DID you hear the one about the sexy clown? Apparently you wait ages for one, only for two to come along at once – or a year apart, which is still too frequent. How many sexy clowns do we need, in these times of great social and political upheaval? And what if one man’s sexy clown is another woman’s radical, essential, boundary-pushing performance artist?

I appreciate these might not seem like urgent questions. As Richard Leonard gets sprayed in the face by a red rosette and Ruth Davidson attempts to dodge a volley custard pies, we have more serious business to ponder. Jo Swinson’s walking around with a bunch of flowers up her sleeve, looking to court anyone who isn’t the SNP, but someone’s thrown a banana skin into her path. Meanwhile John Bercow’s strutting about with greasepaint freckles on his cheeks and a ladder under his arm...

In this grand scheme of things, the preoccupations of some luvvies at the Fringe might not seem worthy of analysis in these columns. If you don’t partake of the world’s biggest arts festival, why should you care what’s earned five-star raves or which bright-eyed hopeful is weeping backstage because someone farted during her monologue about vegan polyamory?

Well, you should care for a couple of reasons. Firstly, what happens in Edinburgh in August helps shape cultural life for the other 11 months of the year. This is the place where artists come to be discovered and dreams go to die. Where a single review can mean the difference between triumph and despair, lucrative telly slots or ruinous debt.

Secondly, despite the fact that it exists in its own three-week bubble and incorporates everything from amateur agitprop to avante-garde acrobatics, in many ways it remains painfully conservative and regressive despite the reputation for bringing together all that is edgy and daring.

One only has to look at the posters advertising shows by female comedians, then compare them to the women who appear on stage, to be struck by the extent to which (heterosexual) “sex sells” is the prevailing rule of Fringe marketing. That might sound like a mean observation but it’s a fact, and the contrast is often jarring. When a lesbian comic is gearing up to spend an hour unpicking gender stereotypes, and telling jokes about her own androgynous appearance – something she’s already earned widespread acclaim for doing – why is she encouraged (or is it required?) to be coated in make-up and smoulder for the camera to promote her show?

Is this an ingenious attempt to break lefty/progressive stand-ups out of their echo chambers, by attracting the kind of audience members who litter YouTube comments sections with their assessments of a woman’s f***abilty rather than the quality of her jokes, or do those in charge of marketing simply default to the male gaze when it comes to packaging a woman’s work for public consumption, just like those marketing almost everything else?

READ MORE: UK politics is filled with all the spectacle of bizarre Edinburgh Fringe shows

But back to sexy clowns. What is it that makes a clown sexy, anyway? Is it the content of her show, the tone and intent, or the square inches of skin that are bared during the course of it? When a male critic for a left-wing newspaper refers to the debut show of LA-based comedian Courtney Pauroso, developed along with the male artist Dr Brown, as “another strikingly in-yer-face show from Dr Brown’s sexy-clown stable,” what exactly is he trying to say?

The “sexy clown” who galloped around last year’s Fringe was Natalie Palamides, who performed the riotous and hilarious show Nate entirely in drag, complete with a strikingly realistic rubber cock and balls. The show was sexual – very sexual – but sexy? Hardly. It ventured into genuinely dangerous territory with its questions – and audience interactions – around the theme of consent. Did our male reviewer regard this as a show by a “sexy clown” because the slim, white Palamides was topless under her character’s lumberjack jacket? Or simply because she was a woman tackling sexual content, regardless of how subversive her approach? Perhaps Palamides is in the “sexy clown” category because in her 2017 show she produced what seemed like an endless supply of hen’s eggs from under her skirt. Different strokes for different folks, after all.

It’s not for me to decide what any given man should find sexy, but it is worth asking why a critic feels the need to use that particular adjective to describe a performer – not even just a performance, or part thereof – when supposedly assessing the artistic merit of a complex, risk-taking work. Whether he has considered the potential for this description to demean and diminish or not, hitch it to a man’s name and the implication seems to be that while Pauroso brings the sexiness, Dr Brown brings the talent; that this show is less a collaboration and more a case of an established artist finding a new muse.

Right now we need bold women’s art – raw, unapologetic, free of caveats and explanations – more than ever. The posters might be sexy, but if you think that’s all these women have to offer, the joke’s on you.