Farewell to a loud, brassy, trailblazing broad

Anne Kingston on the world’s best bad feminist

The 76th Annual Academy Awards - Arrivals

Joan Rivers at home on the red carpet at the 76th Academy Awards.

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.


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Farewell to a loud, brassy, trailblazing broad

  1. One thing Rivers was not, and that was a “feminist”, ambitious beyond any measure of greed? -yes, feminist? no.
    Yep, loud, brassy, crassy, I guess she was the Phyllis Diller of my parents’ generation. With all that $millions in silicon work she ended up looking like a freaky cabbage-patch doll. -I guess that was the last laugh.

  2. That was her stage persona.

    She was a self-made millionaire in an era when women couldn’t be witty.

  3. The dark comedy casts Murray as a cantankerous coot who strikes up an unlikely friendship with the lonely boy next door. http://fur.ly/awrf

      • Now you’ve wandered off into superstitious nonsense.

        Rivers dealt in reality.

        • I obviously do not believe in karma, or superstitions, only the facts, and the facts are she said it, and it was wrong. Rivers was a wacko, who made a lot of money playing that part, and it had nothing to do about “feminism”, good, or bad.
          Fact: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tIibX4Drzxs
          Unless there is something wrong with you(Rivers), you don’t go around telling the media wishing an entire people, including the innocence, were dead, -It’s not funny, or comical at all.

          I’m just glad I never have to listen to that anymore.

          • Men say outrageous things all the time, and are applauded for ‘telling it like it is’.

            In your mind a woman isn’t allowed to do that.

            She was Jewish….had ‘6M’ tattooed on her arm. She also said nothing different than Netanyahu and other Israeli leaders.

            I don’t agree with it, but I certainly understand where it comes from

    • Well I found Robin Williams meh….so I guess we’re even.