Joan Rivers: Icon, Mean Girl, and Feminist All at Once

Debbie says:


I never liked her performances; I’m allergic to mean comedy–I see plenty of meanness out there without intentionally adding more to the mix. At the same time, I understand the role of mean comedy–for other people–as catharsis, as outlet for feelings otherwise repressed. So I try not to write off the Joan Rivers, and Richard Pryors of this world, especially when they come from some kind of marginalized, one-down perspective.

I certainly never liked her plastic surgery, but I always liked the way she was open about it. Since she died, a lot has been written about the documentary, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work (full film available for free at the link). When Roger Ebert reviewed the film in 2010, he said:

She’s a woman who for various reasons depends on making audiences laugh. They walk in knowing all of her problems, knowing her age, eagle-eyeing her for the plastic surgery, ready to complain, and she forces them to laugh, because she’s so damned funny. I admire that. Bernard Shaw called it the Life Force. We see her in the film’s first shot, without makeup. A minute later, ” Joan Rivers ” is before us. Her life is a performance of herself.

Yes, she’s had plastic surgery. Well, why not? I think it’s wrong for most people. But show business is cruel and eats its old, and you do what you have to do. She talks about it. She talks about everything.

We’re short on women who talk about everything. We’re short on women who tell the truth about their own relationships to their bodies. And most of the ones we do have are political people with fairly small platforms, speaking mostly to audiences who already agree, or come close to agreeing. Rivers had the national stage. As a household word, she could tell (problematic) jokes about aging and millions of people would hear them, and some would think about them.

No more Botox for me. Betty White’s bowels move more than my face.

Nasty (or at least intrusively personal) to Betty White. Honest about Botox. Honest about bowels. Kind of funny.

My vagina is like Newark [New Jersey]. Men know it’s there, but they don’t want to visit.

Heterosexist. Racist and classist, since many or most East Coast people know how black and poor a town Newark is. Honest. Funny.

My breasts are so low now I can have a mammogram and a pedicure at the same time.

Honest. A little bit privileged (pedicures are a token of affluence, which may be part of why millions of women scrimp and save to get one). Quietly encouraging women’s health. Funny.

Philip Maciak wrote a fine piece about her at Slate.

But if show business was cruel to Joan Rivers—and it was—Joan Rivers was cruel right back. In 1994, just two years after Leno took over for Carson, Rivers founded the institution with which she will likely always be associated. The format of Fashion Police has evolved, it’s jumped around to various networks, and the fawning foils surrounding her have been cast and recast, but the basic idea has remained the same: Joan Rivers has a TV show where she mercilessly, gleefully denigrates what other celebrities look like. For 20 years the show has proven to be the perfect platform for Rivers’ one-liner-at-a-time battle with show business. Like Rivers herself, the show has a weird insider-outsider perspective. Is it the party organ of Hollywood’s systematic war on women? Or is it a suicide attack from within Hollywood itself?… At its best, Fashion Police was a fun, backhanded celebration of all the forms beauty can take in Hollywood from America’s premier insult comic. At its worst, the show was mean-spirited fluff. …

For her whole career, Rivers has been self-consciously pushing boundaries. In recent years she’s often spectacularly pushed the wrong ones, but we shouldn’t forget that, at one time, she was pushing the right ones—and doing it virtually alone.

After reading around to write this post, I’m going to make time to watch the whole documentary, which is a huge surprise to me.

I may not like mean girls, and maybe you don’t either. Writing Rivers off as “just a mean girl” isn’t a whole story; one of the things she did is forced us to see her as a whole, complex person who could not be easily written off or pigeonholed. I wonder what she would have to say about the fact that both writers I found to quote about her are male.

Thanks to Alan Bostick for insisting there was something worth writing about following Rivers’ death.

3 thoughts on “Joan Rivers: Icon, Mean Girl, and Feminist All at Once

  1. I adored her, thought she was hilarious. She was a pioneer and I have a ton of respect for her for that. I have a lot of memories of watching her on Ed Sullivan and my parents both laughing and asking “how can she get away with that??” about jokes about Jackie Kennedy marrying and presumably having sex with Aristotle Onassis. She said the stuff everybody was thinking. I guess I like mean humor, or at least some of it doesn’t bother me.

  2. I was never the audience for Rivers and I didn’t admire the politics of her humor. But I admire the politics of her life and the doors that she opened for women comics. I was a serious fan of Richard Pryor. I found his humor angry and bitter, deeply honest and certainly not mean.

  3. I saw the documentary on Joan Rivers when PBS showed it the other night. Rivers’ earlier “how does she get away with it?” jokes never registered with me–probably because she was talking in a code that went over my head (e.g., “a bride who made three trips to Puerto Rico, If you know what I mean, and then had the nerve to wear white to her wedding.” I didn’t get that she was talking about illegal abortions.) But seeing her at 75 in the documentary really set me thinking about how limited the options are for older women reinventing ourselves. Rivers had really no viable option for presenting a softer, kinder side. She tried to share that part of her life and few were interested. The documentary shows a play she wrote and performed based on her life and troubles, and reviews slammed her for self-pity and a monotonous speaking voice. In order to reach a larger audience she had find an acceptable target for her hostility (which is the fuel of most humor). Her outrageous attacks, the more cruel the better, brought her attention. She also got a lot of similar nasty jokes aimed at her weak points, which she reflected hurt her, although they were part of the game. To my mind, her final evolution as a mean, uncensored old lady entertained many and kept her working. I keep thinking of the quote from Alice Roosevelt Longworth, ” If you can’t say something good about someone, sit right here by me.”

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