These are pictures of a container of straws that is in the graduate student mailroom in the Philosophy department at UC San Diego. I don’t know if they have been there since 1985, when they were manufactured in Thailand, or if they were brought there at some later point, but I think it’s safe to say they’re never going anywhere, because nobody is going to take a straw out of a container that looks like that.
The most obvious feature is of course the deeply creepy clown. Clowns don’t scare me but this one is for sure unnerving. Everything about him is off in some way.
First of all, the smile makeup is abundantly garish. The more you overdo a smile, the less it seems like a smile and the more it seems like a gross anatomical misapprehension of what human joy looks like. This particular smile extends halfway down this clown’s chin in a manner more suggestive of a vast devouring maw than a happy grin.
His red spherical nose is too small to be a goofy round replacement for the actual nose – we can see the sides of his nose sticking out on the left and the right. But it’s also too perfectly red and spherical to just be makeup. It’s some sort of globe affixed to the front of his face. It’s the worst of both worlds, neither big and cartoonish enough to turn him into a caricature nor small and naturalistic enough to be a playful spot of makeup on his face. It’s just artificial and unnerving, an extraneous unwelcome geegaw affixed to this poor man by forces nefarious and unfathomable.
His eyes themselves are squinted enough to convince you he is smiling at first, but not in the way they would be squinting if he were actually smiling. If you’re not with me on this judgment, I’m just going to have to go ahead and pull rank, unless you can beat me on this test (my score is 18 out of 20). The test claims to measure your ability to tell fake smiles from real smiles, something that humans tend to be fairly inept at.1 I’m really good, somehow, and the trick is looking at the eyes. So unless you can do better than 18 out of 20, just take my word for it that this clown’s eyes are not smiling eyes, but, crucially, they are “faking a smile” eyes, and practiced ones, at that. This clown has been faking many, many smiles throughout his life. So clearly there’s something going on there.
I’m not really sure what we are to make of the stylized raised eyebrows. The shape and color scheme remind me of Native American art I saw growing up in the Pacific Northwest, like this:
There is a lot of tremendous art in this vein, but rarely if ever does it communicate much in the way of mirth, at least to my eyes. So I can’t really get behind this clown’s eyebrows. They suggest severity and solemnity, which is fine on its own, but you don’t want to look into the face of a clown and encounter severity. It would be like seeing Comic Sans on a tombstone.
The hair is hard to decipher. We can divine the presence of a hat in the center of his head, and some sort of white elastic cap underneath, if we look close enough. We might think that the red hair is a wig affixed to the elastic cap, but that’s very hard to reconcile with the nascent sideburns to either side of his eyes – I don’t think a skull cap can get wig hair down to there. Since that hair is contiguous with the rest, I start to wonder if the elastic band is just holding the hat on, somehow, and thus the hat is in front of his hair, meaning his haircut is a sort of tonsure haircut, suggesting that this guy is a monk with red hair when the makeup comes off. When I picture the sort of person who has the sort of personality that lends itself to “clowning around” and otherwise engaging in clown-appropriate activities, I don’t picture a monk. And don’t even ask me how those blue feathers are staying in place or what that little red thing poking out between them is.
Finally, the attention to veracity in this drawing is pretty serious, because we can see areas where this guy’s white clown makeup has started to come off, or wasn’t applied very well in the first place. The creases on his chin, on one side of his upper lip, around his eyes, and on his cheeks all show his skin, and it looks like a bit has been rubbed off his ear where it is attached to the side of his head. His actual eyebrows are also showing through in their original color. Why was it important to capture this clown’s makeup in a way that reminds us that he is an imperfect human being? Is the artist trying to let these cracks in the facade show through in order to suggest similar cracks in this clown’s psyche? Is he just barely keeping it together? How close is he to snapping? I think during any interaction with any clown, “how close is this clown to snapping?” is always foremost on my mind, but in this case we have good cause to be extra worried.
So much for the clown. If we try to find refuge from this twisted visage, which occurs on both sides of the hexagonal tube so that no matter which way you put it in your cabinet, you can always find it by looking for the clown, who potentially is always also looking for you, all we end up finding are these words, arranged rather haphazardly, perhaps to communicate playfulness or insufficient earthquake preparedness: “Plastic,” “Waterproof,” “Sanitary,” and “Great for Hot or Cold Drinks.”
These are not ringing endorsements. I suppose it is nice to know what the flexible straws are made of, but one might hope that we could find an adjective better than “plastic” to get us started on the list of virtues which we are communicating to customers. If I want to convince you to buy a straw and my opening line is “guess what – they’re plastic!” then I’m probably not going to make a sale today, or any day. Soon, running low on money, I will have to choose daily between heating my home or feeding my children, until, crushed by my failure as a flexible straws salesperson, I take out a life insurance policy on Arthur Miller and then run him over with my car.
It gets even worse from there, though. We next learn these straws are “waterproof.” I should have thought that this wasn’t up for negotiation! Are there straws that aren’t waterproof? What in the world do you use them for? If my straw can’t stand up to the rigors of being immersed in liquid, I’m going to be deeply unimpressed. That this package is touting the waterproof properties of these straws suggests that it can’t say anything nicer. You can bet they aren’t BPA-free, for instance, and I doubt they’re fair trade certified, or non-GMO, or gluten free.
The third adjective takes us so far into “why would you need to say that?” territory that Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness might have been written about this package’s trip into unfortunate implications instead of Marlow’s trip into Africa without altering many of the key plot points. The straws are “sanitary.” Sanitary! Thank goodness! I’m dead tired of buying straws just to discover that they are covered in filth, so it’s nice to know that Scoopy the Clown supervises the manufacturing and packaging process to make sure none of the straws has been up anyone’s asshole.
It is almost a relief, then, to find out that the straws are “great for hot or cold drinks.” Given the doubts that any reasonable person probably has about these straws by now, it’s good to get some definite reassurance that the manufacturers have countenanced the possibility that these straws could face hot or cold temperatures and have sensibly crafted straws that stand up to both situations with aplomb.
It’s true, though, that I wasn’t often buying straws in the 80s. I wasn’t even alive for most of the 80s. I had no chance to see Autograph perform their hit song “Turn Up the Radio” in person prior to their breakup.2 So perhaps non-plastic, non-waterproof, unsanitary straws crowded the store shelves in those days. Maybe Reagan deregulated the straw industry precisely so as to allow for this to happen. If that is the case, then these straws represent a time capsule from another era, a nightmarish one that we have happily left behind, and I am thankful that we’ve arrived at the place we are today, where anyone can buy a straw secure in the knowledge that the worst that will happen is inevitably getting cancer from the plastic.
- It is going to be difficult to beat me, because I tried to retake the test and it seems like it’s broken now. The average score is about 60% and women tend to do slightly better than men. If you’re pretty sure you’d score above average, please reflect for a moment on what this estimation says about you. [↑]
- TURN IT UP!!! [↑]