Joan Rivers was a woman who made her way in the comedy world at a time when few women were able to. The thing that distinguished Rivers was that she did her comedy her way without adhering to what was deemed the acceptable style of the time. She was no sweet Mary Tyler Moore on The Dick van Dyke Show nor was she a goofy Carol Burnett on The Garry Moore Show.
Moore and Burnett in the 1960s were wonderful comedians, but Rivers was a completely different kind of funny woman. Rivers was more Lenny Bruce-lite (who she has identified as someone who influenced her) than her female contemporaries. She loved the way Bruce’s comedy played off things that people didn’t like to talk about and realized that her love of doing something similar (at the start of her career, without his raunchiness) was the path she wanted to follow. In my book, that’s a feminist — someone who forged her own path in a male dominated profession and at the same time cleared a path for the women who would come after her. While Rivers wasn’t one to call herself a feminist, the facts of her climb to comedy success at a time when the field was mostly the domain of white men, tells a different story.
But after suggesting to some feminists while commenting on her death this week, that Rivers was a trailblazer for the shared cause, it turns out that some have revoked her membership in the sisterhood.
So all that work to pave the way for other women comedians, as some of them have said, gets taken back if she makes fun of other women? The message I get from that is that unless you toe the feminist line 100 percent of the time, and never criticize, even with humor, other women, you’re no friend of theirs.
I say all this as a feminist who’s had her own bona fides questioned for daring to differ with those who believe they carry the gauntlet today. And I’m not the only one. Sadly, I know many women who are amazing feminists who have also come under the scrutiny of those who believe it’s “my way or the highway.”
Sure Rivers mocked Queen Elizabeth for supposedly not shaving her legs. And I could live without her joking about Adele’s size and Jennifer Lawrence’s breasts. But do those jokes, negate the lifetime of work she did before the celebrity fashion-bashing career she built for herself? Whether you go for that kind of comedy or not, the theme running through much of feminism today is that if you criticize or poke fun at or insult another women — any woman — your key to the club is revoked.
What these critics are missing is the key piece to being a feminist: doing something that expands the scope of what other women can do is a feminist act. And for women in comedy, Rivers did just that. If she, and others like Phyllis Diller, hadn’t stood their ground and made it acceptable to have women comedians who could get a little raunchy like the guys, would we have Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Margaret Cho, Kathy Griffin, and others?
No one is perfect. We all say and do things we regret over the course of our lives, and there’s no doubt that Rivers said a lot of things that offended women (though I’m not sure she regretted them). But to say that a woman with the professional comedic and Hollywood career that she had didn’t lay some serious feminist groundwork for many of the women we love today (can you say Melissa McCarthy?), is just wrong.
If all only those who act with feminist perfection are allowed to identify as one, there would be no feminism at all.
Joanne Bamberger is an independent journalist and journalism entrepreneur who is also the author of the book Mothers of Intention: How Women and Social Media are Revolutionizing Politics in America. She is the founder and publisher of the The Broad Side. You can find her on Twitter at @jlcbamberger. Also, follow The Broad Side on Twitter at @The_Broad_Side and on Facebook!