Before I started doing stand-up comedy a few years ago, I knew Joan Rivers only as that lady with the weird face who got made fun of for her weird face. And I think a lot of people in my generation had the same experience.
That is, of course, until she died. Then everyone was talking about her, and much of the conversation seemed focused on whether she was “a feminist.”
Some said no — she said offensive things about other women’s bodies, and that’s not feminist. Others said yes — she may have said offensive things, but she did so without caring what anyone thought, and that is feminist. And all of them had the wrong idea.
In terms of the first group: Sure, Rivers was ruthless. She called a different woman fat almost every day and even threatened to charge HBO with crimes against humanity for showing Lena Dunham’s fat naked body on television too often.
Demanding that another woman limit her artistic potential isn’t exactly feminist. Neither is suggesting that Dunham or any of the other female targets of her jokes would be too fragile to handle this kind of criticism just because they’re women.
But here’s the kicker: The pieces on the opposite side aren’t any better. The authors who praise Rivers because she was a “feminist hero” who “paved the way for women in comedy” are well-intentioned, but they miss the point.
Rivers wasn’t a woman in comedy. She was a comedian in comedy.
“I don’t help women because they’re women; I help whoever’s good. If you’re good, you’re good, and deserve to get ahead,” Rivers declared in 1983.
The fact that so many people focused on whether she was or was not a “feminist” misses the entire point of what an actual feminist society would look like.
It’s like when comedy clubs host “all-female showcases” with names like “She-larious!” or “Her-larious!” or “She’s Her-larious!” as though that’s somehow empowering women — when empowering would be an all-female show without the need to call it that.
Yes, being a female comic comes with its own particular set of challenges. All too often, men in the crowd are more interested in sexually harassing you than listening to your jokes. I’ve purposely messed up my own hair or taken off my makeup before going on stage to try to avoid it. I’m worried people will think I’m “too pretty to be funny.”
And Joan Rivers would have shamed me for that. Not because my behavior “fueled the fire of the patriarchy” or some other weird “feminist” trope, but because it simply wasn’t worth my while.
“I didn’t have time to go up to anyone and say, ‘Go out and make it in a man’s world,’” she said in an interview with Playboy in the ’80s. “I just said, ‘Look at me and you can see what I’m doing.’”
“Doing.” That word is what’s missing when I think about what “feminism” has become today. It’s a lot less about what women are doing, and a lot more about what society is doing to women.
The Internet is filled with blog posts from so-called feminists seeking to expose new ways that our culture has been secretly oppressing women. Disney films hurt little girls by chaining them to traditional gender roles instead of telling them they can grow up and have careers. Common phrases such as “Oh, man!” and “Hey, guys!” hurt women because they’re constant reminders that we live in a male-focused society, and that’s discouraging.
Since when is looking for ways to be a victim empowering? It’s not. It’s the opposite.
So, was Joan Rivers a feminist? Whether you say yes or no, she wouldn’t care. She was too focused on doing what she wanted to do as an individual. And that’s the most empowering stance of all.
— Katherine Timpf is a journalist and comedian from Detroit, Mich., living in New York, N.Y. She works as a reporter at National Review and has performed stand-up comedy throughout the country at clubs including the Improv in Hollywood and Gotham Comedy Club in New York City. She has appeared as a regular guest on national television programs including Red Eye on Fox News.