Referring to Politicians

Researching the Use of “Clown” and “Circus”

It’s the morning after the presidential debate of 2020. I open up Twitter and see that the feed is almost entirely regarding the debate. I also notice that there is excessive use of the words, “clown” and “circus” to describe the moderator and/or presidential candidates and how the event was conducted. If you were to go to Twitter and search on these words in the search bar it would bring up many political references and tweets about the debate. In doing that search the top result for the use of “clown” was the following snippet from last night’s debate below.

Many tweeters were most likely following Joe Biden’s lead with their own use of “clown” and/or “circus.” However, the use of these words with regard for politics, politicians, and government is not new to 2020. Why do we use these words that belong to art professions? Why is this ok and the norm?

My initial response to seeing tweets filled with these comparisons was to shudder and feel bad for circus performers and clowns, but also a desire to speak up on their behalf. I stopped there. I wanted to speak up, but realized I need to know more about that community in order to feel like anything I would tweet would make a difference. So, I started to look at databases, news, articles, biographical information, and more. Before, I explore those, I do want to show another top result from Twitter for the word “circus” where the circus community addressed the use of a news affiliate connecting the circus to the presidential candidates. See Van Jones address the circus community’s response here.

Clowning and Coulrophobia in Current Day Perspective

In order to understand why politicians are labeled as clowns, I first wanted to understand why some have a fear of clowns or coulrophobia.

A screenshot of Merriam-Webster’s definition of coulrophobia.
A screenshot of Merriam-Webster’s definition of coulrophobia.

Mark D. Griffiths speculates on the “why” in his article, “Why Are Clowns So Scary?” by saying,

“clowns tend to be scary because of their exaggerated looks and evil representation in films. Obviously, the vast majority of individuals are not scared of clowns in a day-to-day context but a clown’s face has become part of a scare culture. I noted that there is a stereotype of the nasty, evil, eerie clown. If you look at clowns you tend to find that part of their face or feet are exaggerated, they have huge noses, scary mouths, huge elongated shoes, and wildfire hair. I also made reference to the cinematic trope of the evil clown. From Heath Ledger’s Joker in Batman to the clown in Stephen King‘s It, these clowns or characters with clown faces are either killers or are doing really nasty things.”

In seeing Griffiths description of “scare culture” and overlaying this on present day politics, politicians, and government I can start to see why we, as a society, would attribute presidential candidates to “clowns.” The last four years of the presidency we have seen evil representation from a president with “wildfire hair.” One example of evil in the current president was when he was asked in the debate to condemn white supremacists he chose to speak to that group by saying, “stand back and stand by.” Thereby, condoning the abuses, brutalization, murders, and discrimination of racial minority groups.

In looking further at coulrophobia and media representation of clowns, Griffiths refers to an article by Frank McAndrew. McAndrew says, “The highly unusual physical characteristics of the clown (the wig, the big red nose, the makeup, the odd clothing) only magnify the uncertainty of what the clown might do next.” The last part of “magnify the uncertainty” is where the U. S. is currently at with President Trump. Whether we’re talking about COVID-19 and his administration ambushing the CDC, the failure to disclose the next to nothing amount he has paid in taxes, his ability to evade prosecution for sexual assault; collusion with Russia; tax fraud, needless to say this president has been anything but usual and excels in amassing uncertainty with incoherent babble and efforts at distraction.

Griffiths sums up this article by positing why someone might dress up as a clown or clown around while committing a crime. “Here, I see a lot of similarities with online behaviour in that dressing up as a character is like the taking on of another persona when people are online carrying out antisocial acts such as trolling. While the psychological core and personality of an individual online or dressed up in an outfit with a mask (or thick hideous make-up) is still that same person, the anonymity provided by the nature of online interactions and the anonymity provided by wearing a different face or mask both lead to the person becoming more disinhibited and doing things that they would never do in a normal face-to-face situation.” While it is sometimes hard to discern whether a politician like President Trump is in fact being themselves at all times, it certainly is more believable for society that politicians cannot be trusted and are putting on an act or performance/hiding their true identity and beliefs in order to maintain their authority and power.

Clowning in History

Two clowns. One on the left dressed like a party clown. One on the right dressed like a ringmaster.
Two clowns. One on the left dressed like a party clown. One on the right dressed like a ringmaster.

In doing a search of clowning, I found in the first ten results news and articles relating to the use of clowning for healing. Not so long ago, clowns were needed and used in hospitals and clinics that were treating elders and patients suffering from dementia (Kontos et al 2016). Clowns were also a source for reducing anxieties, pains, and suffering of children under 10 years of age (Meiri et al 2015). Outside of the scare culture, clowns and their visits to hospital patients have shown to have a positive impact on the patients awaiting surgery and/or further treatment (van Venrooij et al 2016). Clowning was at one point, a form of jesting, joking, and entertaining. In Reddy and Mireault’s study of infants, they note the following:

In the twentieth century, however, these observations faded from scientific attention; humour began to be seen as an intellectual achievement requiring complex cognitive abilities, with infant laughter seen merely as a reaction to external stimuli. Recent research, however, has uncovered remarkable cognitive and emotional sensitivities in very young infants. And, as it turns out, humour and laughter in infants offer a rich source of insights into their understanding of the world, and indeed for our understanding of infants. The study of infant humour is no joke. Humour is a rich source of information about social, emotional and cognitive development. Within the first year of life infants do more than just laugh or play peekaboo; they actively tease others and clown around to get them laughing (2015).

The change the researchers observe in the 20th century points towards a change in how society began viewing the art of clowning. When intelligence and achievement were applied to humor and the act of entertaining, it took away from the credibility of a performer in makeup and colorful garb being one who was qualified to be funny and seen as a relevant source of humor. As the 21st century approached, we saw the rise of the clown in scare culture. The most popular example being “Pennywise” from Stephen King’s book, It.

Going back to the 19th century, clowns were primarily seen in the circus — in and out of make-up and colorful garb and costumery that we typically think of belonging to clowns. One famous clown from this era, is Bobby Clark. Clark played a bugle, sang, was an acrobat, did tumbling, and wrote comedic skits in a duet with Paul McCullough. Their act was primarily musical comedy when employed with Ringling Brothers, but they were also involved in physically intensive acts like acrobatics and tumbling as well as doing handyman stuff for repair jobs. Clark and McCullough also helped transition the art of clowning around from performers with no dialogue or speech to those that used more than sounds from objects and physical comedy to make people laugh. They got overly frustrated with the silencing of clowns in circus and eventually took to vaudeville, burlesque, theatre, and Broadway to demonstrate that clowning around could be entertaining with added script (Stein 2000).

In a review of the book, The Art of Clowning, reviewer Jorge A. Huerta acknowledges some of the hard work of clowning, “It isn’t easy, being a clown. As most theatre artists agree, tragedy’s easy — comedy’s the tough one. Whether as a playwright, director, actor or designer, it seems that there are people who can make other people laugh apparently without effort and there are others who cannot” (2011). Huerta goes on to highlight elements of clowning in the book: clowning etiquette, clown purity, and in vs. out clown. In reading the review of the book, you get a sense that clowning is an art, but is also a business with policy, practice, dedication, and hard work. Huerta acknowledges that someone who aspires to be a clown could read the book and be successful, but may be “stifled by the lack of someone watching” (2011). They note that a trainer and audience are important pieces of a clown’s success.

Final Thoughts

In these few sources I found, it is visible that there are similarities between the clowning community and circus to politicians, politics, and government. While these similarities exist, one thing that is clear is that clowns and circus performers are paid to entertain, to engage in physical feats, and to amaze and delight their spectators. Politicians are paid to serve their constituents. Politicians and government officials have blurred the lines of service to their constituents and turned much of what they are required to do as part of their political position into a spectacle, creating a spectatorship. It’s not a wonder that with a reality tv show star becoming the president and their relentless tweeting that people would begin to make more of a connection between entertainment and upholding a government position. Clowns have been used as a distraction for medical patients and the current president has used several groups and tactics to distract Americans from the destruction he is causing. In this perspective, it is easier to make that reference, but for those of us who are circus adjacent and/or know about clowns and circus performers it is offensive. Maybe the bigger concern at hand are not the words we use to describe politics, politicians, and government, but the reasons we do.


anvi ⁷₀₃₂₅ IN生 [@namuclouds]. (2020, September 29). THE CIRCUS WORKERS TOOK OFFENSE IN THAT THE DEBATE WAS CALLED A CIRCUS HELP ME- [Tweet]. Twitter.

Huerta, J.A. (2011). [Review of the book The Art of Clowning]. Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism 26(1), 164–165. doi:10.1353/dtc.2011.0006.

Kontos, Pia et al. “Elder‐Clowning in Long‐Term Dementia Care: Results of a Pilot Study.” Journal of the American Geriatrics Society (JAGS) 64.2 (2016): 347–353. Web.

Meiri, N et al. “The Effect of Medical Clowning on Reducing Pain, Crying, and Anxiety in Children Aged 2–10 Years Old Undergoing Venous Blood Drawing — a Randomized Controlled Study.” European journal of pediatrics 175.3 (2015): 373–379. Web.

Merriam-Webster. (n.d.). Coulrophobia. In dictionary. Retrieved September 30, 2020, from

NowThis [@nowthisnews]. (2020, September 30). Biden: It’s hard to get any word in with this clown. #Debates2020 [Tweet]. Twitter.

Reddy, Vasudevi, and Gina Mireault. “Teasing and Clowning in Infancy.” Current biology 25.1 (2015): R20–R23. Web.

Stein, C. (2000, February). Clark, Bobby (16 June 1888–12 February 1960), clown. American National Biography. Retrieved 1 Oct. 2020, from

van Venrooij, Lennard T, and Pieter C Barnhoorn. “Hospital Clowning: a Paediatrician’s View.” European journal of pediatrics 176.2 (2016): 191–197. Web.

Queer Writer & Poet | Sex and Sensuality | Linguistics, Health, and Wellness Interests | Personal Experience | LINKTR.EE/TOLBERTMBB