Joan Rivers. It has been a few weeks until the infamously sharp-tongued comedienne passed away due to surgical complications. Perhaps because of the immediate response to her death—whether it was mournful or startlingly jubilant—I wanted to let the commotion surrounding her shocking and sudden death to settle and allow my own thoughts to resonate. My feelings, however long they will take to resolve, will always be a matter of ambivalence towards the Queen of The Fashion Police. On one hand, the woman was brilliant with endless wit and lightning-fast comedic ability; on the other hand, she undermined other women without batting one of her famously made-up eyelashes, positioning herself against the idea of feminism itself. Joan Rivers went out the way the public did not expect: quietly and without laughter or clever retorts.
Despite her reputation for televised shaming of fashion faux pas and atypical body types, Rivers built her career on late night comedy and stand-up. Our parents knew her for something other than haute couture ridicule and body shaming; they saw a woman who, despite the male-dominated comedic world, held her own. Yet we—the children of a culture obsessed with being fit, wealthy, and aesthetically fabulous—saw Joan Rivers as an old lady with way too many cosmetic surgeries to count and not much room to be talking. Who was she, we thought, to judge the young and the beautiful? No one stopped her though; no one said her jabs crossed the line between carefree comedy and relentless ridicule. We all just kept watching after every award show, thoughtlessly absorbing her every rude comment. We waited to hear what she had to say about appearances, no matter what our preconceived, generational ideal of her was, comedy queen or spiteful talk show host. We watched because if she did not say those things, who would? In our minds, Joan Rivers was just doing her job.
If I could sit down with Ms. Rivers and speak with her, I imagine I would be rather speechless at first. After all, what does one say to a woman of her stature and repute? I would try to tell her that it was women like her that added to the problem. She, although not alone as she had the help of the entire entertainment industry, made women think less of themselves; she made me want to fit the mold, even though that was not what I really wanted. I would tell her that little girls like me once listened to her, ready to be skinnier or to not wear the clothes they wanted because they were afraid of what people like her might say about them. Maybe she would listen to me as earnestly as she could or maybe she would laugh in my face and tell me it was her job to put girls in their places. I would tell her that the women she constantly tore down were some of the women I looked up to with the highest regard. Women like Lena Dunham or Helena Bonham Carter, who may not fit the mold of conventional beauty or possess the “perfect body”, whom Joan so vehemently disapproved of. I would say that their bodies are beautiful. Your body is beautiful. My body is beautiful. It’s time for you to get a new gig. It’s time for you to start embracing the unconventional. As the saying goes, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say it at all.” Of course, you won’t believe that, but maybe it’s time you learn to say those things a little less often.” Alas, my wishful words are wasted within my own imagination; there is no way she will ever hear my plea for change. Ms. Rivers’s passing has left me with sentiments of uncertainty towards her larger-than-life existence, but even more so with a hope for a new era of fashion and celebrity commentary.
Even though Joan Rivers did not contribute to advocating for positive body image, she still deserves to rest in peace. Without question, she was one of the most talked about people in show business and the person that talked most about everyone else; ultimately, she was only doing what she believed her job was. Presumably, she passed quietly, without her cackling laughter or her spitfire attitude bursting forth from her, but as it goes, all legends must eventually die along with those who live without much notoriety. Joan Rivers is not a paragon that little girls should aspire to be; perhaps they can admire her success, but not the method in which she achieved it. I can only hope the women and men who continue Joan’s legacy on The Fashion Police will be less caustic than their former leader and more compassionate. In an ideal world, the show would cease to exist, but of course, that is not what our culture will allow. Joan Rivers, I bid you adieu; perhaps without your knowing, you will be the end of the era. We can only hope that is your greatest legacy.