create and overturn worlds. Historically, they play with power and what many consider to be sacred.
The clowns we call clowns may not be the real clowns of our society anymore: What we are scared of may be the image of clown rather than the heart of a clown. Perhaps clowns have shifted shape into something quite new. My clown teacher, David MacMurray Smith often said something like, “the clown is like the wind, you can’t see it but you know when it’s there and you can see it’s effects.“