September 18, 2021

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No laughing matter: women’s clowns fight sexism

PUEBLA, MEXICO – In 2000, Darina Robles Pérez of Mexico City told a teacher at the Russian Circus in Moscow that she wanted to become a clown. He immediately discouraged her.

“He told me personally: ‘You have [breasts], and the audience will see your body; they won’t see how funny you are, ‘”says Robles, whose speech is often punctuated with laughter.

For the teacher, women could not be clowns, a common belief at the time and still pervasive today.

Now Robles, 46, makes people laugh.

A member of Llaven Nü-Riendo Juntes, a nomadic intercultural festival that performs in migrant homes, Robles is part of a growing movement to subvert the long-standing norms that the clown, a popular source of entertainment in Mexico, is not for women.

A strong network of female clowns made this movement possible, allowing women to access opportunities that previously would not have been available to them, says Robles. The Red de Payasas Mexicanas (Mexican Female Clown Network), which promotes the work of female clowns, has 100 members. For many, laughter offers a strategy for dealing with harmful stereotypes against women.

“He told me personally: ‘You have [breasts], and the audience will see your body; they won’t see how funny you are. ‘”Clown

This is especially important in Mexico. It is the second most dangerous country for women in Latin America, after Brazil, according to UN data on femicides in 2019. In June 2020 alone, Mexico’s National Public Security System reported 92 cases of women killed in because of their kind.

According to a report by Amnesty International, a UK-based international human rights non-governmental organization, last year’s protests against increasing violence against women were met with force and stigma by the authorities. The women were arrested, subjected to sexualized language by the police and threatened with sexual assault, the report said.

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Nubia Alfonso, a member of Mexico City’s Sopa de Clown theater company, claims to draw her humor from women’s everyday experiences. In one of his performances, Nuby, the clown that Alfonso plays, catches a reflection of his nose in the mirror. She doesn’t like it, so she shapes it with a vegetable grater to make it more inviting.

Alfonso, a reserved elementary school teacher and an actress who rarely laughs outside of her performances, says it’s a comment on the unattainable beauty standards imposed on women.

Immigration is at the heart of Robles’ activism. During his performances, he transforms into the migrant hen, a clown he invented to explore the immigration crisis in Mexico. On stage he wears a white hat with feathers, old shorts and colorful socks.

For most of his audience, the immigration issue that informs his humor is familiar and painful. However, for the duration of the show, they laugh at the absurdity of a migrant hen and the clumsiness of the character on stage.

For other clown women, performing is a way to heal from personal tragedies. Laura Rocha López, 51, known on stage as Doctor Meatball, says her performances are a tribute to her late husband, who died in a car accident in January 2020.

“I really like making people laugh,” says Rocha, who laughs easily and listens carefully. “I feel like I’m renewing myself.”

Before becoming an artist, Rocha was a nutritionist who earned a good salary and benefits in a health center. Now he alternates between selling disposable tools, working as a dance therapist and performing as a clown.

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Juan José Adán, a 40-year-old man who often attends Sopa de Clown performances, says these shows have forced audiences to reflect on their macho behavior.

“Very close friends who have seen this work too suddenly say, ‘Wow, it’s very cool to realize that at some point you were that person, that character that they present and that seems absurd,'” he says.

Despite the strong network, female clowns have yet to prove their competence, particularly when tackling complex topics, says Vanessa Nieto Terrazas, member of Llaven Nü-Riendo Juntes. Most clowns are also independent artists or founders of their own companies, which means they don’t have much in the way of resources or infrastructure.

Staging the performances was also not easy during the coronavirus pandemic. The government suspended public events in March 2020 due to the pandemic and Robles’ group had to cancel a show for girls and teenagers who had experienced sexual exploitation.

“This really broke my whole pattern, my heart, everything,” he says.

Most of the performances have moved online, cutting a direct connection with the audience that Robles likens to communion.

She hopes her growing network will ease the challenges for the next generation of female clowns. As for Robles’ plans, he would like to use his audience to apologize to the environment on behalf of humans. He wants to ask nature: “How can I make you laugh to give you at least a little something in return?”