GREGORY OCHIAGHA ’18 CONTRIBUTING WRITER
Joan Rivers died last Thursday, Sept. 4 at the age of 81. She was a comedian, known for having a relentlessly harsh sense of humor. At the wake of her death, there was a clear polarity.
Many people revered her and would miss her contribution to pop culture. Others were glad that the ‘Wicked Witch’ from Brooklyn was finally dead.
I initially didn’t think much about Rivers’ death. But soon, I got extremely heated when the media began portraying her as some saint, which is usually what happens to celebrities when they pass. Joan Rivers was not a saint.
Cruelty should not be excused simply because a person died, but this seems to be the case with Rivers. No, Time Magazine, Joan Rivers was not a “groundbreaking feminist icon.” Least we forget the less than classy show, “The Fashion Police,” where Ms. Rivers judged other women solely based on their appearance. Rivers even went as far as to call our First Lady, Michelle Obama, a “tranny.” Not to say that there is anything wrong with being a transvestite, but the implication is that the first lady should be viewed as a ‘manly’ woman rather than a powerful, assertive woman.
Joan Rivers has objectified her own gender, and was a sexist to her own sex. No one can deny the work ethic that Joan Rivers had, and yes she overcame obstacles to achieve what she did, but in terms of her comedic delivery, there was nothing feminist about it.
Sady Doyle, a writer for Buzzfeed, praised Joan Rivers stating that “for five decades, she made a career out of being everything we teach women not to be: superficial, rude, bitter, angry, selfish.” I would argue that these are very negative attributes for anyone to have, male or female. If we aren’t teaching the men of our society the same thing, we should. Immediately. You do not need to bring someone down to be funny. More specifically, you don’t have to tell the world that “Palestinians deserve to die,” as River recently did before her death. It doesn’t sound like a very humorous punch line to me.
However, the question does arise as to why a comedic character with these qualities appeals to the masses. This article was initially meant to criticize Joan River’s career, but the one question on my mind was why had people been putting up with her for fifty years? This is obviously a patriarchal society we live in, and women have it rough (I apologize if that’s too much of an understatement). Rivers must have had a hard time trying to make a name for herself in the world of comedy. Most male comedians don’t have to play such an over exaggerated character to appease the audience. While Kevin Hart likes to play the loud, short black guy and Ricky Gervais can be a mean guy himself, these character performances aren’t embedded into every single one of their jokes. Joan Rivers always had to be in character, on and off stage, on and off the camera, because she did not have the luxury to not be in character at all times.
She was not the only female comedian who was also essentially trapped in a persona. Both Mindy Kaling, from The Office and The Mindy Project, and Lena Dunham, of Girls, are always cast as the oblivious narcissists. Often women who are slightly larger are portrayed as the “spunky fat girl,” and often keep acting out the label in real life. Notice that none of these characteristics are considered particularly positive or flattering for the woman playing them.
In 1986, Joan Rivers was the first woman to ever host a late-night talk show. But the show was a complete failure because no one wanted to see a nice Joan Rivers. The audience only wanted to see that character she had been stuck with playing. With the cancellation of the show, her husband took his own life, and Rivers considered doing the same. Learning that the masses only wanted to see the spiteful version of herself was a lesson she did not forget.
But does this mean she is forgiven? She has made a living out of bullying others.
And yes, that was what America wanted from her, but she was the one that chose to continue.
While I personally cannot excuse her for every harsh thing she has said, I do understand the argument that confined her into playing that spiteful character. She wanted to be a comedian in a society that prefers negative, self-deprecating representations of women.
And if Joan Rivers career has done nothing else, I am glad that her death has sparked that conversation.