JOAN RIVERS – COSMETIC SURGERY GHOUL OR GALLANT FEMINIST?
I have to be honest: up until this week I had never spent much time thinking about Joan Rivers. I just always accepted her presence. She arrived on the scene when I was still a child and I always preferred Lucille Ball.
I didn’t follow her career in any meaningful way nor did I find her as annoying as many claim to. She was just that blond comedienne who had taken some hard knocks, been around a long time, and had a few too many cosmetic procedures. She did the red carpet for the Oscars. But I usually didn’t watch her as honestly I found her daughter so annoying, still do. Joan Rivers was part of the American comedic landscape and I just accepted her for that.
After seeing Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, the documentary about a year in her life last week, “been around a long time” is what one walks away with, at least this one and “been around a long time” is no small accomplishment for a woman still working at the age of seventy-seven, especially in the despotically male-ruled world of comedy.
I don’t want to ruin the film by giving too much away.I find that the Internet and reviewers dish out too many details these days. But the film is a deeply moving, brave and open portrayal of one women’s struggle not to just stay on top, but stay in the game.
And again, I can’t put enough emphasis on stay in the game. As that is what she really wants. Sure she wants to be a star, she has been one and she understands, that a life in show business is a roller coaster and she is willing to hold on and go through all the twists and turns and ups and downs as long as she can keep doing what she loves. Throughout it all that is what she wants – just to keep doing what she loves. Her self-belief, equally mixed with self-doubt (the mixture that most comics are composed of) and her need for approval while not giving a damn what people think are so powerful nothing can stop her. I find this to be one of the most impressive traits any one can have, much less a women for whom it is deeply difficult, especially after a certain age. I go out on a limb in my book and say for many that age is fifty. In Hollywood it can be far younger, especially if you don’t play the boy’s game by the boy rulebook and that is something Joan Rivers has not always done. She did for a while and during that time she was on top. But she decided at a certain point she didn’t just want to be Johnny Carson’s female stand-in, she wanted her own show. She wanted what the boy’s have and why shouldn’t she? She had earned it.
Sure, he gave her big break, but he’s given many a comic theirs as well, most of them men. She happened to be one the few females especially in 1965 who appeared on the comedy scene. And she stayed loyal to him for over twenty years but then when she broke off and took her own show at FOX he had her blackballed. He made sure her next few decades would be hell and they were.
Now Carson was a known to be a prick of major proportions and clearly this act shows that. He gave her her break, but did she owe him her life? This is one part of the endless double standard that applies to women and not men. Name an important comic who broke out before the creation of Comedy Central and I would bet nine out of ten times they got their start on The Tonight Show.
I have never thought myself to be a feminist. In fact I have often gone the opposite way. When told to wear a short skirt, as it would give me a leg up on the job, pardon the pun, I did it. I always felt if being a woman would get me ahead, I would use it and that in its own way was it’s own form of feminism or at least mine. Because for me, as it is with Joan or ANY women who wants to stay in the game, that is all that counts at one point – staying in the game when everyone is pushing you off the field.
In the film Joan talks about people not wanting to look at an old woman and she is right. It is this along with I’m sure the normal female vanity that has led her under the scalpel a few too many times and I fear with some people who didn’t know when enough was enough. But what choice did she have? Men are allowed to age: we see a pruney eighty-year old Don Rickles at the end of the film having done nothing to himself, but nobody seems to mind.
I’m sure at this point people are reading this and saying, yes but this is an old story, tell us something we don’t know. I wish I could; but I fear in this world little has changed.
Yes, women are in positions they never were, but for the most part they are still relegated to many of the same roles they always have been. In certain fields and certain relationships if you’re not young and pretty – get lost.
When I got back from the film I emailed my friend Ti- Grace and said you must go see this and tell me if she (Joan) is not the consummate feminist, minks, jewels, make-up and all.
And Ti-Grace, who was as moved by the film as I was, said she is a “radical feminist.” And if anyone would know it is Ti-Grace.
Rivers goes for the jugular and is unapologetic, she deconstructs the image of the female while continuously physically reconstructing her own. She is a mass of contradictions yet always on topic.
At it’s essence it’s about fighting the fight, whatever that fight may be. And she is “gallant” –that is Ti-Grace’s term.
Sure, she is whiney and spoiled and lives like a pasha, but she is smart, fearless and she works like a dog. She is seventy- seven years old and she won’t let anyone get in her way. And when they do she figures out a way to creep back in. She says there is nothing she won’t do to keep herself working. How can you not admire that? All she wants to do is work. But again – enter stage right the double standard: this is OK as long as you are not an “older” female. So this female does whatever she can to make herself look as young as possible, and she takes endless, cruel jabs about it, but she keeps on trucking.
After the film we went to dinner, Glenn, Lucy and myself— yes we took Lucy, she loved it. Didn’t know there would be so many sexual references but better she hear them from a great comic than some horny thirteen year old in the cafeteria.We ended up in the California Pizza Kitchen, which was good, although somehow Glenn has yet to figure out that a restaurant that gives you crayons at the door does not usually stock single malt scotch. But once he had his Black Label and Lucy had her pizza he turned to me and said, “ I liked it a lot but they left out what makes her so driven.” WHAT MAKES HER SO DRIVEN??????????
I lost it. And this mind you, is coming from a man who knows more about feminism than most any man in the country. And I’m not just saying that, he has amassed great libraries solely devoted to the feminist cause. He has friends who are some of the great feminists of their time – Ti- Grace being one. He has studied it, catalogued it, researched it and he turns to me, Miss I-will-wear-a-mini-skirt-to-get-a-job and he says “Why is she driven?”
Did the lack of twelve year old McCallan interfere with his thought patterns or is there something inherent in the male psyche that they just don’t get it?
I said, “What makes you driven? Does anyone ask that? Does anyone ask why Warren Buffet is driven? Rupert Murdoch? Any man old or young? Why do woman have to have some explainable reason for possessing a strong desire to succeed, to keep working, to not want to be tossed aside because we have some expiration date stamped on us that was put there by all of you?”
For me that is what Joan Rivers really stands for – triumph of the human spirit, the will and endless effort to succeed on her terms no matter what the cost to her dignity and image. She knows that dignity and image are useless terms if you cannot get up everyday and do what you feel you were put here to do if that is what gives you the will to live. That in work and contribution and keeping on keeping on we find true dignity and as she would say and I would agree, “fuck anyone who tries to stop me.”
I found this amazing interview Joan did with my hero Lucille Ball after she went back on TV. She talks about how they didn’t want her back. Worth watching.