Twitter handle: VeronicaYonica.
Mythophile. Pop culture addict. Renegon.
What to expect: lots of Dragon Age and Mass Effect. My fandoms page is linked at the bottom. Talk both high and low-brow of comics, culture, gender politics, sexuality, spirituality, queerness, and David Bowie's Area.
So, in the middle of everything today, we ran across a hellaciously distressed momma mallard and a bunch of her baby ducks that had fallen down a sewer grate. Another guy was already trying to fish them out, so my friend and I called animal control before we tried to fish the rest of them out. When Animal Control got there, we had all of them out and the mother duck quacking very happily. I was surprised - none of us got snapped at or hurt. I was even holding onto a bag at one point that had all of them in it and she just watched me.
This post was asking about a potential link between the afro-style wigs and big, painted lips of the modern clown and racist caricatures, so I decided to do what any good theatre history student would do - I did some research.
SPOILER ALERT: YUP, IT’S RACIST AS FUCK
From Janet M. Davis, The Circus Age: Culture & Society Under the American Big Top:
Some circus programs contained portraits of clowns in literal blackface, with huge red mouths and bulging eyes, strumming energetically on a banjo, but often the auguste clown’s blackface was metaphorical. He created his racial identity through the act of ‘‘whitening up’’ with thick pancake.
His greasy whiteness and exaggerated bodily zones—huge red mouth, lolling, paint-encircled eyes, big fake nose, ears, and feet—made his look strikingly similar to blackface. Showmen played upon this visual connection by arguing that African American men literally were clowns because of their supposed aﬃnity for clowning and the circus. The Ringling Bros.’ route book from 1895 and 1896 contained a section, ‘‘The Plantation Darkey at the Circus,’’ which imagined—in almost orgasmic language—black men as minstrel characters.
Proprietors further conﬂated the African American man and the clown by arguing that both were completely controlled by their emotions, not reason.
Superlative examples of white manhood—the big cat tamer, the wire walker, and so forth—demonstrated little emotion during life-threatening acts. The clown, by contrast, howled in mock fear when he saw a mouse, or shrieked in pain at a mosquito bite. Showmen characterized male African American spectators in a similar vein as giddy and superstitious.
Actual big-top acts made this rhetorical relationship between the clown and the African American complete. In 1888 Eph Thompson trained the elephant John L. Sullivan at the Adam Forepaugh circus. Wearing a boxing glove at the end of his trunk, the elephant sparred with Thompson in the ring and frequently ‘‘punched’’ him so hard that Thompson went ﬂying over the ring bank.
Unlike the white trainer who dominated powerful animals, Thompson played a clownish coward—constantly vanquished by the boxing pachyderm—and consequently remained unthreatening to Euroamerican audiences. Yet Thompson still had a diﬃcult time ﬁnding employment with American shows. As a result, he moved to Europe where his career ﬂourished.
In line with the tenets of nineteenth-century romantic racialism, show-men’s portrayals of black men and clowns reﬂected contemporary representations of white women: late-nineteenth-century scientists argued that ‘‘excessive’’ emotionalism deﬁned women, racial ‘‘savages,’’ and children of all races. The German Darwinist Ernst Haeckel and the Americans Edward Drinker Cope and G. Stanley Hall were all proponents of recapitulation theory, positing that every organism repeats the life history of its ‘‘race’’ within its own lifetime, evolving through the less developed forms of its ancestors on its path to maturity. They contended that Euroamerican women and ‘‘primitives’’ remained mentally and emotionally ﬁxed in lower ancestral stages of evolution. Accordingly, only white boys were physiologically and mentally capable of reaching the highest stages of racial and gender development as fully evolved men. This line of thought used pseudoempirical phrenological evidence to claim that African American men were perpetually emotional and juvenile, just like the clown.
The painted clown acted out childish behaviors and infantile pleasures. He reveled in dirt, cried freely, openly adored the serious ‘‘adult’’ acts, and played physical pranks on everybody, from ringmaster to the audience. If playing a hobo (popularized most fully by Emmett Kelly’s ‘‘Willie’’ tramp character during the Depression, when at times nearly one-quarter of the American workforce was unemployed), the auguste clown’s persona was deﬁned by dirt. Laughing loudly at the clown’s antics perhaps transported audiences back to the unrestrained pleasures of their own collective infancy and childhood.
More than a ‘‘low Other’’ who simply represented a tantalizing version of what they were not, the unfettered clown symbolized what clock-bound, alienated adult Euroamerican men perhaps felt they had lost.
Even the red noses have their origins in racist stereotypes.
From Mikita Brottman, Funny Peculiar: Gershon Legman and the Psychopathology of Humor:
While the Native American plains tribes had their own various manifestations of the Trickster figure, the main clown type of non-Native Americans was not the August, as it was in Europe, but the character clown… After the [Civil War] ended, however, one particular style of character clown came into prominence: the Hobo.
Eric Lott describes how the Hobo figure was originally based on the blackface minstrel clowns (hence the exaggerated white mouths) who portrayed the figures of African Americans made homeless by the ravages of the Civil War.
Lott explains that the Hobo character clown is a distinctly American invention, with his tattered hat, huge white mouth, three days’ growth of beard, torn clothes, and cartoon alcoholic’s big red nose. […] It seems ironic that such mawkishly appealing personalities had their roots in the miseries of poverty and oppression and the disfigurements of alcoholism and venereal disease.
Holy sht. I knew something was up when I compared the two photos! Something didn’t seem right… and i was right!
I never would have even thought to make that connection before I saw that post so thank you for giving me something to look into - I truly learn more from this website than I ever will in any class
huh. you really do learn something new every day.
minstrelsy was the first form of American national popular/mass culture - it’s the foundation for everything that came after it, including vaudeville, the circus, cartoons, everything. Eric Lott’s Love and Theft lays this out really well.
“Alana Quick is the best damned sky surgeon in Heliodor City, but repairing starship engines barely pays the bills. When the desperate crew of a cargo vessel stops by her shipyard looking for her spiritually-advanced sister Nova, Alana stows away. Maybe her boldness will land her a long-term gig on the crew. But the Tangled Axon proves to be more than star-watching and plasma coils. The chief engineer thinks he’s a wolf. The pilot fades in and out of existence. The captain is all blond hair, boots, and ego … and Alana can’t keep her eyes off her. But there’s little time for romance: Nova’s in danger and someone will do anything-even destroying planets-to get their hands on her.”