Wuss poppin’: Clown memes — the modern fool’s gold

A labeled image of a clown holding a red balloon. The clown wears a multicolored wig, striped shirt, polka-dotted pants, and enormous shoes.
Graphic by Annie Wu

In Japan, a kanji character is voted through a national ballot to be the kanji of the year, one that thematically encapsulates the major events within the country that year. If the same concept is applied to online pop culture, I vote for nothing but a persevering, classic icon to be meme of the year: the clown. 

Clowns have had an iron grip on culture for decades now. Originally, they amused spectators by providing slapstick comedy in the days of big top circus glamour. Now, thick makeup, unnaturally bright clothing and a trickster demeanor make the clown a sore thumb in almost any environment, unnerving children and adults alike.

This disturbing liveliness allows for the easy translation of the clown from a comedian to an evil character in popular media, a villainous subversion that strips the comic relief of the original profession and instead petrifies with his unpredictability, irrationality and unsettling appearance. 

Evil clowns are pervasive in current media — some striking examples include Pennywise from the recent 2017 and 2019 iterations of “It,” as well as the titular character of 2019’s “Joker.” Both clowns are well-known icons of villainy, but because social media users refuse to take much seriously, they also serve as memetic scapegoats for genuine laughter. Some ubiquitous examples include Pennywise’s dancing and Joker’s bathroom dance as a shameful lamentation for boys in TikToks. 

Much of the popularity of these movies on social media can be attributed to the influx of general clown memes that started this summer, in which tweets and memes referred to fools as clowns. A popular picture of a clown typing on a keyboard is used to represent those making a fool of themselves online, such as keyboard warriors who start online arguments or users that make tired jokes. There’s also clown school memes, which encourage people to get degrees for their idiocy, or portray James Charles strutting toward the school, donning bright pink spandex.

Although clowns are used to denigrate other people, they also serve as a great self-depreciation tool. People yearning foolishly for unattainable desires are rendered in memes as they put on clown costumes. A similar, popular format compares the rationalizations for impossible hopes with each stage of clown makeup. The more desperate a desire is, the more makeup is caked on the subject’s face, sealing their fate. 

The theme of foolishness is constant. Before memes, clowns were renowned for their conventional, lighthearted circus role or undermined when used as genuine, paralyzing symbols of fear. 

Nowadays, the clown isn’t a subject but rather a reflection of the fools we see in ourselves and others. The memes capitalize on the universality of mistakes and false hope — they rebuff viewers for striving toward something that leads to worthless results but validates them at the same time.

As shameful as it is to be called a clown, the influx of clown memes shows that no one is safe from being called one. We pity ourselves and judge others for clownery, but these two are so intertwined because of how applicable these memes can be to any struggling optimist. 

Like the best of memetic subjects, the clown’s malleable nature is the key to its popularity, and its ability to express shame has led to an incredible amount of memes in 2019. Who knows what it will represent in the future?  

Nadya Siringo Ringo SC ’21 is one of TSL’s pop culture columnists. She is a dual cognitive science and media studies major from Jakarta, Indonesia. She’s very passionate about pop music, video games and the Enneagram.

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