With Joan Rivers gone, the world has one less loud, brassy, trailblazing broad in it—which is never a good thing. As the appreciations pour in, Rivers is being celebrated as an “iconic feminist role model” (by establishment iconoclast Camille Paglia, no less), a descriptor the comedian would no doubt have had lampooned with a vulgar, politically incorrect come-back. Rivers’s shtick, particularly in her later years, was playing the bad feminist: On Fashion Police, the viper’s nest E! network program she hosted since 2010, she routinely judged women mercilessly on their appearance—ignoring their accomplishments. (She made headlines when she called Adele “fat” and refused to back down.) The show’s retrograde “Starlet or Streetwalker?” segment presents like something out of a previous century. And let’s not forget that Rivers herself was a walking advertisement—and cautionary tale—for relentless cosmetic surgery.
None of that diminishes Rivers’s stealthy accomplishments as a female (and male) role model—for women in comedy, for remaining commercially viable into one’s 80s, and as a reminder that this is a world in which perpetual reinvention is necessary to stay relevant. Neither Sarah Silverman nor Chelsea Handler, who owe Rivers big-time, were born when Rivers began her standup career in the 1960s—a time when Phyllis Diller represented the face of female humour. Rivers broke into late-night TV—a male bastion to this day—becoming a regular on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson in the mid-’60s where she was smart enough to dress like a lady while honing her abrasive, “unfeminine” style. Even then, Rivers challenged stereotypes: One memorable line: “If God had wanted a woman to cook, he would have given her aluminum hands.”
Carson named her his permanent guest host in 1983, a gig she lost in 1986 after she went to do her own talkshow on Fox without informing the then king of late night. The Fox show bombed. Carson never forgave her. Jay Leno—clearly cleaving to the “bro” code—refused to have Rivers on as a guest after he took over for Carson. Neither did Conan. (Jimmy Fallon finally brought her on for a sit-down in 2014.)
Looking back, we can see how presciently Rivers identified the highly profitable lowest common denominator. She was an equal-opportunity trash-talker. The signature line in her stand-up act—“Can we talk?”—tapped into the human craving to hear dirt being dished. Her humour functioned at a basic level—by mocking and ripping people apart, often for the most crass and superficial of reasons. Rivers snarked long before “snark” was a subject deconstructed in high-minded magazines. But she also wasn’t afraid to broach taboo topics; she joked about abortion and homosexuality, bringing them into the mainstream. She also explored the aftermath of her husband Edgar’s 1987 suicide in a TV movie she produced and starred in with her daughter, Melissa.
Nobody ever had to tell Joan Rivers to “lean in.” She never stopped working, unapologetically going where the money was: she churned out 12 books, hawked a jewellery line on the Shopping Channel and worked the comedy circuit until her death. She also identified the lucrative red-carpet industry, launching the first red-carpet pre-show with Melissa in 2004 for the TV Guide channel, a program that introduced the now ubiquitous phrase “Who are you wearing?”
By 2007, after stepping on too many celebrity Manolos, the duo was out. Rivers continued her scathing, often insensitive, critiques on Fashion Police where she could be counted on to be rude and crude (and give voice to what many were thinking). Through it all, she never fawned or played favourites, a refreshing breath of foul air in the current climate of obsequious celebrity coverage.
To keep herself relevant, Rivers pandered to increasingly retrograde cultural attitudes toward women, witnessed on Fashion Police. Yet she also understood the power—and perils—of a woman wielding humour, seen in this video interview. “Men don’t want you too funny,” she said. She knew striking feuds with high-profile, younger women would be a viewer magnet. By submitting to repeated cosmetic procedures, the first one an eye-lift in 1965, she was a poster-woman for Hollywood’s ludicrous chase of youth. But she knew it, reflected in the 2010 documentary about her: Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work. If Joan Rivers became a cartoon, it was a cartoon she trademarked and owned the patent on. She knew how the entertainment world worked and how to make it work for her. And understanding how she did that, and what that says about the current state of popular culture, just might be her most significant legacy as the world’s best bad feminist.