by Miranda Porter
Gender is, “a system of classification rooted in social ideas about masculinity and femininity.” (Mardell, 2016). Gender is considered, by some, a binary concept. A binary has only two states with no existing spectrum between. Therefore, gender as a binary concept argues the existence of strictly only two genders; male and female.
Gender isn’t inherent, according to Judith Butler’s notion of gender performativity. Rather, Butler’s theory argues that each person’s gender is produced by their repeated acts of gender performance. “Performances on the outside congeal over time to create an illusion of self on the inside.” (Elliot, 2014). Therefore, a person’s gender performative acts (their physicality, use of gaze, etc.) give that person their sense of gender identity. If gender is binary, it could be argued that all performative acts of gender are strictly male or female. We would expect one gender to consistently be perform with complimentary performative acts (such as wearing a skirt and using the women’s toilets). If a person’s gender is dependent on their performative acts, then their gender is at stake if mistakes are made, or the performance fails.
In contemporary theatrical clown, failure is often fundamental. “The clowns function by playfully upending the rules, and finding failure that they then share with their audience.” (Peterson, 2016). Clowns fail because they are naive. A flop, is a clown’s failure shared playfully and pleasurably with the audience. A sequence can be built from a series of flops when the clown repeatedly tries, and fails, to achieve one task. Louise Peacock identifies two ways in which clowns can fail. “In the pretentious flop, the clown performs a simple exploit that he believes to be a fitting example of his own brilliance. … On the other hand, with the accidental flop, the clown fails to complete his exploit and the humour arises from the clown’s incompetence.” (Peacock, 2009). In the pretentious flop, the clown is naive of themselves; they don’t know how unskilled they are. The audience find it funnier, the more proudly the clown presents their pitiful attempt. Meanwhile, in the accidental flop, the clown is naïve of the world; they don’t know how it works. The simpler the task that the clown struggles with, the more quickly the audience recognise how easy it is, and the funnier they find it. In both scenarios, a clear set-up of the task, its rules and parameters, are crucial to the mutual understanding of what qualifies as failure or success. The clown must find a level of play that lends itself to credibility of genuine failure. Faux play or stupidity, will not be accepted by an audience. Additionally, once the established parameters of the task have made it achievable, the clown must achieve it, in order to satisfy the audience and remain credible.
Naivety of the world and themselves, causes the clown to fail. However, it is the world the clown exists in, that allows the clown to be naïve. Clown worlds are distorted from the everyday. Eric Weitz notes, “we know what to anticipate under real life conditions, but clown worlds are rigged to sidestep expectations.” (Weitz, 2012). A clown world can defy the rules of physics, biology or logic, so that is possible, for example, for body parts to pop like balloons. Clown worlds are rarely maliciously violent or painful. Audiences do not laugh if they believe the clown to be in genuine pain. Therefore, without fear of severe consequence, clowns can take more risks and are not afraid of failing. Without fear, clowns can take pleasure in failing and be more playful. The pleasure clowns take in failing and sharing their failure and naivety with the audience, surrenders their status and makes them appear non-threatening and child-like.
Children have a genuinely naïve understanding of gender. Cordelia Fine presents the idea of children as ‘gender detectives’, who search for clues about gender signifiers. Often this results in confusion and mistakes. For example, “one child believed that men drank tea and women drank coffee, because that was the way it was in his house. He was thus, perplexed when a male visitor requested coffee.” (Fine, 2011). Like children, clowns are unaware of the accepted socio-cultural rules of gender. This allows them to playfully experiment with performing gender and make mistakes. This could be referred to as gender play. While undertaking gender play, the clown has the ability to play with a heavily gendered part of the body in an ungendered way (like a child who isn’t yet aware of the significance and taboo of their own genitals). To the clown, the breasts are just another body part, equally significant and available as an arm or a leg. Society deems in the female gender, the breasts should be performed with a bra, and possibly a neckline that draws the gaze or hides from it. Furthermore, female breasts are so often sexualised in western culture, that an audience can find non-sexual exposure of them shocking. The clown’s naivety, gives them the opportunity to fail to recognise these cultural connotations, and play with the performance of their gender in way outside the constraints of the gender binary.
Identities that challenge the gender binary are referred to, under the umbrella term, genderqueer. Some examples of genderqueer identities include, gender fluid (having a changing gender), agender (having a neutral or no gender), polygender (having multiple genders) and androgyne (having a gender both male and female, neither male nor female or somewhere between male and female). These, and other genderqueer identities, perform their gender with a mix of male and female performative acts. Although these may appear contradictory, the aim is to achieve a more authentic gender performance of their identity. The authenticity of gender identity is complex. Genderqueer people, often identify as such before they align their gender performance with their gender identity. This directly challenges Butler’s theory of gender performativity.
Clowning is also particularly concerned with the idea of authenticity. Clowns are not conventional characters acted by performers. Rather, each performer’s clown is unique, and uncovers the performer’s own honest vulnerability. Most clown training (including that of Lecoq and Gaulier) is focused on games which aim to discover the performer’s authentic clown. Being naïve to society’s rules about the gender binary, and who society expect the clown to be, the clown can undertake gender play with authenticity. This can lead the performer to discover their clown performing acts of gender that they normally hide in wider society. Jon Davison writes, “there is no female or male clown. There is just clown.” (Davison, 2011). However, I would argue that the clown can have any gender, but will not comply with the rules society imposes on any identity. Genderqueer people rebel against the gender binary rules. Meanwhile, the worlds of clown do not necessarily have the gender binary system in place to rebel against, and thus can freely mix and match gender performative acts as they choose. Leaving behind the rules, the clown can discover a genderqueer identity. Having said this, the audience will read certain gender markers as indicators as male or female characteristics, and draw their own conclusions.
It cannot be ignored how deeply ingrained the gender dichotomy is in western society. Particularly in the English language, society are accustomed to identifying everyone as either male or female and using the gendered pronouns of she or he. It is reasonable to infer an audience would probably assume the clown’s world had the same gender binary rules. Even if explicitly stated otherwise, it may be difficult for an audience to break their habit of wanting to identify the clown within the gender binary. Perhaps, with radical upending of conventional rules of the gender binary, it is possible the audience may identify the clown as genderqueer. However, this is not without the pitfall of negative representation. There is a danger that the general ‘otherness’ of clown could create an ‘othering’ effect of genderqueer people. If the clown’s general behavioural deviance is seen as ridiculous or stupid, it could appear to present genderqueer people in a similar manner. Hopefully, the non-threatening nature of clown coupled with their ability to make the audience laugh, results in the audience warming to them.
Keeping all of this in mind, in can be inferred that clown’s naivety and safe environment, allows them to be unafraid of failure and take pleasure in it. Without severe consequences, the clown can take more risks in their attempts to solve tasks. In the task of gender performance, clowns can experiment with their performative acts of gender more playfully and openly than their audiences can in day to day life. In the naïve failure to understand and comply with the conventional gender binary rules, the clown can highlight the ridiculousness of these rules and present alternatives, which the audience may enjoy. “The audience members may experience a vicarious pleasure in witnessing the clown behaving in ways in which they may wish to behave but which the constraints of society forbid.” (Peacock, 2009). The audience may come to understand the clown’s authentic gender lies outside of the gender binary. However, it is important to note that this is highly dependent on the cultural relationship to both clowns and gender. The same performance, is likely to get very different reactions in cultures with different gender rules and identities. However, it is true that wherever there are rules, a clown will be there to disrupt them.
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