Contrary to conventional wisdom, even smart girls are allowed to have–and flaunt–round, perky butts. And a high, hard rear end is a thing of beauty–and a thing we can all have.
– Joan Rivers, Men Are Stupid…And They Like Big Boobs: A Woman’s Guide to Beauty Through Plastic Surgery
Joan Rivers was a cunt. Now hold on, I didn’t call her that. In 2009, the seventy-six-year-old Rivers was roasted on Comedy Central and three of the comedians–Kathy Griffin, Tom Arnold and Carl Reiner–referred to her as a cunt. The other roasters that evening verbally assaulted her genitals, too. Donald Trump in a prerecorded video said Rivers’s vagina was a “toxic pool.” Brad Garrett’s joke: “Joan’s face has been lifted so many times when she sneezes she has to blow her clit.” Greg Giraldo quipped: “Your every man’s dream of titty fucking a crocodile.” Whitney Cummings didn’t hold back: “Joan’s vagina is so old it has a separate entrance for black cocks.”
Throughout the evening, Rivers was seated off to the side wincing and drinking white wine. Her reaction to the barrage of invective ranged from angry to embarrassed. When she laughed it was a pained, fake chuckle. Rivers was utterly humiliated and admitted as much in the outstanding documentary made about her life titled, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work. But after a fifty-five-year career of pioneering those same kinds of disgusting, woman-hating jokes and constantly calling women cunts, including calling her daughter Melissa “a stupid fucking cunt” for not posing in Playboy magazine, Rivers was reaping what she sowed.
It was cringe-inducing to watch Joan Rivers perform, especially as she got older. Her stand-up comedy was a poisonous mix of rage, vitriol, racism and misogyny. These were the central aspects of her stand-up and they never changed, only the targets, which were mostly other famous females. A classic Rivers joke that attacked women featured her screeching the catchphrase, “I can’t stand her…”
Rivers’s comedy was anchored by a pathological self-hatred and she suffered from bulimia and depression. Rivers was obsessed with and repulsed by the process of normal aging. She despised her body and in particular her genitals. Vulgar vagina jokes were a staple. For Rivers, women’s vaginas were alternately smelly, dirty, dry, farting or falling. These jokes: “My love life is like a piece of Swiss cheese; most of it’s missing, and what’s there stinks,” “My vagina is like Newark. Men know it’s there, but they don’t want to visit,” “My vagina farts are so loud my gynecologist wears air plugs” are not funny.
Throughout her career, Rivers had to contend with sexism. The world of comedy was a cigar smoking, good old boys club and women had to fight to get in. Her tenacity was legendary. In the early part of Rivers’s career she cracked jokes that railed against sexist double standards in American society. But later these jokes all but disappeared from her routines. And somewhere along the line
Rivers aspired to be a sex object. She was apoplectic that her figure couldn’t match the western beauty ideal of “tits on sticks,” but it wasn’t for lack of trying. Her sexuality was grossly distorted and contradictory. And out of this morass of sexual perversity, Rivers created her own brand of “comedy porn.”
In a way that male comedians couldn’t, Rivers was given a pass to bash women’s bodies and sexuality. In that sense, her work from comedy to commentary on the red carpet legitimized and perpetuated raunch culture and promoted a punishing, unattainable standard of female beauty.
Howard Stern, the porn promoting shock jock had Rivers on his radio show many times. The two were kindred spirits, fellow Republicans and defended each other’s careers. Rivers met her match in Stern. With his trademark salaciousness, Stern would taunt Rivers for being old and asexual. During one show he asked her when she last had sex, then he called her a “pity fuck.” Stern wanted to know if Rivers ever had sex with Johnnie Carson; the answer, no. His next insightful question: Was she shocked to hear that Carson “had a big cock?” Stern played a game called “Brackets” with Rivers. He named a series of two men over the age of 80 and asked her to choose which one she would fuck and why. Their vapid, on-air chats consisted of celebrity gossip and a narrow set of topics: The sexual shaming of women, rating the appearance of female performers, the size of breasts and penises and who fucked who. Heady stuff…. Their conversations were worthy only of octogenarian pornographer Hugh Hefner.
And year after year, like female porn stars, the Rivers’s went to war against her body with the help of a surgeon’s scalpel and a dermatologist’s syringe. Life became an endless quest to fend off the inevitable bagging and sagging that is part of normal human aging. The “work” list included: breast augmentation, liposuction, face-lifts, nose jobs, a neck lift, eye tucks, eyebrow lifts, a tummy tuck and Botox injections.
In 2009, Rivers’s published the book: Men Are Stupid…And They Like Big Boobs: A Woman’s Guide to Beauty Through Plastic Surgery. The book is full of hopelessly convoluted and retrograde ideas about men, women and beauty. It is a primer in how capitalism alienates human sexuality in the pursuit of profit.
In the introduction Rivers writes: “They [men] are attracted to creatures that are their opposites, with hairless bodies, big boobs, slim waists, rounded butts…The truth is, inner beauty might get you a promotion, or, for that matter, a raise, but it won’t get you a husband or a lover.” If the reader dares to disagree with her and declines facial implants, freckle nixing, revolumizing fat transfers or vaginal rejuvenation, she has this advice: “In this appearance-centric society, beauty is a huge factor in everyone’s professional and emotional success–for good or for ill, it’s the way things are; accept it or go live under a rock.”
It must have been difficult but to her credit, Melissa pleaded with her mother to stop the surgery arguing that at her age the risks outweighed the benefits. Mom didn’t listen. In a moment of profound honesty during an episode of their reality TV show, Melissa & Joan: Joan Knows Best?, Rivers breaks down before she undergoes yet another painful plastic surgery. She has no make-up on and cries as she tells Melissa that if she dies on the operating table they have had a wonderful life together. As Rivers wipes her nose with a Kleenex, she says in a tired and defeated voice, “God what a shitty business this is. You have to look good.” Watching this scene it’s hard to hold back the tears and easy to forgive Rivers for the decades she spent denigrating her sex. She was a victim of misogyny, too.
There’s no doubt that older women in show business face enormous pressure to look forever 21. And even younger comics like Kathy Griffin have felt compelled to go under the knife to stay in the game. But the reason Rivers career stalled wasn’t wrinkles or droopy eyelids; it was because her shtick was outdated, sophomoric, boring and full of shockingly sexist, racist and ethnic stereotypes.
Rivers’s role as a critic on the E! show Fashion Police was to excoriate women for alleged fashion faux pas and to make nasty comments about their bodies as they walked down the red carpet. Overweight women were her favorite target and recently included the actress Lena Dunham and the singer Adele. Rivers had positive remarks for anorexically thin female stars but she shamed and labeled them whores and sluts if they wore flesh-baring outfits.
The Academy Award winning actress Jennifer Lawrence called Rivers out for her cruel comments: “There are shows like the Fashion Police that are just showing these generations of young people to judge people based on all the wrong values and that it’s OK to point at people and call them ugly or fat… We have to stop treating each other like that and stop calling each other fat.” Not one to accept criticism, Rivers fired back that Lawrence should grow up and calm down.
That Rivers was still telling fat jokes in 2014 confirms that she was living in a comedic time capsule and also reveals a profound lack of creativity in writing jokes that had deeper meaning.
Upon her death, the mainstream media and the royals of comedy–Louis C.K., Jerry Seinfeld, Margaret Cho, Kathy Griffin, Sarah Silverman–had nothing but praise for Rivers. Griffin called her an “icon” and a “trailblazer” who changed her life. She wrote that Rivers “legacy as a groundbreaking comedian” paved the way for other women.
Her comedy was described as brash, edgy and tell-it-like-it-is. Fellow comedians noted approvingly that Rivers had never apologized for telling offensive jokes, which would include all the racist and sexist ones that defined her career. Rivers’s ethnic jokes were described by one writer in an obituary as “off-color.” The whitewashing of Rivers’s life in comedy had begun.
But what is Joan Rivers’s real legacy? Her tenacity aside, she was not a role model for women who want to be comedians. Rivers’s comedy was dedicated to tearing women down, reinforcing sexist ideas and making women believe that their bodies were inadequate and needed lifelong surgical intervention. Women comics should reject her self-deprecating, “Queen of Mean” style of comedy. It is singularly unimaginative and not funny.
Similarly, Rivers’s work in television is nothing to emulate. She embraced the trash-talking, talentless and moronic hell-world of reality TV. As a contestant on Donald Trump’s Celebrity Apprentice, Rivers sunk to an embarrassing new low. In each episode she engaged in name-calling, face-to-face smackdowns with her opponent Annie Duke, a top poker player. In one outburst, Rivers’s screamed that Duke was “worse than Hitler.” The only thing missing from the Jerry Springeresque confrontations were actual physical blows, hair pulling and thick-necked, off-duty cops acting as security.
In the reality TV show Joan & Melissa: Joan Knows Best? viewers are treated to one predicable mother-daughter fight after another. Ensconced in wealth and privilege in a mansion in Malibu and catered to by a crew of personal assistants, the camera captures the emptiness of their lives: Bikini waxes, sex tapes, psychics, surgery and anal sex jokes. Sigh. Each season exposed how out of touch Rivers was with the real world and the contempt she had for ordinary people.
Rivers devoted the other half of her television career to promoting mass consumption and to the idea that you are what you buy. She was a pioneer of “retail therapy” and on her show Can We Shop she sold everything from bags embossed with Loony Tunes characters to salt-and-pepper shakers. On the QVC home shopping channel she hawked a line of her jewelry called the Joan Rivers Classics Collection, clothing and beauty products.
At her funeral, foward Stern delivered a eulogy that summed up the tragicomedy that was her life: “Joan had a dry pussy. Joan’s pussy was so dry it was like a sponge – so that when she got in the bathtub – whooooosh – all the water would get absorbed in there! Joan said that if Whitney Houston had as dry a pussy as Joan’s, she would still be alive today…”
The joke wasn’t original, vulgar Howard Stern, it was vintage Joan Rivers from her vault of vagina jokes.
Helen Redmond is an independent journalist and writes about the war on drugs and health care. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org