Clown Care: The Disturbing and Fascinating World of Pet Clowns
Heta-uma art influences in Pokemon games helped normalize pet clowns, preceding the creative movement known as clown husbandry.
Imagine you’re out for a walk, when you hear something rustling in the bushes. Instead of a bird, or a squirrel, a tiny, cherubic clown emerges, frowning. Its costume is colorless, and when it honks its nose at you, the sound is sad and deflated.
What kind of clown is this? Does it need help? Johanna “Staff” Anderson at clowncarecore.tumblr.com might tell you that this is a baby clown—known as a “jollie”—because jollies haven’t developed their colors, yet. Its frown and deflated honk could identify it as a jollie of the “sad clown” variety. They look upset when they’re happy, and vice versa.
Welcome to the world of clown care, or clown husbandry, where clowns are naturally occuring wildlife.
Clown husbandry is a Tumblr phenomenon that works like a writer’s prompt. It is thought to have begun with a simple Tumblr post from July 29th, 2017:
This observation sparked a widespread discussion about the true nature of the mime versus the clown. What had really begun was a collective stream of improvisational writing, branching out into so many new questions and ideas that clown husbandry’s topics became as varied and comprehensive as those of real pets.
Clown care topics include:
- caring for your clown during quarantine
- signs of illness in your clown
- adopt, don’t shop
- companionship (clowns roam in “troops”)
- service clowns
- should you declaw your clown
And even controversy over dairy clowns.
The clown husbandry movement also inspired artists to create other humanoid pets, like pet plague doctors.
But, Why Clowns? They’re Terrifying.
Caretakers of pet clowns might argue that clowns have been maligned and misunderstood, like pit bulls, snakes, and spiders. Author Benjamin Radford’s book, Bad Clowns, investigates the history and fear of clowns. In it, he writes,
Clowns may be scary to many people, but they are not inherently threatening the way a coiled rattlesnake or knife-wielding mugger is. The fear of clowns stems from a latent, potential harm, a suspicion that the seemingly silly and harmless pratfalling fool before us may not be so silly, so foolish, or so harmless.
Author Noël Carroll hit closer to the concept of pet clowns in his essay Humor and Horror, arguing that the very nature of clowns necessitates their role as an imaginary species:
Not only are clowns exaggeratedly misshapen and, at times, outright travesties of the human form—contortions played on our paradigms of the human shape—they also possess a physical resiliency conjoined with muscular and cognitive disfunctionalities that mark them off as an imaginary species.
However, it wasn’t Carroll’s observation that paved the way for clown husbandry. The real protagonist in this story is an artist named Ken Sugimori, primary character designer of the Pokemon franchise, heta-uma art practitioner, and creator of the first well-known pet clown: Mr. Mime.
What Is Heta-Uma Art?
Heta-uma: “bad but good”
Ken Sugimori’s design of humanoid pokemon like Jynx and Mr. Mime channel the philosophy of the heta-uma art movement.
The heta-uma art movement is attributed to an artist known as King Terry, aka Yumura Teruhiko, who summarized heta-uma like this:
...everyone starts as a ‘bad’ artist and tries to become good. But simply becoming ‘good’ is not enough. Artists who try too hard to become ‘good’ begin to emphasize technique over soul, and then the life goes out of their drawings; their spirit fails to keep up with their technique.
The power of heta-uma art could be likened to the difference in sound between a computer drummer and a human drummer: while the computer can play a beat with flawless timing, the human drummer’s beat has imperfections that are vital to how interesting, or good, the beat sounds.
Heta-uma art employs these kinds of imperfections to a greater extent, often subjecting it to criticism. However, a work’s ability to exist beyond the boundaries of safety, and to endure criticism, is crucial to the progress of the arts. In the case of the Pokemon franchise, it could be argued that its heta-uma influences were vital to its longevity.
In his academic paper, Pokémon 151: Complicating Kawaii, David Surman explains it this way:
In the culture of Pokémon, the iconicity of Sugimori’s designs for Pokémon such as Pikachu, Bulbasaur and Charmander elevate them to a point beyond criticism. In characters like Mr. Mime and Jynx, I suggest that Sugimori draws upon the surreal humour of heta-uma, in concert with his illustration technique, to create designs which oscillate between the poles of good and bad, and which under closer inspection reveal a complex genius at work. The knowing creation of such ‘diversity’ plays into the core theme of Pokémon, ‘communication’ (tsūshin), in that is invites the ‘big conversation’ between players to scrutinise and work through new Pokémon as they are released as part of successive games.
Since Mr. Mime’s first appearance in 1996’s Pokemon Red and Blue, they (male and female “Mr.” Mimes) have become a kind of iconic underdog. Pokemon like Mr. Mime are rarely in the spotlight that Pikachu inhabits, but when they do get attention, they shine brightly.
Mr. Mime’s interrogation scene in the Detective Pikachu movie is regarded as one of the best parts of the movie:
More importantly, when Pokemon Go released on July 6th, 2016–barely over a year before the Tumblr post that sparked clown husbandry—Mr. Mime was exclusive to European players. The exclusive for Americans was the much less interesting pokemon, Tauros. Entire continents were missing out on the joy of capturing and training wild clowns.
Today, Pokemon Go players around the world have been able to incubate and hatch clown eggs, give names to their Mr. Mimes, and take their clowns on walks as buddies. They can feed their pet clown treats, do photography shoots with them, and become greater friends by accomplishing daily goals.
So, the answer to the question, “Why pet clowns?” is the same as the explanation for Mr. Mime’s success. Pet clowns are more interesting and challenging, as a writer’s prompt and art subject, than less questionable pets.
Ultimately, the clown husbandry movement is a continuation of the heta-uma philosophy, and a parallel to the socially acceptable engagement that millions of Pokemon Go players have with their own pet clowns.