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Joan Rivers: A Trailblazer Who Got Stuck in the Mud

Joan Rivers: A Trailblazer Who Got Stuck in the Mud

Humor can be the cut and the balm—sometimes
one-in-the-same, in the course of a single joke.  Sarah Silverman wryly laments: “I was raped
by a doctor, always a bittersweet experience for a Jewish girl.” Wanda Sykes riffs
on how “Black folks, we always have to be dignified, ‘cause if we fuck up, we
just set everybody else back a couple of years. We should have killed Flava
Flav like ten years ago!” A young Joan Rivers does a bit about her mother’s
desperation to marry her off: “Oh, Joan, there’s a man at the door with a mask
and a gun!”

Comedy can also be the hand on the backs of our
necks. Tracy Morgan tells his audience that, if his son came out to him, he’d
stab the boy to death. Daniel Tosh artlessly ponders the fate of a female
heckler: “Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by, like, five guys right
now? Like, right now?” Joan Rivers serves as the commissioner of the fashion
police: “I took Elizabeth Taylor to Sea World. It was so embarrassing. Shamu
the whale jumps out of the water; she asks ‘does he come with fries?’”

Rivers occupies a complex position in comedy. Her
early work is rightly lauded for its unflinching candor about women’s issues,
and for bringing those issues—the pressure to marry and the tedium of
housewifery, the joys and annoyances of sex, and even abortion—to a national
audience. She is celebrated for serving as the first woman to host her own late
night talk show, and venerated for her tenacity in the wake of tragedy (the
betrayal of her beloved mentor, Johnny Carson; the suicide of her husband and
producer). As a writer and a feminist, I should have called in my own tribute
on the switchboard of Facebook. And yet, I can’t. Rivers’ early work may have
been a slingshot lobbing stones against the powers-that-be, but, in her later years,
her cruelty became a cannon unloading upon the oppressed. She trafficked in
tired slut-shaming and fat jokes.

In perhaps the only way that I will ever be likened
to Elizabeth Taylor, I too have endured my fair share of comparisons to Shamu.
I was a fat girl who became a fat woman, even after dieting and exercising and
binging and purging and taking “nutritional supplements” more potent than 50’s
housewife’s physician-prescribed speed. My fat ass has been the butt of so many
jokes over so many years that I’ve become intimately acquainted with the ways
that “humor” can be used to enforce social codes. Before I was ever aware of
her history, Joan Rivers was that voice that came from the TV in my mother’s
bedroom, a voice that, despite its off-putting raspiness, affected a favorite
wicked aunt chumminess that drew me in until it spit me out: “If Kate Winslet
had dropped a couple of pounds, the Titanic never would have sunk.”

I wasn’t one of those high school girls whose
ticket sales bought James Cameron a summer home, still, I could look up to Kate
Winslet: I would never have her hourglass figure (or her gorgeous red curls),
but her body, and its emancipation from Paltrow thinness, was far closer to
mine than any other modern starlet’s. And there she was on the silver screen,
the real ship of dreams. Ravishing. Desired. So, when Joan Rivers let it rip
with that joke, she was issuing a warning to every fat girl (every girl,
really): There’s only one way to be a woman, and there’s a price to pay for not
looking the part.

This is why,
unlike so many of my peers, I come to bury Joan Rivers, not to praise her.
Rivers famously quipped that, upon her death, her body shouldn’t be donated to
science, but to Tupperware: In truth, all of that plastic has been melted down
and sculpted into an altar to St. Joan of Snark, the groundbreaking vulgarian
who spoke the brutal truths that nice girls were never supposed to say (let
alone in public). Rivers muscled her way to prominence in a male-dominated
field, and she worked steadily for fifty years. It’s no wonder, then, that an
armada of think pieces seeks to defend Rivers as a capital-F feminist (even if
she’d have been reluctant to claim the label for herself). In Time magazine,
Eliana Dockterman equates Rivers’ legendary work ethic and savvy for
self-promotion as an innately feminist endeavor: “Nothing was off-limits as Rivers
wise-cracked her way to the top. And it was this
undisguised and ‘unladylike’ desire for success that made Rivers a feminist
icon.”

Assessments like this
strike me as an uncomfortably corporatized definition of feminism: The will to
work alone does not a feminist make, especially if the work affirms the
structures and mentalities that shame women—for their bodies (though weight was
one of Rivers’ primary comic milieux, she was also free and easy with the word
tranny); their sexualities (and anyone who fell on either side of the
virgin/whore dichotomy was fair game, as evidenced by her cracks about Taylor
Swift’s knees being “together more than Melissa and I” and the Kardashian
sisters needing to find “true love standing up. They’ve had more men land on
them than we’d had in Afghanistan.”); and even for being the victims of
violence (she once said that “those women in Cleveland” had more space in the basement
where they’d been raped and tortured than she had in her daughter’s supposedly
cramped living room; she also joked about slapping Rihanna for possibly
reconciling with Chris Brown).

If her latter-day
humor was particularly vicious toward women, it certainly didn’t spare the
gents. In Rivers’ world, men are shallow dogs following the bone of lithe,
leggy female beauty. They are sexual bullies who don’t see women as people.
They are simultaneously the arbiters of a very specific standard of female attractiveness
and horny devils unable to get it in their pants: “I
said to my husband, ‘Why don’t you call out my name when we’re making love?’ He
said, ‘I don’t want to wake you up.’”  

Rivers’ full buy-in to the aesthetic standards that confine
women manifests in more than her stage act; she co-signed with a scalpel. Over
the years, her face attained a stretched-taut surrealness that turned her into
a breathing caricature. There is an unintended but undeniably apt symbolism in
the idea that her natural ability to register and express authentic feeling was
tombed under layers of scar tissue. Her self-loathing, and not her wit, became
her weapon.

As a thirtysomething, I have grown up with the Joan Rivers
who puffed out her cheeks and imitated (her version of) a fat woman’s waddle on
the Letterman Show when discussing Adele, remarking that the latter’s song
“Rolling in the Deep” (which should surely be etched in a Mount Rushmore of
number one pop songs of all time) should be called “Rolling in the Deep Fried Chicken”—diminishing
Adele’s accomplishments as a singer and songwriter by reducing her to a body.
Today’s “Rolling in the Deep Fried Chicken” is yesterday’s “Elizabeth Taylor is
so fat, she has Ragu in her veins.”

As I see these remarks
on list after list of “Joan Rivers’ Best Burns,” I think of Margaret Cho’s
appearance on Rivers’ online interview series In Bed with Joan, and how
their conversation turned to Cho’s body—specifically, how svelte she’d become.
Rivers recalls meeting Cho years prior, when Cho was the anointed It Girl with
a sitcom in the works: “You were a bit of a …” she says, and her pause is the
plank that Cho must walk down before jumping into the deep. A bit of a fat
girl, she admits. Never mind that Cho’s studio-mandated compulsion to lose
weight (and lose it fast) resulted in kidney failure.

Cho may be considered one of Rivers’ heirs apparent, but she
proves that there’s more than one way to be woman who brings a carefully
calibrated cruelty to comedy. Her stand-up is more akin to Rivers’ early work,
bringing a “and fuck you if you don’t like it” bravado to her real talk about
her real pain. Her filth and fury is deployed against the double standards and
the beauty standards that Rivers, in her later years, always endorsed. Cho’s
stand-up film I’m the One that I Want details—with naked rage and
unexpected pathos—her own private Hell-as-a-hamster-wheel of constant dieting:
“I knew I was crazy because I was watching Jesus Christ Superstar and the part where Jesus carries the
cross up the mountain, I actually said to myself, ‘Wow! That must be a really good workout! Yeah, because you’re
doing arms and cardio!’”

She roars and
rampages and names names (including the actual producer whose “concerns” set
Cho on that hamster wheel); still, she shows the kind of woundedness and
vulnerability typically denied to any “nice girl,” in any era, by recounting,
with a necessary explicitness, the physical ravages of all that dieting. She
describes being in the ER, broken and bleeding, and then vaults into an
impersonation of the aggressively earnest nurse who tends to her: “Hi, my name
is Gwen and I’m here to wash your vagina!” This
hyper-attentiveness to the body and its failings (in terms of true mechanical
break-down and in meeting cultural expectations) isn’t just the province of
women.

Much has been written about “And So Did the
Fat Lady,” the episode of Louie that deals earnestly (if not always
successfully) with the stigmatization of fat women; and most of that critique
has focused on the epic monologue delivered by Vanessa, the titular fat
lady—however, the episode also shows how Louie’s hesitance to date Vanessa
stems from his own poor body image and fear of guilt by association (something
that Vanessa even calls him on: “You know, if
you were standing over there looking at us, you know what you’d see? That we
totally match.”).  This episode
skewers the contradictions between America’s cult of thinness and the glut of
consumption that comes with a Starbucks on every corner. Louie and his brother
partake in a “bang bang,” a family tradition of going to two different
restaurants (in this case, an Indian place and a diner) and ordering
full-course meals.

Louis C.K. ribs
himself about his weight, but he still shows great tenderness toward his own
fat body. In the season four finale, he takes a romantic bath with his
long-time crush, Pamela; the camera lingers on Louie’s derriere and Pamela
cracks a joke, and yes, when Louie lowers himself into the tub, water sloshes
to the floor, snuffing some of the candles. However, this awkwardness somehow
makes that final moment between Louie and Pamela even sweeter.

Watching Cho and C.K. prompts the question of what
Rivers could’ve done if she’d applied the same tenacity she showed for Liz
Taylor’s waist line to a culture that expects women to be perpetually thin and
everlastingly young. There could be something undeniably powerful in Rivers’
self-abnegation. When so many of our stories about women still hinge on their
prettiness and their experience of being desired, being an outlier to those
desires creates a sense of obliterating isolation. Rivers’ barbs at her own
expense may have come dressed in the baubles and furs of vicious wit, but
underneath those pearls and those stoles there was a naked little heart beating
in sorrow and wrath—and its pulse became a siren song.

Rivers was canny enough to recognize that the
breadth and intensity of her cosmetic surgeries had become a key component of
her celebrity, at times eclipsing her actual body of work. She played herself on
an episode of Nip/Tuck where she implored the plastic surgeon
protagonists to undo all that she’d had done because she wanted her grandson to
see her natural face. She’s horrified by the computer simulation of that
natural face, with all of the lines and wrinkles that anyone lucky enough to
live into their seventies could expect, and she opts for another face lift. The
predictability of this reversal is supposed to be the punchline, but the fact
that a woman with Rivers’ history and influence still views her self-worth
through the prisms of youth and attractiveness is just plain sad. 

The difference between Rivers’ quip that her
husband killed himself because she removed the bag over her head during sex (or
that the only she conceived her daughter because her husband rolled over in his
sleep) and Cho’s riff on the producer’s comment about the roundness of her face
(“I had no idea that I was this giant face taking over America! Here comes the
face!”) is that Cho places the shame squarely where it belongs—on our culture,
and its militant insistence on one type of beauty.

Perhaps the most disheartening aspect of what some
could view as Rivers’ artistic decline is that she was once brilliantly,
blazingly capable of taking our culture to task. “I feel sorry for any single
girls today … the whole society is not for single girls,” she says, in a now
widely circulated clip from the Ed Sullivan show. The clip was filmed in 1967,
and Rivers—who looks shockingly girlish, unrecognizable from the woman she’ll
become—speaks directly to those single girls because she was one of them,
peppering her bit with “you know that!” and “isn’t that so? Yes! Yes!” and “it
just kills me!” She rips into the double standards around attractiveness: “a
boy on a date, all he has to be is clean and able to pick up the check … the
girl has to be well-dressed, her face has to look nice, the hair has to be in
shape …” Her take on the pressure to settle down and start a family young (too
young) belongs in a more caustic version of The Bell Jar: “The neighbors
would come over and ask ‘how’s Joan, still not married?’ and my mother would
say ‘if she were alive.’ Do you know how that hurts, when you’re sitting right
there?”

As I watched this clip, still in shock that this
scrappy young woman (the kind of girl I’d want to get drinks with) had ever
become the comic who told women in her audience that they were single because
they were over-educated (“no man will ever put his hand up your dress looking
for a library card”), I thought of how timeless her words remain, of how I
could see them being written in a monologue on Girls, one likely
delivered by Lena Dunham, architect of lines like “So any mean thing someone’s gonna
think of to say about me, I’ve already said to me, about me, probably in the
last half hour.”
 

I may never be equipped to fully appreciate Joan Rivers;
if, in order to be thankful for her work, I needed to experience a time when
Happy Homemaker was the only role for women and the word abortion was verboten
on TV. She may always be a trailblazer who got stuck in the mud. But I know
that humor can burn and soothe in the same beat: I remember calling a good
friend after I was rushed to the ER with chest pains and palpitations; I told
her that the attending physician warned me off the diet pills, purging, and
starvation unless I wanted “a more severe cardiac incident.” Without pausing,
my friend quipped, “So, you have to choose between your face or your ass or
your heart.” I laughed, and that laugh, however short, was a moment away from my
fear; that laugh acknowledged the untenable position I’d allowed myself to be
put in, because of the things I believed I needed to be.

Laura Bogart’s work has appeared on The Rumpus, Salon, Manifest-Station,
The Nervous Breakdown, RogerEbert.com and JMWW Journal, among other
publications. She is currently at work on a novel.

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