Can we talk?
I lost a personal hero this week when Joan Rivers died. At 81, the infamously rapier-tongued comic apparently died from complications after a minor medical procedure. As an avid watcher of her Friday night show “Fashion Police” and a long-time admirer, I was shocked.
First of all, 81 doesn’t seem that old to me anymore. That’s how old my dad is, and I’m hoping he’ll be around for a long time to come. Secondly, she — much like my parents — was still vibrant and sharp and constantly busy. She had just taped the Emmys special, which aired two days before her final trip to New York, and she did a stand-up set the night before her procedure. At 81.
You probably won’t see this in a lot of write-ups, but she was a feminist icon. Maybe not to other feminists, and maybe not even in the way you think she should have been, but she was that icon to me. She broke glass ceilings all over the place as a woman in comedy in the late ‘60s. When she subbed for Johnny Carson on “The Tonight Show,” Joan became the first female guest host in late-night television, a field that is still inexplicably dominated by men, She was strong, and she fought to get where she was against some pretty incredible odds. (I would describe her as “independent,” but I hate it when people use that word to describe women; you never see men described that way because everyone assumes they simply are that way. What are we — children? Puppies?)
There’s a lot of talk online about Joan’s “love-hate” legacy and her controversial brand of insult humor. Yeah, I took umbrage whenever she made fun of fat people, which she did incessantly. I figure she had a personal demon involving weight; clearly, she was obsessed with looks. But she never really got on my bad side, because hers were equal-opportunity insults. Skinny girls weren’t immune, either. Or skinny guys. Or fat dudes. Plus, hello, she was a comedian — these are not generally people known for their politically correct, hands-off approach. Yes, she made fun of multitudes of celebrities and politicians. So?
She also mocked herself as often as she mocked anyone else. Where was all this concern about a mixed legacy when Robin Williams died? (Another amazing comedian, by the way; he just didn’t happen to be my personal feminist-icon hero. Still, RIP, Robin.) Did we see talk about how he crossed the line when he made fun of any of number of public figures? I don’t recall any. I find it almost amusing that we still draw these lines between acceptable male and female behavior. Almost.
Yes, Joan had her detractors. Maybe you’re one of them. But know that she was beloved by many, and for good reason. To me, her most enduring legacy will be one of courage — the courage to carve her own path, the courage to fight the system, the courage to battle back from her husband’s suicide and her own financial ruin, among other challenges, to reinvent herself and her career. Maybe you don’t think it was particularly courageous to sit in a chair and pick apart what people were wearing and make fun of celebrities. But it sure was fun to watch, and sometimes wickedly funny, and in the end Joan Rivers spread far more joy and laughter than she did sadness and tears.
I think that’s a legacy worth remembering.