In the spring of 2007, the comedian and actress Mo’Nique uttered 11 words that would change the course of history. “See, when you do clownery,” she said, “the clown comes back to bite.”
The sentiment, delivered during the first season of the VH1 reality show “Flavor of Love Girls: Charm School,” turned out to be prescient. In 2019, clowns are everywhere.
They’re in headlines, movies and memes. They range from the mildly unsettling (Mr. Mime, a humanoid pokémon modeled after a clown, in “Detective Pikachu”) to the exhausting (yet another movie featuring Batman’s green-haired nemesis, the Joker) to the nightmare inducing (Pennywise in “It Chapter Two”).
Even the fashion world has gone to clown town. The model Bella Hadid recently swanned down the Moschino runway in a sparkling clown suit.
And if you can’t get enough clown content (who hurt you?), there’s a documentary arriving in October about a very real, very creepy Florida clown.
Clowns have also flourished on social media. Instagram users deploy clown emoji to mock others’ posts. On Twitter, the Kid Mero, a comedian, called out mixtape-making clowns. On TikTok, users are lip-syncing to the Insane Clown Posse’s 1997 song “Hokus Pokus” while wearing clown makeup, and tagging their videos #clowncheck.
Demi Adejuyigbe, a comedian and TV writer who coined the phrase “clown boy autumn” in a recent tweet, called the word a “Swiss Army knife.”
“Calling someone a clown isn’t supercruel,” he said. “It’s the kind of thing you can say to a friend, to yourself, but also to a stranger.”
And while clowns can be menacing, they also lend themselves easily to self-deprecating humor. When people are acting the fool, they say that they’re putting on their clown makeup or that they’ve got their clown outfits on (a riff off a line from a 2013 episode of “Love & Hip Hop: Atlanta”). It’s a term that’s gleefully used by people who also like to call themselves “trash.”
On social media, clowns and clown imagery are used in the spirit of the Mo’Nique clip, said Ira Madison III, a TV writer and podcaster. When someone calls themselves a clown, he said, it usually means “there’s an awareness that you’ve done something dumb, you’re immediately hit with karma and you’re acknowledging it.”
These days, when people are angry on the internet, clowns tend to get involved. Recently, the comedian Shane Gillis, who was hired by “Saturday Night Live,” was found to have a history of using racist language. Mr. Gillis posted a note on Twitter attempting to justify his actions.
One of the top replies to his post, a doctored video clip of Michelle Obama, began like this: “Hey, clown! Jester, you have done it again, constantly raising the bar for the circus and doing it foolishly.” It received 1,700 likes. (Mr. Gillis was fired a few days after being named to the “S.N.L.” cast.)
Clown memes and videos serve as a shorthand, said Javeigh Young-White, 18, the mastermind behind several viral clown-related tweets. Instead of putting in the energy of writing a paragraph to point out all the ways a person’s actions are wrong on social media, he said, “you can just send a picture, get 800 likes on it, and accomplish the same thing.”
In other words, “clown” shames someone swiftly (and without profanity — a rare feat on the internet).
Joshua Rush, a 17-year-old actor, has had the word flung at him more than once. “It instantaneously had the effect of like, ‘You’re a clown, you’re a joke, look at you, Boo Boo the fool,’” he said. “You’re being stupid, stop being dumb — that’s the message that comes with it.”
But Mr. Rush also has several clown memes saved on his phone for future use, and one of his friends is listed in his contacts as “Clown.” The phrase can be understood as a term of endearment, or what Mr. Rush described as a “veiled” obscenity, depending on the context.
The word “clown” has a long history of being used as a barb, particularly in rap. But the origins of the current clown climate could perhaps be traced to 2016, when the world changed irrevocably as numerous clown sightings put the country in a state of panic and the clown emoji was officially introduced.
But maybe the culture is just overly susceptible to movie marketing campaigns, there’s no greater meaning, and really, it’s just funny to turn a symbol that inspires fear into the butt of a joke. “Clowns used to be scary,” Mr. Young-White said. “Now they’re just us.”