Joan Rivers: Judgmental Hater and Feminist Trailblazer

Was Joan Rivers too mean to women?

(Photo: CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images)

Sep 5, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Nicole Pasulka is a writer and reporter who lives in New York City. She has written for Mother Jones, BuzzFeed, The Believer, and the New York Observer.

“My friend the tramp Heidi Abramowitz finally got married,” begins a 1982 Joan Rivers act. “To see a tramp married—thank goodness. She was the poster girl for herpes and she’s married now, isn’t that nice?… Crazy glue could not keep her knees together.”

During her nearly 60 years in comedy, Rivers, who died Thursday at the age of 81 from complications after vocal cord surgery, was a trailblazer. The progenitor of insult-driven, mean-spirited humor that skewered females (celebrities, herself, her friends) more often than it celebrated them, Rivers ridiculed beautiful women as stupid and made fun of brilliant women for being unfashionable and unattractive.

So why, during the days after her death, are so many of Rivers’ victims fondly reminiscing about being the object of her disses?

Despite all this criticism, which began long before she was a red-carpet reporter at awards shows and really picked up steam when she cohosted Fashion Police on E!, Rivers knew that the world was unfair, that smart women were overlooked, and that men had it easier.

As early as 1967, she railed against double standards in dating on The Ed Sullivan Show.

Still, every time she took the stage she showed society—which had few such models in the 1950s and ’60s—what a strong, independent woman was all about. “With her combative, rapid-fire style, Joan has shown generations of women how to command a stage and make it your own,” wrote Camille Paglia, a social critic and the author of several controversial books on gender and feminism, in a 2013 essay for The Hollywood Reporter. And Rivers herself wasn’t safe from her own scrutiny. In a typical routine, her husband is cheating on her; her parents are cruel; and she is flat-chested, old, and unsexy.

She was first woman to be a permanent guest host on The Tonight Show. She worked until the week before she died and had the guts to insult the Queen of England, but Rivers was sometimes reluctant to discuss the ways her gender may have affected her career. Her life, sure—but her place in the comedy world? Not so much.

“I think of opening doors, [but] not just for women comedians. I never think about women,” she told NPR in 2010. “I think just [that I’m] always trying to push for myself, push the boundaries [and] make [people] listen. Make them listen to the truth and laugh about it.”

Rivers, who was born Joan Alexandra Molinsky in Brooklyn in 1933, rose to prominence during the 1950s, when “the only woman daring to do stand-up was Phyllis Diller, who dressed like a clown in a fright wig to erase any hint of sex appeal,” Paglia wrote.

She would have often been the only female backstage in a comedy club, where the competition is cutthroat even without an upstart woman taking stage time from the boys’ club. Was it coincidence that she developed and honed her style of insult-driven comedy during these years? A Rivers set was a shot across the bow, warning male comics that the Brooklyn blonde could dish at least as well as they could.

Yet that humor was so often directed at other women, and her determination to conquer the male world of comedy coexisted with an obsession with conventional standards of beauty.

Rivers laughed about her self-loathing with the confidence of someone who has the rare ability to both tell and take a joke. The title of her most recent book was I Hate Everything...Starting With Me. That she seemed reluctant to associate herself with feminism or a women’s movement—and saw herself as an “outsider”—makes sense when you consider her acidic point of view.

Even if what she was saying had a tinge of cruelty—and often more than just a tinge, she said some truly deporable things about Palestinian civilian deaths earlier this summer—there was something liberating and liberated in Rivers’ refusal to hold back. Upon the news of her death, female actors have shared fond memories of being skewered by her, and a few even got in a jokes at her expense—which she probably would have appreciated.

On Jimmy Kimmel Live! Thursday night, Sarah Silverman and Kimmel traded Rivers-inspired barbs about tie color and back hair, and Silverman got teary.

“She loved with her whole heart—and she also hated with her whole heart, which I loved,” she said.