Joan Rivers, feminist icon—that’s already the headline of a Time magazine obituary posted yesterday, and the sentiment has been echoed throughout my social media feeds since the famed comedienne died Thursday afternoon at the age of 81. It’s a claim I would have found absurd 15 years ago, when, as a Hollywood-obsessed kid with basic cable and a dial-up connection, I spent hours watching Joan Rivers viciously skewer celebrities on my basement TV, giving a masterclass in how to wield snark as a weapon against the beautiful and successful. Watching her needle starlets on the red carpet, I had no idea she had ever done stand-up or even identified as a comedian. To me—and, I think, most of my generation—Rivers was best known as a pop culture joke, a proto-reality TV celebrity and a plastic-surgery cautionary tale.
The release of 2010’s Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, the fascinating and sympathetic documentary by Annie Sundberg and Ricki Stern, was my first exposure to the “other” Joan Rivers: the young stand-up comic playing shows alongside Bill Cosby and Lenny Bruce; the first permanent guest-host for Johnny Carson and the first woman to host a late-night show; the tireless professional who survived her husband’s suicide by getting back to work. Rivers joked about abortion on 1960s stages. She ended a bit about casting couches with the line, “I want you to know—my name is Joan Rivers and I put out.” Jack Lemmon was so offended he walked out and told her the joke was disgusting—“It’s not right. A woman shouldn’t talk about that,” he said. But Rivers never cared what women should or shouldn’t do. She was brassy and brazen and shamelessly rude. To paraphrase Amy Poehler, by way of my colleague Rebecca Traister: She didn’t fucking care if you liked it.
Rivers may have been the patron saint of that ethos.
“When I am onstage, I am every woman’s outrage about where they put us,” Rivers told New York magazine in 2010. “We have no control. And that’s why I am screaming onstage. We have no control!” In her early years, she directed that aggression against a society that told her she should get married, she should be prettier, she should look less Jewish. Here she is in 1967 on the “Ed Sullivan Show” talking about the double standards women face while dating. “The girl has to be the one that's bright, and pretty, intelligent, a good sport. 'Howard Johnson’s again, hooray hooray!' It just kills me!”
Clips like this are so thrilling, so made-for-Tumblr, that it’s easy to forget about the ugly jokes that really made her a household name. On Elizabeth Taylor: “She puts mayonnaise on an aspirin!” On the First Lady: “You know Michelle is a transgender." On Lena Dunham: “How could she wear dresses above the knee?” In theory, she subscribed to the comedic principle of always punching up, not down. “If I thought I hurt anybody, I'd go crazy,” she once said. “That's why I pick on the biggies; they can take it.” She was cruelest of all to herself, joking about her flat chest and her old, dry vagina. "I caused Edgar's heart attack,” she said after her husband’s death. “We were making love and I took the bag off my head.” Mean was her shtick, but in later years she stopped bothering to couch the viciousness in jokes. (To top it off, a few weeks ago she told a red-carpet reporter that Gazans deserve to die.)
There’s no such thing as a perfect feminist role model, of course, in Hollywood or elsewhere. Joan’s radical defiance and misogynistic body-shaming are impossible to reconcile—and it’s silly to try to. But it does highlight the inescapable tension for young feminists looking backwards at previous generations’ women who have climbed to the top without necessarily kicking down a ladder behind them. Unlike some of today’s top stars, Rivers’ has explicitly identified as a feminist. In a 1986 interview with Playboy, she proudly claimed the title, explaining that she didn’t always feel this way.1
I didn't realize what a liberated lady I was. I always thought, ‘My life is liberated. Leave me alone. I have no time to join a movement, because I am the movement.’ I didn't have time to go up to anyone and say, "Go out and make it in a man's world." I just said, "Look at me and you can see what I'm doing.
The most transgressive scene in A Piece of Work is at the movie’s start: the documentary opens with a close-up of 79-year-old Joan Rivers’s bare face, zooming in on cheeks and mouth and forehead as an unattached hand applies her copious makeup. Rivers never hid how much she worked—and spent—to look the way she did. She had her first plastic surgery—a nose job—when she was in college; five years ago she published a self-help guide to beauty through plastic surgery. She was known in the business for working harder than anyone. She never said no to a gig—that’s how she ended up doing “Fashion Police” in the 1990s and “Celebrity Apprentice” a decade later. She kept a card catalogue in her apartment containing hundreds of thousands of her jokes, sorting them by category. (“Melissa’s Dates” comes before “My Sex Life.”) Rivers applied that work ethic to her appearance as well, never trying to look effortless or like she “woke up like this.” In the 1960s she wore little black dresses and pearls, her blond hair in an elaborate bouffant. Later, her plastic surgery obsession and unnatural appearance made her an object of public mockery, even as it became grist for her own comedy. She was as aggressive about her looks as she was about her career, never hiding the labor of beauty and giving a loud “fuck you” to the idea of aging gracefully. She never tried to conceal that her attention to appearance was just part and parcel of her ambition—something that, even today, counts as radical.
This article has been corrected. It originally cited a 1985 Playboy interview with Joan Rivers. In fact, the interview ran in a 1986 issue of that magazine.