Art by Sacha Irick
What does it mean to be a feminist? According to the Feminist Majority Foundation, it is “the policy, practice or advocacy of political, economic and social equality for women.”
The general idea of being a feminist is supporting the equality of men and women in society. It empowers women to feel that they are men’s equals, even after years of hearing that women are inferior to men, especially in the workplace.
This all rings loud and clear in some people’s minds. But why is it relevant right now? Let’s put it into perspective.
Joan Rivers died two weeks ago. She was known for paving the way for females in the world of comedy. Her career went everywhere from acting in plays to performing in comedy clubs to even starring in TV movies.
But her career really kick-started when she went on the “Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson. Springing from that, she was the first woman to have a late-night comedy show. Since then, she has remained prominent in the media and comedy industries.
Rivers did not let the ideals and precedents set by men in the comedy field intimidate her out of saying what she felt. She said exactly what she wanted to say. That included topics that, at the time, were considered off-limits and taboo, such as abortion, sex and suicide. With her “I don’t care” attitude, she paved the way for other female comedians like Tina Fey, Sarah Silverman and Amy Poehler.
As time went on, Rivers became one of the most successful female comedians in the business, an act that hasn’t been matched by anyone as of yet.
Although Rivers took a break from the media scene before making a big comeback with her show “Fashion Police,” her story is admirable because she had early and continued success. She pressed on even in the face of adversity after her husband committed suicide, and she raised her daughter, Melissa, alone. Rivers was a walking female icon at the time.
However, this revolution for women in the world of comedy is not the problem at hand. The problem is that Rivers is seen as a “feminist comedian.” Feminism is the empowerment of women to be themselves and do things that women aren’t “traditionally” supposed to do. Yes, Rivers did do this, but she took it to a point that went beyond what feminism stands for: equality of females in society.
Rivers may have been a feminist at one point, and her intentions for comedy may have still had a feminist outlook, but later on, she degraded women and their appearances, and that’s the opposite of what feminism is about.
As of late, Rivers was on “Fashion Police,” a show in which she, as well as other celebrities, critiqued what other people in the limelight wore to events, such as the most recent award shows. But these “critiques” were often downright degrading. She would say why celebrities looked ugly, or why she thought the dress looked awful on them. In addition to the comments on her show, she talked about people off-screen too. From comments about singer Adele’s weight (calling her “chubby”), to making fun of Lindsay Lohan’s addiction, (calling her diet “all liquid, 80 proof”). She even talked about controversial news, like when she joked about the three women held captive by Ariel Castro, saying “they got to live rent-free for more than a decade.” Essentially, Rivers used her fame and gift of being funny and took it to a place in which a lot of women, and people in general, often felt insulted.
Returning to the point of feminism: Rivers began her career with feminist motives: making a name for herself in a then-male-dominated career. She advocated voicing your own opinion and being persistent in your goals. Rivers never failed to say what she felt, even if it was controversial, saying things like “a man can sleep around, no questions asked. But if a woman makes 19 or 20 mistakes, she’s a tramp.” Rivers left no stone unturned when talking.
However, her fame from this perseverance caused her to take the “saying what she felt” to a level that crossed the line. It seemed like, at the beginning of her career, she had the best of intentions, but as time passed, her confidence turned to cockiness from her success. She felt that she could say whatever she wanted because her fame had given her a position where people would laugh at her jokes no matter what she said, even if they were insulting and degrading.
Rivers is famous for her drastic amounts of plastic surgery and although she often jokes about herself and this topic, maybe she enjoyed putting other people down to make herself feel better — possibly a characteristic of her own insecurity.
The point is, Rivers started out as a “feminist comedian.” She was an outsider to the comedy world, but she persevered and made a name for herself. But as time went on, she lost her “feminist” title because she took saying what she felt to the next level. She degraded women and insulted their appearances, likes, dislikes and goals.
Follow Emily Goldberg on Twitter: @bb__em