Joan Rivers: Certainly Unforgettable, But a Paragon of Feminism?


Since her death a week ago, a number of tributes to Joan Rivers have called her a “feminist icon“—mainly, it seems, because she was a trailblazer and door-opener for women who wanted to make it to the major leagues of comedy and because she was so unstoppably driven in her own ambition. On the other hand, others have resisted labeling her a paragon of feminism because of her relentless jokes about women’s bodies (including her own).

What do YOU think? Here’s more food for thought in blogger Audrey Bilger’s 2010 Ms. Blog review of a well-received documentary about Rivers.

Joan Rivers gives new meaning to the expression, “Comedy is tragedy plus time.” In the just-released documentary  Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work from directors Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg, time is a dominant theme. Cinema verité footage of a year in the life of the groundbreaking comedian, interspersed with archival material, shows Rivers rushing nonstop to stay one step ahead of a clock that keeps ticking. She squeezes more into one year of filming than most people could fit in a lifetime.

Rivers’ calendar is even more important to her than her mirror. Work is the way she keeps time on her side. The film begins with her career in such a slump that she jokes about needing sunglasses to look at her datebook because of all the white space. She defines “fear” as an empty schedule, because, she says, that means people have forgotten you. In the press notes compiled by the filmmakers, there’s a description of just how it important it is to Rivers that she never stop working: “The consummate performer, Joan has already taken precautions in her will so that she will not be resuscitated if she cannot perform a 60-minute comedy set.” She barely takes time to blow out the candles on her 75th birthday cake before she’s back at it again.

“The only time I am truly happy,” she says in the film, “is when I am on stage.”

A good deal of her humor in the film and in her act comes at her own expense. If you don’t like it when women make fun of their own looks and aging bodies, you probably already have mixed feelings about Joan Rivers. Like comedians Phyllis Diller and Moms Mabley before her, Rivers makes use of a standard survival weapon in standup: get a jump on your critics by laughing at yourself before they can laugh at you.

The film trailer includes some hilarious excerpts and painful disclosures:

Rivers plays rough and doesn’t shy away from offensive material. I wouldn’t venture to subject her to a Feminist Litmus Test: The test lab would probably explode. Rivers is all over the map–a pioneering woman in the field of standup but a willing crash-test dummy for plastic surgery; a gay-friendly icon but a pitiless nitpicker; a red-carpet snark-dispenser but a deeply insecure human being. When women comedians come up to her to thank her for having opened doors (past tense) as a woman in the business, she says she tells them, “F**k you!” She wants us all to know she’s still opening doors.

The film takes us behind closed doors and lets us see what gets under Rivers’ celebrity skin.  In the press notes, the directors say that Rivers made a running joke that “if she died during the course of the filming, we’d have a great movie.” Fortunately, comedy beats tragedy, and Rivers wins out in the end. But we’re left with a keen awareness of the price she pays for every wisecrack, and a deeper appreciation for her hard-won success.

Joan Rivers’ autograph from Wikimedia Commons

Audrey Bilger


Audrey Bilger (@AudreyBilger) is a professor of literature and faculty director of the Center for Writing and Public Discourse at Claremont McKenna College. She is coeditor, with Ms. magazine senior editor Michele Kort, of Here Come the Brides! Reflections on Lesbian Love and Marriage, a 2013 Lambda Literary Awards finalist.




  1. Joan Rivers may have been a feminist, in that she pursued her own dreams and worked hard to attain her notarity, but she was vicious in her critizism of other woman. She, like Rodney Dangerfield, were two of the most offensive “comedians” on stage. I do not think I will miss her or her sourness, especially when spilled onto other women.

  2. I’d also say that her comments about the Cleveland women who were held captive by Ariel Castro also make it hard to identify her as a feminist:

  3. Joan Rivers may have been offensive to some people, she said that’s the job of a comedian. What those not in the industry do not know is the amount of help she gave to women starting out in comedy. Or anyone starting out in stand up comedy. Joan was very giving of her time, talent & expertise to women’s causes and concerns and women on the way up. She was a pioneer & a feminist icon for women of a certain age.

  4. I am a 51 year-old man, and when I was growing up, there were only three female comedians: Totie Fields, Phyllis Diller, and Joan Rivers. Totie Fields died of cancer when I was just about 15 years-old, leaving just Phyllis and Joan. I just want to say that, even by default, Joan Rivers was a feminist comedy pioneer, just by her sheer presence in a completely male-dominated field at the time she started out in the very early sixties. Her humor was very self-deprecating, but she was always hilarious and never failed to entertain. If it wasn’t for Phyllis Diller and Joan Rivers, I wouldn’t want to venture to guess how many fewer successful female comedians there would be today. This realm of entertainment is still pretty much a boys’ club, but there are dozens of successful female comedians around today because of Joan, as opposed to the lowly number of three that I knew when I was growing up. So, yes, I think it is fitting, in that she struggled and succeeded in a previously closed field, that Joan be called a feminist. I think that she would agree that she was a feminist, and if the previous sentence is not one definition of feminism, I don’t know what is. Glenn in the Bronx, NY.

  5. Wendy Ripp says:

    There is little doubt that female artists, comics, performers, etc. have to work very hard to get respect and credit for their work. Joan’s apparent formula seems to have been to keep several steps ahead of the leading edge of her fields. She worked like a woman obsessed. She also had a keen sense of what would get attention, and keep attention focused on her work. Part of that formula seems to have been to be ruthless, and shoot from the hip, so to speak. This inherently goes against the grain for the socialization of western women of most generations, but especially the one into which she was born. She learned how to cause her audience to gasp in shock, and then laugh, reflexively. She learned to ‘play’ for this response, time and again, and her existence depended upon it.

  6. I don’t understand Glenn’s comment about “only three female comedians” back in the day. Did you mean only the ones who were doing standup? Otherwise, I can’t imagine how you could forget the great Carol Burnett, who was most definitely around when we were growing up (I’m three years older than you). And how about Lily Tomlin? I’m sure we can think of more to add to this illustrious group.

  7. Not only did she make jokes about the girls kidnapped and raped,which as a woman was bad enough,but even more so since she had an older sister and a daughter,she as a Jewish woman made jokes about the holocaust!

    And all of her plastic surgery that she didn’t even really need,she was a pretty little girl and after she had a little work done she as many people said on youtube in watching her performances and interviews with her from the 1980’s and early 1990’s,she was beautiful but then she over did her plastic surgery and made herself look freakish and unattractive!

    And sending the sexist message to women that your looks are the most important thing about women and you have to constantly change them by having plastic surgery was *not* feminist1

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