There’s a scene in Joker when the main character’s antagonist, billionaire businessman Thomas Wayne (the father of Bruce ‘Batman’ Wayne) dubs the everyday citizens of Gotham “clowns”. The city's residents are languishing in a nightmarish metropolis overrun with rubbish and mutant rats, their needs ignored by the social, economic and political elite. It’s a situation that has created, as one character calls it, “a groundswell of anti-rich sentiment”, one that has been brought to a head by the murder of three wealthy city workers by a man with his face painted like a clown (guess who?).
“What kind of coward would do something that cold-blooded? Someone who hides behind a mask. Someone who is envious of those more fortunate than themselves,” Thomas Wayne says on a news broadcast in response to the murders. “Those of us who’ve made something of our lives will always look at those who haven’t as nothing but clowns.”
It’s a sentiment that, in the film, leads to riots and the consecration of its titular character -- the psychopathic murderer Joker, played by Joaquin Phoenix. It’s also a statement that captures the zeitgeist of the latter end of this decade. What is 2019 if not the year of the clown?
In cinema, the clown is pervasive. Aside from Joker, which claimed the record for the biggest October opening weekend in American box office history, this year cinema took us back to Derry, Maine, where the Losers’ Club, now all grown up and horribly attractive, took on Pennywise the Dancing Clown (again) in a battle against fear It-self. On screen, there's also Wrinkles the Clown, a documentary about a terrifying rent-a-clown people can hire to scare the shit out of people they know.
Outside of film, though, clowns are also cropping up. From emotional support clowns (yes, really) to memes about clown, be it political or personal, they are everywhere. Moschino even dressed up Bella Hadid as a clown for their SS20 collection. On Twitter, you’ll see people calling themselves Boo Boo the Fool or questioning “maybe I’m the clown” when their behaviour is questionable, stupid or unhealthy. And when someone says something monumentally ridiculous, bigoted or ignorant, someone will invariably reply with a clown sat at a computer and the caption, “how y’all looked when you tweeted that.”
The relatability of the clown is understandable. Western society feels like it exists on a spectrum of clownery. At one end there are the regular people who, like Boo Boo the Fool, have somehow found ourselves duped by the clowns at the other end of the scale: those in power. This somewhat complicated metaphor can be summarised as such: the clownery of those in power make us, the people, clowns. What does this mean, exactly? Well, when you become the clown you also partake in foolishness. This at least provides an explanation for the behaviour of everyday citizens on social media platforms who spread fake news (still?) and tweet nonsense.
But foolishness isn’t restricted solely to sharing bogus stories that begin their life on Fox News or alt-right propaganda accounts. Instead, social media has helped us turn our misadventures into memes; our silliness, blunders and bad luck -- once relegated to the caves of our subconscious only to bother us at those inopportune moments made to send us into a shame spiral at 3am -- are now mined for content. The clown, with all its melancholia and propensity for mishaps, has become, as New York Times writer Sanam Yar suggested, emblematic of how social media has emphasised and amplified self-deprecating humour.
However, the clown has always been a symbol of societal mocking. “What's interesting is the term clown comes from this idea of satire. It was originally a country bumpkin who was trying to become an aristocrat,” explains Vanessa Toulmin, the founder and Research Director of the National Fairground Archive (NFA) at the University of Sheffield. “So the original clown costume that Joseph Grimaldi wore in the Regency era with the red cheeks and oversized clothes, was a parody or satire of 18th Century, aristocratic privilege. So in a way, the whole concept of the clown is a way of people aping privilege.”
Toulmin suggests that you see this sort of satire today, with the likes of Boris Johnson and Donald Trump often seen depicted as clowns and their behaviour dubbed clownery. But there’s also an explanation for why the clown has shifted and become relatable, too.
“The clown is a character of disruption. That's what Grimaldi was doing and that's what clowns do in the circus; they disrupt the flow,” Toulmin says. “So when people say that the clown is relatable it’s going back to that. Basically, the clown is what society wants it to be.”
Ultimately, modern culture and society has reached its limits. It makes sense that we would make clowns of those in charge, especially when those in charge are being impeached, have links to alt-right fascists or are bumbling idiots with more illegitimate children spread around the country than they seem to be able to count. It also makes sense that we’d make clowns of ourselves, too. In the recent UK election, the clownery of everyday citizens overwhelming elected another Tory government -- they should be mocked and parodied. Similarly, though, there has been an error on the other side, too, and that such a result should blindside so many is a real sign of the times. They are clowns, but we are also clowns.
Ultimately, while society is a circus, it would make sense that as citizens would become the performers. But as Toulmin says, the role of the clown is to mock and disrupt and it’s that energy we need to harness for 2020. While we definitely shouldn’t follow in the footsteps of the Joker, perhaps exposing clownery rather than adopting it will help us move forward. It’s time to leave the clowns to their own foolishness.
This article originally appeared on VICE UK.