Joker, Jesters, and Gender: Subverting Social Standards

Curator's Note

Gotham has a new clown in town. The introduction of Punchline as Joker’s new girlfriend, now that Harley Quinn has gone her own way, points to the importance of the "bad clown" as a symbol for resistance.

Clowns embody a collision of horror and comedy, enacting "innocent" violence,1 and they are liminal figures, corrupting social norms.2 The Joker and his girlfriends, Harley Quinn and Punchline (described in the video clip), embrace the clown aesthetic, which is symbolic of their gendered relationships and roles – and their rejection of the same.

As Wind Goodfriend and Ryan Harder note, Harley reframes Joker’s abuse of her as foolery, allowing her to accept it as “just a joke.”3 Though Punchline recognizes Joker’s violence as violence, it is still the clowning that attracts her, because Joker makes people "see the clowns they really are. Showing them they should laugh at death and tear down society."4 The Joker’s clown motif, thus, marks the gendered power structure of their relationships through his ability to trick and manipulate his girlfriends. But their clown motifs can be read as efforts to subvert the patriarchy.

The clown, notes William Free, "rebels against the limitations of his reality,"5 as do Joker’s comediennes. The moniker "Punchline" implies the telling of jokes, and women’s humor often deals with the absurdities of gender norms, challenging the systems that keep women from power.6 Even the act of stand-up comedy by a woman violates gender conventions of public speech.7 The slapstick stylings of Harley’s harlequin persona - through physical, chaotic, abandonment of the laws of society and nature - erode gender boundaries and reject social order.8 (Likewise, the costuming and disarray of the Joker, too, defies rigid gender binaries.9)

Many have analyzed the popularity of the Joker and Harley Quinn, but the secret may lie in the tradition of the clown and its iconicity of complexity and anarchy. As Benjamin Radford has observed, a key aspect of clowns is "the real or imagined contradiction between [their] public and private personas" and what the makeup not only reveals but also conceals.10



1. Ruth Richards, "Transgressive Clowns: Between Horror and Humor," Comedy Studies 11, no. 1 (2020): 62-73.

2. Susanne C. Ylönen and Marianna Keisalo, "Sublime and Grotesque: Explore the Clowns’ Liminal Positioning between Oppositional Aesthetic Categories," Comedy Studies 11, no. 1 (2020) 12-24.

3. Wind Goodfriend and Ryan Harder, "Relationship Abuse: When the Joker Isn’t Funny," in The Joker Psychology: Evil Clowns and the Women Who Love Them, ed. Travis Langley (New York: Sterling, 2019), 255.

4. Batman #92 (2020).

5. William J. Free, "Fellini’s 'I Clowns' and the Grotesque," Journal of Modern Literature 3, no. 3 (1973): 219.

6. Joyce Antler, "One Clove Away from a Pomander Ball: The Subversive Tradition of Jewish Female Comedians," Studies in Jewish Literature 29 (2010): 123-138.

7. Andrea Greenbaum, "Women’s Comic Voices: The Art and Craft of Female Humor," American Studies 38, no. 1 (1997): 117-138.

8. Kristen Anderson Wagner, "'Have Women a Sense of Humor?' Comedy and Femininity in Early Twentieth-Century Film," The Velvet Light Trap 68 (2011): 35-46.

9. Jacob Murel, "The Joker’s Dionysian Philosophy of Gender and Sexuality in The Dark Knight," in Superheroes and Masculinity: Unmasking the Gender Performance of Heroism, ed. S. Parson & J.L. Schatz (Lanham, MD: Lexinton, 2020): 63-80.

10. Benjamin Radford, Bad Clowns (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2016), 25.

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