Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, Post-Modern Mess or Feminist Icon?

The documentary, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work is directed by Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg, whose previous joint work includes documentaries on fascism in America and racial injustice.  Though their previous work is heavily steeped in more serious matters of the human condition, this documentary is not so off the beaten path.  It follows Rivers’ life over the span of one year as she turns 75.  We as an audience learn in the extra features footage from the Sundance Film Festival that the hours of filming capture much of Rivers’ life and do not only span from 9 to 5 because Joan’s life/career is not 9 to 5.  Basically, little is left out short of what she does in the bathroom. And what we see in that year is something sitting elbow to elbow with amazing.  When you think of 75, the senior citizen discount, dinner at 5:00 and penny candy may come to mind, which is completely laughable when you are allowed to sit in on Rivers’ life; it gave me a completely new perspective on the possibilities of the 70’s age.  She is fanatical about her work and her main drive is to keep her calendar brimming at the seams with book signings, stand-up comedy acts, her QVC appearances promoting her jewelry line (and yes, I have two pieces from it already), cruise bookings, and the list goes on.  Work is her crack and at times it seems to trump even her family.  In the documentary, Joan’s daughter, Melissa Rivers, describes her mother’s career as another member of the family called, “the career.”  This is the main focus of the documentary, but it is punctuated with so much of Joan’s life that we just don’t know about, such as what she looks like without makeup, the close relationship with her grandson, the shaky relationship she has with her manager, and how much she loves feeding bacon to her animals.

Before Rivers, the presence of female comedians on television was virtually nonexistent with the exception of Phyllis Diller.  She began her public career in the 1960s, appearing on TV while performing her stand-up, followed by her appearance in 1965 when she was 28 and first appeared on NBC’s Late Show with Johnny Carson.  There, she became a nightly staple before leaving the show and moved to Fox to host her own show, followed by famously being shunned by both Carson and NBC to this very day (she has since made an appearance where she spread dear departed Edgar’s ashes on the stage).  During her early TV appearances, she closed her stand-up act on television by saying, “I put out” and Rivers recounts the silent reaction from the audience.  She was also the first man or woman to address abortion in front of a live television audience.  Because of talking about sex, abortion and topics of the like that were considered off-limits for women, she was told that she was “going places that a woman shouldn’t go.”  Eschewing this “well-meant” advice, she continued to brand herself with her no holds barred form of comedy.

Now when you think of Joan Rivers, what comes to mind?  If you are the casual or seasoned observer, you probably think of plastic surgery, and it’s difficult not to.  Though it may seem redundant to comment on this, especially since her name, and really her face, are synonymous with plastic surgery, we need to address it.  In this documentary, we are given a golden ticket into Joan’s life and therefore, this documentary cannot be discussed without the surgery’s intimate relationship with age, career, femininity, and the struggle to stay, or at least appear, relevant to the public.

Despite Rivers’ strides in comedy, paving the way for such comedians as Kathy Griffin, Chelsea Handler, Sommore and even less known but equally noteworthy comedians Elvira Kurt and Poppy Champlin, the real issue that piques the public’s interest is Joan’s plastic surgery. In the Comedy Central Roast of Joan Rivers, the brunt of the jokes throughout the evening are at the expense of Joan’s face.  I also recently saw an episode of VH1’s TV show, Mob Wives, where one of the cast members comments on another woman’s chemical peel and compares her to looking like Rivers.  From ages 28 to 75, Joan has worked in show business.  She promotes herself,  writes her own jokes, is constantly on the move and literally never turns down work (she even comically offers to do a diaper commercial).  To what end?  All of these efforts are glossed over and the spotlight is shone on her surgeries.  She doesn’t want to retire because she loves this public life and she knows that she needs to make money in order to live the lifestyle that she chooses.  So what is she fighting against?  The main obstacle that she faces, as she puts it, is “it’s a youth [obsessed] society and nobody wants you.”  She’s caught in a catch-22–look young so that the public will still find you attractive and therefore hire-able/get plastic surgery in order to look young and society “[sees you] as a plastic surgery freak.”  She gets plastic surgery so that she will seem relevant, and then she is ostracized for what is expected of her because the public does not want to look at an old woman.

One side of the plastic surgery argument is that what Joan has transformed herself into is detrimental to women and that her decision to have plastic surgery is one big post-modern mess; she can change herself into whoever or whatever she wants.  She has changed herself, as much as she can, into the idealization of the Westernized woman with perfected Westernized features: skinny, blonde and straight hair, full lips, young-looking, thin nose, smooth and flawless skin.  Joan hangs onto the facade of youth, and the cosmetically altered younger version of herself is one that conforms to the epitome of what every woman in the world hopes to achieve.  The act of transforming yourself through surgery into an idealization of “perfect” could be seen as damaging and also a setback for women.  Plastic surgery is being used to make women look the same, and this “same” is a perpetuation of what is viewed as normative, and any woman who looks different from this is, whether by choice or otherwise, is “other.”

On the other hand, getting plastic surgery makes Rivers feel good, and this is where it comes down to the topic of choice.  Joan is pro-choice; she chooses plastic surgery.  Whether or not you are pro or anti-plastic surgery is not the issue here.  We can again definitely argue post-modern feminist theory here, but I offer another idea.  Please allow a tangent and let’s take the topic that first put Rivers on the forefront of subversiveness-abortion.  No one is pro-abortion and having worked an abortion clinic for two years, I feel that I can say that with some modicum of authority.  And I know, this debate has been beat up, teased, slapped down and pushed around, but if you are pro-choice, it means that you are pro the decision for a woman to have authority over her own body.  If you are an anti-choice man or woman, then you think that other women aren’t smart enough to make informed decisions about their own bodies.  It’s really quite simple.  So let’s apply this theory to plastic surgery.  It is a choice, and whether or not you approve of going under the Botox Cosmetic needle, the backbone of many feminisms is to support autonomy and let women do whatever the hell they want to do with their bodies.  Still with me?

I wonder if it is the plastic surgery that causes people to criticize Joan, or if criticism of her choices is really a front for what she’s been dealing with from day one?  She is loud, vulgar, considers no topic off limits, and doesn’t rely on a husband to financially support her.  These are all threats to the patriarchal dynamic of show business, which Rivers still claims is very much a boys’ club.  I cringe slightly at constantly comparing men and women, but in the media, men can be crude, unattractive, overweight, and even pass gas on screen, but We (with a big “W”) accept it and further, support its perpetuation.  To support my case, look at John Candy. He was overweight and one could even say less than attractive and yet he was always the love interest in his films (Uncle Buck, Delirious).  Let’s insert a woman here; when have you recently seen an unattractive or overweight women portrayed as a sex symbol (by unattractive and overweight I mean larger than a size 0-2 and has a nose that is wider than a number 2 pencil)?  Seriously, think about it.  Look at Kathy Bates in About Schmidt. When I saw it in the theatre, the audience gasped and whispered, “gross” and laughed at seeing her large and sagging breasts.  Now don’t get me wrong, I love John Candy, but this type of double-standard is indicative of what women must choose to either conform to or fight against, with the possibility of stunting their careers.  Rivers acknowledges this dynamic and chooses to participate in by looking the part, and yet at the same time by being a woman of power, she subverts her feminine look with her career and her voice.

It’s safe to say that anyone can deduce what my argument is regarding Rivers; I do think she is a feminist icon and she’s at the top of my list.  I also think it is safe to say that the issues of plastic surgery, masculinity and femininity in comedy, gender roles, youth, and aging are fluid subjects of which I have barely scratched the surface.  Whether you consider yourself a feminist and hate plastic surgery, would never call yourself a feminist and think John Candy is hot, or aren’t sure but think Joan Rivers is hot, your argument is valid and needs to be brought into the dialogue.  Joan began teaching us this in the early sixties and plastic surgery or not, we still need to give her props and assert our own choices through whatever vehicle we deem fit.


3 thoughts on “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, Post-Modern Mess or Feminist Icon?

  1. michaelgloversmith says:

    Great post! Like a lot of the American public you describe, I used to think of Rivers as only a “plastic surgery freak” until this movie completely changed my opinion of her. I had no clue she was such a pioneering comedienne (and such a workhorse).

    I especially like your suggestion that when people criticize Joan’s plastic surgery, they do so as a means of dismissing her without having to engage with what she actually has to SAY. I feel like people criticize Bob Dylan’s voice for the same reason (and, interestingly, both he and Joan started out playing Greenwich Village clubs in the early 60s).

  2. Libbsis says:

    Thanks for sharing more about Joan. I’ve known some about her, but apparently not enough. I am one of the judgmental people who can’t get passed the face lifts. True, I could completely argue the feminism (OR lack of) when chemically peeling a face for an American public – but i’ll go with your sake of argument and my true belief — do what you want, women.
    PS– i loooove Elvira Kurt 🙂

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