The post-impressionist gallery at the Musée d’Orsay is full of paintings of beautiful women in various states of dancing, laughing and performing. But as I strolled through the museum, my eyes glazed over the dozens of Van Goghs and Gaugins, suddenly landing on a peculiar portrait of a female clown. In a private moment backstage, she dons a massive yellow tutu, her hair piled up in a ridiculous mop. I couldn’t help but giggle at the spectacle of it all.
“Clownesse Cha-U-Kao (1895) by Henri Toulouse-Lautrec,” the description read. I knew I had to learn more about this woman with the build of Brienne of Tarth and the outfit of a Who down in Whoville, so naturally I began Googling and quickly fell down a Wikipedia rabbit hole. As it turns out, her real name and origins are unknown, but her legacy as a famous acrobat and entertainer of the late 19th-century Moulin Rouge cabaret has not been forgotten.
Not only did Cha-U-Kao have the courage to pursue the classically male profession of clowning, but she was not afraid to be open about her romantic relationships with women. Toulouse-Lautrec was fascinated by her, the mysterious lesbian clown, and more than a century later, so was I. How is it that she could embody her truest self on stage, dressing in the goofiest costumes imaginable without concealing any parts of her individuality?
In daring to be perceived as stupid, clowns risk a fate that some might consider worse than death. But lesbians are no stranger to ridicule and alienation from the rest of the world. Perhaps she knew that no audience reaction could possibly be worse than the everyday reality of her identity.
Later that week, my friend invited me to a drag show at a Parisian gay club not far from the old Moulin Rouge, and I came to a realization so silly yet spot-on that I laughed out loud. In medieval times, court jesters enjoyed a certain privilege unavailable to the rest of the plebeian population: the ability to mock freely without fear of being punished. Sure enough, drag queens fulfill an oddly similar role and enjoy the very same benefits.
But step outside the safety of the king’s court — or in this case, the gay club — and you risk a beheading. The social dangers of comedic exaggeration, through increasingly bizarre makeup, costumes and performance, cannot be underestimated. Both clowns and drag queens have been demonized into comically absurd villains, feared more by conservative politicians than children.
And yet, the jester (and the drag queen) serve a necessary purpose. In his book “Redeeming Laughter,” sociologist Peter L. Berger remarked that “it seems plausible that folly and fools, like religion and magic, meet some deeply rooted needs in human society.” It’s no coincidence that in many ancient cultures, the roles of priest and clown have been traditionally held by the same person. There is a certain divine pleasure in getting the joke, a feeling akin to religious epiphany.
I’m the type of person who loves a good bit. Any kind of running gag, played with utmost sincerity, is more holy to me than a hymn. Our first introduction to bits usually happens before we learn how to walk: I cover my baby cousin with a blanket and say, “Oh no, where’s Sarina?” before revealing her face, and she shrieks with glee and claps for me to do it again.
As people get older, however, their knack for improvised bits wanes in favor of perfectly rehearsed jokes designed to impress a first date. Unfortunately, men will sooner assume that a woman is just stupid than realize she is actually making a joke. I may look dumb, but you, in fact, are the fool for not getting it. The bit transcends language, culture and ideology. It’s a witty little game best enjoyed with a small group of friends, or by yourself. It requires no heightened sense of intelligence other than the willingness to be goofy, embrace your inner child and become the lesbian clown of your dreams.
The world is hard on silly girls. We are the daughters of the court jesters you didn’t behead. But we must commit to the bit, even when performing for an audience of one.